Beyond Redemption_P4 What do the Scriptures say?

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A thought provoking and excellent read and a real tribute to a man who had to over come the emotion of ministering to war criminals for the sake of the gospel.

A thought provoking and excellent read and a real tribute to a man who had to over come the emotion of ministering to war criminals for the sake of the gospel.

A number of years ago I counseled a man in the church I was serving in.

The man had a burden for his father who was dying in a VA Hospital. The son’s burden was that the father would respond to the gospel even as he lay dying.

The dying man was a World War 2 veteran and had lived a life apart from Christ. According to the son the son’s childhood had been a living hell with frequent beatings, drunkenness and spousal abuse. The father had few friends and had alienated all of his family. Now, he lay dying from cancer.

The father was hated by nearly everyone who knew him and when he finally passed away only six people showed up at the funeral which was held in a VA Chapel. One of the people who came didn’t even know the deceased and just wanted to honor a veteran in some way. The other person who did not know the deceased was me and my job was to give a short message to a very small crowd of five.

The father, in some sense was a war criminal, guilty not necessarily of war crimes but guilty of some pretty horrible crimes against his family and many others. He was not a nice man without any perceived redeeming qualities what-so-ever.

Death by hanging was the fate of many tried by the Nuremberg Tribunal.

Death by hanging was the fate of many tried by the Nuremberg Tribunal.

When I counseled the son (prior to the father’s passing) my text was the same as the one that resonated with Pastor Gerecke when he was asked to minister to the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:32-43 ESV)

As we can see from the text Jesus was crucified between two criminals usually identified as thieves or robbers. Robbery suggests murder and capital punishment as opposed to petty thievery that would not require the death penalty.

Most of the Nuremberg defendants believed they would be hung while the two thieves knew for a fact they would die because they were already on the gallows so-to-speak as represented by the crosses they already hung on.

The parallel between the two sets of condemned men is obvious.

Are men facing death for their crimes capable of genuine repentance and the forgiveness of their sins?

Let’s examine the text to see if there is any evidence that the thief’s conversion was genuine.

The first observation we can make from the text is that Jesus assured the thief that on the very day he would be with Jesus in Paradise. That is compelling textual evidence that the thief was truly converted but there is more.

The parallel text in Matthew indicates that at first both thieves mocked Christ (Matt. 27:44).

At some point the second robber stopped mocking Jesus and instead asked for salvation. If you were to read the rest of the story you would see that certain signs and wonders would follow this incident.

The second robber made his request for salvation before any of the signs and wonders took place thus indicating something else convinced him to repent.

We can also note that the text records that everyone around the crosses were mocking Jesus; the crowd, the soldiers, the robbers, the scribes and Pharisees, everyone. To repent and ask Jesus for salvation would mean the robber had to swim against the tide of popular opinion and the mockery of the Savior.

The second robber also rebuked the first for not fearing God. The second robber clearly recognized Jesus’ innocence and it suggests a recognition of Jesus’ deity. The rebuke of the first robber was for being irreverent. In other words the second robber went from being a mocker himself to someone defending Jesus in a very short time. What could explain this apart from a genuine change of heart?

Remember what Pastor Gerecke had said about his former SS Lt. Colonel who played the organ at the worship services. He said of the man, “the simple Gospel of the Cross had changed his heart.” So it was with the second robber.

This is a key point. For any of the Nuremberg defendants to be genuine about repentance they would, like the robber, have to realize that Jesus was innocent of everything and that he was indeed God who was dying for the genuine crimes of others!

The second robber asks Jesus to remember him in His kingdom thus recognizing that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Jesus grants him the request; the guilty dying for the innocent and the innocent paying for the guilty party’s sins.

As the first robber and others mocked Jesus by telling Jesus to come off the cross and thus do a miracle (he saved others and cannot save himself) the second robber recognized Jesus did not have to come off the cross to save anyone because Jesus simply had the authority to save.

Furthermore, the second robber noted his own guilt and the fact he deserved death. He asked Jesus for salvation on the basis of mercy and grace with nothing to offer in return. No good works, no self-justification, no excuses. He just relied upon Jesus mercy and grace which is all we have to appeal to in salvation.

Luke does not say what changed the second robber’s mind at that late hour. In order to discover that answer we have to look elsewhere in the Bible.

In John Chapter Three Jesus told Nicodemus that the process of being born again is a mysterious working of the Holy Spirit-the results are evident, but the process is unseen. The second robber showed evidence of a changed heart. I think all would agree, but what changed his heart?

In Acts 16 Luke writes of the conversion of a woman named Lydia. Luke writes, “the Lord opened her heart to believe.”

