A Pardon Must Be Received To Be Valid

One of the biggest myths when it comes to the doctrine of hell (a close second after the oh-so-modern notion that hell doesn’t actually exist) is that God wants to send people there, while people don’t want to go. Many people imagine God as a tyrant, doling out excessive punishment on poor, unsuspecting, and innocent us. The reality is, no one wants us to escape God’s wrath more than God.

You weren’t designed for wrath. And hell wasn’t designed for you. You were designed for glory, for eternal happiness in God’s presence. But God won’t overpower your will. He’ll extend pardon to any and all who receive it—but we have to receive it. A pardon can’t be forced.

I recently read what must be one of the top 5 most bizarre Supreme Court cases of all time—United States v. Wilson, from 1833. The defendant, George Wilson, had pled guilty to several counts of robbery and “endangering the life of a mail driver.” This was apparently a serious enough combination of crimes that Wilson was sentenced to be executed. President Andrew Jackson issued Wilson a full pardon. But then Wilson (for reasons we will probably never know) refused the pardon. The odd case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and this was their verdict:

A pardon is an act of grace … which exempts the individual on whom it is bestowed from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed. … 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…and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.

This is the irony and the tragedy of so many of our friends and neighbors: they will die and go to hell with their sins paid for and pardoned.

It doesn’t matter how gracious the pardon is: if someone refuses to accept it, the pardon does no good. God has already extended the pardon. But we must choose it for ourselves. We are free, like George Wilson did, to reject it. But why? As the 17th century bishop Jeremy Taylor once said, “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy in him.”

God’s wrath may be a doctrine that pains us—but not nearly like it pains God. There is no one in the universe that wants you to avoid hell more than God. For those who reject God, the last voice they will hear as they step into hell is the voice of Jesus saying, “You don’t have to do this!”

God will not override you. But until the day of your death, he will pursue you, trying to wake you up. Don’t confuse what God intends to be space to repent with his absence. Don’t be lulled into complacency. Flee to Christ, because today is the day of salvation. And none of us are guaranteed tomorrow.


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