The Conflict of Grace And Judgment Matthew 10:26-31 Ephesians 2:1-10
In Feb. 1998, a young woman was executed in Texas for having committed a murder. Prior to a couple of days before that event, I had never even heard of Karla Faye Tucker or the controversy that surrounded her, but for 2 or 3 days just prior to the execution, CNN and other news stations featured extensive coverage of this troubling event. During all of this, the stark contrast between who this woman was at the time of her execution and what she had been previously could not have been more dramatic. Anyone looking at this young, beautiful and vivacious woman with such a serene and peaceful look about her could not possibly miss the huge discrepancy between what she appeared to be on the T.V. screen now and the image of a cold-blooded murderess she had been convicted as.
This sad case stemmed from a 1983 slaying of two people by Tucker and her boyfriend at the time when they were both on drugs and robbing to support their habit. Ms. Tucker fully confessed to her crimes, although it didn't say in the brief articles I could find whether that came before her conversion to Christ or in conjunction with it. At any rate, this execution was not a case of an innocent person being executed for a crime she didn't commit. No, she was fully guilty as charged, and she honestly admitted it.
The death penalty has been an issue for many years in the United States. While common in earlier days, it had been done away with for many years, but in 1974, the Supreme Court declared that it could again be used, and since then many states have used the death penalty, particularly Texas, Florida and a few other states. In addition to being the first woman to be executed in Texas since 1863 and only the second in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated, what made this case so noteworthy was that she was so obviously rehabilitated and no longer any threat to society. In fact, if she had been allowed to live — even if kept in prison for the rest of her life — she no doubt would have accomplished much good as she ministered to other prisoners. Likewise, there was the inherent unfairness of the fact that if this drama were taking place in most any other state but Texas, she would not have been executed. On top of that, most countries of the world other than the U.S. and Japan have either done away with capital punishment entirely or would never use it in a case such as this.
Now my purpose in bringing up this issue is not to debate the pros and cons of the death penalty. From the standpoint of the principles taught in Scripture, reasonable arguments can be made for both sides of the issue, and sincere Christians come down on both sides of this difficult topic. My purpose in bringing it up is that this real-life drama illustrates so beautifully the tension that exists between grace and judgment and the dilemma we face when we have to, in effect, play God and dish out one or the other. Another reason I bring it up is that her testimony as she was killed was truly a remarkable and powerful witness to the power of God working in her life.
As part of its coverage, CNN had a special live coverage of the execution that lasted for about an hour and a half. Among the many people interviewed was Rev. Jerry Falwell, a well-known Baptist minister who is generally portrayed in the liberal press as an ultra-conservative. Now, Jerry Falwell is one who usually comes down hard on law and order issues and is a strong supporter of the death penalty for heinous crimes. Nevertheless, in this case, he was actively campaigning for clemency. Naturally, he was challenged about his motivation, being asked what he would do if it were a young black man saying he was converted to Islam. Like a typical politician, he didn't give a specific answer to that hypothetical question, but instead focused on what he really wanted to talk about, namely, the principle of grace.
That is exactly what I want to do today as well — not to act like a typical politician, of course, but to focus on grace, for it is the very essence of the gospel message. Actually, the drama of Karla Faye Tucker is a parable of all human life. From God's viewpoint, there aren't any of us who would not be found guilty before his perfect holiness. As it says in Romans, "All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God." Likewise, the Scriptures make clear that "the wages of sin is death." Thus, without grace or mercy, we all face the executioner. Now, I'm not talking about a physical executioner here, though in a real sense we are doomed to that fate as well. Our physical executioner, as it were, is "Father Time", and we do not know when he is coming. It's probably many years away in the future, but it could be anytime. We have no guarantees of a long and healthy life.
The only guarantees for the future that we can get relate to that other "executioner", the one we should really fear — the one that brings spiritual death. Jesus told us, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather be afraid of God, who can destroy both body and soul in hell." Now, sometimes the language which we use to try to express aspects of the nature of God cause a certain amount of confusion. For instance, using the word "spiritual executioner" as I just did with respect to God, and speaking of "fearing God" because he "can destroy both body and soul in hell" can lead to a distorted image of God that makes him into a kind of "cosmic killjoy" just waiting for us to step out of line so that he can zap us with judgment. You'll notice that immediately after telling us to "fear God", Jesus mentions that even as insignificant a life as a sparrow is important to God and then ends with, "So do not be afraid for you are worth much more than many sparrows!" So on the surface, we seem to have a contradiction, where we are told to be afraid of God and not to be afraid of God at the same time.
