There was not an empty seat in the courtroom. This was the misdemeanor arraignment court. Before the actual proceedings, the public defender addressed the crowd of defendants. “You are advised that the district attorney will offer many of you a program designed to keep certain misdemeanors off your record. It’s called deferred sentencing. If you plead guilty to the charges, attend a six-hour class, pay a fine, and don’t get into any other legal matter for a period of 90 days, your guilty plea disappears completely from your record. It totally goes away. Deleted. Puff. Gone. But now comes the tricky part. Pay close attention if you are not a legal resident. If you don’t have any proof of legal residence, or you are not a citizen, it doesn’t matter if you go to the program, you will have problems with immigration. Your guilty plea remains as far as the federal government is concerned. The matter is dismissed as far as your state record, but not with the feds. It is best for you NOT to request the program. When you come before the judge, it is best if you request the services of a public defender, or time to hire a private attorney.”
In other words, your record is almost wiped clean.
On this particular day, a defendant appeared for the misdemeanor charge of driving without a license. As expected, before going in front of the judge, the district attorney offered him the chance to do the deferred sentencing program. But the defendant had been listening to the public defender. He knew he didn’t have legal residency, so when he appeared before the judge, he requested the public defender. The charge against him was for a three-year-old ticket, yet the defendant had not actually been formally charged by the district attorney. In such cases, the law provides for a dismissal. The public defendant took one quick look at the man’s record and quickly told the judge, “Your Honor, this charge is beyond the time limit, the statute of limitation is long past for the district attorney to bring up this charge now. I request an immediate dismissal.”
Without hesitation, the judge acceded to the request. The defendant left the courtroom speechless. He could not thank the public defender nor the judge enough. He remembered the ticket, but the ticket had been issued without an appearance date. The paperwork had literally “fallen between the cracks” of some desks at the district attorney’s office. The man was free of the charge! There was no record left of the offense. He had nothing pending before the State, and even more importantly, before the federal government.
He came in thinking he would be locked up and eventually deported. But when he walked out of the courtroom, the man was met by his wife and three little girls who could not stop hugging him. However, his status before the law in other matters had not changed: he was still an illegal resident, deportable at any time for violating immigration laws. The joy and celebration could be very short lived.
As I translated for the courts, many times I thought that in every case there was at least a partial metaphor for the Law/Gospel paradigm as given in Scripture. Our appearance before God’s judgment seat is the Law’s inevitable summons. But the Gospel is the surprise ending for every sinner justified by the blood of Jesus Christ, our unfailing defense attorney.
In the matter of our illegal residence, the metaphor abounds with Law/Gospel implications.
For starters, our father Adam lost our citizenship in God’s kingdom. Since Adam, we are all illegal and undocumented aliens in God’s country. We do not only commit petty misdemeanors, but high crimes against God and God’s Law, worthy of the death penalty. Abraham was a prototype of our spiritual illegal residency and lawlessness. He was deported twice from foreign countries, from Egypt and then from Gerar, for breaking perjury laws. Both offenses were for the same perjury: lying about his marital status to save his head! Morally, he had given his wife over for fornication and adultery with foreign dignitaries. An illegal resident committing these kinds of crimes in a foreign country is not the exemplary citizen we might expect from a Biblical character.
Even David at the apex of his kingly realm confessed before God: “To be sure, we are like all our ancestors, immigrants without permanent homes. Our days are like a shadow on the ground, and there’s no hope.” (1 Chron. 29:15). And yet, his crimes were no misdemeanors. He conspired to commit murder, he committed adultery, and he violated the ethical code governing the supreme commander of the armed forces (when he used the military under his personal command to author, aid and abet crimes of moral turpitude!).
And what about us? What has been our legal moral status before God? We are illegal aliens, without the protection of any citizenship rights before God. We are trespassers. We have done nothing else but sin in God’s country. All of us fall short of the glory of God. We are held to answer for our continuous delinquent behavior arising from our fallen sinful nature. There is no exculpatory or exception clause. We are bound for eternal deportation.
Since Adam, we are all illegal and undocumented aliens in God’s country.
But wait. The Law offers us a program. If we do the program, keep our nose clean, don’t commit any more sins, turn around our lives, live in harmony not only with the letter of the Law, but with its intent which is pure disinterested love… voilà, the charges are almost dismissed. For even if we do the Law, we’re still guilty before the Judge of the Universe, for “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20).
So as the immigrants without legal status are never free to live free from fear of deportation, our own situation fares far worse, for we are dealing not with the court downtown, but with our summons before God’s throne, and fear of “eternal deportation.”
At this point, the Gospel has great legal advice: “Don’t do the program! Ask for the Defense Attorney!”
This is when Christ steps into the courtroom and stands not next to you or me but in front of us. “If any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2).
But what does Christ say as my Defense Attorney?
“Look, I took care of these matters over 2,000 years ago (that’s two thousand) at my cross, which was also your cross. Your new charges don’t even exist, for after the cross you are not charged with anything! The statute of limitations ended at the cross. You are forgiven. You have a clean record. As clean as mine. In fact, I copied and pasted my record into your file. Forever. It cannot be undone. It is finished. At the cross, you were justified, cleansed, sanctified, and glorified. In fact, what happened at the cross for you was already decided eons before. There’s no almost hidden anywhere. It’s completely done with no rescission clause. My resurrection proves it. I took your sin but was justified for doing it. I am now before the Father on your behalf.”
“Not only that, but there’s good news as far as your citizenship and moral status,” He continues. “Therefore you are no longer outsiders (exiles, migrants, and aliens, excluded from the rights of citizens), but you now share citizenship with the saints (God’s own people, consecrated and set apart for Himself); and you belong to God’s [own] household” (Eph. 2:19 AMPC).
Not because I “must” worship. Not even because I want to. This is a worship that, helplessly and befuddled, simply says “Amen” at what’s been done in Christ arising from the heart of God.
In mystified amazement, I take the cup and bread in my hands. Somehow the words spill out more as a thought, a voiceless cry, “and this you did this for me?” “Is there really no almost?” “Is it really done?” In unbelieving faith I drink the whole cup, now quite drunk. I look at the label. Its content is 100% of unmerited grace.
Delirious worship happens at the outpouring of such infinite, undeserving love.