A Free Will or a Deceitful Heart?

I recently finished listening to the audio version of “Unbroken”, the compelling book about Olympic runner and WWII prisoner of war Louis Zamperini, written by Laura Hillenbrand. The account of Zamperini’s struggles with his demons after the war ended, culminating in his miraculous conversion to Christ at a Billy Graham crusade, was to me the most powerful part of the story of this hero’s long life.

Although he married and had a child soon after the war, Louis increasingly relied on alcohol to ease the painful memories of the abuse he had suffered at the hands of his Japanese tormentors, and his wife had filed for divorce. She was converted at Graham’s tent campaign in Los Angeles in 1949, and was after much importunity and cajoling able to persuade Louis to go back with her to the tent crusade before it ended.  After enduring the first night of gospel preaching, Louis consented to go again only if he could leave when the invitation to accept Christ was given. On his way out of the tent, God arrested him in spite of his will to flee, and Louis was changed forever.

This wonderful story stirred within me praise to God for the grace that compelled me to come in from the highways and hedges of an ungodly world, after all alike rejected His invitation.¹  It was not my free will that changed or converted me, a teenager who had no interest in the things of God. I will not here give an account of when and how I was “born again”, for it would profit little.  Rather, we can find in the Bible many inspired accounts of this sovereign activity of the Spirit of God in souls. Some of them are even presented to us in such a way as to eliminate persuasion of the will as a factor in the work of quickening and new birth. New birth is initiated and consummated by God, and it is a concept that is always presented in the passive voice in the scriptures. Man’s will is excluded here, because the will of a man always pleases itself by acting in pride or in pursuit of its lusts.²

Let’s consider for a moment the response of King Agrippa to Paul’s testimony and question in Acts 26:27. Paul asks this of the King:  “Believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.” The response was very sad:  “Almost (or, in a little) thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”  The King was not interested in receiving Christ for his personal salvation, nor of being “a Christian” in his manner of life. He made the mistake of thinking that conversion to Christianity (unappealing as it was to him) might be brought about by Paul’s persuasion skills, or by how much longer the persuading continued.  The deceitful and “desperately wicked” heart of man³ is not changed by persuasion.

Now take the two thieves on the crosses on either side of Jesus. “The thieves also, which were crucified with Him, cast the same [mockery] in His teeth” (Matthew 27:44).  They were both guilty sinners, and both were very evidently moved with despite toward the Son of God, who hung there between them. So what brought about the change in the one, who in the space of three hours gave evidence of profound repentance before his partner in crime, and in the presence of the Lord?  “Dost thou not fear God?” he could ask with boldness, although his own pride and rebellion was on display  only a few hours earlier (Luke 23:39-43). Was the Lord Jesus successful in persuading one and not the other with His gracious words? But we are not told that Jesus spoke a word to them before this. Did the repentant thief have a slightly better nature, or perhaps a more logical mind that “tipped the scales” of his own will at the last? No, but he was born again without respect to his proud will in that awful hour by the sovereign grace of God.

An even more potent example of the unilateral work of God in giving life to a spiritually dead enemy of His may be found in Saul of Tarsus. When Saul was struck down on the road to Damascus by the Lord Jesus Himself (Acts 9), where had Saul’s will been taking him?  Did he by his free will choose to be quickened as he was blinded and falling, so that “Lord” now flowed freely from his lips for the very first time?  Someone used irony to express what were very obviously not Saul’s thoughts as he recalled this event: “So there I was on my way to kill Christians when I used my free will to become one.” The absurdity of that statement shows the fallacy of a “free will” explanation of the miracle. Paul was “a chosen vessel” for the message of the gospel to the Gentiles, whom God separated from his mother’s womb for that purpose (Acts 9:15; Galatians 1:15), and God saw to it that he was quickened, without possibility of failure.

Consider one more Biblical example of the sanctification of the Spirit in imparting new life to a soul in a manner apparently as instantaneous as in the cases of Saul and the thief. I have no doubt that God brings about so abrupt a change many times a day in this world, but very few of these new births will be as accompanied by circumstances as dramatic as the case of the jailer of Philippi (Acts 16:19-34).  But the earthquake did not change his heart, nor did the midnight songs of the prisoners. The change was a divine work in the soul that God coordinated perfectly in order to make the maximum impact on the jailer and his family for the rest of their lives. One moment he is threatening to kill himself out of despair and self-occupation, and the next moment finds him on his knees, eminently conscious of his lost condition, which causes him to ask: “What must I do to be saved?” It was not his own will that by persuasion lengthy or brief wrought his new birth; it was a birth “of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).

It is regrettable that the harsh excesses of Calvinism have repulsed many Christians in the Arminian free-will camp. Nevertheless, the doctrines of the believer’s election by sovereign grace and his corresponding security are blessedly true. Consider the witness of these biblical stories, and thank God that the miraculous change in your heart was not left up to that heart, which was by nature deceitful and wicked. It was no light thing for the Lord Jesus to say “no man can come unto Me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6:65), nor for Paul to write “it is not of him that willeth,  nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Romans 9:16). The evidence of how rebellious and selfish we once were “in the flesh” is the fact that God had to act by Himself to perform the miracle of creating new life in our souls, by His Spirit and His word.*

¹  Luke 14:16-24

²  John 1:12-13. It is important to distinguish between being born again and receiving Christ for salvation and eternal life. Find help on this distinction at these links: article 1 and article 2.

³  Jeremiah 17:9

*  John 3:3-8; 5:25; James 1:18; II Thessalonians 2:13