Some Thoughts on Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Walking is a book written by a nun named Sister Helen Prejean. Tim Robbins made a play out of it, and I had the chance to go check it out on Friday at Miami Dade College. It was also made into a movie. My wife is taking a stage course at Miami Dade and was doing some “behind the scenes” stuff. The school had been performing it all week long and Friday night was the last night of the performance. It was very well done. Everyone in attendance seemed to thoroughly enjoy the play and be captivated by it, as evidenced by the gasps and laughs and crying. Dead Man Walking follows a particular time in Prejean’s life when she meets a man by the name of Matthew Poncelet. I don’t want to give away too many details, so I’ll just say that she was his spiritual advisor while he was on death row. The really cool part was that Prejean was actually there on Friday night, and we were able to hear her speak afterwards. She filled us in on the fact that she ultimately wanted the story to stir the audience to think about the death penalty and how it is wrong to use death to teach that death is wrong. It certainly made me think about my own position, and the defenses of others. But that’s not what I want to briefly comment on. I heard many reactions of approval in the audience to a lot of the spiritual advice that Prejean gave Matthew Poncelet. I wasn’t one of them. There were three statements she made to him during their time together that I think were totally devastating for anyone to hear while on death row. I found her advice to be hopeless news for the poor guy and hoped that he paid no attention to it. 

1. God just wants us to do our best

Helen Prejean made the statement in the play that “God just wants us to do our best.” You will search the Bible high and low, and will not find this taught in Scripture. It’s actually much more grueling than this. God wants us to be perfect. He doesn’t want us to be perfect by human standards, He actually wants us to be as perfect as He is. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus said at the sermon on the mount, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Sister Helen here seems to have a low view of God’s law if she thinks it is light enough to be doable. The law doesn’t say, “Try not to A, B, or C.” It says, “Don’t do it.” It says, “Don’t murder.” But Poncelet did murder. It says, “Don’t commit adultery.” But Poncelet did commit adultery. It says, “Don’t lie.” But Poncelet did lie. And everyday, the more we hold Poncelet up  to the law, and ourselves, we immediately realize how continuously sinful we are. Each day. Telling someone that God just wants us to do our best is to advise them to trust in their own doing for assurance before God. In other words, “Chin up, Matthew Poncelet. God just wants us to do our best, so try harder this time.” Poncelet was in need of some good news. Telling someone who has broken the law of God that they need to do more law keeping is bad news. The law of God was never intended to be a check list. It shows us our absolute and constant failure in sin and utter need for God’s daily mercy. [Romans 7:7-12] We break the law constantly, but Christ came to this earth to live perfectly on our behalf, and died on a cross to absorb God’s wrath on our behalf that should fall on us, and rose again from the dead so that God would declare us pardoned from our law breaking. Jesus took on our sin, and he take on His righteousness. He gives it to us for free. We do nothing for it. We only believe, and even that belief is something that God causes us to do as a gift to us [Romans 12:3; Ephesians 2:8]. 

2. Involve yourself in your redemption

This next one was particularly bothersome. There is a scene where Prejean asks Poncelet if he has been reading his Bible. He skirts around answering the question, but when she presses him further he finally utters something like, “Look, I know Jesus died for my sin on the cross and that he will make my case before God when I die.” I immediately thought, “Yes. Awesome. This guy believes the good news.” Then, suddenly, like a sucker punch, Prejean’s response rushed against him. She responded by saying something like, “No, redemption isn’t a free ticket you get punched to escape condemnation. You have to participate in your own redemption.” My jaw hit the floor. This guy understood the freedom of it. He understood that it is an underserved gift. And then she came in with telling him to trust in his own works and take place in his own salvation.

27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Romans 3:27-28

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselvesit is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9

8 Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, 9 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, 10 but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, 11 for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher. 2 Timothy 1:8-11

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Titus 3:4-7

The good news is called good news for a reason – it’s GOOD news. How in the world could God possibly just give salvation for free? How in the world can I have nothing to do with it? it blows the mind because it is so contrary to our way of thinking. We are constantly trying to earn things from others and others are trying to earn from us. We are constantly tipping scales. This is how God works too. He has laws set for mankind. Keep them and live. Break one, even in ignorance, and die a law breaker who justly deserved to be punished for it. Unfortunately, we come out of the womb breaking God’s law. We were born and conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5), We go astray from birth (Psalm 58:3), The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9), We can’t make ourselves do good anymore than an Ethiopian can change his skin color or a leopard his spots (Jeremiah 13:23), The natural mind is hostile to God and unable to submit to him (Romans 8:7), We all died in Adam, his sin being counted against us (1 Corinthians 15:22; Romans 5:15), Adam’s sin is the cause of our condemnation, not our doing post-birth (Romans 5:15-16).

