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For Murderers and Sunday School Teachers

Last week, I watched the movie The Green Mile again. I’m not one to use movies to teach, but in the case of this film I believe there is something that we would do well to take note of and learn. In addition to being a compelling story, The Green Mile presents theology, as most of the world understands it, in stark terms.

For those who have not read the book or seen the movie, The Green Mile is the story of Paul Edgecomb, played by Tom Hanks, the man in charge of Death Row at a state prison during the 1930s. I won’t spoil it by giving the plot, which does not matter for our purposes. I will just share a couple of scenes that are pertinent to my point.

In the first scene, a prisoner, Arlen Bitterbuck, has just had the top of his head shaved in preparation for execution in the electric chair. Edgecomb is sitting with him in his cell, and Bitterbuck asks, “Do you think, if a man sincerely repents on what he done wrong, that he might get to go back to the time that was happiest for him, and live there forever? Could that be what heaven’s like?” Edgecomb replies, “I just about believe that very thing.”

In the second scene, Edgecomb is faced with executing a man he believes to be innocent. Speaking with his wife, he tells her, “To tell you the truth, Honey, I’ve done some things in my life that I am not proud of. This is the first time I’ve ever felt real danger of hell.”

Aside from the faulty view of heaven, there is a fallacy presented in these two scenes that represents the world’s view of damnation: men are damned for committing wicked deeds. If Arlen Bitterbuck had not committed the crime that landed him on death row, his soul would be safe. If Paul Edgecomb can find a way around executing a man he believes is innocent, he will have nothing to fear. Implicitly, these two men were on the road to heaven until they reached a certain fork in the road. The first took the wrong turn, and is now looking for a way back. The second is at the fork, and has little choice but to take the wrong turn. Both fear that their souls are in jeopardy because of what they have done or are about to do.

Sadly, this is how most of the world, at least those who believe in life after death, see it. But what does Scripture say?

imageScripture says we’re not damned for what we have done, but for what we have not done. Regardless of who we are, or what evil we have avoided, we have failed to live up to God’s perfect standard. Lest we think “perfect” is an exaggeration, that maybe our best is good enough, Romans 3:23 assures us, “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” All have fallen short. Every one of us has failed. We have fallen short, we have failed to measure up, and not to just any standard that we or any other mortal can set or even conceive. We have failed to measure up to the glory of God.

Before any death row inmate committed his crime, he was in as much need of salvation as after. After he committed his crime, he was no more in danger of hell than before. The most kind, gentle, generous, moral person is lost and utterly without hope if he is trusting in his own goodness to save him. Both the convicted murderer and the good husband, father, and corrections officer stand on level ground before God, both in need of grace.

In your communications with unbelievers, when the opportunity arises, are you bringing that message? Or do you come across as a moralist? Are you encouraging your wicked acquaintances to change their evil ways, while the righteous whitewashed sepulchres get a pass? Are you assuming the overtly sinful are more in need of salvation than the nice family man who goes to church and coaches Little League? Are you leading the outwardly unrighteous to believe that they need to change their ways to gain God’s favor, while lulling the inwardly unrighteous to believe they have it? If so, you are bringing a false gospel.

Are you a good person, doing your best, who imagines that your best is good enough to get you into heaven? Forget it. God requires absolute perfection. Can you deliver? I can’t. I have sinned. Worse than that, I am sinful. I can no more change that than a leopard can change his spots. I am by nature a rebel against God, and God’s justice requires a penalty. That penalty is death (Romans 6:23).

Well, someone did die. God sent his son, Jesus Christ, to be born a man and live a perfect life so he could be the perfect sacrifice in your place and mine. He bore the full wrath of God against the sin of all who believe in him when he was crucified. He paid the death I owed. He won the victory over sin and death when, three days later, he rose from the dead. And his righteousness, his sinless perfection, is credited to all who trust in him. Clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we can stand before God spotless and without blemish. That righteousness is required of all men, from the Sunday School teacher to the murderer on death row—and it is available to both, without distinction.

July 28, 2008

Posted 2020·04·03 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Reruns

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