In 1833, the United States Supreme Court was called to rule in the matter of the United States vs. Wilson.
George Wilson, in April of 1830, had partnered with James Porter, to rob a mail coach. He was found guilty of obstructing the mail, robbing the mail and placing the life of the carrier in jeopardy. When caught and tried, Wilson and Porter were both sentenced to death. Porter was hanged in July of that same year but Wilson had friends who were well connected. These friends pleaded on Wilson’s behalf with the president, Andrew Jackson. Jackson, moved by their pleas used the mighty powers of the presidency to give Wilson a pardon, and thus save his life from the hangman’s noose.
If we ended the tale there, it would be an interesting historical tale of grace and clemency and second chances. But the tale does not end there, and the story almost immediately took a very strange turn. George Wilson, for reasons known only to himself, totally rejected the pardon. In response, the U.S. government sued Wilson in order to force him to accept the pardon. The case made it to the Supreme Court.
The Court, upon consideration, decided that it had no power to force Wilson to take a pardon issued by the Executive branch. The Court reasoned, “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered; and if it is rejected, we have discovered no power in this court to force it upon him.”
George Wilson, having thus won his case, was subsequently hanged in 1833.
The case, strange as it is, is illustrative of a spiritual truth.
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9; ESV).” Yet, Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13-14; ESV).”
How can it be true that God wants men to be saved, yet many will be lost? God wanted men to be saved so strongly, He sent His Son to die on the cross so as to offer forgiveness, pardon and clemency to those lost in sin. Yet the Son Himself testified that many would not find the salvation God wants to give them. If we believe in the words of Jesus we must accept that men have a role to play in accepting the salvation of Christ. Christ offers a pardon, but we must accept it according to the terms upon which it is offered. Thus, the Scriptures also say, “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 2:32),” and thus, the sinner was queried and commanded, “What are you waiting for? Arise, and be baptized, calling upon the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16).”
Freewill, in order to be true, must include the freedom to make choices that are wrong, unwise, and harmful to self. Choices without consequences are but an illusion of choice. God has given His creation free-will. This is why we have sin in the first place: because we have made a choice to turn away from God. We likewise have the ability to reject the pardon He offers us in Christ.
One might wonder why anyone would turn away from eternal salvation, when it is offered, but many, we are told, will so choose. Let those who are wise resolve to fully accept the pardon when it comes to us, obeying the Gospel of Christ so that we might be saved.
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.