April 05, 2024

Is Reformed Theology Fatalistic?

R.C. Sproul
Is Reformed Theology Fatalistic?

Does Reformed theology teach that the destiny of the world is arbitrarily controlled by fate? Today, R.C. Sproul addresses the essential differences between God’s sovereignty and fatalism.


Well, anytime I hear people speak about the Christian faith as being fatalistic, or if Calvinism is being fatalism, I really get annoyed because if there’s one thing Christianity is not, it is not fatalistic. “Fatalism” means that the destiny of human beings is controlled inexorably and ultimately by the whimsical games and pranks of these little semi-gods or junior-grade deities called the Fates. Or it has come to mean that our lives are controlled by blind impersonal forces, mechanistic unseen cause. That’s not what we mean when we speak of Christian freedom and God’s sovereignty.

First of all, when we talk about God’s sovereignty, we are saying that God is absolutely powerful and sovereign over all things. Nothing happens apart from His will, in a certain sense. However, within the context of God’s sovereignty, God can operate that sovereign power in many different ways. He can operate His sovereign power actively or passively. He can determine by shaping the events of history to bring to pass what He will bring to pass. He can command unilaterally worlds to come into existence. He can bring back the dead to life by the power of His command. That’s how much power He has. And we speak of it in terms of omnipotence—absolute power over the created order.

But God also exercises that power of sovereignty by means of a passive operation through what we would call the “restraining power” of providence. That is to say, God can allow me my freedom within limits and still get me where I want to go or get the world where He wants it to go without necessarily taking away all of my freedom of choice and volition, simply by restraining me or presenting opportunities that He know that I will choose if He puts them before me.

Let me give you an example of that and how the Bible speaks. When Jesus Christ was crucified, was that an accident? Was He not delivered up by the determinate foreknowledge and fore counsel of God? Is there any possibility in light of God’s sovereignty that Jesus could have escaped the cross? No, the Scriptures must needs be fulfilled, not because of the force of some mischievous junior-grade deities or the blind, impersonal, mechanistic forces of this cosmos. But the thing that made it inexorably necessary with respect to time and space was the will—the sovereign, imperial decree—of a personal, holy God.

And if you want to say the universe is determined in terms of it has a destiny and it’s in the hands of something other than man, I say, yea and amen. But don’t call that “mechanistic determinism” as if it were some kind of impersonal, blind, unloving, arbitrary deity. But I rejoice that the destiny of this planet and the destiny of this race is in the hands of One who is personal, who is absolutely holy, who is absolutely wise, who is absolutely just and loving, et cetera.

That’s an occasion to rejoice, but we’re afraid we’re going to lose something in this—namely, our freedom. Well, let me go on with my illustration. It was necessary that Jesus die, and the Bible says it was impossible in the context of His death for Jesus’ bones to be broken. Do you remember that passage? Was impossible that the bones of Christ be broken. In what sense was it impossible that His bones be broken? Was it because Jesus had calcium in His legs and in His arms and in His chest cavity that was intrinsically indestructible? Or were the bones of Jesus as fragile intrinsically as any human bone would be?

It was not that Jesus had an intrinsically indestructible skeletal structure that made it impossible that His bones be broken. It was because God had decreed by His sovereign authority that the bones of His beloved Son would not be broken. And no power on heaven and earth could have resisted that decree of God. Because had I chose, had I been there and decided that I wanted to break the bones of Jesus, or it was the choice of Pilate to break the bones of Jesus, or the soldier at the foot of the cross decided to break the bones of Jesus and that’s what he wanted to do, and he exercised his choice, and he took a hammer, he took a spear, and put it at Jesus, God would’ve moved heaven and earth to restrain that man’s choice from bringing actual results.