John Piper’s Death-Row Plea
Today’s episode needs a backstory — and it’s a chilling backstory set in Denham Springs, a rough town east of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There, a 40-year-old man, Gerald Bordelon, already a convicted rapist, on the morning of November 15, 2002, abducted his stepdaughter, Courtney, a 12-year-old, took her by knifepoint to his car, drove her across state lines to Mississippi, forced her to undress, and assaulted her in an unspeakable way. He then led her to a riverbank, pushed her to the ground, strangled her to death, hid her body under a brush pile, and drove away.
Bordelon was caught a few days later and confessed. It took less than an hour of deliberation for a jury to convict him of first-degree murder. And it took less than an hour of deliberation for a jury to give him the death penalty. Bordelon waived his right to appeal, saying in court: “I would commit the same crime again if ever given the chance.” A state supreme court opinion found his decision made with a clear mind and upheld Bordelon’s right to waive all appeals, arriving at the conclusion that he was a “sexual sadist,” and that his criminal history showed escalating patterns of violence. For his final days on earth, he was sent to death row at a maximum-security prison in Louisiana called the “Alcatraz of the South,” or simply “Angola.”
Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in the US — an 18,000-acre complex comprised of five former plantations, now home to 6,300 prisoners, limited to “only murderers, rapists, armed robbers, and habitual felons. The average sentence is 88 years, with 3,200 people in one place serving life sentences. Ninety percent of the inmates will die here” (Decision Magazine, “Violence to Peace”).
But only a couple will die by execution. And as Bordelon’s execution date drew close, the Lord landed John Piper in Angola. On November 19, 2009, Piper toured the prison with the notorious warden, Burl Cain, a forthright Christian and “a man with a near-mythical reputation for turning Angola, once known as the bloodiest prison in the South, into a model facility” (Mother Jones, “God’s Own Warden”).
As he drove Piper around the enormous campus, Cain, always eager for death-row inmates to hear the gospel, turned to Piper and asked if he’d be willing to meet with a condemned prisoner. Piper agreed. And Cain drove to the solitary confinement cells. A few moments later, Piper was face to face with Gerald Bordelon, and given 30 minutes. “Never have I felt a greater urgency to say the good news plainly and plead from my heart,” Piper recounted. He shared the gospel, pleaded with Bordelon to treasure Christ, and asked him to read the Gospels until the beauty of Christ gripped him. That was of utmost urgency. They prayed together twice. Piper took a picture of Gerald on his iPhone and promised to pray for him and write him letters later.
Moments later, in Angola’s chapel, before eight hundred prisoners, Piper preached from John 6 on Jesus’s feeding of the five thousand and his walk on water. “I preached with all my heart to those who could fit in the chapel,” Piper recounted later. “I pulled no punches.” Many other prisoners watched on closed-circuit television, including Bordelon and his fellow death-row inmates.
The result from this afternoon remains one of my all-time favorite sermons — Piper at his most urgent. And today I want to feature a clip from the beginning of that sermon. And when you hear Gerald’s name, you’ll know a bit of the backstory.
This has been a really remarkable afternoon, as you can imagine. This is my first time here, and I hope not my last. I have been moved. I just want to greet the several brothers whose hands I shook over on death row. I told them to be watching on channel 21. They said they would be, and I said I would remember you. Gerald, you said you’d be watching. I want you to listen real carefully. I hope you are.
I’ve seen the lay of the land, and I’ve heard remarkable stories, and the work of God here is unprecedented, as you know, in prisons. I feel a weight on me that I hope the Lord processes in terms of power and not oppression. The reason I feel such a weight is because I know most of you aren’t leaving this place except to go to heaven — and that’s heavy. That’s got to be a battle lots of times.
The message that I have is a combination of the last three Sundays at my church, so I didn’t prepare the substance of this just for you. But as I was praying three or four days ago, “Lord, what am I supposed to say in this situation?” I went over in my mind what I had been trying to drive home to my people from John 6, and I think the Lord said, “Just go there and apply it to their situation.”
