Eternal Security and Common Grace: Two Doctrinal Lessons from Acts 27

boatWhen Paul was taken to Rome, Luke describes the harrowing sea journey to Italy in Acts 27. Embarking on a ship from Adramyttium, a seaport in Asia Minor (v. 2), Paul crossed the Mediterranean. From Myra (v. 5), Paul and his guard found passage on a ship of 276 men, complete with many other soldiers (v. 31) and prisoners (v. 42). While Paul doubted the safety of the journey, based on the time of year (vv. 9–10), the centurion and the majority of the crew decided to head out (vv. 11–12).

This perilous journey sets up the dramatic events at sea, the near drowning of the passengers, and the eventual sinking of the ship. Verse 13 begins with gentle breezes as the ship sets sail, but all turns stormy in verses 14. Verses 14–20 recount the evasive actions taken by the crew (e.g., turning the ship out of the wind, lowering the gear, jettisoning cargo), and verses 21–26 introduces Paul’s “I told you so” coupled with gracious promise from the Lord.

21 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. 22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 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.’ 25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we must run aground on some island.”

In these words, we find two doctrinal lessons—the first, an illustration of eternal security as Paul later tells the passengers they must remain on the boat to receive “salvation.” In Acts 27, salvation (defined as the preservation of life) is secured by means. Thus, it serves as handy illustration of how God provides eternal security through God-provided means. Or as Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday explain in their book The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance, “Acts 27 illustrates well the fact that exhortations and warnings are a signficant means by which God moves humans to act so that his promises to them will be fulfilled” (212). This is the first illustration, well covered Schreiner and Caneday (pp. 209–212).

The second doctrinal lesson pertains to God’s common grace and the variety of ways grace is conveyed to unbelievers through the lives of Christians. I will consider this below.

On Common Grace

First, in Acts 27 notice the reason why God will have mercy on the ship. Verse 24a says, “Do not be afraid, Paul’ you must stand before Caesar.” This divine “must” (δεῖ) indicates the necessity of preserving Paul. Because God had further plans for Paul (cf. Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 1:25), he would not let him perish. And because Paul was traveling with others, he would not let them perish either. How do we know? Paul continues to share the angel’s message, “And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you” (v. 24b).

In this verse, the preservation of the ship is contingent upon Paul’s safety. Or, to say it more plainly, God saves the whole (276 in number ) in order to save the one (Paul). And thus we see in this account something known as common grace, but noticeably such common grace is mediated by a man for whom God has lavished saving grace (see Ephesians 3:1–7).

Is this means of administering common grace unusual? I think not. In fact, Acts 27 provides one more example of a truth that runs through the Scripture: God blesses the world in and through his chosen saints. In other words, common grace is extended through saving grace, or at least through and for the sake of those whom God is saving. Here are just a few examples.

  • Jacob. Laban is blessed because Jacob was his servant son-in-law: “Laban said to [Jacob], “. . . I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you” (Gen 30:27).
  • Joseph. Potiphar’s household is blessed because Joseph is present (Genesis 39:1–6): “the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake” (v. 5). Later, the whole nation of Egypt would benefit from Joseph’s wisdom.
  • Daniel and Nehemiah. Both sons of Israel serve the kings of foreign courts. While they enjoy favor from these foreign kings; they also serve as conduits of blessing for the kings they serve.

From these examples, we find evidence of God’s original design—namely, to bless others through the people he chose to bless. Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3) and Israel thereafter (Exodus 19:5–6) are called not only to receive God’s blessing, but to be a blessing. Indeed, the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6 is cited in Psalm 67 so that the people who are blessed might bring blessing to the nations. Actively, then, the people of God bring common grace to the world.

But providentially, Acts 27 shows how God himself looks at the world. In general, he gives sunshine and rain to the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45), but he also extends protection and provision to unbelievers who are in close proximity to his people. This is seen in microcosm in Acts 27. It is also evidences in grand scale in 2 Peter 3, where the apostle says, “all things are continuing as they were from the beginning” (v. 4). And the reason, it appears from the rest of the chapter, is the patience God is showing his people (v. 9, 15). God is preserving the world from destruction, so that he can bring from every nation a people for his own possession. Generations of unbelievers are, therefore, sustained for the sake of God’s elect. This too is common grace, but it is not in any way common, generic, or egalitarian.

Common Grace is Not Common

As is evidenced in nations and families and marketplaces influenced by Christians and Christian teaching there is a conserving or preserving effect. The people of God truly are the salt of the world, a light that shines upon those in proximity to them (see Matthew 5:13–16). Examples of such Christian influence and mediated common grace abound:

  • God has preserved hundreds of unbelieving generations so that at the right time he could bring the gospel to his elect.
  • God has blessed countless unbelieving children with Christian parents.
  • God has filled the world with beautiful “non-Christian” music and musicians who learned to sing in church. The same could be said with regards to art.
  • God has cared for innumerable unbelieving orphans, invalids, and other impoverish sick people through the care of his saints.
  • God has preserved countless nations from even greater calamity through the prayers of his saints.

So, when we think of common grace, we do well to remember that it is not just a generic blessing to unbelievers. Like God’s saving grace, it too requires means. And God in his love for all people, ordains ways to preserve and protect unbelievers from temporal calamity, even when he does not ordain their eternal salvation. In fact, Acts 27 is not done in showing how God blesses others for the sake of his elect. Verses 42–44 read,

The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape. But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

This time the scope of the protection is limited to the prisoners, but the cause is the same. For Paul’s sake, the centurion “kept them [the soldiers] from carrying out their plan” to kill the prisoners. And why? Because the centurion wished to save Paul. Again, in this instance God’s preservation was mediated to men because of the centurion’s concern for Paul, which all falls under the banner of God’s sovereign plan to bring Paul to Rome by way of this Roman centurion.

God’s Grace is Universal and Particular

In the end, all good things that come from God are gracious. But wisely such grace ordained by God’s wisdom and accomplished by God’s means.

While God stands outside of time, free and able to do as he pleases, in time and space God uses means to preserve his saints and care for his enemies. In this way, God shows how his love is both universal and particular. For his children, his loves secures them in redemption. But even for his enemies, those who refuse his love, he grants protection and grace. Theologians have called this common grace, but common grace is no impersonal grace. Rather, because everything in creation is made by a personal God, even common grace comes through personal means, accomplishes (God’s) personal ends, and meets particular needs—some seen (as in Acts 27), some unseen.

The final take away for us, however, is that we who know God can trust how he is working in the world. From passages like Acts 27 we learn how to look at all life as a kaleidoscope of grace that will ultimately lead to his greater glory, and our eternal good. Even in his common grace, we can give praise for the way he treats unbelievers. It teaches us to marvel at his perfect compassion and to trust his wise ways. For all these reasons, let us hold fast to the one who upholds us by the perfect working of his will.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds