Make me your prisoner, Lord, because “free will” isn’t working for me

December 19, 2018

Yesterday, when journaling through Zechariah, I came across this evocative verse: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (Zechariah 9:12). In context, the prophet is speaking to Jewish exiles in Babylon. But that phrase, “prisoners of hope,” inspired me to write the following:

9:12 “O prisoners of hope”: Imprison me in this same way, Lord. Make my heart captive to your Word and your gospel, such that I can never leave. If you capture me against my will (which is true by definition), then please transform my will. Change my desires so that I desire only you. Make me a prisoner of hope, rather than a prisoner of despair, or bitterness, or resentment, or fear, or vainglory. I’ve been a prisoner to those things too long!

The older I get, the lower my anthropology becomes, which is to say, the less optimistic I am about human nature. (Maybe I know myself too well?) Regardless, my “free will” isn’t working for me, let’s face it. I want too many things that are bad for me. So now I’m pleading with the Lord to make me want him and his kingdom: Make me your prisoner, Jesus. It’s the only way I’ll stay close to you! And in my best moments, when I am sufficiently under the influence of your grace, I want to be close to you more than I want anything else. And I am happy.

Sometimes when I say or write things like this, which cut against the grain our culture’s “moral therapeutic deism,” some of my well-meaning fellow Christians try to comfort me: “There, there,” they say. “You’re not so bad.” But I am! Besides, when I begin to think otherwise, I’m tempted to climb back on the hamster wheel of self-improvement that too many Methodists call “sanctification” and make myself miserable all over again.

No, I like being reminded that my standing before God doesn’t depend on me. That is incredibly good news!

And don’t forget: the gospel is, first and foremost, news. Pastor Tim Keller puts it like this:

Advice is counsel about what you must do. News is a report about what has already been done. Advice urges you to make something happen. News urges you to recognize something that has already happened and to respond to it. Advice says it is all up to you to act. News says someone else has acted. Let’s say there is an invading army coming toward a town. What that town needs is military advisers; it needs advice. Someone should explain that the earthworks and trenches should go over there, the marksmen go up there, and the tanks must go down there.

However, if a great king has intercepted and defeated the invading army, what does the town need then? It doesn’t need military advisers; it needs messengers, and the Greek word for messengers is angelos, angels. The messengers do not say, “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” In other words, “Stop fleeing! Stop building fortifications. Stop trying to save yourselves. The King has saved you.” Something has been done, and it changes everything.[1]

The gospel is not what we do; rather, it’s what’s been done for us. Rest in this thought for a moment. Refresh yourself with this good news. Hear Jesus’ words: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

By the way, Joel Osteen’s Twitter game has been on fire recently. When I first read this tweet, my heart objected: “No way! It’s too good to be true!” But then, this is the way the gospel ought to strike us, right? We ought to be amazed at what God has done to save us. This tweet gets to the heart of the gospel, the meaning of justification, and Christ’s imputed righteousness. As Fleming Rutledge (in case you need  a more “respectable” source than Osteen) says in her book on Atonement, sanctification means “becoming what you already are.”

Regardless, this tweet is music to my ears!

By all means, find something to disagree with here. I can’t.

“Wait, wait… This grace can’t apply to addicts!” No, God’s grace is for them, too. “But not until they’ve cleaned up their acts a little bit first!” No, God sent his Son because none of us sinners is able to clean up our acts, a little or a lot. “But God doesn’t show favor to the really bad sinners!” I don’t know… Paul called himself the “foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), and look at the favor God showed him! “But what about repentance?” By all means, we must repent! But what is repentance? Confessing to God that we are utterly helpless to solve the problem of our sins. “But we must do something!” Well, yes… because faith without works is dead (James 2:20), and our “doing” is a means of testing the authenticity of faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). But our “doing” plays no role in saving us, nor by doing can we claim credit for any subsequent change in our hearts that the Holy Spirit accomplishes. Christ saves us entirely. Solus Christus!

1. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 21-22.

2 Responses to “Make me your prisoner, Lord, because “free will” isn’t working for me”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I see you added a little bit over what I got that was posted, that “faith without works is dead.” I was going to say that I think repentance may involve more than simply confessing utter helplessness. It is true that Jesus said, “Without me, you can do nothing,” but I think it may be appropriate to add, “But even with me, you still must do something.” I think largely of John the Baptist’s responses to those who asked him what they should do–he did not say, “Do! Why that’s just the point! You don’t have to DO anything!” Instead, he gave them specifics of what to do fitted to their status in life. I suppose it can be said that this is merely “responsive,” but it is a NECESSARY response, in my view. Maybe I am parsing the matter too finely, but I think that salvation involves saying back to God’s saying, “I love you so much that I gave my life to get your’s,” with “I love your life so much that I am giving my life to get your’s.” “If any man will be my disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” Jesus says. So while we cannot earn or merit salvation (hence the grace), we must “respond” to “close the deal.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      Instead of “we must respond,” I would say “we will respond.” The deal is closed on the basis of repentance and faith (which go together as one movement). But this is a close call. We’re threading the needle.


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