By Shane Kastler
One of the charges that is often levied against Calvinists is that they are “fatalists.” Which is to say that since Calvinists believe God ordains all things, then man is nothing more than a mechanical robot who is pre-programmed to act in a certain way. Man can ultimately do nothing, nor decide anything that hasn't been pre-determined so he need not bother himself with anything. This is not, however, what Calvinism teaches.
Of course when I use the term “Calvinism” I'm referring to five aspects of theology which have come to be known as the 5 points of Calvinism: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. I'm not going to attempt, in this article, to defend these five points (I have done so elsewhere). But I do want the understanding to be had that when I speak of being a “Calvinist” this is what I mean. Not that I am a “follower” of John Calvin, nor that I agree with everything Calvin taught, because I don't. When I say Calvinism I simply mean the 5 points of. As it pertains to fatalism, the aspect of Calvinism I'm defending is the idea of God's ordination and how it is different from fatalism, which also needs to be defined.
Fatalism is the belief that since all things are pre-determined, it matters not what man does. At it's root, fatalism is more of a secular, or even pagan notion. A belief that “fate” has determined the outcome of all things and thus nothing can be changed. While a Calvinist does indeed believe that God ordains whatever comes to pass, the attributing factor is clearly seen as being different from what a fatalist would say. Calvinists don't attribute anything to a blind fate, but rather an all-seeing God. The Bible tells us that God “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11); so ultimately we see God as the sovereign creator, ordainer, sustainer, and author of all life and history. What we do with this knowledge determines whether or not we are fatalistic.
Some would see the Calvinist as holding to what is sometimes called “Theistic Fatalism.” Obviously, much different than pure “fate” type fatalism, this view would acknowledge God as the cause of all things, which is certainly true, but would then lead to a false conclusion of inactivity. And this really is ultimately what separates a Theological Calvinist from a Theistic Fatalist: the conclusion we draw based on God's sovereignty and ordination. Fatalism leads to inactivity, while Calvinism leads to the opposite. From the Bible, a “Calvinistic” type of activism is clearly presented; just as historically it is clearly evidenced. We can see this regarding spiritual salvation. The fact that God elects whom will be saved has never deterred the Theological Calvinist from actively sharing the gospel through missions and personal evangelism. The same Apostle Paul who repeatedly taught God's sovereignty over salvation (Eph. 1:4, Rom. 8:29-03; Rom. 9, 2 Thess. 2:13-15) also encouraged Christians to share the gospel (2 Tim. 4:2), devoted his life to doing it himself (Acts 20:24), and exhorted unbelievers to repent and turn to Christ (Acts 17:2). Far from having a fatalistic view of salvation, Paul's belief in the sovereignty of God fueled his passion to see God save sinners. He just knew that the only sinners God ultimately would save would be those He ordained to save through His electing grace. Fatalism would teach the exact opposite. Why waste time sharing the gospel if God can bring it about apart from your efforts? A fatalist (even a hyper-Calvinist) would say not to. But a Biblical Calvinist says that God has ordained to save through the gospel. We evangelize because the gospel is HOW God saves; not to mentioned the fact that we evangelize because we're commanded to.
Furthermore, church history has bore this out as many of the major missions movements have been started by Christians of a Calvinistic persuasion such as William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Hudson Taylor. Just as some of the most warmly evangelistic preachers from church history have been Calvinists such as Charles Spurgeon, George Whitefield, and Asahel Nettleton just to name a few. While none have ever doubted the intellectual contributions of Calvinistic theologians such as Calvin himself, Jonathan Edwards, or B.B. Warfield some times they are portrayed as cold, impersonal, and indeed fatalistic. But Edwards' deep and profound theological writings on the sovereignty of God must be seen in the same light of his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Far from being fatalistic, Edwards life, preaching, and pen oozed with an evangelistic plea for sinners to come to Christ. While also affirming that none actually would, unless God ordained it.
The Calvinist’s belief in God's sovereign power does not lead to inactivity, but rather activity on a grand scale. And part of the reason for this is that a Calvinist believes that God not only ordains the end; but also the means. Fatalism, however is largely unconcerned with the means, holding to more of a “let us eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” sort of philosophy. This is much different from the result of a Calvinistic philosophy of God's ordaining work. The Calvinist teaches that while God ordains the “end” of salvation for His elect; He also ordains the “means” of their salvation through belief in the gospel. Pure, Biblical Calvinism would lead to a vibrant form of evangelism; as I think you clearly see displayed in the New Testament by the Apostles. So the “end” and the “means” are both ordained by God.
The late Reformed theologian Charles Hodge wrote of the fatalist's flawed conclusion:“If everything will happen just as God has predetermined, we need give ourselves no concern, and need make no effort. The reverse, however is true. The event is determined in connection with the means. God has decreed that men shall live by food. If any man refuses to eat, he will die. He has ordained that men shall be saved through faith. If a man refuses to believe, he will perish. If God has purposed that a man shall live, He has also purposed to preserve him from the suicidal folly of refusing to eat.” (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, pg. 548) In other words, God not only ordains the end; but He also ordains the means. And a belief in God's ordination of both leads the Calvinist to actively seek and do God's will, as opposed to the fatalistic approach of disregarding it.
Of course what is true of salvation and evangelism is equally true of spiritual growth and discernment. God is not only sovereign over the salvation of sinners, He is also sovereign over their growing in grace and knowledge; and their “persevering unto the end.” Nevertheless, man is repeatedly commanded, exhorted, encouraged, and rebuked in the Scripture to be watchful and vigilant against sin and to stand firm in the faith. The fatalist might ask why man is so commanded if God is sovereign and has ordained it. The Calvinist would answer that the means by which Christians grow and persevere is through such action. That God has ordained Christian growth to occur through the use of certain means (Bible, prayer, fellowship, etc.) and that both the means and the end are under his sovereign control and authority. Examples from Scripture are numerous. When Paul wrote the Thessalonians he clearly attributed their salvation to the sovereign work of God, then based on that reality he exhorted them to “stand firm” in what they were taught: “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” (2 Thess. 2:13-15 NASB) A good summation would be to say that God ordained their salvation, then they are exhorted to “stand firm” yet even this activity is ultimately attributed to God who ordains all things after the counsel of His will and works within them to accomplish His good pleasure. So God is sovereign and works His will through the actions of man, rather than the inaction of man. Contra fatalism.
In conclusion, while Calvinism and Fatalism may have a kernel of similarity in that they both believe events to be foreordained, their philosophical underpinnings and their conclusions are much different. The Fatalist believes that since “fate” determines what comes to pass we needn't bother ourselves with it. Even the Theistic Fatalist would come to the same erroneous conclusion while attributing it to God rather than fate. While the Calvinist believes God determines what comes to pass so we very much should bother ourselves with it. The Fatalistic view leads to doing nothing. The Calvinistic view leads to doing much. Calvinism is not fatalism because Calvinists believe that God ordains not only the ends, but also the means. And that we are commanded to follow the Lord and should take heed; and if we do not we are held accountable for our disobedience. Far from absolving man of his responsibility to repent and believe and far from excusing away his sin as being pre-ordained; the Calvinist would hold man responsible for his actions. While at the same time attributing all credit to God for those who are saved. In this man is humbled and God is glorified. Does this explanation make sense to all? Certainly not. But it does explain, from a Biblical perspective, why Calvinists are not fatalistic for their belief in the sovereignty of God. And that far from being “robots” we are accountable creatures who exist under and by the decree of a God who “works all things after the counsel of His will.” (Eph. 1:11)