It was a normal day at my job at my church several years ago, and at the usual time I packed up my things to drive home. I got in my car parked along East Fairfax Street and proceeded to the stop sign at Lee Highway where, like I did 5 other days a week, I waited for traffic to clear before I turned left across traffic.
I got to the stop sign, which was set significantly set back from Lee Highway, where I stopped behind an SUV who was stopped in front of the stop sign. When traffic cleared, he turned left, and then I turned left. And that’s when I saw the flashing lights in my rear-view mirror.
I pulled over, curious as to what I had done wrong, and the police officer informed me that I had run the stop sign. I was shocked. I was sure I had stopped, and I told him so. He was not convinced, and proceeded to accuse me of lying to his face and misrepresenting the truth, and encouraged me to just admit I was guilty and pay the (substantial) fine.
So I sat there feeling guilty and accused and confused. Should I just pay the fine and admit my guilt? Or should I wait two months, with the accusations hanging over my head, and go to court to fight the charge? I chose the latter option.
So a couple of months later I went through the humbling ordeal of giving up an entire morning, sitting and waiting in court, surrendering my cell phone and keys (like a guilty person) at the door, and waiting for my chance to defend myself.
One by one, person after person approached the judge, pleaded their case, offered their defense, and were turned away with the pronouncement “guilty” declared over them. They turned and walked out, defeated, deflating the spectators hope of having any better luck.
Finally my name was called and I proceeded to the bench. My accuser (the police officer) went first, declaring my guilt for all the room to hear, describing my (alleged) offense, how I had insisted I hadn’t done anything wrong and how he was certain I had. He was convincing.
The judge turned to me and permitted me to speak.
“Your honor”, I said, “as you can see in this diagram”, (I had brought a diagram of the intersection in question), “the stop sign at East Fairfax Street and Lee Highway is significantly set back from Lee Highway. And as you can see from Google Street View”, (I had brought print outs from Google Street View), “there is substantial room in front of the stop sign before a car enters Lee Highway. Your honor, when I approached this stop sign, I obeyed the law and stopped. However, an SUV was stopped in front of the stop sign. When traffic cleared, the SUV made a left hand turn, and then so did I. I will remind you that I had indeed stopped at the sign. However, I didn’t stop after the stop sign”.
I proceeded to drive the point home: “Your honor, I am not aware of any law that demands that a car must stop after a stop sign if there is a car stopped after a stop sign. I believe the law states that you must stop at a stop sign not after. So, if I am guilty of any crime, I would be guilty of not stopping a second time after having stopped at a stop sign”.
The room was silent. The judge looked at my accuser and asked if he had anything to add. “No, your honor” he said.
I asked if I could add one more thing. (I was going to ask if the police officer had been moving or stationary when he observed my alleged crime). “No, you may not, Mr. Brown!” the judge roared. “Case dismissed. Not guilty!”
It took a few seconds for my brain to process what had just happened. Then I began to realize that the impossible had happened: I had been declared innocent. My shock gave way to deep relief and giddy joy. The silence in the court room turned to enthusiastic chatter as the onlookers were amazed at what had just transpired. It was possible to be found not guilty! Amazing! Their faces were hopeful and the mood in the room had changed as I turned and walked out a free man.
I was the king of the world for the rest of the day. I shared my innocence (and my brilliant legal prowess) with anyone who would listen. I was euphoric. The burden (and several hundred dollars and points on my license) had been removed. I felt free.
Is there any better pronouncement in the world than “not guilty“? Is there anything more freeing? In a world full of accusations and burdens and law, the sweet sound of grace, the relief of mercy, and the joy of pardon is unmatchable.
Our services should shout this good news of the gospel over people Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. In Christ you are not guilty, in Christ you’ve been lavished with unlimited grace, and in Christ you have been pardoned and declared innocent. This is the sweetest pronouncement our ears can ever hear.
If our worship services, if our worship leading, if our song selection, and if our music doesn’t point clearly and consistently to the final verdict of “not guilty” pronounced over us because of Jesus’ work on the cross in our place, then we should just close up shop. Not every song should say it the same way, not every service should emphasize it identically, and not every worship leader will communicate it like the other. But, for God’s sake, use your platform, use your microphones, use your fancy graphics, use your organ, use your choir anthems, use your bell choir, use your electric guitar solo to highlight, underscore, emphasize, proclaim, repeat, and declare the good news of the gospel: your accuser is a liar, you are not guilty, and you’re free to go.
Make it clear. Don’t make people have to search for it hidden in a vague reference or mumbo jumbo or small print. Let it be known clearly and powerfully and unmistakably what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.