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The shipwreck story of Acts 27 is a fascinating paradigmatic story illustrating the compatibility of divine sovereignty, human responsibility, and the role of promise and warning to achieve God’s ends.

In a nutshell, here are the three key elements at work in this regard:

The situation on the ship: “All hope of our being saved was at last abandoned” (v. 20).

A word to Paul from the Lord: “There will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship” (v. 22). “God has granted you all those who sail with you” (v. 24). “Not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you” (v. 34).

Paul’s warning to the centurion and the soldiers on the ship: “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (v. 31).

Tom Schreiner explains:

The storm struck with such fury that all aboard despaired of living (Acts 27:13-19). Paul, however, received a word from the Lord that every single person on the ship would be saved, i.e., every single person's life would be preserved (Acts 27:20-26).

The word that all aboard the ship would live was a divine promise, pledging safety for all. Some of us might be inclined to relax and "take it easy" after receiving such a promise. Paul, on the other hand, did not think that such a promise ruled out the need for admonitions and warnings. This is clear as we read on in the narrative. The sailors feigned that they were merely lowering anchors, when actually they intended to lower the lifeboat and escape the ship (Acts 27:29-32). Paul responded by warning the centurion that if the sailors left the ship the lives of those on board would not be preserved.

Why would Paul even bother to admonish the centurion about the scheme of the sailors? After all, he already had received a promise from an angel that everyone on the boat would escape with their lives. Paul did not reason the way many of us do today, "God has promised that the lives of all will be saved, therefore, any warning is superfluous." No, the urgent warning was the very means by which the promise was secured. The promise did not come to pass apart from the warning but through it.

This same approach should be applied to the promises and threats in the scriptures regarding our salvation. It is by means of taking the warnings seriously that the promise of our salvation is secured.

An accessible elaboration of Schreiner’s perspective on the warning passages of Scripture and the doctrine of perseverance can be found in his book Run to Win the Prize: Perseverance in the New Testament.

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14 thoughts on “Can God’s Warnings and Our Response Be Genuine If He Is Absolutely Sovereign?”

  1. jgb says:

    Don’t forget the more thorough book on this subject that Schreiner wrote with Ardel Caneday – The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance & Assurance.

  2. Don Sartain says:

    Fantastic explanation! So many of us belittle God’s warnings in light of His sovereignty.

  3. A. B Caneday says:

    A hearty Amen! to Tom’s comments on Acts 27. The juxtaposition of God’s assured promise that all on board the ship would be saved with Paul’s urgent warning against impending death should suffice to put to rest objections that gospel warnings of the inviolability of God’s impending wrath upon all who fail to persevere in Christ and gospel assurances of the certainty of God’s promised salvation in Christ contradict. But, alas!, other great men, such as Charles Hodge and Robert Dabney, made precisely the same argument from Acts 27, and objections still persist.

  4. This illustration (as well as others) from Schreiner’s book was very helpful as I formulated a paper on the subject of the Hebrew Warning passages for my Gen. Epistles and Revelation class in seminary. I highly recommend this book and can’t wait to get the Schreiner/ Caenday “bigger” version.

  5. sam_ihs says:

    I appreciate the import Tom Schreiner places on the warning passages (against those who seem to just read over them) but his equating the warning in Acts to the other various warning passages in the New Testament is only necessary within a baptistic reading of the NT.
    TS has to show how every member of the New Covenant is eternally elect, despite various passages that appear to speak to the contrary (esp. Hebrews 6 & 10).
    A more covenant-based reading of the NT allows for the writer of Hebrews to warn against actual apostasy, without getting into (in my opinion) sketchy ideas about hypothetical or effectual warnings. That is, if the covenant is made up of only elect (baptized as adults) then in order to maintain that covenant purity the warnings of apostasy must be either hypothetical or ‘effectual’ and not something that will ever actually happen. However, if there are both elect and non-elect within the covenant then the Hebrews passages stand as they are: real warnings against an actual apostasy.

    To be clear, I have great respect for Tom Schreiner and he is an amazing theologian. I just wanted to offer another viewpoint on the warning passages of the NT.

    1. A. B Caneday says:


      I am interested in how you might explain the fact that Presbyterians such as Charles Hodge and Robert Dabney place the same import upon gospel warnings (ala their use of Acts 27 also) as does Tom Schreiner.

      1. sam_ihs says:

        Hodge and Dabney (and many Presbyterians) do have a reading of the warning passages similar to that of Schreiner. Again, men I greatly respect but I think they are wrong on this point.
        Hodge makes the point in his commentary on Romans that it is common to speak hypothetically in this manner and he also alludes to Acts 27 as evidence. I would say that no warnings are hypothetical. If a father tells his son that he’ll be punished for back-talking, that is a real warning whether the son back-talks or not. To this Hodge argues that because God is the one ordaining both the ends and the means “and He brings about the ends by providing the means. And when rational agents are concerned, he provides the means by rational considerations presented to their minds and made effectual by his grace”
        I, personally, am not very satisfied with this explanation. Hebrews 10 speaks of a class of people who have trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant as a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace. Who are these people? I firmly believe in the perseverance of the saints so it isn’t those eternally elect by God. But I think there really are people who commit this sin, and if that is the case then they must be those with some connection to Christ and the Church but who are not justified.
        Hopefully that makes some amount of sense and clarified my point.

