Sovereignty and Responsibility in a Shipwreck

When discussions arise of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, we often have a hard time. So much emotion is attached to the topic of free will and predestination, election and responsibility, that many cannot allow room for thinking past our feelings. So, perhaps it would be worthwhile to consider sovereign decree and human responsibility from a more temporal angle, one with less feeling included.

In acts 27, Paul and his companions are on a sea voyage to transport the apostle to Rome. Along the way, there will be a shipwreck. And that shipwreck has the potential to kill all on board.

What we need to notice for our look at the topic of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are the two guarantees that Paul makes in the chapter. First, Paul will make it clear exactly whom God will keep alive in the upcoming ordeal. Then, just after that, Paul will set forth a condition that, if unmet, will prove his first guarantee false.

Acts 27:21-26 – 21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. 22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ 25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we must run aground on some island.”

God promised Paul that Paul would make it to Rome. And, more importantly for our purposes, God promised Paul that all on board the ship would survive. That was a guarantee. It will happen. God has sovereignly decreed it, and Paul knows it.

So, one might argue that Paul need take no action at all to see this happen. Paul need not speak to anybody about anything. Paul need not give warnings to any.

But watch what happens next.

Acts 27:30-32 – 30 And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go.

A group of the ship’s crew determined to use the boats to escape the doomed vessel. They were going to slip away unnoticed by the soldiers. But Paul gave the Roman soldiers a very significant warning. If those sailors leave the ship, the soldiers will not survive the wreck. If the sailors leave, the guarantee from earlier will not be true.

The sailors are not allowed to escape. That leaves the sailors on the ship to bring the ship in as close to the beach as possible. And, in the end, every life on board is spared.

Now, let’s talk sovereign decree and free will and possibility. Was Paul telling the truth when he said that God would spare every life on the ship? Of course he was. That was the ultimate decree of God. Nothing was going to change that.

Well then, was Paul speaking nonsense when he warned the Roman soldier that the people would die if the sailors left the ship? No, not at all. God intended to save the lives of all on board the ship through the means of the active work of the sailors.

Well, then was it possible that the people could die? It depends, of course, on what you mean by possible. The people genuinely would have died had the sailors left. But God used the means of Paul’s warning to prevent the sailors from leaving the ship. That allowed the sailors to remain and steer the ship. And through the means, God worked the physical salvation of all the lives on board. On the one hand, it was possible that the people could have died—hence Paul’s warning. But, from another perspective, there was no way this was going to happen. God decreed the end of the adventure as well as the means he would use to bring about that end. Was Paul free? Yes. Were the sailors and the Romans free? Absolutely. Did God work the outcome with absolute sovereignty? You bet. Were the people responsible for the choices they made? Of course. Were their decisions genuine? Yes. But, in the end, was God the ultimate cause of all that took place to save those lives? Absolutely.

Perhaps this will help you to think better about God’s sovereignty and our salvation. All we see here is parallel with our salvation with a few exceptions. Like the sailors, we are headed for doom if we stay on our natural course. Unlike the sailors, we are far more bent against God than they were bent against staying on the ship. Sin blinds us and our hearts are dead within us before God moves upon us. But, our choices, like the choices of the sailors and the Romans, are genuine choices. And God uses means, very real means, to move us. Yet, in all, we know that God has decreed the end from the beginning, and our salvation is based on his sovereign will and election.

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