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Atlanta and the enormity of God's grace

Robert Aaron Long
A man walks past a massage parlor where three women were shot and killed on March 17, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia. Suspect Robert Aaron Long, 21, was arrested after a series of shootings at three Atlanta-area spas left eight people dead on Tuesday night, including six Asian women. |

The deadly rampage in Atlanta, in which a young man apparently unable to escape torments of guilt slaughtered eight human beings, shows the need for an understanding of the enormity of God’s grace.

Critics say what happened is an outcome of Evangelical fixation on sin and guilt. However, the deed perhaps was sparked by a poor comprehension of the enormity and extravagance of God’s grace.

For our own good, we must understand sin and its consequences just as we must be a “Bridge Out!” warning as we hurtle toward a roaring river. But that concern must be balanced by a rich appreciation of grace, or we drown in guilt.

This raises the possibility of taking others with us, as the Atlanta tragedy shows.

The enormity and extravagance of God’s grace seems too good to be true. Some of us are like Jesus’s disciples who “disbelieved for joy” when they first heard of Christ’s resurrection. (Luke 24:11) Self-haters have a hard time believing that their sins have really been removed “as far as the east is from the west,” (Psalm 103:12) and “plunged in God’s great sea of forgetfulness because of His grace through Christ. (Isaiah 43:25; Hebrews 8:12)

How enormous, even extravagant, is God’s grace?

It was sufficient for Nazi Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, second to Hitler himself in the Nazi military command.

In the wee hours of a dank October morning in 1946, Keitel faced execution by orders of the Nuremberg war tribunal. Keitel was trying to maintain stiff composure when Captain Henry Gerecke entered his cell. Gerecke was the chaplain selected to try to minister to the Nazi war criminals jailed in Nuremberg. He had visited often with Keitel, and the former German officer felt comfortable with him. Gerecke was carrying a Bible, and invited Keitel to join him in prayer.

The two men went to their knees. Gerecke, an American son of immigrants from Germany, prayed in German. Suddenly it seemed to hit Keitel that he was about to die. He trembled, and “wept uncontrollably” as he “gasped for air.” Just before he was hanged, Keitel received communion, served by Gerecke. Keitel turned to Gerecke, the chaplain remembered later, and with tears in his voice he said, ‘You have helped me more than you know. May Christ, my Savior, stand by me all the way. I shall need Him so much.[1]

According to the Bible which reveals both sin and God’s grace, Keitel experienced the reality that “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.” (Romans 5:20)

The tragedy of Keitel is that he did not receive the gift of grace earlier in life before the sins that weighed on him in the end had harmed masses of other people.

Grace is not only a gift to be received in all its fullness, but a lifestyle to be “walked out.” People who receive grace and its implications become willing to extend grace to others.

The human being, made in the image of God, is triune... a trinity. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The human is spirit, soul, and body. (1 Thessalonians 5:23) Soul, in New Testament Greek, is psuche, from which English gets “psyche.” We are justified the moment we receive the Son of God in our spirit through the indwelling Holy Spirit. That is an event —the “new birth.” But if this new quality of life is to be lived out, we must enter the process of sanctification through which our whole being is filled with the character of Christ and His stunning grace.

The human spirit filled with the Holy Spirit is the zone of grace. Soul and body are zones of torment — the torments of temptation and the guilt when we yield. If we don’t embrace the reality of grace all we have is the agonizing accusations of sin and guilt.

Without the recognition of the enormity of God’s grace we believe ourselves irredeemable and come to hate ourselves and those we believe facilitated our fall.

God’s grace is so rich that it can cover those who succumb to temptation and those through whom temptation comes.

This is why it’s called “gospel” — good news.

If only a tormented young man in Atlanta had understood before he pulled the trigger the enormity of God’s grace, he would have forgiven himself as God forgave him, and he would have extended God’s forgiveness and grace to those he viewed as the enablers of his behaviors.

Chuck Colson, my White House colleague, and, later, friend, came to understand the enormity of God’s grace. Jeb Magruder, another White House staffer, once described Colson as an “evil genius” who “too often encouraged (President) Nixon’s dark side.”

I visited Colson several times after he was incarcerated for Watergate-related crimes and watched the sunburst of God’s enormous grace rise upon him. Later, he would tell audiences that the “real legacy” of his life was not successes as a senior White House aide, but “my biggest failure” in being sent to prison. That, said Chuck, “was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life... He chose the one thing in which I could not glory for His glory.”

Colson, who had once perhaps disdained the notion of “sin” received God’s enormous grace and walked it out.

If we learn nothing else from the grievous attacks in Atlanta and the lives lost in and through it, may it be the importance of receiving God’s grace, maintaining the balance of sin and grace in our teaching and practical lives, and the importance of walking it out in our behaviors and lifestyle.

[1] Tim Townsend, Mission At Nuremberg. (William Morrow/Harper Collins), 11. Emphasis added. Cited in Jonathan Sandys and Wallace Henley, God and Churchill (Tyndale House, 2015)

Wallace B. Henley’s fifty-year career has spanned newspaper journalism, government in both White House and Congress, the church, and academia. He is author or co-author of more than 20 books. He is a teaching pastor at Grace Church, the Woodlands, Texas.

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