“Father, I have sinned! I killed her!

“I don’t know how, I don’t know why! I was drunk, I guess.”

The tousled blond 23-year-old had just been arrested on an all-points bulletin. Brad requested a police chaplain instead of a lawyer. So here I was, watching him rock back and forth like an Orthodox rabbi at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. I noticed dried blood on the fringe of his fingernails.

This was a first-time experience for me. Being a Protestant, nobody had ever addressed me spiritually as “father.” And nobody had ever confessed sins to me—much less first-degree murder. Detectives had told me it was a particularly brutal killing. I had spent much of the previous night comforting Brad’s mother, head nurse in a hospital emergency room. She became hysterical when police visited her seeking clues about his possible whereabouts. She couldn’t believe her “gentle boy” deserved suspicion of such a crime.

“I know Brad didn’t do it!” she sobbed. “I didn’t raise him to be a murderer!”

As a boy, Brad was so tenderhearted that he brought home a sick baby bird and nurtured it to health. But during his teens they moved to Las Vegas, and he fell in with a rough crowd. He got hooked doing drugs and drinking and staying out all night.

Her words denied what I sensed her heart realized: Brad had become capable of radical violence. I did my best to console her: “Whatever choices Brad might be making with his life, it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve obviously been a caring, sacrificial mother. I’m with the police department and I can assure you that Brad will be in good hands after he gets arrested.”

She seemed comforted somewhat, so I went home. At daybreak, police caught Brad and called me back to the station. As the sergeant led me to the holding room, I confirmed that whatever I heard there would be confidential, due to clergy/client privilege.

As soon as the door was shut, Brad’s confession of murder gushed out like vomit. What should I do? Urge him to confess to the detectives waiting down the hall? Open my Bible and explain how sinners can be saved?

I decided to listen more before I started talking. After Brad got the awful story off his chest, he seemed relieved. They say confession is good for the soul—although it didn’t any good for his lifeless victim, in a refrigerated vault at the county morgue.

As I was wondering what to say, Brad jolted me into action by asking, “What shall I do now?”

There’s only one answer to that question from the lips of a sinner: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

Somehow I couldn’t share that verse as easily as I always had before, even when talking to convicted murderers. It’s one thing in a prison ministry sermon to say: “No matter what you’ve done, God is ready right here and right now to forgive you!” But with the murderer fresh from the crime scene with blood actually on his hands, forgiveness didn’t quite seem appropriate.

Besides, Brad had not turned himself in—they caught him at a friend’s apartment. So what was this confessional about? Saying magic words to receive a sacrament of remission?

I didn’t want any part of such a sick charade. Brad mentioned being drunk when he killed the victim, as if that partially excused his crime. And if he was in denial of his guilt, where was the unconditional contrition that goes with genuine confession?

Confession means agreeing with God

You see, the basic meaning of confession in Scripture is to agree with God. And since God says sin is wrong, confession doesn’t try to diminish one’s guilt. Rather, confession implies repentance—aligning ourselves with God’s hatred of sin so that we agree with His condemnation of it and turn away from it.

Brad may have committed first degree murder, but I wasn’t hearing what seemed to be a first degree confession. And given the lingering effects of liquor, I didn’t think he was even capable of repentance yet. Only God knows the heart, though. Brad asked me a question and it was my job to provide an answer. So I explained that he had two problems with guilt—first, with the law of the land and then with the law of God. I couldn’t help him deal with the human charges he might face from the district attorney. Only a lawyer could advise him on that, and one would be assigned to him even if he didn’t ask for one. I also told him right up front that he should not expect me to testify on his behalf at his trial. I did not want any involvement with the legal process, one way or the other.

My business with Brad was to help him deal with his guilt before God, I told him. “This does not mean saying magic words of confession to a priest. Confessing means that we agree with God’s judgment that those who break His Ten Commandments are worthy of death—and you tell me you just murdered somebody.

“But that’s where Jesus enters the picture,” I informed Brad. “Long ago Jesus came to this earth and became a human being. He lived a perfect life on our behalf and then died on the cross. He died for our sins while praying that his murderers would be forgiven. And He is just as eager for you to be forgiven!

“Brad,” I pleaded. “Do you see God’s good news here? Because of Jesus, now you don’t have to die an eternal death, if you are willing to confess Him as your Savior.”

I read him Romans 10 verse 9: ”If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

“You might die in an electric chair or live the rest of your life behind bars. I’m not going to ask God to save you from that. But you can choose right now to be saved for eternal life in heaven.”

