How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
We’ve heard it.
Maybe even wept to it.
But do we really believe it?
Oh, sure most of us know the backstory behind arguably the most beloved hymn of all time.
John Newton, a former slave trader, wrote it to describe his own personal encounter with God’s unconditional love and forgiveness.
So when we thnk about the level of wretchedness that God’s grace is able to reach, we tend to agree that forgiving slavers isn’t beyond the pale.
But when that ante gets upped, when we start talking about perpetrators of atrocities on a massive scale, the reality of God’s love becomes harder to imagine.
Would turning to Jesus bring forgiveness to a Nazi prison guard?
Or a true believer in Communism who was a key player in the massacre of over 2 million people in Cambodia we know today as “The Killing Fields”?
This searing question has found its way to the front page today.
‘Killing Fields’ torturer on trial in Cambodia
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – A notorious torture center boss went before Cambodia’s genocide tribunal Tuesday for its first trial over the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime more than three decades ago.Kaing Guek Eav — better known as Duch, who headed the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh — is charged with crimes against humanity, and is the first of five defendants scheduled for long-delayed trials by the U.N.-assisted tribunal.
Duch, a 66-year-old born-again Christian, is accused of committing or abetting a range of crimes including murder, torture and rape at the former school, where up to 16,000 men, women and children were held and tortured before being put to death.
Did you catch the key descriptive phrase?
“Born again Christian”.
In fact, it was Duch’s changed life that eventually lead to his capture.
According to reports he was working as a teacher with a Christian relief organization when he was tracked down by a British journalist in 1999.
And here we see the disconcerting contrasts.
Duch has been variously described by those who knew him as “very gentle and kind” and a “monster.”
“Duch necessarily decided how long a prisoner would live, since he ordered their execution based on a personal determination of whether a prisoner had fully confessed” to being an enemy of the regime, the tribunal said in an indictment in August.
In one mass execution, he gave his men a “kill them all” order to dispose of a group of prisoners. On another list of 29 prisoners, he told his henchmen to “interrogate four persons, kill the rest.”
So here lies the question.
Can someone whose hands are covered with the blood of thousands actually have a genuine encounter with God?
Consider the testimony of another “true believer” with his own share of blood on his hands.
You might know him as the apostle Paul.
For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (I Corinthians 15:9-10)
Paul made no bones about the fact that he had done tremendous damage to God’s people.
In fact, it was likely that during his ministry he would have encountered fellow believers in Jesus who bore the scars Paul inflicted on them in his previous life.
He may have even met those who lost loved ones at his hand.
God reaching unlikely people to be exhibit “A” of His power to change lives is nothing new.
But how do we know when someone has really been touched by God and is not just using faith as a way to avoid the consequences of their dark and shameful past?
How do we know if, for instance, Duch is a brother in Christ or a cleverly camouflaged monster?
The proof is in the fruit.
And although he has yet to speak at his tribunal, Duch made a telling statement to those who suffered at his hands.
Taken to the scene of his alleged crimes last year, he wept and told some of his former victims, “I ask for your forgiveness. I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might.”
Is the love of Jesus sufficient enough to reach, forgive and change a man like Kaing Guek Eav?
And this is where the message of forgiveness in Jesus rubs the proud and self righteous the wrong way.
“So all it takes for a mass murderer to go to heaven is to be sorry and pray a little prayer? Well, if people like Kaing Guek Eav are going to be in your heaven, I wouldn’t want to go there!”
But here’s where we miss the point.
It’s not being sorry, crying a few tears or saying a little prayer that gets us to heaven.
It is the fact that Jesus was willing to die in our place on a cruel Roman cross that gets us to heaven.
He bore the punishment due us for all of our sins, big and small.
Because God knows that if we fall short of heaven by 6,000 miles or six inches we’ve still fallen short.
And so we need to know that Jesus didn’t die for the nice people who just needed a little help from the “man upstairs”.
He died for all of us, each and every one of us, when we were at our worst.
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
So there is hope for the Kaing Guek Eav’s of this world.
And if there is hope for a man like Duch, there is hope for all of us.
A man very much like Duch offers us this personal testimony.
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (I Timothy 1:15-17)
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