Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. Again.
Acts 27 is that great chapter where Luke chronicles Paul’s journey to Rome and describes how he was shipwrecked along the way. Two verses in that chapter make an interesting contrast.
In verse 22, Paul prophesies: “There will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.” But in verse 31, when some sailors try to escape the sinking ship secretly, Paul tells Julius (the Roman centurion in charge of his transport to Rome): “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.”
There you have the twin principles of divine sovereignty and human responsibility perfectly juxtaposed against one another. These are the very truths so many people (ranging from the rankest Arminian to the most rigid hyper-Calvinist) insist are contradictory truths. But here they appear side by side and in perfect harmony in the Bible.
There is no contradiction. Both things are true. Not one soul on that ship was going to die, because God had decreed it. Yet unless the crew stayed on the ship and brought it aground on the island of Malta, the passengers could not be saved.
How can both truths be simultaneously true? Simple. Because God ordained the means as well as the end, and the means He had ordained for saving that ship depended on the crew’s ability to steer the ship to the island of Malta and run it aground in the sand and surf. God’s sovereignty did not annul the sailors’ responsibility. In fact, God’s sovereignty is the very thing that established their responsibility.
God works through instruments. And He often uses human instruments. He could, of course, accomplish all His good pleasure solely by the direct agency of His own hands. He could accomplish His will simply by speaking the word, as He did when He first said in Genesis 1:3, “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
But most often, God works by secondary causes indirectly through whatever instruments He chooses. He set the sun in the heavens to give light to the earth. Could He have illuminated the earth by direct light from His own glory? Certainly. That is how heaven will be illuminated. Revelation 21:23 says the New Jerusalem has “need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”
God can work any miracle He chooses and accomplish His will with or without means. But in ordinary cases, He uses ordinary means. That is how He has established His universe, and that is why we are responsible to do as He commands, even though we know He is utterly sovereign and His will cannot be thwarted.
It was absolutely and perfectly true that God’s ultimate purpose was for every man in that vessel to be saved from the storm. It was also absolutely and perfectly true that unless the sailors remained with the ship, lives would be lost. The same God who decreed the end determined the efficacy of the means He chose. His sovereign decree to save every passenger did not nullify the duty of the sailors; it established and affirmed their duty.
Verse 22 makes clear that it was God’s certain and infallible purpose to save every soul on that ship. Verse 31 establishes the fact that their salvation would be brought about by the actions of the centurion, and on the subsequent actions of the crew. The whole thing was done by the appointment and the decree of God. It was also accomplished by voluntary action on the part of the centurion and the sailors. Both things are true, and there is no difficulty whatsoever, if you understand that God ordained the means as well as the end.
Paul’s knowledge of God’s ultimate purpose did not prevent him from issuing a warning and directions to Julius. Neither did the knowledge of God’s purpose prevent Julius and the soldiers from doing what they needed to do. Remember this: The belief that God wills something is a powerful reason to use every means available to effect God’s will; it is not a reason to fold our hands and say, “God will do it, whether we do anything or not.”
People often claim that God’s sovereignty in salvation nullifies our duty in evangelism. If God has ordained that His elect will be saved, what need is there for preaching and personal evangelism? That is one of the favorite arguments Dave Hunt, Ergun Caner, and most of the rabid anti-Calvinists in the SBC (and elsewhere) like to use against the doctrine of predestination. But it’s nonsense if we understand that God ordains the means as well as the end, and the means He chose by which to call the elect is by the preaching of the gospel.
Romans 10:14-15: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” In fact, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Corinthians 5:11).
It is in no sense incompatible with the truth of election or the principle of God’s sovereignty in salvation to persuade sinners, plead with them, beseech them even beg them as ambassadors of Christ, in His stead, to “be reconciled to God” (v. 20). That plea is the very instrument God has ordained to turn the hearts of people to Himself. That’s what Scripture means when it says the gospel “is the power of God unto salvation.” First Corinthians 1:21: “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”
If you understand this principle that God in His sovereignty normally accomplishes His plan through the use of ordinary means, it will clear away most of the confusion and perplexity that is so often associated with the doctrine of divine sovereignty and its twin truth, the doctrine of human responsibility.
Our duty as ambassadors of Christ is to proclaim the promise of forgiveness, to urge men to repent, and to plead with them to be reconciled with God. Those are the very means God uses to save those whom He effectually draws to Christ. He does not save sinners apart from the means He has chosen.