“…offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” Romans 6:13
What’s it like to live on “Waiting for Death Street”? And what is it like to have done something really bad, really evil–something irreparable? These were the thoughts of Sister Helen Prejean, as she mailed her first letter to Pat Sonnier, a convicted murderer awaiting execution in Louisiana. As she got to know Pat, and eventually visit him, she was surprised by “how human, even likable, he is.” He confided to her his “terror .. of the death that awaits him.” He didn’t eat or sleep well, and a guard told Sister Helen, “The guy (is)…eaten up by what he did.”
Unfortunately at that stage of his life, all the remorse in the world could not save Pat from his sentence. He had never received a disciplinary write-up since he arrived on Death Row, but good behavior could not help him.
Pat’s brother, Eddie, in prison for life for the same murders, told Sister Helen that he, not Pat, was the actual murderer. Pat was a participant in the abduction of two teenagers, but was not the shooter. Having less responsibility than someone else could not save Pat, either.
If he was to live, his only hope was that the Governor would intervene by commuting his sentence to life in prison. Yet he could not even argue for himself. He was dependent upon others to make his case at a Pardon Board hearing, which would recommend life or death to the Governor. He was a condemned man, totally helpless.
Most of us cannot identify with Pat Sonnier. We may not even understand how Sister Helen could befriend him. However, if we stop and think about our own situation before God, we see it is no different. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”(3:23) and “the wages of sin is death (6:23). Paul admits of himself, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do –this I keep on doing”(7:29). In desperation he cries out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”(7:24)
Like Pat Sonnier and the apostle Paul, we stand condemned. Our sins are heinous and we are helpless. Our repentance and good works are laudable, but they do no change our situation. We deserve death and cannot save ourselves.
Fortunately, for Christians, the rest of the story is that we “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.”(3:24-25). Grace is a gift from God, and we are saved by this gift alone (Ephesians 2:8).
The response to such incredible grace can only be gratitude.
Think about it. What if someone paid a crushing debt you owed. What if someone forgave you for a wrong that seemed unforgivable. What if you met a person who literally saved your life. Such an experience would be life-changing. As a Christian you share this experience. It’s called conversion, and if authentic, leads to transformation: a life of gratitude and service.
Paul describes how this happened to him in 1 Corinthians 15:10 “…by the grace of God I am what I am and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I but the grace of God that is with me.”
We may recognize God’s grace in an instant, or gradually over the course of years. However it happens, our Christian testimony is no more than a story of grace: how God opened our eyes and how we responded.
Pat Sonnier was eventually put to death for his crime. He was deeply grateful to Sister Helen and others who tried but failed to save his life. In his will, he left his worldly possessions (which were few) to Sister Helen. Her compassion and loving kindness helped him to die without hatred in his heart; in fact, his last words were a request for forgiveness for what he had done.
Jesus was put to death for our crimes “while we were still sinners.”(Romans 5:8). Like Pat, we have little to offer the one who has shown such mercy and grace to us. The best we can do id heed Paul’s instruction to “…offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:13)
Originally published in the Lutheran Ambassador