Monday, September 30, 2013

Henry Gerecke, Chaplain to the Nazis at Nuremberg

Pastor Henry Gerecke
Facebook, despite its time-consuming capability and other sundry irritants—"vaguebooking," Seinfeld-worthy excursions into the banal minutiae of our daily lives, bitching and moaning about the vicissitudes of our favorite sports teams (of which I, in particular, am too often guilty; I am, after all, from "Negadelphia")—nevertheless serves a useful purpose, both in staying connected to old friends and relations who live far away and also in exchanging information about which we otherwise would remain ignorant. Just this past weekend I had this latter experience, as my old friend David Brandt posted a link to a blog post at the Gospel Coalition entitled "From Hitler's Wolves to Christ's Lambs," the story of an obscure Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor from the American Midwest called Henry Gerecke, who served as the chaplain to 15 high-ranking Nazi War Criminals on trial for crimes against humanity at Nuremberg from 1945-46.

Joachim von Ribbentrop

Reading the post (as well as the chapter on Gerecke in Don Stephens's War and Grace) was a tear-inducing experience, both in reflection on the heinous crimes these men perpetrated and in grateful rumination on the matchless grace of God who in and because of Christ rescued some of these men and me from the eternal consequences we all have earned. Some of the names are familiar to anyone even mildly conversant with the history of the 20th century: Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering, Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop. That some remained hardened (Hess) or deeply cynical (Goering) is hardly surprising. What did surprise me (though it shouldn't have) was the apparently genuine repentance worked in some of these men by God's Spirit. Most striking of all was the case of Ribbentrop, who initially was coolly indifferent to the claims of Christ and to Gerecke's services, but who gradually showed unmistakable signs of repentance and was finally admitted to communion after the final plea at his trial. When on the gallows the American executioner asked if he had any final words to speak, Ribbentrop responded in a way I could not better: "I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul."

To many in today's Postmodern West such deathbed conversions are suspicious. To others the very notion of such conversions, whether genuine or not—especially if "genuine"—is scandalous. How is it "fair" that such men as Ribbentrop get to "go to heaven" when they performed such unspeakable acts during their lives? Such an objection, though perhaps understandable from the standpoint of the wisdom of this age, nonetheless fails to reckon with the real scandal here. As Chad Bird writes in his TGC post, "The scandal of Christianity is not that these men went to heaven; it is that God loved them so much that he was willing to die to get them there. Had it been a human decision, many would have thrown these men, guilty of such atrocities, into the flames of hell." 

The rejection of the Christian message as "scandalous" is nothing new, of course, as St. Paul knew all too well (1 Cor 1:18-25). But, at least in this context, such a rejection is based on a massive misunderstanding, to wit, that some people are more innately "worthy" of "salvation" than others, and that others are lost causes and forever debarred from "heaven" because of their empirically horrific moral resumĂ©. Moreover, this misunderstanding fails to take into consideration some quite famous New Testament examples. Primary, of course, among these is the case of the Jewish revolutionary guerrilla who was crucified at Jesus' side on Golgotha (Luke 23). But the list would also have to include the Apostle Paul himself, who considered himself the "worst of sinners" (1 Tim 1:15) and one not worthy to be called an apostle (1 Cor 15:9) because he persecuted the church, attempting, as his admirer and co-worker Luke put it, to "destroy" it (Acts 8:3) and "breathing out murderous threats" against the disciples (Acts 9:1). But God, in his gracious sovereignty, called and regenerated him on the road to Damascus, and the Apostle never got over it. As he wrote to the Corinthian church he had founded, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect" (1 Cor 15:10). And reflection on that grace led, as it must do, to praise: "Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen." (1 Tim 1:17).

What the West's cultured objectors fail to appreciate is the simple fact that one can never "earn" God's grace. And that means conversely that no one is ever debarred in principle from being its recipient. Grace, by definition, is favor bestowed where such largess is undeserved. But, as my dad taught me so well when I was an undergraduate, grace, in the Pauline sense, is more than "undeserved favor." It is favor extended where wrath is deserved. And it is the whole world that needs such grace, including those moralists who imagine they have no such need. And the New Testament is unanimous in its testimony that God is sovereign to bestow that grace (and the mercy which is simply God's grace viewed from a different angle) when and to whomever he wills, and—most importantly—on the basis of the shed blood of his Son alone. St. Paul, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and I, Jimmy McGahey, all are sinners whose salvation is based solely on external grounds, namely, on what God in Christ did for us on the cross of Calvary. All of us can say a hearty "Amen" to the words of the great Charles Wesley, who wrote these immortal words back in 1749:
We have no other argument,
We need no other plea;
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.
Soli Deo Gloria. 


  1. I read this article on TGC when it came out and was moved to tears as I researched the history to Gerecke. Reading your blog brings back the same emotions again as I reflect on God's grace for a wretch like me. Thank you for your careful and thought weave of Scripture to reveal the "favor extended where wrath is deserved" truth that is all to often missed in the western church!

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