        1. A. B Caneday says:

          Thanks for your reply.

          Your comment calls for some kind of response to let you know that Hodge, Dabney, and Tom Schreiner and I (in The Race Set Before Us) do not hold to or advocate what has come to be called “the hypothetical view” of gospel warnings.

          Indeed, grammatically speaking, the warning of Acts 27:31 is expressed hypothetically by way of ἐάν + the subjunctive (ἐὰν μὴ οὗτοι μείνωσιν ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ, ὑμεῖς σωθῆναι οὐ δύνασθε). The same is true of Hebrews 10:26-27, although the supposition (hypothetical, conditional) is expressed with the participle instead of ἐάν + the subjunctive (Ἑκουσίως γὰρ ἁμαρτανόντων ἡμῶν μετὰ τὸ λαβεῖν τὴν ἐπίγνωσιν τῆς ἀληθείας. . .). But to say that the warnings are expressed hypothetically hardly means what advocates of “the hypothetical view” advocate, such as Thomas Hewitt, Homer Kent, et al. They contend something very different from what Hodge, Dabney, Schreiner and I advocate.

          Many, even renowned scholars, fail to characterize the argument that Tom Schreiner and I make in The Race Set Before Us when they claim that we advocate “the hypothetical view” of gospel warnings. We do not. In fact, we explicitly reject that view and critique that explanation of warnings as failing to do justice to the biblical text.

          Thank you.

          1. sam_ihs says:

            I didn’t mean to misrepresent your (or Shchreiner, Hodge, et al) view as of the ‘hypothetical view.’ I tried to express that in my original post by calling the warning ‘effectual’ rather than hypothetical, however I let that distinction slip in my response.
            I appreciate your gracious response and will continue to think through these matters.

  6. When I read things that seek to answer this inquiry with material from Edwards that states (pg 20):

    “Keeping one-self in the love of God is essential for receiving eternal life on the final day”

    It is rather disheartening but not surprising from Reformed/Calvinist sources. No, Jesus Christ is, what is and all that is, required and it is the Integrity of God (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and all Their works) that is what is required for salvation on the final day.

    The Reformed/Calvinstic definition of Perseverance has been and always will be one of the weakest and debilitating tenets of R/C teaching.

    But as to to question at hand, are the warnings and our responses genuine if God is absolutely sovereign?

    In truth this question stems from another disabling idea forward via Reformed/Calvinistic thinking. When we say “God is sovereign” we need say no more. To state, “absolutely sovereign” is to devalue the opulence and sufficiency of God’s sovereignty as if it is not enough to state it as it is because if God’s is sovereign then we need not add to it with a qualifier.

    But that qualifier is there, not because of a Biblical need but because of a Reformed/Calvinistic need. And that needs is so that some can make God’s sovereignty compatible or constructed in a way that reflects other ailing Reformed/Calvinistic tenets such as predestination/election, the nature of the Divine Decree(s), regeneration before faith, and so on.

    But most importantly and critically the Reformed/Calvinist student views Divine Sovereignty through the lens of control when it should be viewed, as the Scriptures treat it rather obviously, as one of rule. But this shift would require a rather major adjustment to many personal theologies and that does not usually occur too eagerly or readily.

  7. Victor says:

    Beautiful Bible story, one of my favorites to demonstrate the sovereighty of God and human responsibility. Paul was not lying when he warned the men not to leave the boat, he was responsible and never doubted the word of the Lord.

  8. Consider Jeremiah 38:17-18: “Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, ‘Thus says the LORD God of hosts, the God of Israel, “If you will indeed go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned with fire, and you and your household will survive. But if you will not go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then this city will be given over to the hand of the Chaldeans; and they will burn it with fire, and you yourself will not escape from their hand.”‘”

    In a nutshell, here are the three key elements at work in this regard:

    1) The situation of the seige.
    2) A word to Jeremiah from the Lord.
    3) Jeremiah’s warning to the king.

    The word that [the king’s family] would live was a divine promise, pledging safety for [his family], but was explicitly contingent on doing what Jeremiah said. So with respect to Acts 27, the promise to Paul may very well have been just as contingent on everyone being with Paul.

  9. Don Johnson says:

    I asked a question on RHE’s blog and Justin answer pointed me here. So I have a further comment. On Act 27:31 the “you” is plural. So it should be read as “all of you” cannot be saved. In other words, the words was for those that stayed with the boat, if they split up, then they are no longer on the boat.

    So it is not the case that the ones on the boat were at risk if some left, the ones that left were at risk if they left. At least that is how I understand it.

  10. Don Johnson says:

    I asked a question on RHE’s blog and Justin’s answer pointed me here. So I have a further comment. On Act 27:31 the “you” is plural. So it should be read as “all of you” cannot be saved. In other words, the word was for those that stayed with the boat, if they split up, then they are no longer on the boat.

    So it is not the case that the ones on the boat were at risk if some left, the ones that left were at risk if they left. At least that is how I understand it.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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