Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.
— Acts 13: 38-39 (NRSV)
Note: Some of the identifying details below have been changed to protect and preserve the confidentiality of the individual(s) mentioned.
Before last year, if you asked me to imagine a courtroom, my mind would have conjured Rob Reiner’s “A Few Good Men.” There’d be a parquet floor, fifteen-foot tall windows, wooden chairs in a dozen impeccably straight rows, rows of uniformed men and women, and a young Tom Cruise grilling a smug Jack Nicholson on the witness stand. And a courtroom was never complete without Kevin Bacon.
But the courtroom I went to was nothing like that.
The D.C. Superior Courtroom felt I could have had freshmen English in there. There were a few rows, like pews in a church, curled in a near semi-circle with metal cushioned chairs in the back. There were no windows, and the ceiling was a pretty standard height. It was actually like being at the DMV. There were several people scheduled to see the judge, and they were sitting in those pews, waiting for their turn to take the stand. But unlike the DMV, anyone can just walk in and see your trial proceedings. They can see if you’re getting your learner’s permit. They can see if you don’t want to be an organ donor. They can see you take that awful photo where your head is too large. For example, I got to the courtroom a little earlier and casually watched the trial for two meth dealers.
It was my second time in that courtroom, and I was there for Josh both times. Josh is a kid I’ve tutored after school for almost four years now. And this time, it was his sentencing.
A few months prior, Josh had pled guilty to an armed robbery charge, a felony that carries a maximum penalty of up to thirty years in D.C. Knowing him for many years, I know, in my marrow, that he is aware that he made a terrible mistake with that loaded gun; there were a lot of factors that led up to that point, and it was an awful circumstance all around.
Unfortunately, the incident took place during a time in D.C. when our violent crime, and particularly our homicides, rate had already matched the previous year with a few months to spare. Since this was Josh’s first offense and he was technically a juvenile (seventeen years old), it was unlikely for him to receive the maximum; however, it was not out of the question for him to receive at least a few years in federal prison (since DC does not have a state prison), effectively impeding his graduation from high school, after which, his rate of recidivism would have been much greater.
In the previous hearing, he and his public defender had agreed to plead guilty to two lesser charges (one for assault, and one for misdemeanor possession of an unregistered firearm), in exchange for a lesser sentence. The hope was that there might be a tiny chance he could still graduate high school.
I’d never seen someone plead guilty before in real-life. The gravity of the moment is weightier than anything I’d seen on television. The judge read the charge aloud to Josh as he stood with his hands cuffed behind his back. Josh would reply, his eyes staring blankly ahead, with a loud, “Guilty. Guilty.”
Of all the outdated ceremonies we have in our society, this seemed like a bizarre one. Here he stood, in front of his mother, his friends, and mostly a lot of random people who were just waiting in this DMV-like queue, and he had to publicly admit his sins—to his peers and to his judge. And while I understand that criminal cases constitute a breach against society, it still felt like modern stocks.
But more than anything else, it was humbling to witness.
Having now been in that courtroom and seeing someone I know stand under trial, when I think, at the end of days about accounting for my own sins before God, in front of my own peers, I tremble. I imagine that God would read this long litany of sins against the people around me, of the innumerable instances when I turned to just about everything else but God for satisfaction, and then God would conclude with a tragic description of a heart that has swelled with envy, greed, ambition, lust, and self-loathing many times over.
I imagine that I would not be able to look anyone in the eye. I would look unblinkingly at the wood grain as I wished silently to myself that the reading would end. I would not look up at God who would read my transgressions, laid out for all to see. Because I am guilty. And while feeling guilty is one thing, to be actually guilty is another weightier thing all together.
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
But then, when my guilt is established and my soul convicted, my sentence is read, and God will say to me, “You are forgiven.”
“You are free to go.”
Now that I’ve seen what a courtroom, replete with a real judge and real guilt, looks like, that eternal image of Christ hung to bleed on that cross to pay for my crimes means more to me. After all, these were my transgressions—not just against God but against my brothers and sisters, against myself—and I would stand to account to God for it all.
Yet Christ took that guilt upon himself. Jesus stood in my place to receive my sentencing. He was taken away in chains, hung upon a wooden cross, shamed in public for all to see. And then, in the greatest triumph, there is the corollary: the resurrection after what appeared to be a sure death is now mine as well.
In the dawn of resurrection, I am forgiven. I am free to go.
So if you’re like me, and your guilt weighs you down–the long ledger of how you’ve failed your loved ones, or all the instances that yoke your heart in which you’ve betrayed God–take comfort in knowing that you do not need to punish yourself again.
Christ stood in your place. Though it will be you who declares guilt before the judge, in the paradox of grace and justice, God declares you free. And you are not just freed from sins, you are free now to live in the light of a new resurrection, to participate in a new life.
As for Josh, several members of the community, including Josh’s friends and other people from our church came to the sentencing to show our support. Seeing the crowded courtroom, the judge indicated that she had never seen such an outpouring of support for a single individual before.
By the grace of God, the judge sentenced Josh to a five-year prison term where he could serve a majority of his term on probation, permitting his release from jail in time for him to finish his classwork and graduate. Josh has since graduated high school and has been accepted into a local community college for the fall.