DEVOTION: A Courtroom Sermon

DEVOTION: A Courtroom Sermon


“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:26, ESV).


In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul explains that civil magistrates are ministers of God, called to dispense justice according to God’s law by “punishing those who do wrong.” This often includes “bearing the sword” of execution for capital crimes.

Treason was once considered by Christian jurists to be the most egregious of all crimes, even worse than murder. Not only does treason threaten social stability and every other blessing that flows from the godly administration of civil government, but it also jeopardizes the lives, liberties, and livelihoods of everyone in the community.

Most Americans associate treachery with Benedict Arnold, the American military commander who conspired to betray West Point to the British during the War for Independence. But Arnold was far from the only colonist who double-crossed the American cause.

During the Philadelphia treason trials of 1778, a grand jury indicted John Roberts, a prominent citizen, after he was accused of enlisting in the British army and attempting to persuade others to join him. Making matters even more interesting, the case was presided over by founding father Thomas McKean—a signer of the Declaration of Independence who now served as the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

When Roberts was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death, Justice McKean offered him the following counsel:


You will probably have but a short time to live. Before you launch into eternity, it behooves you to improve the time that may be allowed you in this world—it behooves you most seriously to reflect upon your past conduct, to repent of your evil deeds, to be incessant in prayers to the great and merciful God to forgive your manifold transgressions and sins, to teach you to rely upon the merit and passion of a dear Redeemer and thereby to avoid those regions of sorrow—those doleful shades where peace and rest can never dwell, and where even hope cannot enter.

It behooves you to seek the [fellowship], advice, and prayers of pious and good men to be persistent at the throne of grace and learneth the way that leadeth to happiness…. And may you be qualified to enter into the joys of Heaven—joys unspeakable and full of glory.


Sharing the gospel message with condemned criminals was a regular custom in American courtrooms until at least the time of the Civil War. Even though judges act as agents of God’s justice by meting out punishment on guilty criminals, no person is too far gone for the salvation of Christ—even a traitor on death row.



PRAYER: We thank you, God, for the abundant redemption provided in Christ’s death and resurrection. In your rich mercy, no sin is too heinous to be covered by the blood of your Son. Please give your peace to all who struggle under the weight of sin today. In your Son’s precious name, amen.




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