John Wesley is said to have preached at a fashionable London church on the text: ‘You generation of vipers, hypocrites: how will you escape the damnation of hell?’
Two ladies remonstrated. How, they asked, would he speak to foul-mouthed porters in Billingsgate fish market, if he addressed respectable church-going congregations like that?
He replied that he would say: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ He had a point!
Church-going people can be so inoculated with religiosity that they cannot see that they too are guilty sinners.
Conversely, even the worst men and women may recognise their moral and spiritual bankruptcy and embrace Christ as Saviour. Perhaps that demonstrates the difference between preaching the gospel inside and outside prisons.
All are guilty and under God’s judgement. All need the Lord Jesus Christ. But most will not face up to the depravity of their hearts.
Convicted prisoners are helped to remember it by their ‘CRO’ (police jargon for ‘criminal record’), which lists their crimes until ‘spent’ and removed. They cannot evade this record.
Most prisoners admit personal blame, knowing they have done wrong and that their victims have suffered greatly.
Thus the sinner’s prayer — ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’ — can be compelling and relevant to them. The thought of a divine Judge, willing to take their place in the dock and receive their sentence, clearly moves some.
At Calvary the Lord of glory vicariously suffered the punishment due to guilty sinners.
But there are exceptions. Some prisoners have been wrongly convicted. Where this may be the case, one can point to the wholly innocent Jesus, who was yet held guilty. Because Christ paid the price, all who repent and trust in him are saved eternally.
There are no miscarriages of justice in heaven. Such prisoners need to be reminded that they are guilty of a mountain of other sins, and that God’s condemnation is not for crimes, but for sins.
I suspect that the number of prisoners claiming to be wrongly convicted is many times greater than those who are really innocent. There are always people, inside and outside custody, who insist that they have done nothing wrong.
All need to be reminded that ‘the eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good’. God’s ‘Crimewatch camera’ is always on. He sees the thoughts and intents of the heart clearly, and is never limited by the angle!
Sadly, some brag about their evil exploits. Acknowledgement of evil done is not the same as conviction of sin. Many prisoners apply a ‘grading system’ in which there are always others worse than themselves.
One of our DayOne Prison Ministry Associates had explained that ‘there is no difference; for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Some sins carry more grievous consequences than others, but all sinners are equally lost, unable to save themselves.
The Associate then heard a man acknowledge that he had killed five people! Was conviction of sin dawning? No! The prisoner went on to say that he was nowhere near as bad as ‘those sex offenders’!
Hypocrisy and judgmental attitudes are as rife in prisons as in churches.
What principles do we need to remember? First, man’s sinful heart is essentially the same inside and outside prison.
Second, God can use ‘downs’ in human experience to make people search for him. That has often been the case in prison.
Third, thousands of men and women in prison would never have heard the gospel anywhere else. A Northern Irish murderer admitted to me: ‘If I had never come to prison, I would never have come to Christ’.
Fourth, there is an urgent need to preach to all people the gospel of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ. Changed lives in the hostile environment of prison will testify to the reality of personal faith.
Lastly, inside or outside prison, every Christian should seek God’s grace to be a seeker of souls, true to the biblical gospel.
God not only deals with the man in prison. He deals with the prison in the man