Jacob Wetterling – Depravity & Grace

Minnesota made national news this week when a criminal confessed in open court to the heinous kidnapping, rape and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling almost 27 years ago. This has been a high profile case for decades, spurred by the activism of Jacob’s family, relentless investigation, and a trademark photo of the smiling, innocent boy who was missing. Finally, the case has been solved.

The murder confession included gruesome details which were previously unknown. It was the full depth of human depravity unveiled in public display. One of our elders told me he was shaken to the core. Another elder said he couldn’t even read the details because they was so horrific. To be honest, I haven’t read them, either. I don’t want to. (In the same vein, I’ve never watched The Passion of the Christ movie.)

Media reaction has been swift, clear, and vengeful. News accounts speculate what punishment the murderer might be facing. Reporters lament unfortunate limitations in the legal system. There is justified sympathy and support for the Wetterling family. What’s not in the news (or even in private conversation) is compassion for the perpetrator. Maybe it’s too soon, but redemption is not even a minor theme in this sad story.

I wish it were different. If God cannot extend all-sufficient grace to the murderer of Jacob Wetterling, then the gospel offers no hope for the rest of us. If Christians don’t respond with grace in this instance, we don’t have a life-changing message for anyone else, either. We might as well close the church doors and go home.

Why? Because we all are Danny Heinrich. We all are depraved. We all are capable of the worst deeds imaginable. We all are guilty of sin deserving of death. We all need God’s grace.

The Apostle Paul referred to our depravity in graphic terms: As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless:  there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Rom. 3:10-12)

The disease and the remedy are connected: all-inclusive depravity requires all-sufficient grace. The common word is all. The reason this evil shakes us to our core, the reason we turn our heads away from the gory details, is that this display of depravity exposes us all. We are not excluded from Danny Heinrich’s depravity. Danny Heinrich is not excluded from our grace. If Heinrich is denied grace, so are we.

Very few people seem interested in grace these days. Ironically, one of the easiest places to spot this is in sports. Recently sporting news has focused on scandals from the Rio Olympics. It seems like editorial after editorial has condemned the athletes and applauded harsh sanctions. No grace.

In the past year a local editor has castigated football star Adrian Peterson for his conviction of child abuse. The writer (who has the same last name) struggles to root for Peterson on the football field, even though football has nothing to do with child abuse. He can’t let go of the past. No grace.

If grace is not to be found in culture, there is one place where it must flourish: the church. Grace is our role in society. To paraphrase a GEICO commercial, “It’s what we do.”

After all is said and done, one thing will be necessary for the Wetterling family to find closure. They will have to extend grace to Danny Heinrich. The fruit of grace is forgiveness. I suspect the Wetterlings will extend grace. Perhaps Danny Heinrich will receive forgiveness. If and when that happens, such all-sufficient grace will come from God. Wouldn’t it be an amazing display of God’s all-sufficient grace if the murderer, the victim, and the bereaved family are all united in heaven in a joyful reunion around the throne of God?

It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened. Before the Apostle Paul became the greatest missionary who ever lived, he was a serial murderer. He committed heinous crimes, similar to what Islamic State is doing today. But Paul’s public display of depravity was answered by God’s all-sufficient grace. No wonder he wrote so eloquently of grace!


Red and Blue Politics

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 1 Peter 2:13-15

A few weeks ago a man came to my office for a visit. He was agitated about politics, a condition I see often around here. After we unpacked his issue (the presidential election), he asked, “Do you think God will hold us accountable for the way we vote?” The way he phrased the question indicated he already had an answer. He just wanted confirmation.

“Do you think there’s a right and wrong way to vote?” I fired back.

“Yes,” he responded, meaning that voting for Candidate “A” is morally right and voting Candidate “B” is morally wrong.

We reviewed how Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians vote for both major political parties. They do it by focusing on different values. If God judges us for our vote, many people trying to get it right actually get it wrong.

That didn’t really create a breakthrough for us. Then a thought popped into my head which led to an aha-moment. “However much God holds us accountable for our presidential vote,” I ventured, “there is something he holds us accountable for more–how we honor the government we actually have.” We turned to 1 Peter 2:13-15 and walked through it. It was a calming experience.

Neither Israel nor Rome was a democracy, so the Bible wasn’t written as a voting guide. I can’t think of a single Bible passage instructing us how to select a political government. On the other hand, there are some very clear instructions about submitting to the governing authorities who already rule over us.

A lot of Christians are really worked up about the upcoming presidential election. Some don’t like either of the major party candidates. Others are hopping onto one band wagon or another, including voting for minor candidates or leaving the top of the ballot blank. Flip on Christian radio and you’ll hear urgency about this election. Franklin Graham recently posted, “I believe the election coming up in November is the most critical in our lifetime – so much hangs in the balance.”

That’s the itchy bite of the election bug. People are scratching all over the place. Every political itch has something in common: desire for a specific outcome, although the evangelical church is deeply divided over what that outcome should be. I suspect the itch doesn’t come so much from the importance of the election as much as it rises from a fear of losing political power. Submitting to the government we have is more important than voting for the government we want.

Christians (and others) may be frantic about who will be sworn in on January 20, 2017, but God isn’t. First of all, he already knows who it will be. In fact, he has already decreed it (cf. Dan. 2:21). Second, a mere president is neither a threat nor an assistant to the Creator-King of the universe. When nations rebel, God just scoffs at them (cf. Psalms 2:4). We can rest assured God is not sweating out this election. If God’s not worried, why should we worry?

By all means, go to the polls. Cast your vote (or refrain from voting if that’s your choice) carefully. We’ll give account to God for every idle word and deed, so we’ll certainly give account for our citizenship as well. It’s a great privilege to participate in a democracy.

But don’t freak out over the election results. Here are a few things that don’t hang in the balance between red and blue on November 8th: God’s sovereign rule over the world; God’s providence over his creation; the gospel of Jesus Christ; the church’s mandate to love God and love our neighbor; the Great Commission; a good reason for Christians to worry about the future; and God’s command for believers to submit to human authority and honor their political leaders. Those are just samples of what won’t change on election day regardless of the results.

Many Christians with a political itch are probably lax about the divine mandate in 1 Peter 2:13-15. I’ve observed a lot of disrespect toward our government, both in the church and in Christian media. Committing to honor the leaders already in power helps relieve the bite of the election bug. The man left my office much calmer than he arrived. His demeanor is improved.  I’d call that real political progress.

If you live near Clarkfield, Minnesota, and would like to hear more about this subject, I’ll be preaching about the political itch at New Life Church on Sunday, September 18th. You’re invited to drop in and visit. You can check us out at http://www.newlifecma.com.