Sovereignty and Freedom: A Biblical Example

One of the biblical issues that causes Christians the most problems is how God’s sovereignty and human freedom (or responsibility) fit together. When first exposed to this topic, many people have a tendency to elevate either sovereignty or freedom at the expense of the other.

If you elevate sovereignty, you come to fatalistic conclusions and say things like, “It doesn’t matter what I do because God has everything planned out anyway.” If you elevate freedom, you may come to the conclusion that your future is completely open and that it is all up to you. You might say things like, “Why pray for safety since it’s all up to me to drive carefully?”

While the Bible doesn’t ever fully explain how God’s sovereignty and human freedom work together, it’s full of examples showing that they must fit together. Here’s one example found in Acts 27. Paul, in the custody of Roman soldiers, is on a ship bound for Rome when the ship is confronted by a major storm. With the whole crew fearing for their lives, Paul stands up and offers this comfort based on God’s sovereignty.

Acts 27:22-24
But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.'”

But notice what happens only a few verses later…

Acts 27:29-32
Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.

So Paul relates God’s sovereign promise that every member of the crew will be spared but then tells them that they must choose to stay with the ship or they won’t be spared. If Paul had elevated sovereignty at the expense of freedom, he wouldn’t have felt the need to warn the soldiers and crew nor would he have worked to save the ship. After all, Paul could’ve reasoned, God promised everyone would live so what I do doesn’t matter. If Paul had elevated freedom, he would have been captive to fear and worry because humanly speaking there was no way they’d live through this storm.

But Paul holds to both with equal tenacity. God is sovereign over life, death, and storms and so Paul has confidence that no one will die. But he knows that people must choose wisely and so he warns the soldiers that everyone must stay on the ship or they will perish.

We need to approach the storms of our life in a similar way. God sends us “storms” to teach us many lessons (2 Corinthians 1:8-9) and yet we must exercise wisdom in how we respond. We can’t forget that God is in control of what comes our way but nor can we let his sovereignty become an excuse for passivity.

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