Was A.W. Tozer wrong on sovereignty? Today’s question arrives from a listener named Josh. “Pastor John, hello! I am a Christian of only a few years, and am learning more about Calvinism and election in my studies. My question is: To what degree are our actions and daily walk with God predestined? If I recall correctly, A.W. Tozer believed providence was like a cruise ship. The ship’s final destination is settled and certain (that’s providence). But on the open water, what we each do on the ship is open to our own free volition. So, Pastor John, how much of our daily life is sovereignly directed by God?”
On the Cruise Ship
Well, I love A.W. Tozer, but that’s a bad analogy. Sorry, A.W. My answer to the last question — “How much of our daily life is sovereignly directed by God?” — is all of it, down to the tying of your shoelaces and the brushing of your teeth, which I’ll try to show from the Bible in just a minute.
“All of life, down to the tying of shoelaces and the brushing of teeth, is directed by God.”
There are several problems with this proposal that says life is like a cruise ship whose destination is sovereignly decreed while the life on the ship is not sovereignly decreed. Here’s the first problem. It implies that the choices we make in life on the ship don’t have any decisive effect on the outcome of our lives — the destination of the ship. That’s not true.
Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive [on the ship] for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” See the Lord is the arrival at the destination. But if you have no holiness on the ship, there will be no destination in heaven. Disconnecting sovereignty over the destination from sovereignty on the ship is unbiblical.
Here’s another way to say it. This is the same point but a different angle as to why this is an unbiblical proposal. The Bible is pervaded by teachings that God’s sovereign control is complete, not partial. It governs every aspect of nature, every aspect of history, national life, personal life — nothing, absolutely nothing, is outside God’s sovereign governance.
Now, the way he controls all things may differ. Whether it’s more or less direct or more or less indirect, more or less by active intrusion or more or less by tactical permissions — however it is, God controls it, and the control is complete and pervasive. Nothing in the universe is random or without divine design and purpose.
Now, I don’t say this because of any philosophical assumption about the nature of God. I think philosophical assumptions here are the nemesis of true biblical thinking. We should come to the Bible and try to listen to it for what it says without bringing our philosophical assumptions to it. I’m not saying this because of an assumption like “That’s what God means,” or, “That’s what the human will does or doesn’t require,” or, “That’s what causality is.”
I’m just not even thinking that way. I’m trying to just come to terms with texts. So let me give you the texts that are governing me here — or at least give them to Josh so that he can ponder them.
Who Makes the Plans?
- “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue [this is what really happens] is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:1).
- “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord [this is what really happens] establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
- “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). That’s what’s happening on the ship. That’s not just the end of the ship cruise.
- “A man’s steps are from the Lord; how then can man understand his way?” (Proverbs 20:24).
- “The king’s heart is a stream of water [this would be one of the crew members on the ship] in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1).
“God’s sovereign control is complete, not partial. It governs every aspect of nature, history, and personal life.”
Now, all those texts refer to ordinary, on-the-boat decision-making. If what Josh means by our decisions being open — that is what he said: “open to free volition” — is that we have ultimate self-determination on the ship, well, the answer is we don’t. There is no human ultimate self-determination. Only God has ultimate self-determination. We are free in the sense that we can do whatever we choose, but ultimately God governs what we choose. We are not God, and we cannot veto God.
That’s what Job had to learn in 42 chapters of warfare with God. Finally, he concludes in Job 42:2, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” No purpose of God’s can be vetoed by a purpose of man.
What we think is random in this world or uncontrolled, the Bible says is from the Lord. It says things like Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap [we would say the dice are rolled on the board], but its every decision is from the Lord.” That’s choosing a random thing and saying, “No, it’s really not random from God’s perspective.”
God’s Remedy to Fear
If you’re bothered by all those texts coming from the Old Testament — which you shouldn’t be, but if you are — here’s Jesus’s way of saying the same thing. Jesus says in Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”
I think the reason he chose two sparrows and one of them just dropping dead off a branch in a jungle somewhere is because that just seems to be the least significant thing in the world. This is like a bird dying in a forest somewhere that only God knows about. That’s really random and insignificant. Jesus says, “Well, you may think it’s random, and it may be insignificant, but it is controlled by your Father.”
“Even the hairs of your head are all numbered,” he adds. And then he makes the wonderful application: “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:30–31). “Fear not, therefore . . .” In other words, the sovereignty of God over the details of the universe and our lives is meant to take away fear. The control of God our Father — our good, loving Father who works everything together for his glorious purposes and our good — should make us bold as a lion.
God Schedules Your Days
I would say the book of James, in the New Testament, is virtually thinking the same way that Josh is thinking — namely, we’re on this boat, and the question is, Are the random, seemingly insignificant little things we choose on the boat governed by God?
“The sovereignty of God over the details of the universe and our lives is meant to take away fear.”
James says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.’” So, you think you’re going to go somewhere on this ship. But James adds, “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
Now, here comes the answer to how detailed God’s governance of the behavior on the ship is: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live [that is, we won’t die on the cruise] and do this or that.’” That is, we’ll go to the top level of the ship, or the bottom level of the ship, or we’ll stand in the sun today, or we’ll eat at 6:00 or 5:00 today, or whatever. We’ll do this or that if the Lord wills. “As it is, you boast in your arrogance” (James 4:13–17).
It seems to me that James is saying there is meticulous, complete sovereignty over our living, over our doing this or that. The purpose of it is not only what Jesus said — namely, courage — but humility. It’s arrogant not to think this way about our cruise behavior.
The Help We Need
Here is one last observation. If you think that you can be faith filled, obedient, and holy on this cruise ship without the sovereign enabling of God, then you don’t know your own sinfulness, and you don’t know the preciousness of the work of the Holy Spirit on the ship. There’s only one hope of pleasing God on this cruise ship, and that is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit.
It’s just baffling to me — in fact, it makes me mad — when Christian teachers try to take the sovereignty of God away from the nitty-gritty battle for holiness, which is everything in our Christian life. Here’s the key text for me. Hebrews 13:20–21:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will [here comes the key part], working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Indeed, amen. To him be glory, not just for getting us to the destination by sovereign decrees, but also for enabling us to do everything good that we have to do on this ship. The ship is the place where we live, where the glory of God will shine or not shine. To take the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, by which we are enabled to do what pleases God, away from the ship is crazy.
Look at 1 Corinthians 15:10–11: “But by the grace of God I am what I am [on this ship], and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked [on this cruise ship] harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” The destination on the ship and all of our life on the ship are governed by the one “who works all things [on the ship and in our destination — all things] according to the counsel of his will” — his merciful will (Ephesians 1:11).