Paul asks this excellent question:
We have had a debate on whether a person has to “will” to believe. Does John 1:13 disagree with that, or am I taking it out of context? Would like to know what you folks believe this verse is saying.
John 1:13 is saying that the new birth is not a human birth, but a divine birth. Human birth is determined by a couple (though God obviously has a hand in whether conception occurs). Spiritual birth is up to the will of God. It is God’s will that all who believe in His Son have everlasting life (cf. John 5:24; 6:28-29, 40). John 1:13 is not telling us whether believing in His name (John 1:12) is a decision of the human will or not. We must look elsewhere.
What we find in Scripture is that not believing is a choice, but that once we choose to be open to believing, belief itself is not a choice.
In John 5:39-40, the Lord chastised His Jewish audience. They searched the OT Scriptures because they thought that in them, they had eternal life (v 39). That is, they looked at the commands in the OT to gain confidence that they were good enough to get into the coming kingdom. The Lord then said, “But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (v 40). Their unwillingness to come to Jesus, that is, their unwillingness to believe in Him (compare John 6:35), kept them from believing and gaining everlasting life.
But nowhere in John’s Gospel or Acts or the Epistles do we find that believing itself is a choice. In fact, in Acts 13:46, Paul rebukes his Jewish audience, saying, “you judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life.” When they rejected Paul’s message about the Lord Jesus without being at all open to it, they were closing themselves off to the only message that gives everlasting life. Compare that verse with Acts 17:11. Jews in Berea heard the same message, but instead of opposing Paul and arguing with him, they “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”
Notice that the Bereans did not simply choose to believe. Believing is not like turning on a light. You cannot choose, for example, to believe that you are the President of the United States, that you are a billionaire, that you play in the NBA, that you are seven feet tall, or anything else that you know is false. You believe what the evidence convinces you. You cannot choose to believe anything. Only if you are convinced do you believe.
Take sports. Joe is a diehard fan of the University of Southern California. He is convinced that USC is the best school in America, and their football team has the most talent and the best coaching. His fiancée, Cynthia, is a graduate of Alabama. She rabidly cheers for the Crimson Tide. She believes Bama is the best school with the best football team. Can Joe choose to believe that the Crimson Tide is the best team? No. He believes what the evidence convinces him. Now Joe could spend a lot of time studying Nick Saban and the starters and reserves for Alabama. He could read everything he could find about Alabama. He could even pray and ask God to convince him that Bama has the best football team.
The same is true when it comes to believing in Jesus for everlasting life. Bill’s parents, aunts and uncles, friends, and girlfriend all are Catholics. Bill and all his loved ones believe in works salvation. In college he was approached by a fellow student active in a campus Christian organization. He agreed to go to a meeting. There he heard a different message. He heard that if you simply believe in Jesus you will be guaranteed to spend eternity with Him in His kingdom. Bill thought the message was too easy. But what he heard made some sense. He wondered if it could be true. He prayed and asked God to show him if it was true. The friend that invited him to the meeting kept talking with him about Christ. Slowly he began to see that there were lots of verses that he’d not seen before that seem to support this faith-alone message. A few days later, Bill was convinced. One of the first things he did was tell his loved ones about this wonderful message of life as a free gift.
So, a willingness to believe may well play a role in coming to faith in Christ, especially if someone has been in a religious tradition that believes in works salvation. But once a person is convinced of the promise of life, he believes it. There is no decision necessary or possible at that point. The willingness comes before—a willingness to be open to the evidence.