A horrifying story out of Colorado has grabbed headlines since it happened in August. It’s a story of a man who killed his family — his wife of six years, their unborn child, along with their two other young daughters. It’s sickening, so sickening a listener named Stephanie wrote us.
“Dear Pastor John, I’m a 33-year-old mother and elementary teacher. My question comes from the recent news that Chris Watts, a Colorado man who killed his pregnant wife and two young daughters, has confessed the details of his crime and been sentenced to five life sentences without the possibility of parole. Now, in these few short months, he has claimed to have ‘found God’ in prison.
“After following the news closely, back when he was originally suspected of this heinous crime, my reaction to his so-called ‘finding God’ was anger. Is it wrong for me to not want this man, who committed unspeakable acts, to know my Jesus? Do you believe someone like him can truly repent and enter the kingdom of God?”
This is weighty because it deals not only with the moral reality of whether someone who has done something so horrific can ever be forgiven, but also deals with how we should feel about it. Those are two really, really big issues.
“Justice will be done. Nobody gets away with anything in this universe.”
I just sat down when I heard this question a little bit ago and tried to think of places that are relevant in the Bible. I think the safest thing I can do is share six passages of Scripture that I thought of. Let me just read them and I think it will be obvious to Stephanie how she can appropriate these.
Justice Will Reign
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:23)
In other words, whenever we feel that injustice has been done to us or to anyone else, as it certainly was to Jesus on the cross, we must ultimately entrust our cause — either our own accusation or our indignation at somebody else’s accusation (or non-accusation) — to God. We must entrust our cause to God, who judges justly. In other words, our final confidence — after we have done all we can do with regard to seeing that justice and mercy are done in this world — is that God will set all things right. Justice will be done. Nobody gets away with anything in this universe.
The Lord also says, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). You don’t need to take it up and bear that burden. It’s right for Stephanie to care about justice being done in this universe. It is right that she doesn’t want anything being swept under the rug and people getting away with murder, as we might say. So that’s the first observation, coming from 1 Peter 2:23.
Saved at the Last Hour
And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42–43)
This is what the thief on the cross said to Jesus just moments or hours before they both died. This means that an entire lifetime of sinning and stealing from others, and probably worse, can be forgiven one hour before you die.
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” So the last will be first, and the first last. (Matthew 20:13–16)
“What make sin most serious is not that it hurts people, but that it defames and belittles God.”
This is at the end of a parable Jesus told about a farmer (Matthew 20:1–16). This farmer hired workers to work all day in his vineyard for one denarius. They said, “Fine — that’s good. That’s fair pay.” Then others came by toward the end of the day. He was hiring people for one hour and giving them one denarius, and the first group complained. They said, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Matthew 20:12).
He replied to them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:13–16). That last line is literally, “Or is your eye evil because I am good?”
In other words, God is free to be gracious to whom he will be gracious, and to give them anything he chooses. Every person who is not satisfied with God’s choices will hear the words, “I’m doing you no wrong.”
A Prodigal Welcome
And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:31–32)
This is from the parable of the prodigal son. There were two sons. The one who lived the debauched life came home repenting, and the father ran out to greet him. It blew everybody’s mind that he would be so merciful to his son who had wasted his entire inheritance.
His brother, who had stayed at home and served like a good slave — that’s my interpretation — said, “I never broke any of your rules. And I didn’t ever get a party.” Here’s what the older son hears and does when the other brother returns: “‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in” (Luke 15:27–28).
His father came out and entreated him, but he answered, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29–30).
And the father responds — but we have to understand the context. Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. The Pharisees have objected to him eating with debt collectors and sinners (Luke 15:1–2). This is one of the clearest places in the Gospels where Jesus lets down his woes: “Woe to you Pharisees.” But this is how the father responds: “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found’” (Luke 15:31–32). And you can just hear Jesus saying to the Pharisees, “Don’t you get this? These are your fellow Jews — they’re being forgiven. They’re repenting.”
The problem with the older brother is that he lived like a slave, not a son. He related to his father as if his work would earn good things, instead of enjoying the fellowship of the father’s bounty. When the younger brother was freely forgiven, the older brother doesn’t have any categories for that. He doesn’t have any ability for enjoying grace because he’s not living by grace.
Many Sins Forgiven
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little. (Luke 7:47)
Jesus visited the Pharisee’s house, remember, and a woman from the street came in and bent over Jesus’s feet. They were stretched up behind him at the reclining of the table. She was bent over weeping with thanksgiving for the forgiveness of her sin. She wipes his feet with her hair, and the Pharisee was indignant. And Jesus told him a parable about a man being forgiven $500 and another man being forgiven $5.
“God is free to be gracious to whom he will be gracious, and to give them anything he chooses.”
He asked the Pharisee which one was more thankful. He says, “‘You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.’ And he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’” (Luke 7:46–49).
In other words, our sense of thankfulness and love rises with our sense of how much we don’t deserve from God and how much we are forgiven.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned. (Psalm 51:3–4)
David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and killed her husband. That’s pretty rotten. That is pretty ugly. And he says in this psalm after he’s confronted, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:3–4).
Now that’s just outrageous that he would say that, isn’t it? I mean, if you were Uriah’s dad or Bathsheba’s mom and you heard David say, “Against God, and God only, have I sinned,” you would say, “Wait a minute — you killed my son.” But David said, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4).
Paul said, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Now what makes sin most serious — and this is David’s and Paul’s way of saying what makes sin most serious — is not that it hurts people. Oh, it hurts people. But what makes sin most serious is not that it hurts people, but that it defames and belittles God.
So here’s the key question: Am I more indignant that a murderer may be saved and go to heaven than I am amazed that I might be saved and go to heaven?