Here’s the remarkable thing. I hope you see this. There is a sense in which your position here in prison, next stop heaven, makes it easier for you to get this message than for my people who are tempted every day to be idolaters with their freedom and their prosperity.
Bread of Life
Let me sum it up, do the big summary of where I’m going, and then we’re going to go in. If you have a Bible and you want to go with me, you can go to John, the Gospel of John, chapter 6. If you don’t have a Bible, just listen. That’s fine. Here’s the summary of where we’re going to go.
We’re going to work on verses 1–29 in three sections, because there were originally three sermons. We’re packing it into one, and I’ll just get right to the heart of each one, and there’s a common denominator. Here’s the main point: Jesus did not come into the world mainly to give bread, but to be bread.
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Jesus says the same thing again in verse 48 and the same thing again in verse 51. He came into the world not to give bread, but to be bread.
Now, he is going to give bread, and you can miss it. You can miss it by thinking that’s the main thing he came to do — “Give me the bread.” But that’s not the main reason he came. You’ve already had a lot of bread taken out of your hands, and I hope it lands on you with massive good news that he came to be bread, not mainly give bread. He’s got to take bread out of a lot of people’s hands so that they will trust him as the bread.
Born Again to New Desire
Secondly, he did not come to be useful, but to be precious. Oh, how many Christians receive him as useful. Or another way to put it is this: Jesus Christ did not come into the world to assist you in meeting desires you already had before you were born again. He came into the world to change your desires so that he’s the main one. That’s the reason he came.
So many preachers — maybe some have stood in this pulpit — have taken you right where you are with your desires, natural desires that you share with every fallen human being in the world, and just say, “Jesus came to meet that.”
Well, he didn’t. He came to change those desires profoundly, deeply — it’s called the new birth — so that he’s the central desire. He’s the bread. He’s the precious one. That’s the point of this sermon.
Now, he does care about bread. I mean natural bread. He cares about your body. He just doesn’t care about your body and your natural bread mainly. That’s coming. That’s coming just on the other side of the grave.
There’s going to be a resurrection someday. No more mourning, no more crying, no more tears, no more depression, no more sin, only joy on the new earth under the new heavens forever. That’s coming. He cares about the body. He’s going to raise the body from the dead, make you young forever, handsome forever, healthy forever, so that you can enjoy him in the fullness of your humanity.
That’s coming, but that’s not the main point of this world.
Amen. It’s unclear what resulted from Piper’s meeting with Gerald Bordelon and this sermon. One day we will know.
Piper promised to write, and he did, sending off two letters in December 2009. “I know that you have decided not to appeal your death sentence. You have decided to ‘lay down your life’ to spare your family and others any more heartache,” Piper wrote. “I see a glimmer of goodness in that. Maybe you can taste then what it was like for Jesus. He never committed any sin. None. Not even a bad thought or bad attitude. If anybody ever deserved to live a long life, it was Jesus. And it ended at age 33. It ended because he chose to die in our place so that the curse of our sin could fall on him. He said, ‘No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord.’ So he chose to die for us. Gerald, you know that you have committed many sins, including the one that will send you to your death in this world. But there is no sin so great that the terrible death of Jesus cannot cover it. I hope you believe this.”
Seven weeks after this sermon, Bordelon was executed. On January 7, 2010, he was led into Angola’s lethal injection chamber, wearing a white T-shirt and a gold cross necklace from his daughter. Witnesses say Bordelon’s eyes were red-rimmed from crying, as he haltingly said his final words, “I’d like to apologize to my family and tell them that I love them.” He was strapped down. IVs inserted in his arms. Three drugs put him to sleep, stopped his breathing, and stopped his heart — all very quickly. A moment later, Warden Cain said, “We now pronounce Gerald Bordelon dead. We’ve sent his soul for final judgment.” To this day, Bordelon remains the last prisoner to be executed in Louisiana.