She was already wringing her hands as she walked into the courtroom. It wasn’t cold. It was apparent she was just nervous. Once I interpreted the judge’s initial instructions, she asked me if I thought she’d get locked up today. I refrained from sharing my suspicions. When the judge called her name, she stood up, wiping tears, attempting to maintain her composure. The judge read the charges against her. “Breaking an entry with intention to commit a felony, theft, attempt to cash checks with false identification, unauthorized use of credit cards, attempt to defraud a banking institution.” They were all felonies, each charge punishable by three years in the state penitentiary if convicted; a total of a 15-year prison term.
The judge granted her the services of a public defender, and shortly after, we proceeded to the interview room. “What happened?” asked the defender.
“I’m a single mother. I’ve got three girls: five, three, and one year old. I clean houses to support them and my aging grandparents. I was dusting the lady’s dresser when I saw those signed checks sitting there. I thought about the meds my youngest girl needed, and then I just didn’t think twice about it. But now they’re going to lock me up and take my girls away from me,” she explained.
Her tears, cries, and sighs stifled her words. The public defender told her, “I’m going to have a word with the judge. Just sit back in the courtroom and wait until I call you back here.” A while later, we went back to the interview room where I interpreted the attorney’s good news: “The judge will drop three of the five charges. If you plead guilty to one, he’ll give you 90 days of community service and three years’ probation. You’ll get to keep your girls. This is your first offense, and it must be your last.”
Through sobs and tears, but now with joy, she accepted the judge’s offer.
I was just as surprised as you are now. It was too lenient a sentence. This judge was known for his empathy towards sob stories on occasional good-mood days. The single mother had lucked out. She happened to show up on one of those.
Before the heavenly court, no one gets a break depending on the Judge’s mood or anyone’s sob story. Every sin receives the same, maximum sentence: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The verdict is not based on the judge’s good or bad moods.
Everyone pays the same death sentence, but in the body of another, the body of a substitute, provided by the God of love. That other is Jesus the Christ, very God of very God, who took human form and stands in for us before God in all things, including our sin, sentencing, and life before God. This is a complete judicial gift in one person, given unconditionally by grace through faith alone. He alone received the sentence. He died but that we may live before God. “But the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ, our Lord” (Rom 6:23).
That is the good news that nullifies all hand wringing and wipes away every tear from every eye.
It is already a done deal, a historical fact that cannot be erased by our attempts to re-write history. Our history was substituted by Christ’s history on a cross on Mount Calvary two thousand years ago. We died, were buried, and rose again to eternal life in those three brief days. That is the good news that nullifies all hand wringing and wipes away every tear from every eye. Is this true even for those who have done the most perverse, heinous, and evil things to others? Yes. Even for those who have done such a perverse thing as asking that question, for they have installed themselves as gods and questioned the Father’s generosity with the riches of his grace.
But what about those who have only done good things and believe these things are good enough to give them access to God? The Lord will say to them, “Depart from me, for you do nothing but evil things” (Luke 7:23). But why? Because they have put aside the perfect life and sacrifice of the substitute and dare approach the eternal judge on their own limited terms. Yes, they bring a long list of love motivated impressive tasks done for others. But there is always more that could have been done! They could have loved ever more sincerely! They could have fed so many more hungry people, clothed so many more naked, visited so many more people in jail.
And yet they persist in thinking that there is plenty of intrinsic value in their works. “We’ve done them in faith and love, we’ve done them sincerely, we’ve done them in your name,” they insist. They pass perfect judgment on themselves, as if they were God, declaring their meager works of self-interest as acceptable and sufficient. Yet such is the magnitude of God’s holiness that it declares all human goodness as evil and worthy of condemnation apart from him.
There’s no hand wringing when he calls our name.
But what about those like the slick-handed housekeeper of our story who just couldn’t help herself? What about those with little self-control? Those who show up for work at 5:00 p.m. because they had been sinning all day long? They go to the front of the line first, because Christ’s impulse to save is greater than their impulse to sin!
Because of Christ, and only because of him, God delights in showing mercy to all, pardoning iniquity and justifying the wicked. There’s no hand wringing when he calls our name. Instead, all are called to come with open hands to receive faith and salvation through the infinite gift of his perfect life. For, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). No sob story is needed to win his love. He is not a moody God that will save on his good days but condemn on others. Because of Christ, it is his nature to seek and save the lost, and save them to the uttermost.