I had never seen Martin so dressed up. I was used to my aging Nigerian neighbor wearing baggy jeans, a loose-fitting T-shirt, and black rubber sandals. (Always the sandals.) But on this Easter morning, his first visit to our church, he entered the doors in a blue button-down shirt, simple necktie, khaki pants, and closed-toe dress shoes. This was an important day for Martin.
This day had also been five years in the making.
Our family’s relationship with our next-door neighbor had always been friendly: smiling and waving from driveways, conversations about lawn upkeep or the weather, watching our kids play together in the cul-de-sac.
But one day that spring I walked out of my house to find Martin pacing anxiously between our homes, tears streaming down his face, muttering unintelligibly under his breath. When I approached him, the floodgates opened and he poured out a litany of concerns. Eventually he asked, “What am I going to do?”
I didn’t have answers, so I asked if I could pray with him. I placed my hand on his shoulder, we bowed our heads, and I appealed to the God of heaven on behalf of Martin and his family. I asked the Lord to grant mercy, healing, and hope. I could never have predicted how God would answer that prayer in the coming weeks.
I asked the Lord to grant mercy, healing, and hope. I could never have predicted how God would answer.
Leading up to Easter Sunday, my wife, Lindsey, and I each found numerous opportunities to care for Martin and his three children. God granted us a window into his pain, his complicated marital history, his regrets, hopes, and fears. Our living-room counseling sessions revealed dark and troubling sins in every direction. Lindsey and I wept often to the Lord over the spiritual brokenness. We persistently pointed Martin to Jesus and exhorted him toward humility, repentance, and faith.
Then, we got a midnight phone call. While our family enjoyed a camping night, Martin had torn his own family apart. In a moment of blinding fear and rage, embroiled in a tense marital conflict, Martin had picked up a handgun and shot and killed his wife. Then he’d walked next door to the neighbors who were home, confessed, and asked them to call the police.
While our family enjoyed a camping night, Martin had torn his own family apart.
While we loaded tents into our Suburban, police officers loaded Martin into a squad car bound for jail, and placed his children into the custody of Child Protective Services. By the time we arrived home, the crime-scene tape, the reporters, and all signs of our friend’s former life had been taken away (except the rubber sandals outside the front door).
Five nights later, Martin was released on bail and dropped off outside his locked front door. While he waited for the locksmith, Lindsey met him in the driveway and shared the gospel with him. She told him that Jesus Christ had died for sinners, and that if Martin would repent (even of this terrible crime) and turn to Jesus in faith, he could be forgiven and have eternal life. Martin didn’t seem to hear; he defended himself and justified his actions.
But a few days later, just before Easter, Martin knocked on my door and asked if I could talk. I followed him into the house next door, still in disarray from the night of the crime. He asked me to tell him the story of Jesus again, to repeat the offer he’d heard—one of divine forgiveness and eternal freedom.
That night, just down the hall from the room still stained with his wife’s blood, Martin invited the blood of Jesus to cover his sins. He professed Christ as Lord, admitted his sin, and asked the Lord to save him, change him, and be with him forever.
To my shame, I was shocked.
Power of the Cross
By Easter Sunday, shock had given way to gratitude when Martin came to church. Easter was his first Sunday as a believer, his first Sunday to attend church—and the last Sunday he’d attend church before being found guilty of murder and sentenced to a life behind bars.
As I recount this story, it still feels unbelievable. But resurrection life is always a miracle. Stories like this should remind us of two important truths.
1. The gospel is the power of God for salvation.
Jesus died for sinners. Jesus literally rose from the grave. Sinners still repent and turn from sin. The Holy Spirit radically changes lives. Christ’s sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection secured immeasurable riches of life and glory for all who believe—even for murderers. Look eagerly for the beauty and power of the gospel at work!
2. You never know how God might use you.
You can’t predict how God’s story will unfold. Repent of cynicism and complacency, dare to believe in the wondrous power of God at work in the gospel, and then love your neighbors by sharing the good news. Tell the story of Jesus, the story of “all things new,” and invite them to connect their story to God’s. The Lord may grant them repentance and salvation (2 Tim. 2:25), and give you a new brother or sister.
Dare to believe in the wondrous power of God at work in the gospel, and then love your neighbors by sharing the good news.
Every year when Easter rolls around, I think of Martin. I remember his smiling face that Sunday morning, his baggy jeans and sandals exchanged for “church clothes.” I think of the times I visited him in prison and saw the radical change in his life. Martin had found hope. He read the Bible and attended a men’s Bible study. He spoke differently. He had light in his eyes. He expressed remorse for his actions and gratitude for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
As Easter approached this year, I tried to find Martin’s new address so I could write to him, to encourage him in the gospel. Instead, my search led to the discovery that Martin had died. Though I grieve his loss, it also delights me to think of him no longer behind bars, clothed in the dreary garb of a prisoner, but instead meeting Jesus face to face, clothed in the glorious robe of righteousness.
And, probably, the sandals.