Gospel Grace in a Courtroom and the False-Gospel Resentment it Provoked
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”
– Galatians 1:6-7
Paul wrote these words to Christians he evangelized living in churches he planted. They had been converted by the gospel that he preached—a gospel that teaches that salvation comes by grace alone through Christ alone who can only be received through faith alone. It is a gospel that turns rebels against God into His loyal subjects. It turns His enemies into His children.
This gospel not only transforms our relationship with God it also transforms our relationships with people by fundamentally giving believers a new identity. Paul explains some of the practical implications of this in 2 Corinthians 5. “If anyone is Christ, he is a new creation” (17). What that means is that one who turns from sin and trusts Jesus is now controlled by the love of Christ (14). Christ “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (15). Living for Christ means living according to His way and His commandments. It means submitting to His lordship and learning to think His thoughts after Him as they are given to us in Scripture. It means adopting attitudes, values, and aspirations that are shaped by His life and work.
Paul draws out a further implication our new life in Christ when he writes, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer” (16). Being joined to Christ, who shed His blood to reconcile us to God, transforms the way that we regard people—how we think about and relate to them. We no longer look at people through lenses supplied by this fallen world. Rather, we view them with new, spiritual eyes that are supplied by our crucified and risen Lord.
This is what enables Paul to write in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What Christians share in Christ trumps everything and anything that they may not have in common. What this means is that a middle-aged black Christian who is a husband and father has more in common with a teen-aged white Christian single mother than he does with other middle-aged black husbands and fathers. Oneness in Christ forbids Christians from participating in the tribalism that intersectional ideologies promote so strongly today.
The power of the gospel to work in these ways was put on display this week at the sentencing of Amber Guyger, the Dallas Police officer who mistakenly entered the apartment of Botham Jean and shot him, thinking he was an intruder in her apartment. She was found guilty of murder by a Dallas County jury earlier this week. At the sentencing hearing, a turn of events occurred that can only be attributed to the power of a risen Savior.
Brandt Jean took the stand to speak about the impact of his brother’s murder. In course of his comments, he gave one of the clearest displays of the power of the gospel that I have ever witnessed. Through unimaginable grief and sorrow, he looked at his brother’s murderer and said,
I want the best for you. Because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do. The best would be to give your life to Christ….I think giving your life for Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do. Again, I love you as a person, and I don’t wish anything bad on you.
After this, he asked Judge Tammy Kemp if he could embrace her. “I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug please? Please?” Such a request is exceedingly rare, if not altogether unprecedented, in such cases. The judged hesitated, then granted permission. What unfolded in the middle of that courtroom over the next few minutes as Brandt and Amber embraced, with sobs and tears, was a sacred moment created by the gospel of Jesus Christ working powerfully in a brokenhearted young man.
Powerful grace displayed. But God was not finished. After that, Judge Kemp, with tears in her eyes, went to her chambers, retrieved her Bible, returned and presented it to Guyger and told her to read and live John 3:16. “You haven’t done so much that you can’t be forgiven,” the judge said.
Grace upon grace. What kind of God makes people act this way? Only the God who gave up His own Son to be slaughtered on a cross for sinners can create such grace and love in those whom He saves. Judge Kemp stated exactly this when she responded to a statement made by Guyger. “It’s not because I’m good, it’s because I believe in Christ.”
Christians everywhere are rejoicing at the glory of our God being displayed in that Dallas courtroom. We are humbled, rebuked, challenged and encouraged to draw more deeply from the wells of grace that are found in our Savior. The testimonies of Brandt Jean and Judge Kemp make us thank the Lord for such grace and motivate us to follow their example and to pray that such a public commendation of Jesus will be used to bring thousands—millions—into a life-transforming encounter with the gospel.
But not all who name the Name of Christ see it that way. Some, including notable and would-be Christian leaders, indicated that what happened in that courtroom frustrated, angered, and even traumatized them. It’s as if their racism-everywhere narratives were being hijacked by those events. So they took to social media to express their dismay and try to reframe that courtroom scene to help us see what was “really” going on in there.