And so it is with all who believe, you, me, a robber on a cross, a Nazi about to be hung. Salvation belongs to the Lord declared the prophet Jonah (Jonah 2:9) meaning that salvation is a sovereign work of God from start to finish just as it is the secret work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men that we can only see the results of.

We judge people by the scope and magnitude of their sins and thus minimize our own by comparison.

I’m not as bad as that father who beat his wife and children.

I’m not as bad as the drunk next door.

I’m not as bad as the pornographer, the robber or murderer and certainly not as bad as any Nazi.

All of those statements may be true from a human, self-righteous point of view with the person making the statements never realizing that they have within themselves the capacity for every one of those heinous sins.

The old statement, that there by the grace of God go I rings true.

The words of James come to mind:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
(James 2:10 ESV)

While we may differ in the scope and extent of sin Scripture in an individual’s life is quite clear that all far short of the glory of God.

 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
[11] no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
[12] All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
[13] “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
[14] “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
[15] “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
[16] in their paths are ruin and misery,
[17] and the way of peace they have not known.”
[18] “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
(Romans 3:10-18 ESV)

There simply isn’t any wiggle room. All are guilty and all without Christ will perish according to God’s Word (Rom. 6:23)

Consider the apostle’s Peter’s first sermon:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24 ESV)

Peter is informing those hearing the sermon that they are guilty, either implicitly or complicity in killing the Son of God even though they had ample proof of his deity.

The Holy Spirit is active in the hearts of the crowd and they respond:

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:37-39 ESV)

Jesus died on the Cross for sinners like you and me as well as the worst of the worst. Even the apostle Paul thought himself as the worst of sinners before he received Christ:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15 ESV)

Paul considered himself the foremost among sinners because he persecuted the church and was complicit in the murder of Stephen.

He goes on:

But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16 ESV)

Paul was an example of God’s mercy and grace. Once a hard-hearted Pharisee that persecuted the church in the hopes that people would not believe; now the apostle to the Gentiles (anyone not a Jew) preaching the good news that anyone no matter what they have done can be saved.

Paul himself is blown away by what he is saying and he exclaims the wonder of it all like this:

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:17 ESV)

Pastor Gerecke recognized these truths. Once more he recognized that these truths could apply to even the worst of the Nazi war criminals and so he agreed to work with them.

On a human level it’s nearly incomprehensible that some of these men could be forgiven by God for their crimes but we forget that God forgave the apostle Paul and the crowd that repented at Peter’s first sermon. God’s ways are not our ways and we should rejoice in that for it should give us, the foremost of sinners hope that we have a Savior who can and does save even the worst of the worst.

This side of heaven we will never know who among the Nazis at Nuremberg was genuinely repentant. All we have is Pastor Gerecke’s testimony and what he believed about men who believed they were about to die.

And that perhaps is the greatest take-away from Pastor Gerecke’s mission to the Nazis, all die, all had an opportunity to repent and seek forgiveness; some did, some maybe and others clearly did not.

Pastor Henry Gerecke (LCMS)

Pastor Henry Gerecke (LCMS)

The question then becomes what do we do with our sin because we too will die.

Thank God for his mercy and grace to all those who truly repent and believe upon Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

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Beyond Redemption? Part 1

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This is part one of a series derived from my reading of Mission at Nuremberg, An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis by Tim Townsend.  For those with an interest in theology and history I cannot recommend this book enough. To say that it is thought-provoking would understate what Mr. Townsend has accomplished in telling Pastor Gerecke’s story and his ministry to hardened war criminals.

There are many angles to the story that I could have focused one but I chose to focus on what I believe is the central proposition-Could a hardened Nazi war criminal find redemption at the Cross of Jesus Christ? 

Part One

In 2007 on a mission trip to Poland we took a side trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although I was familiar with Nazi death camps and intellectually understood the horror of a death camp it’s something quite different to actually visit one and experience it.

Seven years after our  visit I still  remember the small courtyard where prisoners were lined up against a wall and shot, by the hundreds, just because of some small infraction of camp rules or because they were no longer useful for work. You can see where the bullets chipped away the masonry as the shooters sometimes missed their target. The target area today is covered by a large wreath that serves as a memorial to the victims. When you enter the small courtyard you stand where the executioners stood with their rifles and you look directly at the wreath and the chipped masonry. It’s a courtyard of death and only the beginning.

The court-yard is just past the gallows where hundreds more were killed as examples because of some infraction. Graphic pictures tell the story as you realize real people were hung right where you are standing. The trip between the buildings can only be described as a house of horrors as you realize what took place. You wonder, how could this happen?