This is horrible news for us. We’ve broken the law of God, and must be punished. God doesn’t bend the rules. To bend them is to break them Himself. To bend them is to lie. He says, “You break them, you die and are cast into a lake of fire” and for Him to say, “Oh, well I can tell you are really sorry. I’ll let you pass” is to not hold up His own word. For us to say, “Well, I’ve done so much good after killing those people” is an attempt to bribe God with your good works. It’s also a futile attempt to give the impression that you are a “changed” and “better” person, because we sin constantly. We are always breaking God’s law. Listen to how heavy the law of God actually is, according to Jesus:

21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Matthew 5:21-22

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 “If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5:27-30

There you go. Just two laws. And these always seem to be the two things people jump to. “Well, at least I’ve never killed anyone or cheated on my wife.” Ever been angry at someone? You are guilty of murdering. Ever lusted? You are guilty of adultery. And to make matters worse, the Scriptures also tell us that when we break one law, we are guilty of breaking the whole law. “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” (James 2:10) Pretty heavy. And again, there is no suggestion here. The Bible is written as though this must be done. Jesus tells us we are to be perfect as the Father is perfect. Not try. We are told to give thanks in all things at all times. Not try. We are told to be angry with our brother. Not try. We are told not to lust. Not try. We are told law after law after law, and are soon run ragged by the hearing of it. And it is intentional. It leaves us looking to God for help. Unfortunately, it can have some other effects. Some people lighten the law, and think they can and actually do keep it. But they don’t and can’t. Others despair, feeling like Christianity is only about morality alteration, and decide that it’s not “working” for them and walk away. But it’s not about that. It’s about the fact that we will all die and stand before God one day. He will judge us based on our inconsistent works or Christ’s perfect works. And even if God judged us by our best works, we’d still be damned since even the best things we do have selfish motives behind them. 

3. You have your dignity now

This last one was pretty disturbing too because it took place only hours before Poncelet would be killed. He makes a surprising confession of guilt before Prejean that left the audience gasping. It was definitely surprising. If the guy was ever in need of good news, it was at this point. After his tearful confession of sin, Helen tells him something like, “You’ve done horrible things. You’ve done terrible things, but now you have your dignity.” In other words, now that you have confessed your sin, you can die with self respect. That’s the good news. The “but” that follows a confession of sin should be proceeded with good news. Prejean here only offers more bad news. “I know you’ve done horrible things. That’s the bad news. But here’s the good news to satisfy that bad news. Here’s the good news to put your mind at ease – you have your dignity.” She throws him back on his own good works. He was executed shortly after that, and I have to say, I hope he didn’t die believing that. Any kind of comfort before God that originates within the offender is self-deception. It is to believe we are better off than we are. If Poncelet took that “good news” to the grave, then he was apart from the life that Christ gives by grace through faith – and truly was a dead man walking.

In conclusion, Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:21-23,

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’

I’ve written a fuller article on this text [here], but want to briefly point out something about this text I had missed for a long time. I read Jesus’ words to the men He condemns here. He calls them “Practicers of lawlessness.” I heard this and felt condemned, because I knew my life was one practice of sin after another. So, I decided to fix the situation by believing Jesus’ words here and “getting better.” God’s will is clearly spelled out in his law,  and so I thought that what I needed was some morality adjustment. For years, I was doing it. For years, I kept the law, I thought. Then I hit a hole in my life and fell into a depression. At the end of it, I thought that there could possibly be no way that I was a Christian because I had sinned too much.  Then I noticed that I was guilty of what Jesus is warning against in Matthew 7. Jesus isn’t telling us to “try harder” or “have better works.” He wants us to look intently at the response of these men. He tells them to make their case before Him. In other words, “Justify yourselves.” And where do they point? To Him? No. To themselves and their efforts. And because they seek to be justified by their works, Christ judges them by it and they are declared to be “practicers of lawlessness.”

Want to know what God’s will is for you? To simply believe the good news that Jesus Christ satisfied the wrath of God on behalf of those who believe. God became a man, born of a virgin, and was named Jesus. He lived a perfect life in regard to God’s law. He was wrongly accused of blasphemy and put to death on a cross. But this was no surprise to Him. At that cross, God exhausted all of the anger and indignation toward the sin of believers. Jesus was being punished for those who would believe in Him. He died. He was buried in a tomb, and came back from the dead 3 days later so that He could declare believers justified before God – that is, they would be pardoned for their law breaking because Jesus would give them His righteousness. His life was given for theirs. None of us can die for each other because we are all sinful. God sent Christ to the world to satisfy the demands of the law and God’s wrath fro all who simply believe it.

28 Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” John 6:28-29

“For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”  John 6:40

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