Next I turned to Proverbs 28:13: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”

“So, Brad, if you confess agreement with God’s judgment that you are a sinner worthy of death, and then also confess your belief that Jesus died that death for you, then your sin is forgiven. Not because of magic confession words but because of God’s gift of Jesus and your agreement with it.

I realized I was telling Brad too much to fully understand, especially in his condition. But maybe some of it got through.

“Do you understand any of this, Brad?” I looked at him closely. He nodded thoughtfully, and willingly.

“So would you like to pray with me about this?”

“Yes.” So we did.

And that was it. Mission accomplished. I stood up to leave, then paused.

“One more thing, Brad. What we just read in the Bible about confessing your sins and not hiding them could be quite a bit different from the advice you might get from an attorney. I don’t know–it’s not my business to give you legal advice. Just remember this: it’s your decision about whether to confess to any charges you might face. Do whatever you know to be right, no matter what the legal consequences may be. You might spend the rest of your life behind bars, but your spirit can be free in Jesus.”

Brad nodded and thanked me. He asked me if I would visit his young daughter, and I assured him that I would if his mother would arrange it. As I turned to leave, Brad looked relieved, even perhaps peaceful.

My false guilt

Maybe Brad had peace now, but I didn’t. Not after walking past the room where detectives were struggling to piece Brad’s case together. I knew everything but could tell them nothing. This left me feeling like I was party to an ugly secret. Darlene, my wife, noticed I wasn’t feeling well when I got home. She thought that it was because I had been up half the night with Brad’s Mom.

“No, it’s not that. But I can’t tell you what it is.”

I couldn’t talk to anyone about Brad’s confession. Two things about it worried me. First, the conspiracy of silence I shared with a murderer, which made me feel even more terrible after seeing the victim’s grieving family. They were desperate for information—that I knew and couldn’t tell them.

Meanwhile, Brad decided upon his lawyer’s advice to plead innocent to the charge of first degree murder. So much for true confession!

Another thing that troubled me deeply was this whole idea of grace. Something about grace in Brad’s situation just didn’t seem right. I often taught that grace was radical forgiveness, but this seemed a bit too radical. Brad had just murdered a helpless woman in the process of a brutal sexual assault. She was dead and gone. Her family would never forget their grief. Was it really appropriate for Brad to just come away clean, instantly forgiven, like he never did anything wrong?

It’s one thing to teach grace intellectually as a fundamental Bible doctrine you learn in theology class. It’s another thing to deal with grace emotionally when God gets too merciful for our sense of justice.

You can assure a drug addict who gets caught spraying graffiti that God’s grace is all for him. Amen! But Brad was a heavy duty sinner.

I had to keep reminding myself that Jesus prayed for murderers to be forgiven. Besides, as a member of the fallen human race redeemed at the cross, Brad already received God’s wrath in the person of Jesus, His Savior. Such is the gospel, and if I didn’t embrace such grace I couldn’t be a Christian.

Indeed, the gospel is based upon grace. There is no holding back the floodgates of mercy, so I had better get used to it. Besides, grace is the only way for my own sorry soul to be saved.

A rather morbid but helpful illustration came to mind: At the county morgue, the body of the woman Brad murdered would look in far worse condition than that of a man who might have died that night of a drug overdose. But both corpses would be equally lifeless. Even so, every human being outside of Christ is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1, NKJ). Some have messed up more flagrantly than others, but my soul was just as hopeless as Brad’s, were it not for grace. Without Jesus, divine forgiveness would be inappropriate for either of us.

So what difference is there between Brad and me (or you) in heaven’s judgment? “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24).

What happened to Brad?

He eventually chose to plead guilty (or I wouldn’t be able to tell you his story, even anonymously). This turned out well for his legal situation. Just a swab from his fingernails for a DNA test might have been enough to convict him. Brad may have spared himself the electric chair by coming clean on the record before all the evidence was in.

Before his court date, he asked me for printed Bible studies. I provided them, wondering whether he might only want them to impress a jury about how religious he had become. But after he was sentenced and taken away to serve his life in prison, he still wanted me to mail books and studies. He also connected with the prison chaplain and fellow Christian prisoners of hope.

Evidently Brad’s repentance was sincere after all. The morning after he took somebody else’s life, he received the gift of eternal life for himself.

He didn’t deserve the grace that saved him–but neither do we.

This story is excerpted from Martin Weber’s book God Was There: true stories of a police chaplain (Pacific Press, 2009). The event happened as described, according to the author’s best memory, but names have been changed to safeguard privacy. The picture is a stock photo and does not portray the subject.