Two of the three states that I have lived in still have the death penalty. Over the years I have encountered men who have been on death row, or were facing the possibility of a death sentence in their current trial.
When I was in elementary school I remember a high-profile trial that frequently was in the news. The prosecution was asking for the death penalty, even though it hadn’t been used in that state since 1947. The all-white jury found the man, who was of another race, guilty and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. Nearly two years later the governor commuted this man’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
A number of years later I was at that prison. Our church was assisting with the worship at the prison. I’m a guitar player, so I pay attention to other guitar players. He was playing a Gibson ES-335. When I looked at the guitar player I saw that the man who had been sentenced to death was the man playing guitar in the worship band. He was older now than the photos shown during his trial years before. But there I was worshiping together with a man who had once been sentenced to death.
For me this was a powerful illustration of God’s grace. A man that the world had judged unfit to live because of his crimes had found forgiveness and redemption at the foot of the cross.
A verse from an Isaac Watts hymn reads:
Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
Imagine the thoughts of that convicted man as he sang those words.
Two Different Patterns
I’ve observed two different patterns in the men who come to Bible study who are in a death penalty trial.
One type is the man who is desperate for an escape from the death sentence. If the trial does not go in their favor they abandon Jesus saying, “obviously this doesn’t work.” Conversely, if the trial goes well they abandon Jesus because, “whew, I was able to work my way out of it.”
Jesus reminds us of the parable:
Matthew 13:20-21 (NIV)
20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
I have met another type of man. These are the men who have been radically transformed by God’s grace. They are eager to give God the glory if things are going well in their trial, but they are also holding onto Jesus even when things are not going well. I’ve heard them express, “whether I live or die I am in God’s hands.” It is very much like talking to someone who is in hospice and has made peace with their death. While these men desire to avoid a death sentence, the hope and peace that they have is not dependent on their circumstances. These scriptures take on powerful meaning for these men:
Job 13:15a (KJV)
15 Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him
Philippians 1:20-21 (NIV)
20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
I am humbled to have met men such as these.