Then you enter some of the buildings which have been turned into a museum. You pass display rooms full of luggage symbolizing the trains that rolled into Auschwitz-Birkenau on a daily basis and the people who would never leave. To this day the wall mural of small children leaving the train haunts me as you realize tiny children were killed in the hundreds of thousands. How could this be you wonder? How could anyone be so cruel to their fellow human beings?

Then you pass rooms full of eye-glasses and rooms full of human hair and tooth fillings. The Nazi’s accumulated numerous items taken from the prisoners to help them in the war effort. To the Nazis their victims were not human, but sub-human, useful only for work or the “products” they could scrounge once their victims were gassed.

And then  you reach the crematorium, the only one left standing. As the Russian Army approached the Nazi’s fled blowing up the crematoriums leaving one furnace only partially destroyed. You walk into the furnace after first walking into the showers where Zyclon B was administered. Millions went to their deaths in this way throughout Germany and Poland. How could this be as you realized over 6,000,000 perished in the death camps.

A crematorium before being blown up. It's where the victims of Cyclon B were taken to be reduced to ash-an ash that sometimes floated over the camp and the surrounding area.

A crematorium before being blown up. It’s where the victims of Cyclon B were taken to be reduced to ash-an ash that sometimes floated over the camp and the surrounding area. http://en.auschwitz.org/m/index.php?option=com_ponygallery&Itemid=3&func=viewcategory&catid=21

Eventually the tour gets more personal and if you are a thinking, reflective type person you begin to wonder how in the world could this even happen in what was thought to be a Christian Europe?

You wonder about good and evil and you wonder what kind of monsters could perpetrate such horror seemingly with no regrets and no conscience. You wonder how a so-called “Christian” nation could collectively conspire and/or allow a regime so evil to murder over 6,000,000 people. It boggles the mind as you struggle with man’s inhumanity to man.

As an American of primarily German extraction those kinds of questions haunted me. Did I have the same DNA the German Nazi’s did? It’s a horrifying thought.

I was born in the USA 90 years after my paternal great-grandfather came here from Prussian Pomerania. I see that as God’s providence but the flip side is had he not done so my father and mother and grand  parents could have been part of the holocaust in some capacity. This too was a terrifying thought. It is true that not every German was a Nazi but realizing that your family could have been is a sobering thought.

Some people speaking in the comfort of their own American homes and having grown up in an environment quite different from Nazi Germany might say, “oh something like that would never be on my radar, for I am not capable of such evil. I’m not perfect, but the holocaust, no way I’d participate.”

My answer to that as pastor is don’t be so sure, nor so self-righteous as to think you lack the capacity for every kind of evil.

Consider what the Scripture says before you assume that horrendous evil could never be on your radar.

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)

When Scripture uses the word “heart” it usually means not the “cardia” but the center of the human will and emotions-the inner man, who we are on the inside.

The unconverted heart (to Christ) is deceitful and crooked, quite bumpy like a very bad road and desperately sick meaning medically incurable. It is not a pretty picture of the human condition and it flies in the face of people who seem to believe that mankind is “basically good.” A trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau should change that impression pretty quickly.

Consider Ephesians 2:1-3 as well:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)

Paul is giving us bad news. The unconverted follow the course of a sinful world, following the prince of the air whether they know it or not and whether or not they seem “good” by human standards. Paul says that the converted all once lived like that, in the passions of the flesh and quite willing to carry out those passions; passions that can be and are, quite evil. Paul says, we were children of wrath (the wrath of God) just like the rest of mankind.

We may choose to not believe that; but it is what Scripture says and means. It ought to be sobering to consider our unconverted nature before we seek to judge someone else’s unconverted nature.

I am referring to what’s called the doctrine of total depravity.

The doctrine of total depravity means we  do not commit all the sins we are capable of committing. It just means we all have the capacity to be the worst of monsters, like the Nazis who mapped out the holocaust and executed it the best they could before being stopped. That should be sobering if you value the teaching of Scripture.

So, what  happened to the Nazis? How could a so-called Christian nation (most Germans were either baptized Lutherans or Catholics) fall into some of the worst kinds of depravity recorded in history.

A philosopher by the name of Hannah Arendt can give us a little insight.

Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher who lived from 1906-1975. She is most famous for her “banality of evil” comments she made in observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was a major architect of the holocaust who had escaped to Argentina after the war. In 1962 the Israeli Mossad grabbed him out that country and brought him back to Israel for trial. The trial was an international sensation and although I was only nine-years old I remember it because even then I was reading my dad’s books like William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Eichmann on trial in Israel, 1962

Eichmann on trial in Israel, 1962

Here are two paragraphs that outline her philosophy coming out of the Eichmann trail.

