Compassion, Justice, and the BCF Prison Ministry – Part 1 June 22 2019

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

This blog begins a two-part series (maybe three) on BCF’s ministry to prisoners. As most of you know, BCF’s core ministry is to support local churches with biblical discipleship/counseling materials and training. However, we have also had an outreach to prisons and prisoners for over 30 years. This has been largely as a result of the Lord leading friends of the BCF ministry to reach out to prisoners and prisons throughout the U.S. and even overseas. But before we get into that, let’s look to the Scriptures for why Christians should even care about prison ministry.

In a nutshell, the great truth and hope of the Christian faith is that no one is beyond redemption – no one. Although hearts can be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13), we cannot be the judge of how people will respond. We also know that no one among us deserves salvation. In Romans 5:6-10 we are variously described as helpless (verse 6), sinners (verse 8), and even enemies of God (verse 10). The Pharisees tried for a lifetime to be good through following the law (including many of their own made-up laws), but Jesus gave them a stinging indictment as “whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27). They were following the laws for show. Titus 3:3-5 sums up our status as deeply flawed humans worldwide, in need of rescue and transformation:

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit ….”

But sometimes what creeps into our thinking is that some people are more undeserving than others; and we can even write them off as if they should not be recipients of God’s grace. We can be tempted to put prisoners in that category, subtly thinking that what they have done is so bad that they do not deserve to be saved. To repeat: NONE of us deserve to be saved. Read Paul’s assessment of both Jews and Greeks in Romans 3:10-18, which can be summarized in his quote of Psalm 14:3 “There is none righteous, not even one.” He goes on to explain justification by grace through faith. To think that some convicted criminals are beyond redemption is to say that their deeds were so bad that there is not enough of God’s grace to pay for their sins. We know this is biblical heresy, but we can still be tempted to think it.

Keep in mind that this is a separate issue from the need for society to render justice for those who commit crimes. People have done horrific things, and a failure to carry out earthly justice will only encourage more crimes to be committed. The Bible is quite clear about that, from the Ten Commandments onward. This is also why the Scriptures speak of restitution (e.g. see Leviticus 6:5, in which restitution is to be made for robbery, extortion, and other deceitful financial dealings, requiring restoration in full, plus 20 percent).

To see Jesus’ regard of prisoners and redemption, we need to look no further than the repentant thief who was crucified with Jesus (Luke 23:40-42). While one robber had been mocking Jesus, the other answered:

“’Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he was saying ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom.’ And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.’”

Forgiveness came freely and immediately. The thief did not have time for rehabilitation or reformation. As an expression of faith, with nothing to offer, he simply asked for mercy.

A vivid illustration of Jesus’ compassion on societal outcasts was His encounter with “a woman in the city who was a sinner” while He was having a meal at the house of a Pharisee (Luke 7:37). She approached Jesus with an alabaster vial of perfume, “and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself ‘If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.’

At this point, Jesus gave an illustration of two debtors, one of whom owed much, and one of whom owed little, but the lender “graciously forgave” them both. It was an important lesson for Simon (the Pharisee), who had written this woman off as not being forgivable. But Jesus concluded His lesson of compassion by saying to Simon “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). Whether a person is in prison or not, we can be tempted to have the same “doesn’t deserve to be saved” sort of thinking.

The reminder for us is to not write anyone off when it comes to the possibility of salvation. Certainly, many in prison will never come to Christ. Some may even “fake a conversion” to earn some sort of favor. But we have also seen time after time how the Lord reaches down into prisons and uses His saints to help prisoners see their need for Him. Some of these may never get out of prison physically, and some may pay for what they have done with their physical life. But like the repentant thief on the cross and the “woman of sin,” God’s grace is abundant and He is ready to redeem those who come to Him with a humble, repentant, believing heart.

A good reminder for us is the quote attributed to John Bradford, an English reformer who was burned at the stake in 1555. It is said that upon seeing prisoners on their way to execution he remarked “There but for the grace of God go I.” This recognition of dependency on God’s grace is a motivation not only for prison ministry, but for the ministry of the gospel worldwide. We thank God today for the many believers whom He has called to bring His message to those who find themselves in prison. More about the BCF prison ministry in the next blog.  And we will see some of the challenges Christian prisoners have who have been released, and how to support and encourage them.

If you have questions about this or other blog posts, please e-mail blog@bcfministries.org. You may also subscribe to the blog by emailing that address and put “Subscribe to blog” in the subject line. If you need general information about BCF, you can access our home page at www.bcfministries.org

Steve Smith