Sentenced to Death. Brought to Life.

We have a family friend named Bryan. We met him at church years ago after noticing week-after-week he consistently welcomed a multitude of friends. Bryan exudes warmth. He is friendly and charismatic with an electric smile and blue eyes that make you feel seen. He has a peace about him that is inviting, and he is quick to extend a hand to make a new friend. He is a servant leader, and as CEO of a non-profit organization, he dedicates his life to helping others. You just want to be around him. And you’d never guess he’s served a life sentence in prison for murder.

Bryan is a completely different person today than he was in his youth. He is truly transformed, as can only be done when someone fully surrenders their life to Christ. He served 22 years in prison for his crime and then faced the harsh reality that most felons do upon completion of their term: the world doesn’t offer many chances for redemption. But Jesus does.

As a teen, Bryan was an athlete who followed the “popular” crowd. He began drinking, and soon his partying led to an escalating alcohol and drug addiction that took him into his young adult years. His addictions created a wake of destruction, including broken relationships, job losses and a ravenous craving to be high no matter the cost. In a drug deal gone horribly wrong, Bryan took the life of his dealer and was consequently sentenced to spend the rest of his own life in prison. Living out a “life sentence”, however, often translates to a death sentence, once potential employers, housing developments and friends do a quick Google search on your past. It’s nearly impossible for felons to redeem themselves, even when they have a strong desire to do so. 

Thankfully, Bryan was introduced to Jesus through a prison ministry program shortly after he began serving his sentence. He admittedly began going just to eat the better food they served, but he soon found out that they also served up an opportunity to drink the living water of Christ.

“I’d never told the truth about my crime until I spoke with a pastor that weekend,” said Bryan. “I was a big, crying mess as my painful confession was met with forgiveness and compassion in return. The pastor then explained that while he forgave me, the most important thing was to ask for forgiveness from God. Unsure that Jesus really could forgive me, the pastor dismantled my arguments by sharing the truth that we are saved by faith in the free gift of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). I cried out to God, asking Him to take the broken pieces of my life and do what He wanted. Although I was still behind bars, I felt free for the first time in my life. I would never have expected to call the prison sign shop a seminary, but that’s exactly where my mentor and I spent an hour every day, studying and applying God’s Word to our lives.”

Bryan’s once insatiable appetite for drugs and alcohol now turned to the Word of God, which freed him from his old life and equipped him for his new life in Christ. He began mentoring other inmates in their faith, while continuing to grow himself personally and professionally through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). He laughs when he shares that he may be the only inmate who, when finally offered parole, asked to remain in prison for another year so he could continue to strengthen his business plan before entering the outside world. They granted his request, and he grew in both wisdom and faith during that final year in prison.

Upon release to a halfway house, Bryan was walking to church one Sunday morning. A husband and wife driving on their way to the same church stopped and asked if he needed a ride. Still figuring out this “new world” that had changed so much in the 22 years he was incarcerated, Bryan was nervous about getting in the car. “What if they only knew what I had done,” he wondered. In a way that only God can move mountains, he accepted the ride and arrived to hear a sermon where the pastor spoke of Jesus’ lavish grace – so lavish, it “can even be offered to a murderer,” he proclaimed! Bryan knew it was more than coincidence. God was reassuring him of His closeness.

During the years since then, Bryan has continued to invest in PEP and has demonstrated professional leadership as well as a servant’s heart to help inmates overcome the challenges they face integrating back into society. He has earned his position of CEO today, and he doesn’t take it for granted. He knows his work and life story are an illustration of God’s redeeming grace.

“I felt like an outsider for most of my life, never dreaming I could be part of God’s family,” said Bryan. “But Christ took all my catastrophes and fashioned them into a masterpiece. I love Ephesians 2:10, which says that we are His workmanship, created by God to tell His story. He molded the broken pieces of my life so that the beauty of God can be shown. If the Master Creator can do that with me, He can do it for you, too.”

What I love most about Bryan’s story brings me to tears every time I think about it. As if everything to this point wouldn’t have been enough, it doesn’t end with what God has done for Bryan, but it continues with the opportunities God places in front of him. Don’t miss the fact that after taking a life, Bryan’s work is now to lead thousands of men to find life. As he mentors inmates and leads them to follow Christ, it’s beyond redemptive that God uses him as an instrument for healing and transformation. It’s as if God repeats time and time again, “I love you.” He hasn’t labeled Bryan a “felon” or “murderer”, but instead, His child.

So, I will echo my friend’s sentiment. If God would do such a thing for him, He will do it for any of us too. Actually, He already has. It’s why He sent Jesus – so He could take the death sentence we deserve and offer us life eternal in exchange. None of us needs to remain shackled in the prison of sin (whether illegal or not). Jesus has bought our freedom. We’ve been redeemed!

Father, God, thank You for pursuing us with your lavish grace, no matter what we’ve done. Help us daily to accept Your gift, to ward off shame and guilt, and instead to be drawn into the comfort and strength of Your love. Thank You for using people like Bryan to demonstrate how You transform lives. Would You use me too, Lord? Lead me… in Jesus’ name, Amen.