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!

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