Sometimes the commission of a crime can lead a person to Jesus. When this happens we welcome his grace and forgiveness, but we still have an earthly mess to deal with that might include jail time.
So the new—or renewed—believer might pray for similar mercy from earthly justice, asking “Can God keep me out of jail since He has already forgiven my sins?”
God’s forgiveness frees us from the eternal consequences of our sins. But more often than not, God allows our earthly consequences to remain. And in some cases, He may even call people to endure unjust imprisonment for His sake.
Grace and Consequences
As children, we all had to be corrected by our parents for our wrongs. At some point, most of us probably heard, “Sorry isn’t enough!” or something to that effect. Even though we were sincerely remorseful, we still had to serve a week of grounding, or pay our sibling back for the toy that we broke.
Because correction is necessary for training and growth, and restitution is fair compensation for harm done.
Throughout scripture, God takes the same approach with His children, offering forgiveness while at the same time demanding payment of some kind. In the Old Testament, forgiveness required a sacrifice—usually an animal. Absolution carried a material cost.
And while Jesus himself became the final sacrifice for our sins, he did not erase our need to deal with earthly restitution when we do harm to others. When he said “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matthew 5:40), Jesus reminded us that our actions, even though forgiven, still have effects that may require remediation.
Consequences in the Bible
- Cain: (Genesis 4:10-16) For killing his brother, Cain was banished from his homeland. Yet, in an act of mercy, God marked Cain to protect him from vigilante justice.
- David: (2 Samuel 12:13-14) When David confessed to sleeping with Bathsheba and arranging the death of her husband, the Lord forgave him. But the Lord also did not allow the child to live. Still, God gave Bathsheba and David another son—Solomon—who would go on to build God’s temple.
- The Crucified Criminal: (Luke 23:39-43) Jesus promised that the repentant criminal would be with him that day in Paradise. Yet, God did not rescue him from his cross.
- Paul: (Acts 9:16) When Paul (at the time called Saul) was appointed as an evangelist to the Gentiles, God did not completely let his previous persecution of the church go unpunished. God told Ananias that Paul would suffer for His sake. And as we read in the remainder of Acts, Paul experienced beatings, shipwrecks, and even his own imprisonment.
When Jail is not Just
Sometimes we deserve our consequences, but not always. Civil justice is imperfect and sometimes results in wrongful convictions or excessive sentences. In some jurisdictions, the laws themselves are unjust. This is the circumstance faced daily by Christians living in countries where the gospel is outlawed and preaching it can result in prison time—or worse.
Yet even in these situations, God may have a purpose for His people to be imprisoned. He might call some to be a witness to others in prison, or He may use a season of suffering to help us grow.
In the Bible, God sometimes averts or cancels an unjust imprisonment, but not always.
Early in Peter’s ministry, he and John spent an evening in jail after healing a lame man and preaching the risen Christ. But the next morning, God granted the Sanhedrin the wisdom to release the pair (Acts 4:21)
Later, Peter was imprisoned by King Herod (after Herod had executed James) and kept under heavy guard. But God had plans for Peter than involved a fate other than prison and sent an angel to open the gates and lead him past the guards (Acts 12:1-7)
Paul experienced a similar jailbreak in Philippi when an earthquake loosened his chains and the prison gates. But the even greater miracle is that none of the prisoners left. Instead, Paul shared the gospel with the jailer, whose whole household came to faith. (Acts 16:25-34)
Paul was later arrested in Jerusalem and handed over by the Sanhedrin to the Roman governor, Felix. When he was examined by Felix, he appealed to Caesar. (Acts 25:11)
This appeal guaranteed that Felix’s successor, Festus and the Jewish King Herod Agrippa would not be able to release Paul. (Acts 26:32)
So he remained a prison, and was taken to Rome, where he would ultimately witness to the emperor and to many others, as well as write some of his most moving letters:
For two whole years, Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!Acts 28:30
While in prison, Paul met a runaway slave named Onesimus:
It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.Philemon 1:9b-10
Onesimus became a Christian, but Paul did not presume the authority to release him from justice. Instead, he appealed to Philemon (Onesimus’ master) to fully release him:
But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.Philemon 1:14-16
Paul also did not presume to force Philemon to cancel any material debt owed to him by Onesimus. Instead, he promised to take on the burden himself:
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.Philemon 1:18
The fact that Philemon kept and shared this letter testifies to the result.
Serving God in All Circumstances
Why God chooses to allow people to serve jail time can be as varied as the circumstances that lead to imprisonment. God used Paul’s imprisonment in a powerful way. And today, He still speaks through the persecuted church worldwide, and the faithful who serve just time for their crimes.
No matter the earthly cause the imprisoned believer, even though he is behind bars, is still free in Christ:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained.2 Timothy 2:8-9