A Shipwreck and the Sovereignty of God

In the book of Acts, we have this stirring narrative of Paul's shipwreck on his way to Rome (according to 2 Cor. 11:25, this must have been at least his fourth time to experience this!).  While this is interesting in itself, there are some profound lessons about the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man stitched into the fabric of the story.  After they had set sail - against Paul's advice -  and encountered the storm, Paul confronts the centurion and ship's captain:

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. Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 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.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on some island.”  (Acts 27:21-26 ESV)  

Note what Paul says: no one will die because God has promised.

Later on, after Paul had received this assurance, the sailors tried to escape from the boat and leave everyone else in the sinking ship.  Paul notices this, and warns the centurion in charge of the prisoners:

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, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship's boat and let it go.  (Acts 27:30-32 ESV)

Note the following things:

  • God is sovereign over the physical elements.  The storm was perfectly under God's control.  Accordingly, God was able to save the lives of all the men on the ship.
  • Paul believed that the promise of God would not fail: "I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told."  Evidently, Paul believed that once God promises something, it must come to pass.  (This is, of course, the testimony of the entire Bible.)
  • Yet, Paul tells the centurion, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.”
At first, this looks like a contradiction.  Why would Paul imply that unless the sailors stayed in the ship, people would die?  After all, God had already promised they would all live.  God's promise seems both contingent and non-contingent at the same time!  The following considerations may be made:

1.  Note that all the lives on the ship were saved:  "And so it was that all were brought safely to land."
(Acts 27:44 ESV)  God's promise was fulfilled, just as He said, and just as Paul believed.

2.  God's absolute promise did not eradicate the responsibility of those on the ship doing what they could to save their lives.  That is to say, God's sovereign promise did not nullify human responsibility.  Even though God had promised that they would live, it was not a contradiction to say that unless they did X, they would die.

3.  But neither did the responsibility of the sailors and soldiers negate the reliability and sovereignty of the promise of God.  God's promise must be fulfilled.

What is the point I am trying to make?  It is this:  why do we have a problem with God's sovereign choice of a people to be saved and the simultaneous requirement that unless a person repents and believes the gospel they will not be saved?  Some people say that to tell someone that they will perish unless they believe is to contradict God's election.  After all, what if they are elect - then you are telling an elect person they will be lost when they will certainly be saved!  Contradiction!

But is it?  I think not.  The way the narrative in Acts 27 points us is that it is not in fact a contradiction.  Both are true.  All whom God has chosen will be saved (and this election is a particular choice of individuals to eternal life apart from any consideration of works; see Romans 9:11-23), and unless a person believes (elect or not!) they will perish (see John 3:14-21,36).  We may not understand how these things fit together.  However, this is what the Bible teaches, and to set one set of texts against the other is simply to try to silence the Bible with the Bible.  If someone is saved, they must finally put it down to the sovereign grace of God, not to their own free-will.  But this must not keep us from warning the lost that they must repent and trust in Christ.

This is why when you look into the book of Acts, the apostles indiscriminately call men to faith (they don't wait for them to become "sensible sinners").  For example, in Acts 3, Peter says:

Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days. You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.”  (Acts 3:19-26 ESV)

This is what Charles Spurgeon had to say on this passage:

Grown up among us is a school of men who say that they rightly preach the gospel to sinners when they merely deliver statements of what the gospel is, and of the result of dying unsaved, but they grow furious and talk of unsoundness if any venture to say to the sinner, "Believe," or "Repent." To this school Peter did not belong—into their secret he had never come, and with their assembly, were he alive now, he would not be joined. For, having first told his hearers of Christ, of his life and death and resurrection, he then proceeds to plunge the sword, as it were, up to the very hilt in their consciences by saying, "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out."

 Let us beware blotting out one truth with another, but to hold simultaneously all the truths of Scripture, whether we can reconcile them in our minds or not.  In doing so, we will be truly faithful to God's word.


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