The resolution of this semantic problem is two-fold. First of all, when the Bible says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom", the word "fear" is not to be taken in the sense of being "terror stricken". It is talking about having a deep reverence and awe for God. In other words, it is referring to the worship of God. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which emotional fear when in the presence of Almighty God is quite appropriate. It all depends on one's relationship to God. Even as godly a man as the prophet Isaiah described his encounter with the living God with words like, "There is no hope for me! I am doomed because every word that passes my lips is sinful, and I live among a people whose every word is sinful. And yet with my own eyes I have seen the King, the LORD Almighty." That's a pretty good indication that he was shaking in his boots with fear. But that's where grace came in. In his vision, the angel comes down from the altar of God with a purifying ember and touches Isaiah's lips saying, "This has touched your lips, and now your guilt is gone, and your sins are forgiven." Without that cleansing, Isaiah would have been doomed, and he knew it.
Isaiah's fear was taken away when he came into a proper relationship with God, and this is what Jesus does for us as well. When Jesus tells us to be afraid of God and then not to be afraid, he is getting right to the point of the whole gospel — namely that from the human standpoint, we really do need to feel fear. For when we stand before Almighty God on our own merits alone, we really are doomed to that "second death", that is, eternal separation from God. But if Jesus escorts us into God's presence, then we have nothing to fear. That is because we stand before God not based on our own righteousness, but on Christ's righteousness. It is not because of any good deeds we have done that we are accepted by God, but only because of what Christ has done for us. That is what grace is all about. It is unearned, undeserved, and unmerited. The only thing we can do to receive that grace is to simply accept it in humility and in faith.
This brings us to our second Scripture reading in Ephesians 2, where Paul begins by saying that the "natural condition" of all of us is to be "spiritually dead", meaning that we are separated from God. That is what is being referred to in Genesis, where God warns Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die." Now in the symbolism of Genesis, "eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" refers to trying to become like God — to become one's own god. But you'll notice, that when they did rebel and try to go their own way, they didn't immediately die physically. If they had of died on the spot, then there would be none of us humans around to wonder about what this all means. No, what it is referring to here is spiritual death, or the state of being separated from God. This, then, is the "natural condition" Paul is talking about. And he says further that everybody in this "natural condition" is "destined to suffer God's anger". And that means everybody, since everybody who has ever lived, other that Jesus Christ, was or is in this "natural condition".
What's the solution? There is only one, and that is to first remove that "natural condition". It is impossible for us to do that on our own. Only God can provide the way, and that is where grace comes in. Reading from verse 4 in Ephesians 2, it says, "But God's mercy is so abundant, and his love for us is so great, that while we were spiritually dead in our disobedience he brought us to life with Christ. It is by God's grace that you have been saved." And then he further emphasizes the point in verses 8 and 9, "For it is by God's grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God's gift, so that no one can boast about it."
Often, however, our human pride gets in the way, and we want to take at least some of the credit if not all. After all, we may have done some really nice things for other people for which we are given praise. And it kind of feeds our pride to think that this somehow earns us the right to accepted by God on that basis. Now there is a proper place for healthy human pride. After all, when we realize how truly important and valuable we are to God, we have a right to feel good about ourselves. The love God has shown us indicates we are infinitely valuable to him. Likewise, feeling good about ourselves for something good we have accomplished — in other words, having a healthy self-esteem — is all well and good. But not from the standpoint of our feeling we are somehow earning our way into heaven.
One common misconception many people have is that our deeds are weighed by God on a scale of justice and that if one's good deeds outweigh one's bad deeds, then that person earns the right to get into heaven. As common as this idea is, however, it is vastly different from what God tells us in his Word. If we are going to use this analogy of a scale of justice weighing in the balance (kind of like that image we often see of the blind-folded woman holding the balance scales to symbolize impartial justice), then the following would be a more accurate description of judgment from God's perspective: First of all, for those who place their faith in Christ, when it comes to facing God on that "Judgment Day" and one's deeds are weighed in the balance, any evil one has done is removed from the equation and only one's good deeds are weighed. The bad deeds have been forgiven and that side of the balance is now empty. Only the good side of the balance is left, and through some sort of accounting system God has ordained, our good deeds are counted towards our "treasure in Heaven".
For those, however, who have rejected Christ and his offer of salvation, the very opposite takes place. One's good deeds are removed from the equation while the opposite side of the scale remains piled with the bad. After all, from God's perspective, even what we would consider our good deeds are, to use the wording of Scripture, nothing but "filthy rags" — at least until they have been transformed in Christ. Thus, in that sense, God would be doing someone a favor by not counting those so-called "good deeds" against them. For it's important to remember that what we consider to be good deeds but which are not done for the glory of God, are not really good deeds at all in the eyes of God. At any rate, while that somewhat speculative reworking of the analogy may not be quite the whole story, what's important about it is that it is by God's grace alone that we are accepted into his presence. We cannot earn it. We can only received it as a gift. But that gift will never be forced on anyone. Each person has to reach out and accept that gift for him or herself.
