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24 April 2015

The theology of prison

The theology of prison

Evangelical Alliance Wales's national director, Elfed Godding, offers a theological perspective on this important ministry.

The gospel is inextricably linked to justice, mercy and grace. This may sound like a bold claim, but this connection is exemplified clearly in Jesus and the apostles.

For example when Paul, Silas and their companions followed a vision to preach in Philippi the gospel had a phenomenal effect on each stratum of the Philippian society.The converts included a rich businesswomen to whom the word of God was presented, a vulnerable and exploited girl from who a demon was cast and a jailer who was about to take his own life. What a blend of lifestyles in the embryonic Church.

The best explanation is that the kingdom of God was demonstrated in Philippi. Heaven's justice, mercy and grace was experienced on earth. We should not be surprised since it is the way Jesus taught us to pray – your kingdom come, will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 

But how did Jesus proclaim and demonstrate the gospel? From his inaugural sermon in the Nazareth synagogue onwards the theme of justice, mercy and grace pervaded his ministry. This I believe can be seen in three ways.

Firstly, Jesus announced his ministry in the language of liberation in Luke 4:18-19 and Isaiah 61:1-2.

Fresh from his temptation, Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Holy Spirit and faced his home crowd in Nazareth. Reading from the scroll of Isaiah, Jesus declared its fulfilment there and then in his presence.

It's interesting though that he omitted the last clause of the Isaiah reading, which mentions "the day of vengeance of our God". While demonstrating justice he showed that mercy triumphs over judgement (James2:13).

I have preached in hundreds of churches across Wales over the last 15 years. On one occasion I preached on forgiveness at a small church in the south. A man in his 50s came up to me after the service and asked for a private conversation. "I am a convicted paedophile," he said, "and while I was in prison an officer shared the gospel with me and eventually I became a Christian. I have served my sentence; I'm on the sex offenders' register. The pastor of this church is fully aware of who I am and supervises my presence in this church. He has been a tremendous help. I have a question for you. Am I forgiven by God?"  What is the answer? It is yes. This is the gospel. 

With allusion to the year of jubilee, Jesus chose to announce the good news as the alleviation of poverty, freedom for prisoners, healing for the blind and release for the oppressed – the signs of a transformed society; the language of liberation from sin and it consequences into life as God intended.The Christ-likeness of a society is measured in part by the way that it treats those on its margins, including offenders and their families. 

Secondly, Jesus executed his ministry by bringing justice, mercy and grace in different ways to different people. 

In John chapter 3 Jesus explained to Nicodemas that he needed to be born again. He had to allow God to do something that his training could not achieve. We like this chapter as evangelicals. We are often good as explaining to affluent professionals that they need to be born again. And that is great, but we cannot just do that. Our message cannot just be aimed towards affluent professionals.

In the next chapter Jesus offers living water to a despised Samaritan woman who is standing next to a well. She had to allow God to do something that her dysfunctional relationships could not achieve.

Still later in John 8 Jesus offers an adulteress forgiveness and the opportunity for a new start in life, while at the same time exposing the sheer hypocrisy and deviousness of her accusers. Justice, mercy and grace. And thirdly, Jesus concluded his ministry with specific reference to freedom for prisoners.

He told a story to illustrate the ultimate test of a living faith in Matthew 25:31 to 46; often referred to as the story of the sheep and goats: "I was in prison and you came to visit me". It is startling to many of us that Jesus makes no reference to 'believing' in this story. The commendation and acceptance seems to be based on acts of justice, mercy and grace. 

But there is no surprise here because Paul wrote that "it is by grace we have been saved through faith – not of works so that no one can boast," Ephesians 5:8. James adds: "Faith without deeds is dead." 2:26.

Faith is not real unless it has expression. It is not mental assent and not passive. Jesus approaches the end of his ministry on earth still proclaiming the gospel in the language of liberation and demonstrating it with justice, mercy and grace, the most striking examples of which are those on the margins of society.

The final conversation that Jesus had before his death was with an offender being punished for his crime and yet receiving forgiveness from Jesus in Luke 23:41–43.The most effective way to emulate Jesus in our disciple-making commission as his followers is to proclaim and demonstrate his justice, mercy and grace.

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