The Sovereign Ship: A.W. Tozer on the Will of Man


I recently completed reading The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer (accessed through the e-Sword HD app). Before I begin a response to Tozer’s comments on the relationship between the sovereignty of God and the will of man, allow me to humbly recommend this book to your reading. The aspect of this work that I appreciate most is that Tozer does not write as a theologian. His words are not stale and flavorless. He writes as a pastor, a man deeply concerned with helping the people of God get back “to the old ways.” If you feel distant from God, if you have that feeling of wanting to know God but not knowing where to begin, please consider this book. With that said, I will proceed.

Tozer’s View

Tozer’s statements regarding the will of man and the sovereignty of God are found in the chapter entitled “The Sovereignty of God.” His purpose was not to give a detailed explanation of this particular issue, but rather to extol the greatness and freedom of God’s sovereignty. So his comments must be seen in that light. After highlighting the essential problem of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human will, he outlines his view in simple terms:

“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil.”

Let us take careful note of exactly what Tozer is driving at with this explanation. First, he is carefully attempting to maintain the clear teaching of Scripture that God is absolutely sovereign, that he is totally free to do whatsoever he determines to do. Second, he is also attempting to reconcile this sovereignty with the equally clear teaching of the responsibility of man. This is an important point to remember, but there are some who “solve” this problem by denying one of the elements of it. Some deny the sovereignty of God, making the Lord out to be anxiously wringing his hands awaiting the results of human freedom. Some deny the responsibility of man by turning the sovereignty of God into a fatalistic system of robots. Tozer, admirably, takes neither of these easy ways out.

In his way of thinking, man is totally free to make moral choices between good and evil. In its most reduced form, this choice would be concerned with obeying the gospel command (as Tozer says at the end of this chapter). Man is free to obey the gospel command or to disobey the gospel command. This ability to choose does not negate the sovereignty of God (in Tozer’s view) because it is in accordance with the eternal decree of God. Tozer wrote, “the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it.” In other words, God decided that man should decide, and so man’s decision falls under the deciding that God did.

To illustrate this concept, Tozer paints a picture of a passenger liner on its way to New York from Liverpool. The sovereignty of God is like the ship itself. It is carrying the passengers to a predetermined location on a predetermined course. The will of man is like the passengers aboard the ship, who are free to eat, drink, lounge, and so on. They are free, but their freedom is carried along by the sovereignty of God. In other words, the freedom of man is within the bounds of the sovereignty of God; man cannot act in such a way that is outside of the decree of God, regardless of the choices he makes. Tozer sums up his view like this: “Certain things have been decreed by the free determination of God, and one of these things is the law of choice and consequence.”

The Problem Of Tozer’s View

The problem with Tozer’s view, however, is that it supplants the sovereignty of God; in his system, it is God who is limited. Sovereignty is the freedom of God to determine what he will, and the power of God to accomplish that which he has decreed. Both of these elements are essential to any meaningful definition of sovereignty. Tozer escapes the issue of freedom by making human choice the decree, but does not deal with the issue of power. We can take the illustration that Tozer used of the passenger line. It is true that a ship has a predetermined destination and course. But if the passengers are totally free, then they can jump off the ship. What happens when a man’s choice is at odds with the ship’s course? Let us make the matter practical. What happens when a man is on the ship leading to life, but he decides that he does not want that life? So he jumps overboard. Is the sovereignty of God thwarted?

In order to answer that question, we must say one of two things. Either the power of God to accomplish his decree is dependent upon human choice, or it is not. Consider the above illustration. There are only two ways to reconcile the man jumping off the ship with the sovereignty of God. First, we may say that God’s ability to keep the man on the ship leading to life was insufficient. Try as he might, he could not keep the man on board. This leads us, inevitably, to a god who is not all-powerful, but limited in power. Thus, a god who is not infinite, but finite; so on and so forth. Second, we may say that the man was never meant to stay on the boat at all. God had decreed that he would jump off the ship. In this way, neither the freedom nor the power of God become limited by the decision of man. One may say that the freedom of man has been impugned, but we will come to that in a moment. The important thing, the thing we must get right at all costs, is to think of God properly first; our understanding of the will of man must fall under a correct understanding of God in order for it to also be correct.

Another point of consideration of Tozer’s view on this subject is the view that he holds (rightly so) of the knowledge of God. Tozer writes, “Since He is omniscient, there can be no unforeseen circumstance, no accidents.” Yet, total human freedom is inconsistent with any real notion of the omniscience (or all-knowingness) of God. If God knows all things, which he does, then by necessity he must know the choices we will make prior to our choosing them. In fact, since God is eternal, this knowledge that he has of our choices must stretch all the way back into the folds of eternity. If we are totally free to choose one way or another, then the potential exists for God’s knowledge to be wrong. In other words, if God knows that I will choose Option A over Option B, but I am totally free to choose whichever I want, what happens if I choose Option B? It would mean that God knew incorrectly; thus, his knowledge is not perfect, and if his knowledge is not perfect then he is not perfect. May it never be! Since God knows which option we will choose, we cannot but choose that option. Again, right thinking about God must determine how we are to think concerning man.

The Solution to the Problem

Of course, I do not know what the solution to this problem is. We must be content with stating what Scripture states and not taking the matter any further. The Bible tells us that God has decreed in himself from all eternity whatsoever comes to pass (Is. 46:10, Eph. 1:11, Heb. 6:17; cf. 2LBCF Chapter 3). The Lord of creation made the decree, and none can change it. This decree is immutable because the One who issued it is incapable of changing. It is eternal because he is eternal. It is good because he is good. The Bible also tells us that men are responsible for their obedience to God; particularly, men will be held accountable for their obedience of the gospel command to repent of sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (John 19:11, 2 Thess. 1:8, Acts 17:30). We are fallen men, and are by nature children of wrath. Our wills are bent to our nature (Gen. 6:5, Rom. 6:16, John 8:34), and our nature is sinful. We will be held accountable on the last day of judgment. That sentence is the driving force of all the tension in the Bible. God is good, we are evil, and he will one day judge us. Thanks be to God that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins!

The exact relationship between the sovereignty of God and the will of man is a mystery; I have never read any attempt to reconcile the two that did not negate one or the other. This is why we must stay where Scripture stays. It is absurd to think that we can ever fully delve to the deepest treasures of the mines of the divine will and counsel. He is infinite, we are finite. We must content ourselves to know him as he has revealed himself; to not seek to go further. The moment we step off Scripture and onto the sands of Speculation, we are on the path of sinking into Heresy. Worse, we are guilty of improper thoughts of God; thoughts of him which he has not authorized. Let us rest in the knowledge he has given us, and let us thank him that he is not like unto us. The rule of the universe and the salvation of sinners does not rest in the hands of a limited being, but in those of a God who is transcendent and without limitation in all that he is and does.

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