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Experiential Calvinism In The Chapel Of The Repentant Thief

Prisons are spiritual wastelands. Many winds of doctrine are blowing constantly via radio, television, and many willing volunteers from a variety of ministries.

  • Thomas W. Horvat
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The winter of 1993 was particularly bleak and storm-ridden in the mountains of Western Maryland, both spiritually and physically. Ice storms ravaged trees and power lines, and I had lost the pastorate of a rural, independent Bible church that I had served for six and a half years because of a disagreement about the doctrines of total depravity and "free will." I found out painfully that they were not as "Bible" as their name suggested. As I was seeking an opportunity that winter to establish a Bible institute among prison inmates, the chaplain of Roxbury Correctional Institute (RCI) called upon me to preach the Wednesday evening Protestant service. I accepted the challenge and this is my story.

RCI is one of three correctional facilities nestled in the great Hagerstown Valley of Western Maryland. This would be my first experience in prison ministry, and although I am 6'1" in height, weigh 230 lbs., was raised in a rough area of Pittsburgh steel country, and have four tattoos, I went in scared to death. This is a maximum security, 900-bed facility housing an average of 1200 to 1300 inmates. The overflow bunked up in day rooms. The average education of the inmate population is sixth grade with most men coming from the inner city of Baltimore and Washington. As I entered the Chapel of the Repentant Thief, this is what I found, and what God did and continues to do.

Prisons are spiritual wastelands. Many winds of doctrine are blowing constantly via radio, television, and many willing volunteers from a variety of ministries. Initially I found the inmates in great turmoil and agitation because of the negative and false teachings of the health/wealth, name it/claim it crowd. I realized there were many professions of "faith" based upon some response to an emotional appeal to "come to Jesus," but they were still in bondage to sexual sin and vulgar language, and were "chameleon Christians," acting one way in the chapel and another during the daily routines of prison life. The inmates argued from a theologically ignorant and opinionated view of Scriptures; so I began to preach verse by verse from Genesis.

Plowing the Wasteland

I was in it for the long haul. And he who puts his hand to the plough does not look back.

Beginning "in the beginning," the Absolute, Sovereign, and Self-existent Creator Who needed nothing or nobody was displayed. This Almighty God created all things for His own good pleasure and purposes. This truth created a strong and typical reaction among those who believed God existed for man's pleasure and exists to carry out what man decides.

A group of these "sovereigns" gathered each week in the chapel before the service started to "exorcise" demons out of me.

Next there was the Bible's teaching about the Fall - the root of every crime and sin imaginable and otherwise in the lives of these men. Adam's sin was not just an unfortunate mistake, but high crime and rebellion. God would have been justified if He pitched every son of Adam into hell. God is no man's debtor. The Spirit ploughed the fallow ground and now the "charismaniacs" began to pray that God would do to me as He did to Phillip - horizontally "rapture" me out of the chapel.

And the Spirit ploughed on week by week. A reverent silence accompanied many of the services. At other times, it was an all out war as I was interrupted with arguments and required to give an answer for certain statements that challenged man-centered doctrines. Preaching in prison is not the nice Sunday affair we are accustomed to. You have to be ready to explain any and all truth claims.

The display of the sovereignty and holiness of God brought many to such a keen sense of their unworthiness - how could they face the judgment of such a One before Whom the unfallen angels must shield their faces? Thus, the Spirit pressed the truth of the need of the naked soul of a sinner before the perfect and uncompromising holiness of its Creator. Instead of babbling or laughing uncontrollably, they were humbled, quiet, and convicted. Men were seen hanging and shaking their heads in shame, some weeping. At one point, I spent ten weeks with twenty-five of them covering the video series "God's Law and Society," and the Spirit ploughed deeper.

Sowing the Seed

Verse by verse the incorruptible seed of the Word of God was sown. I also was using the Authorized Version of the Holy Scriptures and felt no need at all to dumb these inmates down further with some kind of watered down "easy English" text. They needed to come up, and they needed a reliable text to do so. It took three years to finish Genesis. We then went to Romans for three more years, and have been in Hebrews for two years. Historical, prophetic, and poetic Scriptures have been included in the exposition of the main text. Honest, straight-forward answers were given even when the answer would be painful and cross the grain of what many were taught or familiar with, such as divorce and remarriage (God hates it), women in church leadership (the Scriptures do not approve it), and the sign gifts of the Spirit (Acts 5 records the Biblical account of being slain in the Spirit and Psalm 2 reveals a laughing revival).

The Benefit of Long Patience in Harvest

God promises that His Word would not return void, and the wasteland in the Chapel of the Repentant Thief began to bloom. Attendance has increased and held steady with between 150-170 men regularly coming to the service. Argumentative individuals refuse to come anymore, or have come to the place where they listen; and some have come to a clear Biblical understanding of justification by grace alone, through Christ alone, through faith alone. Inmate led Bible studies are going on every day and the desire for theological depth continues to grow. As constant warnings are issued against dead orthodoxy, there is a corresponding heart desire to see the lost evangelized, and reformation and revival in the lives of believers who live in the confines of steel and razor wire. Believers generally have experienced the "grounding and settling" effect of the truth; and many who meet Biblical qualifications for leading the church are being challenged and led by the Spirit of God to come forth and strive to please Him Who has chosen them to be soldiers.

The following is one of many letters I have received:

Dear Bro. Tom,
You have truly been a blessing in my life during my stay here at RCI. I love you in the Lord, brother.... God has anointed you with the special ability to teach and explain His Word in a way that anyone can understand. I believe that God has placed a similar calling on my life and I pray each day I'll be blessed with the same abilities... which will enable me also to get the job done. I have absorbed a significant amount of scriptural knowledge.... I can't thank the Lord enough for allowing you to come forth to share with us here. I make it a habit to take notes and study so that I can someday have the opportunity to minister to some thirsty souls for Christ.
Prayerfully,
E.B. Sr.

The Need for Laborers
The prisons of this land are white unto harvest. The need is for a sound theology that instructs the head, and the Spirit's power that transforms the heart and sends those forth whose only charge in the courts would now be loyalty to King Jesus. Many may think that there is enough "ministry" going on in prisons; therefore, they assume there is no need to direct time and energy there. But much of the "ministry" going on is heretical. It is heresy when the Bible is taught in a way that leaves man thinking that God exists to glorify man and enjoy man's presence forever. It is gross error when men are taught that prayer is the means to spiritual socialism where all God's children wear blue suede shoes and drive Cadillacs and never get sick. Inmates have a regular and full diet of tapes, books, and Bible studies provided from every brand of ministry under the sun. It is time for the truly Bible-believing Christians to stop being spiritual "naval gazers" and lift up their eyes and buy up the opportunities in the steel and concrete mission fields of this land.


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