I’m not a big fan of the modern “plea bargain” so often used in our court system. A plea bargain is where the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a particular charge (usually a lesser charge) in return for a more lenient sentence. For example, a murderer may escape the death penalty and get life in prison, if he shows authorities where he buried the dismembered body of his victim.
“Contrition is a genuine sorrow for sin, and the Scriptures tell us that it is the catalyst for genuine repentance.”
In speaking of the difference between the modern plea bargain and genuine forgiveness, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor, Stephanos Bibas, wrote,
Modern American criminal justice, however, has little room for forgiveness. It has become an assembly line, a plea-bargaining factory that speeds up cases and reduces costs by sacrificing the offender’s and victim’s day in court. 1
The essential difference between the plea bargain and the forgiveness we have in Christ is the presence of contrition in the believer. Contrition is a genuine sorrow for sin, and the Scriptures tell us that it is the catalyst for genuine repentance: “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
The message we preach should never be, “Plead guilty to sin and God will change your sentence from Hell to Heaven.” That is a bargain indeed, but such a message has the danger of producing a false convert, because it bypasses the essential process of contrition. A guilty criminal may avail himself of the modern plea bargain, and yet have no sorrow for his heinous crime. This cannot happen in Christ, and we must never cheapen the gospel, and ultimately cheat our hearers, by offering it.
When Nathan confronted David about his sin with Bathsheba, he didn’t offer a plea bargain. He said, “Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord?” (2 Samuel 12:9). The king had sinned against God through his murder and adultery, and we see contrition when we read his prayer in Psalm 51:
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight—
That You may be found just when You speak,
And blameless when You judge. (Psalm 51:1–4)
Professor Stephanos Bibas further said, “Centuries ago, contrition and forgiveness rituals were central to colonial criminal justice, and there is good reason to bring back this emphasis today.” He noted a source describing the colonial trial as
“an occasion for repentance and reintegration: a ritual for reclaiming lost sheep and restoring them to the flock”; also noting colonial expectation that defendants awaiting execution would be penitent and confess and that, when defendants threw themselves on the court’s mercy, courts might be “patient and lenient.”
“It should also be our hope when the gospel is preached that the sinner comes to understand the terrible suffering he caused to the innocent Victim of his crime.”
The difference in colonial days was that the merciful “plea bargain” was closely aligned with the forgiveness that we have in Christ. Plus, crime was not as prevalent then as it is today, where criminals are treated like customers at a busy and efficient supermarket.
Hopefully, a prosecutor has the desire to see any criminal’s contrition. He may show photos of the victim in the hope that the defendant’s conscience comes alive when he realizes the suffering he caused to the victim and the family.
It should also be our hope when the gospel is preached that the sinner comes to understand the terrible suffering he caused to the innocent Victim of his crime. That suffering is evidently set forth in the cross of Jesus Christ. This is why we must preach the Law to show sinners their terrible guilt, future punishment to show their terrible fate, and the innocent Lamb who suffered, to show the sweetness of amazing grace.
- Stephanos Bibas, “Forgiveness in Criminal Procedure” (2007). Faculty Scholarship. Paper 920, p. 329.