In Acts 27, we read the account of a shipwreck that Paul experienced as he was traveling to his first trial in Rome. As we read through the account, we see an interesting mix of God’s sovereign promises and human responsibility. And I believe that these promises and responsibility can shine a helpful light for us on how we think about bigger issues of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
First, let’s see a promise from God.
Acts 27:21-24 – 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.’
Paul is clear here that God has promised that no person abord that ship will lose his life in what is to come. Every soul aboard will survive. This is promised, decreed by the sovereign God. Thus, we know that nothing can change it.
However, during the night, before the ship runs aground, the professional sailors aboard the ship determine to try to make a break for it in the ship’s boat. They do not want to risk their own lives to save their passengers.
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.
Notice what Paul tells the soldiers. Unless those sailors stay aboard the ship, the soldiers will die. But God promised that nobody would die. How can this statement be a true one?
The Lord decreed what would be the outcome—all people aboard ship will live. The Lord also decreed the means whereby this outcome would be achieved—the sailors would remain aboard to steer the ship toward shore. And God accomplished the decreed outcome.
Acts 27:43b-44 – He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, 44 and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.
All survived. God’s promise was perfectly fulfilled.
Were there genuine options here? Were the men free or were they under the sovereign decree of God. The answer is that the men aboard the ship were both free and under God’s decree. Had the sailors in fact chosen to escape the ship, had the soldiers not stopped the men from escaping, people would have died. Did God violate the will of the soldiers when he made them prevent the sailors’ escape? No, there is nothing in the text that says so. Did God sovereignly accomplish his decree? Absolutely.
What should we draw from this? God is sovereign. No freedom of mankind has ever or will ever override God’s sovereign decree. If we can override God’s decree, God is no longer the true God over the universe. God’s plans are always perfectly accomplished.
What about human freedom? It is real, just under God’s decree. Were the choices that Paul, the soldiers, and the sailors made real choices? Yes, without question they were real choices with real consequences. Paul, the soldiers, and the sailors were totally morally responsible for their choices in every way.
How then can we say that the choices were real if also the decree of God would stand? We can talk like this because this is exactly how God speaks to us in his word. Had the soldiers let the sailors escape, the soldiers would have died. God saw to it that the soldiers would not let the sailors escape. The soldiers made genuine choices. And God, in his mighty sovereignty, accomplished his decree exactly as he planned.
God is sovereign. Mankind is responsible for what we choose. Our choices are real, and they matter. And God’s decree will always be fully and perfectly accomplished.
If you ask me what is greater, God’s sovereignty or man’s freedom, I will have to tell you that God’s sovereignty has to be ultimate. But God is also so glorious and mighty that he can be fully sovereign while decreeing that our choices matter even as our choices will never prevent his perfect will and divine good pleasure from being accomplished. God has the right to reach into our hearts and change our very desires; and he does so. We are still always perfectly responsible, as we still choose our actions in accord with our desires. And in the end, the mighty God who made us all shows that he rules over all things.