This past Sunday was my last opportunity to spend time with these men. When we first got there we were delayed a little bit. We were immediately hurried to an out of the way break room. One of the officers explained that they had a medical emergency on the sixth floor and were in the process of transporting the man to the hospital. We waited about fifteen minutes and then were allowed to go up to our floor. When we got up to the fourth floor, we found out that the man who had just been taken to the hospital had tried to hang himself. Thankfully, he was not successful. It was a reminder of the difficulties these men face in prison and the miracle it is that there can be any hope for anyone in a place like that.
However, as we were waiting to go upstairs, one of the other volunteers shared an interesting testimony with us. He shared with us about the church service at the prison that he had led during the previous week. To begin the service he had asked one of the gentlemen to pray before they began. The man stood up and looked visibly distracted and hesitant. He then turned around and walked back a few rows to another gentleman. He gave this man a manly hug and proceeded to ask for his forgiveness for some offense that was between the two of them. As the volunteer described it, the two reconciled and there was a tangible heaviness that left the room.
What were these two men doing? They were living out of the reality of the Gospel and its implications. They were actually living what they read in the Gospels:
"So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)
"And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)
This man could not pray with a clean conscience until he obeyed what the Lord has said by going and seeking the forgiveness and reconciliation of the one he had offended. Amazing!
Let me share one more story and then I'll make my point. Once we got up to the floor, I had the opportunity to preach. I preached from Mark's account of Jesus' life, specifically Peter's denial of the Lord. I made two points from this account in Peter's life. First, was the truth that we are more wicked than we can ever imagine. Secondly, God's grace is more amazing than we can ever comprehend. One of the applications that I made concerning the second point was to look at what was Peter's solution to his failure/sin of denying the Lord.
I made it clear what it was that Peter did not do. On the heels of his denial, he did not attempt to do more for the Lord to make up for what he had done wrong. Upon realizing his sin of denying the Lord, just as Jesus had told him he would, he did not immediately attempt to get back into the Lord's good graces by running around and telling everyone that he was a follower of the Lord. He wept bitter tears. The solution to his sin as a believer was not to go out and do more to be approved by God, but rather his solution was to rest in what the Lord was about to do for him on the cross--bearing that sin of denial in Peter's place.
Often times when we sin and disobey the Lord we make the wrong move of immediately getting up and "doing more" to "get back right with God" and in doing so completely bypass the Gospel. And so if we have sinned by not sharing the Gospel like we should, we start sharing it like crazy, thinking that our obedience is what will please the Lord and solve the problem of our disobedience. However, our immediate action should not be to go out and do more, but rather to rest in what the Lord has already done for us in his death and resurrection. The solution for our sin as a believer is the same as the solution for our sin as an unbeliever--the Gospel. It is that truth that guards us from drifting into legalism and keeps us living in the Gospel of grace and faith, the fruit of which is the good works we do.
Well, after I finished preaching, one of the younger men came up to me to let me know how much he appreciated the message and he then shared with me how the Lord used His Word to minister to the needs of his heart. This young man has a sad story at first glance. He is in prison because of the sin of revenge. A friend of his was murdered by another group of people. In a fit of anger, seeking justice, he attempted to get revenge on those who had taken the life of his good friend. In attempting to do so, he ended up getting shot and almost dying.
The Lord used this tragedy and sin in his life to bring him to the point of seeing his need for a Savior and the Lord graciously saved him through the Gospel. His life has radically changed and he is hungry for the Word. He shared with me after the preaching that he found out the week before that he was getting nine years in prison for his crime. He explained how he had been struggling with the sentencing. He was expecting a lighter sentence. The reason he was expecting a lighter sentence, in his own words, was because of how his life was so much better than it had been. He was "doing" all the things that the Lord expected him to do. And he felt like it was the doing of those good things that would please the Lord, the evidence of which would be something less than nine years in prison.
He told me that the Lord used His Word that morning to remind him that it was the Gospel that was what pleased the Lord and nothing that he did or ever would do. He could never do enough to please the Lord. It was the Gospel that he needed at his conversion and it was the Gospel that he needed now as a believer and that was the ground of his acceptance before the Lord and what made him pleasing in the eyes of the Lord.
So, what's the point of this post besides the amazing testimonies of the Gospel and its implications actually being displayed in God's people? The point is this: Why does it take going to prison to actually see followers of Christ living out of the realities of the Gospel? Why is it that the Gospel is being displayed in some cases much more profoundly by a group of men who are in prison for murder, manslaughter, theft, and a host of other sins than those of us sitting in the pews of our nice comfortable church buildings each week?
Is the answer really that when we pray at church on Sunday mornings that there is never a person praying who has some unresolved sin between himself and another brother or sister in the Lord? Is the answer really that we sit under such anemic preaching that there is nothing about the message to discuss and encourage one another with at the end of the service or throughout the week?
Or is the answer something much more embarrassing and shameful then we want to admit? The best case scenario is that we are just too busy, more concerned about getting to lunch than getting into each others lives with the Gospel. The worst case scenario is that it may be that we just don't really understand the magnitude of the Gospel, much less live lives that have actually been changed by it.