You think that was grace? That wasn’t grace, according to Bishop Talbert Swan, it was “Post Traumatic SLAVERY Syndrome.” Kyle J. Howard, a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and prominent Baptist advocate of all things social justice related, stated that the day of the sentencing was “filled with racial trauma triggers that left me and many others is [sic] a dark place. Thankfully we had each other.” That day, he continued, “was dark, I was reminded of how Evangelicals weaponized faith against BIPOC [Black/Indigenous/People of color] saints.” Howard elaborated, “Weaponizing aspects of faith like forgiveness as a means of silencing/shaming other aspects of faith like righteous indignation, sorrow, grief, & mourning is a form of spiritual abuse & historically has been an aspect of slave master theology. It’s also common in sexual abuse.”
Jemar Tisby, President of The Witness, a Black Christian Collective, wrote an article for the Washington Post warning us not to get too excited about what happened in that courtroom, making a special point to racialize the reactions.
Some viewed Brandt’s actions as a stunning example of forgiveness, a moment of grace and tenderness that briefly bridged the chasm between races and provided an example for all to emulate. Although Christians of different backgrounds shared a variety of responses, this moment was especially celebrated by white Christians. It seems to indicate a desire to hastily move on from the wrong done and offer a perfect picture of reconciliation.
How can professing Christians look at the events in that Dallas courtroom and see such different—even contradictory—things? A conclusion to which I have slowly, reluctantly, and sorrowfully come, is that some choose to look at events like this with suspicion that is borne of worldly thinking rather than with the lens of gospel grace.
How would Paul respond to that courtroom scene? Or the martyr Stephen? Or Corrie Ten Boom? Or Louis Zamperini? Or those Amish parents whose children were murdered in school? Or Felicia Sanders, whose son was murdered by Dylan Roof during a Bible study? I cannot imagine their responses passing muster with those who are upset by celebration of grace so many Christians have displayed.
Perhaps to gain more clarity, how would Tisby, Howard and Swan (and those like them) tell us we should think about Stephen’s dying words as he was stoned, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60)? Is this post traumatic slavery syndrome? After all, Stephen was a Jew living under Roman domination. Did such subjugation and oppression leave him with delusions that kept him from properly calling for the death of his murderers? Should we be triggered, traumatized, or offended at the thought of another Jewish man being mistreated at the hands of fellow Jews? Or perhaps we should acknowledge the grace of forgiveness at work, but before we get carried away by the power of that grace on display make sure that we underscore how grace doesn’t mean that we don’t care about and seek justice? After all, couldn’t we see Luke’s inclusion of Stephen’s story as an attempt to “weaponize forgiveness?”
At best, it’s wearisome. At worst…well, at worst, I fear that we may be seeing a different gospel at work. One which, as Paul puts it, is no gospel at all. J. Gresham Machen faced a similar challenge in his day when liberalism came into evangelical circles like a flood. Once he got clarity and addressed the issues confronting the church, he rightly diagnosed and refuted the error in his 1923 book, Christianity and Liberalism. In that classic work he shows how liberalism is not only a different religion from Christianity, but a completely different kind of religion. His prophetic words are instructive for us today. He writes,
The greatest menace to the Christian Church today comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within; it comes from the presence within the Church of a type of faith and practice that is anti-Christian to the core p. (p. 160).
I fear that the display of God’s grace in the sentencing of Amber Gugyger has further revealed the fault lines within evangelical and even “reformed” Christianity in America. On one side are those who recognize that what they have in Christ trumps all of those things that would otherwise divide us. They are committed to living out their union with Christ by viewing each other and all of life through gospel lenses. On the other side are those whose misguided zeal to pursue what they think is justice prevents them from recognizing and celebrating the grace of God in the gospel.
These are not two different kinds of Christianity. One is simply not Christian at all.