Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Lawman Meets Lawbreakers

Last Friday night our local GNN evangelism team spent the evening at the Topanga Mall. Due to restrictive mall policies, we employed a strategy of “tractless” witnessing—meaning we only gave tracts or books to those who we engaged in spiritual conversations. There were eleven of us at the mall that night—seven team members and four guests. We formed 2-3 person teams, with each team focusing on a particular area of the mall. It was a great night of witnessing, with dozens of people hearing the gospel.

My sister, Cheryl, Tom (a member of her church who was our guest that night), and I comprised one team. We used trivia questions, giving away dollar bills for correct answers, to break the ice with small groups of people. We also approached couples and individuals, telling them why we were at the mall, before asking them if we could talk to them. Every conversation served as yet more evidence of the appropriateness and effectiveness of approaching strangers in a friendly manner, and taking just a few moments to establish a rapport with them, in order to engage them in spiritual conversations.

Towards the end of the evening, I saw two young men walking through the mall. Based on my training and experience as a former criminal street gang investigator, I could tell that they were either gang members or “wannabes”—young people who dress and try to act like gang members, but who have no affiliation with a criminal street gang.

I walked past the two young men. We made eye contact and quickly gave each other the once-over. I walked a few more steps and then stopped. I knew I had to talk to these two young men. Why? Because it was the last thing I wanted to do. The cop in me said, “Give them a wide berth, but keep an eye on them. And watch to see if they make me as a cop.” Officers can spot criminals a mile away. Criminals can likewise spot off-duty police officers from just as great a distance.

I turned around and walked up to the two from behind. I got their attention and handed them each a billion-dollar bill. Both of the young men were decked out in expensive, baggy clothes and heavy, gold and silver jewelry. One was wearing a set of solid silver dog tags lined with diamonds (or at least cubic zirconium). “What’s this?” They asked with a hint of sarcasm and indignation in their voices.

“It’s a billion-dollar bill.” I answered. “Have you ever seen one?”

Both shook their heads. “Do you know what the billion-dollar question is?” I asked.

Both again shook their heads. “What’s the billion-dollar question?” One of them asked.

I asked them their names. Their names were Ed and Johnny. “The billion-dollar question is this. ‘What happens to a person when they die?’ What do you think happens to a person when they die?” I asked.

Ed and Johnny agreed that nothing happens to a person when they die. According to them, a person is simply buried and rots in the ground. Even though they believed that physical death is the end of a person, they both acknowledged a belief in heaven and hell.

I asked Ed and Johnny if they thought they were good people. The both answered yes, but Ed qualified his answer by saying, “I am now, but I haven’t always been.”

I took the two through the Good Person Test. They struggled to bring themselves to admit to being liars. So I asked them what they would call me if I lied to them. Without hesitation, Johnny said, “You’d be an *#@&%$”—referring to me as the slang term for a specific orifice of the human body.

It didn’t take long before they admitted to being lying, thieving, adulterous, blasphemers at heart. They acknowledged that if God were to judge them based on the Ten Commandments they would be found guilty of breaking God’s Law. It was at this point that Ed admitted to being an ex-convict. He was only seventeen, but he had already spent four years in the California Youth Authority for assault with a deadly weapon. The weapons he used against another person were his fists and his feet.

“Ed, did you know that the Bible says whoever hates another person is a murderer at heart? You may have been sentenced to four years for assault, but in God’s eyes you’re guilty of murder because of the hatred you harbored in your heart toward the person you assaulted. The punishment you deserve for your crime is not four years in CYA, but the death penalty. The just penalty for your sins against God is death—eternity in hell.”

I took Ed into the courtroom. But this time I shared the courtroom analogy a bit differently. Instead of someone entering the courtroom to pay his fine, I said, “Let’s say you were standing before the same judge who sentenced you to four years in prison. But instead of giving you a four-year sentence, he sentenced you to death.

“Just as the bailiff is about to take you away to death row, someone enters the courtroom—someone you’ve never met. The person walks up to the judge’s bench and say, ‘Your honor, because I care about Ed, I want you to execute me, instead of him. Please let him go. I will take the punishment he deserves.’ The judge looks at you. You’re still guilty of breaking the law, but the judge accepts this other person’s offer to die in your place. The judge says to you, ‘You’re free to go.'”

Both Ed and Johnny’s eyes opened wide. “What would you think of the person who is willing to suffer the death penalty in your place?” I asked.

At first, Ed was indignant. He didn’t think it was fair for someone else to suffer punishment for the crime he committed. “You’re right.” I said. “It’s not fair that you live, and an innocent person dies in your place. But that’s exactly what God did for you, Ed. God came down to earth, in the person of Jesus Christ—fully God and fully man—God in the flesh. He lived a perfect, sinless life. And He died a horrible, bloody death on the cross to take upon Himself the death sentence you deserve for breaking God’s Law. Not only did he take your place of punishment, but He defeated death when He rose from the dead.

“The only hope either one of you have is to repent—turn away from your sin, and trust Jesus Christ alone to save you from your sins. If you don’t, the day you die, when you stand before God, He will give you exactly what you deserve for every time you have lied, stolen, committed adultery, used God’s name as a curse word, and committed murder in your heart. He will sentence you to death—to eternity in hell.”

As I shared the gospel with Ed and Johnny, it seemed that Ed was disengaging from the conversation because he kept looking around at other things and other people. It could have been that after four years in prison, Ed had gotten use to watching his back and being constantly aware of his surroundings. Plus, if his crime was gang-related, seeing how he was only recently released from prison, the friends, family, or fellow gang members of the person he assaulted could very well be looking for an opportunity to exact revenge against Ed. Johnny, on the other hand, seemed to be hanging on every word.

In an effort to get Ed to see the seriousness of our conversation, I asked Ed if he could guess what I’ve done for a living, for the last twenty years. He and Johnny both shook their heads. I reached into my back pocket and removed my wallet badge. I opened the wallet and showed them my badge. “I’ve been a deputy sheriff for the last twenty years.”

Ed and Johnny both had surprised looks on their faces. “Look.” I said. “I’m not here to play cops and robbers with you. I’ve been on one side of the law and you’ve been on the other. But what matters to me is where you guys spend eternity. I don’t want to see you guys go to hell. It’s my hope that I will see you in heaven, someday. But that will only happen if you repent and receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. So, please think seriously about what I’ve said to you. You know what the world is like. You both know how quickly your life can be over. You’ve seen it happen to other people. You may not even make it home tonight.”

They both nodded their heads and said they would think about our conversation. I gave them each a Gospel of John and copies of my tract, “You Have The Right To Remain Silent.” They both said they would read the gospel. We shook hands and parted company.

I thank God for the opportunity to share the Law and the gospel with Ed and Johnny. It was an opportunity that I almost missed. My sin of sizing up these two young men and making a determination not to share the gospel with them because of what I thought they were (namely gang members) almost kept me from bringing them the only message that can save their lives. I thank God for bringing me to repentance—for convicting me to literally turn around and approach Ed and Johnny.

Join me in praying for their salvation. May they live long enough to receive the free gift of eternal life.

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