(Photo: Dan Delzell)
Today brought one of those rare experiences. You know....the kind where you feel like God just gave you the right words at the right time which were perfect for the situation. And all you can do is bask in the glow of the moment....and praise Him for granting you a golden nugget in your communication of the Gospel message.
Across the highway from our church is the county jail, and we have a weekly Bible study there with the inmates. We often have guys come to the study who are there for the first time. I often ask the men, "If God were to ask you today why He should let you into heaven, what would you tell Him?" A couple guys sitting to my left today both answered at about the same time and said, "Because I have tried my best."
That's when it hit me....and a light went on. I have been privileged to share the Gospel thousands of times over the past 30 years in many different settings. But I have never had the analogy come to mind which hit me like today....and I believe it came from the Holy Spirit. It seemed to captivate most of the men in attendance as I presented it to them.
I basically said this to the guys: Imagine if the authorities here in Sarpy County came up with a special plan to deal with overcrowding in the jail. What if they determined that they would punish one man severely, and that his punishment could then be "used" by others when convicted of a crime.
Imagine them finding the most respectable citizen in Sarpy County....someone who is honest and very noble. Let's call him "Nate Jones." Now imagine them taking this innocent man and bringing him to the jail for three days....where he is tortured and made to suffer tremendously. Remember....Nate is guilty of no crime whatsoever....but he is being punished so that others can go free.
Their plan is for any guilty person to be able to point to Nate's punishment as the penalty for his own crime. So whenever someone goes before the judge....and is convicted....he can actually admit his guilt....without any excuses....and then tell the judge that he would like to go free because he knows that Nate was already punished for his crime. And under this hypothetical arrangement, the judge will then release the convicted man whose only defense is that Nate already took his place.
At this point in the analogy, I could tell that it was really sinking in with the men. After all, a majority of them are scheduled to go before a judge as part of their upcoming proceedings. They could relate to the analogy in a powerful way....and they could see how much they would owe Nate in that situation. They would owe him every ounce of appreciation they could show him if they were able to go free as a result of Nate's suffering.
The guys who had pointed to their best efforts suddenly seemed to grasp the Gospel. And when I led them all in a prayer of thanks to Jesus for what He did on the cross....and a profession of faith in the One who took our punishment....they seemed to truly "get it." Time will tell if it sunk in....and will bear fruit....but in the moment, it was absolutely powerful and persuasive as the Holy Spirit used it to lift up Christ and His Gospel message.
It is not a perfect analogy. Nate did not choose to suffer in jail for three days. Jesus, on the other hand, willingly suffered and died for us on the cross because of His deep love for us. He was the innocent One. We are the guilty ones. We have committed sins and "crimes" against God. We deserve to pay. And we will all stand before the Judge one day. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ." (2 Cor. 5:10) If only we could plead guilty....and go free. If only someone had paid the price we deserve to pay. If only the hypothetical story with Nate Jones was more than just a story.
The good news is that it happened....not with Nate Jones....and not with a county jail....but with Jesus Christ....and sinners like you and I who deserve to serve our own sentence. Jesus took our place. He suffered so we don't have to suffer. "The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him." (Isaiah 53:5) But the Gospel only helps the person who believes it....and who claims it for himself....and applies the benefits to his sin.
In my analogy to the inmates, I said that if you go before the judge and say, "I won't do it again," or "I didn't mean to do it your honor," or give any other excuse....you will still receive your sentence. The only way to go free is to rely on Nate's punishment....and place your confidence there. That is a picture of a sinner placing his confidence for heaven in what Jesus did for him on the cross. We are the criminals. He is the King of Kings. He came here to pay a debt He didn't owe so we could receive a pardon we didn't deserve. That is the Gospel my friend. Is that good news mind-boggling or what?
Until you see that your own sin has placed you in a cell awaiting your appointment before the Judge, you won't begin to appreciate what Jesus has done for you and all sinners. So are you just as guilty of sin before God as those inmates at the jail today....and are you now ready to accept the Savior's sacrifice on your behalf....or do you have some other defense you are planning to use when you stand before the Lord one day? The truth is that there is no other defense....because we are all guilty as charged. (see Romans 3:9-23)
Christianity involves recognizing the huge debt Jesus paid....and believing that Christ bought your pardon through His death. Once a person embraces that reality, He begins to live for the One who died for Him. That's just what you do once you know that someone else suffered the punishment that you deserve to suffer. This is why it is called amazing grace, and this is why the Gospel changes people once they accept it. Are you amazed and grateful for the tremendous sacrifice God made because of His love for you, or are you too distracted by secondary matters in life which can't hold a candle to the importance of the Gospel message?
Life is about priorities. You can make God's priorities your priorities....or you can pretend that your soul is not locked behind the bars of sin and awaiting your appointment before the Judge. "Hey....maybe it will just go away if I don't think about it, like a dream." Think again. God wasn't dreaming when He sent His only Son 2000 years ago on a very specific mission. The only question that remains is whether you want to come to terms with reality now, or later.
The problem with doing it later is that it will be too late to help you at your sentencing. If you don't get connected to Jesus through faith before you enter His courtroom, there will no opportunity for a "jailhouse conversion" once you are waiting in line to see the Judge on Judgment Day. The Gospel is not a promise for tomorrow, unless you are already trusting in it today. Well....are you? Or do you just think all this sin and grace talk is for church, but not for the "real world," and certainly not something to be taken literally?
At the end of the day, each of us will have our own line of defense when the overwhelming evidence against us is presented. You can either believe the Gospel....or you can believe that your "best efforts" give you a shot at going free. Either way, I guess you can tell it to the Judge.
One final recommendation my friend....today you can turn to God and say, "I am guilty as charged Lord. I have no defense. But I know One who died in my place. He is Christ the Lord. His blood was shed to redeem me, as unworthy as I am. And my confidence to go free lies totally in what He did for me on the cross. I rest my case your Honor, and your Majesty. You are my God, and I am now your humble servant for the remainder of my life on earth....and for my eternal life in heaven. Thank you Jesus for loving me enough to give your life so that I could be free today, and forever."
So what you would tell God today if He asked you, "Why should I let you into heaven?"