To return to the story of Karla Faye Tucker: In the interviews aired on CNN, she was radiant and confident, showing no fear towards her impending execution. She said that while she had appealed for clemency, she was looking forward to being face to face with Jesus. She also said that whatever happened concerning her last appeals, God had a greater purpose in mind than just her clemency. Whatever was to happen was in God's hands and he would use it for his own purposes and glory.
In her last statement just before the poison was injected into her veins to take her life, she turned to the family members of one of her victims and again apologized for the pain her actions in her former life had caused them and said she was praying that her death would help them find peace with God. She then turned her head towards her own family to tell them again how much she loved them, and then closed with the words, "Now I am going to go to be face to face with Jesus." Witnesses said she had a peaceful smile on her face until the very end.
I frankly found it a very disturbing and difficult scene to watch. Everyone involved that was interviewed described or showed their emotional distress over what was going on. There were hundreds of people outside the prison waiting to see what would happen. Some of them were supporters of the death penalty, while many others were people who had come to pray and to show their support of clemency. Even the prosecutor who had convicted her indicated that this was one of the most difficult days of his life, and he publicly apologized for the actions of those death-penalty supporters outside the prison who had cheered when it was announced that her last appeal was turned down and the execution would proceed. He called it shameful that anyone would cheer at such a thing.
And yet the "wheels of justice" rolled forward unrelentingly. The law is the law, and there is no room for special treatment. There would appear to be no room for grace as far as the state was concerned. Needless to say, those in authority were faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, the fundamental question of the purpose of the penal system comes to the fore. Does the prison system primarily exist to punish criminals while protecting society or does it exist to rehabilitate those criminals? If a criminal is rehabilitated, then what purpose does execution serve? But then by what standard do you judge rehabilitation? One stated reason Karla Faye Tucker's conversion to Christ was not given any weight in her appeals is because of the subjectivity of determining whose conversion is real and whose is faked. It is thought that criminals who are used to putting on a show to con people into something would not have much trouble faking a religious conversion if they thought it would spare them from execution. I personally don't think it's quite that subjective, and with close observation over time, it should be relatively easy to distinguish the real from the fake. For 9 years since her conversion, Karla Faye Tucker demonstrated over and over that hers was real, with the ultimate proof being that she went to her death praising God and giving him the glory.
The legal and moral questions this execution raised are difficult ones to grapple with. And there are many more ethical dilemmas we face today as we are forced by advancing technology and other factors into situations where we have to, as it were, "play God". We are not God, however, and so unless those in authority are truly depending on God for guidance, such problematic decisions as this execution are the natural outcome.
There is a great need for debate and discussion on the issues raised by this execution, along with all of the other ethical dilemmas we face today. In a message such as this, however, where the focus is on our worship of God, it all must come back down to each of us as individuals. Karla Faye Tucker knew when the physical executioner was coming for her. I hope none of us ever has to face that kind of death, but in one sense, she was fortunate in that she could prepare herself and get everything in order in her life before she went to her judgment. She had absolute confidence she knew where she was going and she was at peace about it. She had said that she believed God had a greater plan, and perhaps the unprecedented coverage of her execution along with the powerful witness she gave was just that.
I personally haven't had the experience of being with someone as they died, but I know of many hospital chaplains and others who are regularly with patients on their deathbeds and who witness what happens as their spirits depart the body in death. While often nothing unusual happens at all, they also tell of sometimes witnessing patients who had a deep faith in God passing on with peaceful expressions and sometimes even saying things like, "I hear Jesus calling my name" or other similar things as they breathed their last. My own father had been in a coma for several days when he died, and my mother says that as she and the nurse were standing next to him and my mother was saying she had to go out for a bit, my father's eyes suddenly opened wide and his expression turned to one of joy and wonder as he took in a deep breath and then he was gone. My mother says it looked like he was saying "Wow!", and she treasures that experience to this day.
On the other hand, these same people who frequently witness patients at their death also report that it is not at all uncommon for those who they know had rejected God in their lives to cross the death barrier with great fear and with expressions of terror on their faces. It doesn't take a whole lot of experiences of witnessing something like that to convince someone that they need to get their lives right with God so that they too can have confidence in their own salvation. I want to close with these words from Hebrews 4:14-16, "Let us, then, hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we have a great High Priest who has gone into the very presence of God — Jesus, the Son of God. Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy for our weaknesses. On the contrary, we have a High Priest who was tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin. Let us have confidence, then, and approach God's throne, where there is grace. There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it."
Let us pray: Our Father, we thank you for the powerful ways you work in the lives of people the world over, particularly in the lives of those in prison. We pray that you will continue to work through the witness of Karla Faye Tucker, and that much good will come out of that tragedy. We pray that those of us here today will feel a greater confidence in our own relationship with you, and that if there are any who are unsure of their salvation that you would work in their hearts today to give them that faith. For it is in Christ's name that we pray. Amen.