In August 1989, two young men broke into the sanctuary of the Grace Brethren Church in Delaware, Ohio, where I was pastor. They poured paint thinner on the pulpit, the communion table, and the platform, and lit them on fire. It was 2:00 on a Sunday morning.
At 8 a.m., the sound technician arrived. He smelled smoke and saw blackened pews and a destroyed platform area. He called me, then the fire department. As the people arrived for the 9:30 a.m. worship service, there were a lot of tears, and some anger, and deep shock.
A week later, the men were arrested. They were eventually convicted and sentenced to prison for seven years.
One of them, Johnny, came to faith in Jesus Christ while incarcerated. Toward the end of his sentence, he inquired if he could ask the congregation to forgive him.
About a week after his release, we had breakfast at a local restaurant. He was clearly a different person and he sincerely felt he needed to publicly confess his sin.
I was preaching through the book of Ephesians. In a few weeks, my text would be chapter four, verse 32, “And be kind, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has forgiven you.” I suggested that he come that Sunday.
That morning, at the end of the message I asked, “How many of you were here seven years ago when our sanctuary was burned by arsonists?”
Many hands went up.
“One of the young men who did that is here this morning,” I said as I called Johnny to the platform. “Johnny has committed his life to Jesus Christ, and there’s something he’d like to say.”
For the next five minutes, Johnny shared his testimony, and with tears, said, “Would you all please forgive me?”
I was standing next to him. At that moment, I put my arm around him, and said, “He needs to hear with his ears that we forgive him. If you are willing, would you say with me on the count of three, ‘Johnny, I forgive you.’?”
I counted one, two, three. The words, “Johnny, I forgive you” rang loudly throughout the sanctuary.
It was one of the most meaningful, powerful moments of my life. I was thrilled to see our church family demonstrate God’s amazing grace. — by Dr. Jeffrey Gill
Editor’s Note: Dr. Jeffrey Gill pastored the Grace Brethren Church in Delaware, Ohio, for 20 years. He is currently the vice president and dean of Grace Theological Seminary and Grace College School of Ministry Studies, where he also serves as professor of pastoral studies.