Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.Try Tabletalk Now
Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?
Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.
Dr. R.C. Sproul once recounted his first experience with visiting a maximum-security prison in Minnesota. R.C.’s friend was preaching in a ratty old auditorium to about four hundred of the most hardened criminals in the state. He noted that it was a frightening experience. After he left, Dr. Sproul offered the following reflection:
As I left the confines of the prison, I carried a profound sense of satisfaction, for at least on one occasion I fulfilled the direct mandate of Christ to visit those who are in prison (Matt. 25:36; Heb. 13:3; 1 Peter 3:19). Since that initial visit, I have had many other experiences in prisons and considerable exposure to inmates, as we regularly hold seminars for them.
Most Americans are unaware that nearly one out of every one hundred people in the United States is incarcerated. Most of us have never known someone who has been incarcerated. Because of this, churches can easily overlook prison ministry. Out of sight, out of mind. Dr. Sproul saw firsthand the necessity for prison ministry. He came away from that initial visit with a sense of gratification that he remembered those in prison. It is important that the church also minister to those who are incarcerated because Scripture commands us to show compassion to and to remember and receive the imprisoned.
Jesus calls His people to show compassion to those in prison. Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:36—“I was in prison and you came to me”—are commonly used as a proof-text to care for those incarcerated. And so they are. But how are we to do so? Let us remove our twenty-first-century Western understanding of imprisonment and consider its broader context. Jesus also states, “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me” (v. 36) and “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (v. 40). Jesus emphasizes that the Christian’s compassion for those in need reveals his inward righteousness. In other words, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked do not make one righteous. But instead, those who are truly righteous in Christ, those who have experienced Christ’s compassion in their own lives, desire to show compassion for those in need, the hungry, the thirsty, and the imprisoned—especially with respect to other believers in those situations.
Even today, many inmates lack the necessary food, water, or clothing in prison. The incarcerated need our compassion. Those in prison need the physical, emotional, and spiritual support of in-person visitation or written correspondence. One of the ways that Christ calls believers to provide evidence of holiness in their lives is through exercising compassion for those imprisoned. To care for the incarcerated is to live in obedience to Christ. Jesus says in verse 40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” By ministering to incarcerated brothers and sisters, we minister to Christ. We must recognize that the church behind bars is nevertheless part of the invisible church of Christ.
Jesus commands His church to remember those in prison, especially those who are imprisoned on account of their faith. The author of Hebrews writes to Christians, many of whom were under persecution at the time: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Heb. 13:3). Throughout the New Testament, we read of the mistreatments and sufferings of Christians (Heb. 10:32–34) and wrongful imprisonments (Acts 5:18; 16:25–31; 28:14–15). Rather than encouraging the church to avoid those in prison, they ought to remember them. Further, we ought to think of ourselves as if we were imprisoned with them. As members of the same body, we are to consider the church behind bars no differently than we consider the active members of the local congregation to which we are committed. As John Calvin wrote, “There is nothing that can give us a more genuine feeling of compassion than to put ourselves in the place of those who are in distress [incarcerated].”
Are there no elect in prison? Surely God’s people are there. So let us consider the church behind bars not as a dying church but as a part of the church, the one body of Christ. The incarcerated are some of the most intentionally forgotten people in our society. Just because the general public cannot see the incarcerated church does not mean that it does not exist. On the contrary, incarcerated Christians are members of Christ’s body. Remembering the incarcerated should be considered a part of building and edifying the local church. The church is blessed as it counsels, reaches, teaches, and preaches to those behind bars. Christ would have His church learn how to sympathize with their Christian brothers and sisters who have been transformed by the power of the gospel behind bars. In most cases, it is only a matter of time before they physically join a local church.
Jesus commands us to welcome those who share our faith in Him, and this includes believers who have been imprisoned. Consider the book of Philemon, a story of reconciliation and restoration. A friend of the Apostle Paul named Onesimus had stolen from his master, Philemon, and escaped. While on the run, Onesimus met Paul and was saved under the Apostle’s ministry, and Paul sent him back (reentry) to Philemon. Philemon was a Christian, and Paul urged him to “receive [Onesimus] as you would receive me” (Philemon 17)—as a fellow partaker of the same grace of the gospel. Paul further explained to Philemon that Onesimus was now more valuable as a Christian than he had been beforehand. If only the church today was as welcoming to those who have come to faith in Christ while in prison as Paul urged Philemon to be toward Onesimus.
More than ten thousand men and women are released back into society every week in the United States. Inmates who eventually leave prison will reenter our society. Ninety-five percent of the approximately two million incarcerated in America will return to a neighborhood near you. They shop in the same stores, drive on the same roads, and visit the same libraries. They may even live on the same street. One of the most significant challenges that those reentering society face is not knowing where and how to resume their lives. They must also deal with the strain that they have placed on their families. The penitent ex-convict who has received God’s forgiveness needs a family to welcome him home. The church can meet this need. The preaching of the gospel to inmates affects every community where inmates go when they are released. Transformed men and women often become blessings to the church just as Onesimus became one.
It is important that the church minister to the incarcerated because Scripture commands us to care for, remember, and receive the imprisoned. To that end, here are a few ways that Ligonier is seeking to equip churches and believers to carry out the task of ministering to those in prison:
Dr. Sproul’s reaction to his first prison visit serves as an excellent reminder that we are carrying on the legacy and burden that was impressed on the heart of Ligonier’s founder so many years ago. Ligonier’s prison outreach exists to reach the incarcerated with the knowledge of God and the hope of the gospel. We accomplish this by emphasizing the need for a right understanding of who God is and how this leads to a right understanding of ourselves. Right theology leads to right living, and the Lord uses the teaching of His Word to set souls free from the prison of sin (Isa. 61:1). Ligonier supplies good biblical and theological resources to correctional facility chaplains and inmates to help incarcerated men and women rebuild their lives on the solid foundation of Scripture.
Ligonier serves prison chaplains by providing them with credits to obtain discipleship resources for effective prison ministry. We also offer chaplains complimentary bulk subscriptions to Tabletalk magazine. We are eager to supply access to many Ligonier teaching series and the Ligonier Connect online learning platform that can be broadcast throughout the facility’s closed-circuit television systems or uploaded onto the electronic devices that some inmates can access. In addition to these resources, Ligonier covers the cost of admission for all correctional chaplains and their spouses who want to attend Ligonier’s national or regional conferences.
Ligonier provides inmates with access to a wide range of free resources. Over the past four years, we have directly served more than fifteen thousand inmates across America. We receive more than 150 letters each week from inmates requesting resources. In response to such correspondence, we provide free copies of the Reformation Study Bible in a format that complies with most correctional facilities’ standards. We have also given many inmates complimentary subscriptions to Tabletalk. In addition to these resources, we offer inmates a request form for them to obtain books written by Dr. Sproul, our Ligonier Teaching Fellows, and other authors that are available in our online store. Our Ask Ligonier service provides inmates with a platform to ask biblical and theological questions and to receive answers from well-trained staff members.
Ligonier is honored to minister to those in prison, and our supporters make this work possible. There are other ministries and churches doing good gospel ministry in prisons as well. Whatever the avenue we choose, let us as the people of God work to make sure that incarcerated men and women can access the hope of the gospel.