She controversially uses the phrase “the banality of evil” to characterize Eichmann’s actions as a member of the Nazi regime, in particular his role as chief architect and executioner of Hitler’s genocidal “final solution” (Endlosung) for the “Jewish problem.” Her characterization of these actions, so obscene in their nature and consequences, as “banal” is not meant to position them as workaday. Rather it is meant to contest the prevalent depictions of the Nazi’s inexplicable atrocities as having emanated from a malevolent will to do evil, a delight in murder. As far as Arendt could discern, Eichmann came to his willing involvement with the program of genocide through a failure or absence of the faculties of sound thinking and judgement. From Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem (where he had been brought after Israeli agents found him in hiding in Argentina), Arendt concluded that far from exhibiting a malevolent hatred of Jews which could have accounted psychologically for his participation in the Holocaust, Eichmann was an utterly innocuous individual. He operated unthinkingly, following orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their effects upon those he targeted. The human dimension of these activities were not entertained, so the extermination of the Jews became indistinguishable from any other bureaucratically assigned and discharged responsibility for Eichmann and his cohorts.

Arendt concluded that Eichmann was constitutively incapable of exercising the kind of judgement that would have made his victims’ suffering real or apparent for him. It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible for him. Eichmann failed to exercise his capacity of thinking, of having an internal dialogue with himself, which would have permitted self-awareness of the evil nature of his deeds. This amounted to a failure to use self-reflection as a basis for judgement, the faculty that would have required Eichmann to exercise his imagination so as to contemplate the nature of his deeds from the experiential standpoint of his victims. This connection between the complicity with political evil and the failure of thinking and judgement inspired the last phase of Arendt’s work, which sought to explicate the nature of these faculties and their constitutive role for politically and morally responsible choices.

Much of Arendt’s work revolves around the ideas of thinking and judgment. To apply this to Eichmann she would have concluded he didn’t believe what he was doing was morally wrong and that sort of thinking made his judgment rational to him.

I believe her assessment is biblically accurate. An assessment like that fits the biblical data that the inner man is badly damaged, medically incurable as Jeremiah 17:9 would say. In other words Eichmann’s unredeemed heart became so hardened he was immune to compassion and moral categories seemed irrelevant to him.  Eichmann’s conscience was seared and his heart hardened just as Pharoah’s heart was hardened in Exodus. Some would say that Eichmann was mentally ill but the Bible would say he had a hard heart.

Jesus defines our basic problem as a heart problem, or an inner man problem. He never says we are mentally ill. He says we have a treasure problem:

“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit,  for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:43-45 ESV)

In other words, our actions, attitudes, behaviors, speech and so forth come from the inside out and are dependent on what we treasure.

Eichmann saw himself in terms of wanting of being a well-thought of  bureaucrat. He aimed to please Hitler and his superiors even if that meant supporting genocide and extermination of those the Nazis deemed undesirables. Eichmann did not fear God and so he had a hard heart. His passion was pleasing his superiors. His idol was the affirmation he received from the accolades associated with pleasing them.

I would submit that Eichmann’s example fits the profile of many a Nazi. There wasn’t anything particularly evil about Eichmann or anyone else in being German that enabled the holocaust. A thoroughly hardened heart is capable of every kind of evil. When someone goes on a killing spree in modern America we see the hardened heart in action. It differs only in scope and magnitude to what the Nazi’s did.

So what hope do any of us have. Jeremiah 17:10 gives us a clue.

“I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jeremiah 17:10 ESV)

The passage means that only God  understands the inner recesses of human motives, thinking and decisions (ESV Study Bible). In other words without God we cannot grasp the depth of our own depravity and our desperate need for a Savior to do some heart surgery!

Much of the above has come to my mind again as I read through the story of Pastor Henry Gerecke a Missouri-Synod Lutheran pastor/Army chaplain who was given the job “of saving some” of the Nuremberg defendants-the most evil among the evil.

As far as I know Eichmann never repented but what if he had? Would God have forgiven his sins and judged him with mercy? For some, that is an impossible thought and I certainly understand the emotion but then again I think of the story of Corrie Ten Boom who could and did find forgiveness in your heart when she recognized one of the SS guards at a church where she was giving her story.

To answer our question we must consult the Scriptures.

Stay tuned for Part Two.

For further reading:

The UKs Daily Mail did a major story on the release of the book. I’ve linked it here.

Interesting link titled 30 Worst Atrocities of the 20th Century. The author makes the important point that atrocities are not limited to a particular nationality, a particular religion or a particular type of government. The only difference in the listed atrocities is the scope and scale of each. In other words the capacity to commit atrocity is a universal human problem.

 

 

 

 

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