A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

The Repentant Jailer

My last entry was on Paul and Silas being freed from prison and not walking away. There was one part of the story I left out: the salvation of the jailer.

When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. (Acts 16:27-34 ESV)

So many times we hear abuse victims are to forgive their abusers and seek reconciliation. Jeff C and Barbara are quick to caution that repentance is rare for an abuser and abusers are experts at saying what needs to be heard for them to continue in their abuse. So what about the jailer in the above account? Was he a true repentant abuser?

First I would note that while he was responsible for some of the abuse the Paul and Silas received, he was not an abuser in the sense of having a sense of entitlement, power, and control. He was doing his job, and in this case his job was abusive because he was incarcerating an innocent man. That being said, “just doing my job” was probably was not of great comfort to Paul and Silas, and we see in the account where Peter was released from prison that God allowed the guards to be put to death.

So what was different about this jailer? It appears to me that here is a man who took responsibility for his failures and truly sought God in repentance. When he believed that Paul and Silas had left, he did what Roman code called for: he sought to take his own life. Note that this is no cry for help or tool to control others. In this case suicide was an acceptance of responsibility, fully expected of someone in his position. He could have made excuses, plead his case, and tried to get out of his fate. Surely his superiors would recognize that an earthquake is no usual event and have mercy? But he does not do this. He does not demand that he be shown mercy, nor does he threaten Paul and demand rescue once he finds out Paul is still alive. This man is not a man who feels entitled; he feels responsible.

And in his responsibility, he wants to gain salvation. He demands nothing from Paul and Silas or God, but he does want to know the truth and submits to it once it is given, demonstrated by having his whole family baptized. This is a picture of true repentance and a man who really sought God. And God was faithful to this man’s heart by not allowing him to be executed in ignorance like Peter’s guards, but instead redeemed and delivered him both from sin and his present calamity.

Was this whole account engineered on this jailer’s behalf? God is certainly that big and that merciful, and bless Paul for being sensitive to the Spirit in seeing the repentance in this man. Paul could have walked away justly, but he did not. We must note, though, that Paul showed mercy not to a man who begged, pleaded, threatened, and manipulated to get it, but a man who owned his fate and threw himself at the feet of God.

To bring this full circle back to my previous entry, in Acts we see Paul endure great cost to himself over and over again in order to preach the Gospel to repentant hearts. This jailer is an example of a willing heart, the kind of person for whom Paul was willing to put his life on the line. Can you imagine if Paul and Silas had just left and told the story to the other Christians when they got to a safe place: “Well, there was a jailer who wanted to know about salvation, but clearly God provided for our escape so we booked it out of there!” Not very characteristic of Paul, is it?

I believe as Christians we are called to suffer at times for the sake of the Gospel and to do it with joy, but this is completely different from suffering for a person who seeks to manipulate and control and will feign repentance in order to continue the abuse. I hope that by looking at a picture of what real repentance looks like we can have a better picture of what false repentance looks like as well.


  1. Still scared

    Cheering! Such a wonderful , clear example of the difference between true repentance and remorse for being caught.

  2. Martin

    Jeff S;

    This is a great topic, and your illustration is extremely helpful. Abusers will often say “I’m sorry” and expect everything to go right back the way it was. I heard “I’m sorry” from my abusive spouse several hundred times in twelve years. It’s been a long time since those days. I’ve learned a lot but first and foremost, I’ve learned that believers and unbelievers are different.

    To me, Barbara and others have demonstrated that abusers should be treated as unbelievers. The church should dictate this first measure of repentance. The early church always took a very serious approach when considering restoring those who had once been part of their fellowship but later denied the faith. Consider, for example, what third century church father Cyprian required for repentance to be judged authentic;

    “You must pray more eagerly and entreat; you must spend the day in grief; wear out nights in watchings and weepings; occupy all your time in wailful lamentations; lying stretched on the ground, you must cling close to the ashes, be surrounded with sackcloth and filth; after losing the raiment of Christ, you must be willing now to have no clothing; after the devil’s meat, you must prefer fasting; be earnest in righteous works, whereby sins may be purged; frequently apply yourself to almsgiving, whereby souls are freed from death” (Cyprian, Treatise III, On the Lapsed).

    Cyprian and others took great time to root such guidelines in Biblical truth. Today’s church takes the whole issue of unbelievers in their midst far too lightly. Somebody says, “I’m sorry – I really do believe” and we restore fellowship no questions asked.

    Abusers want immediate restoration of the norm when they confess (even at times with great emotional emphasis). But, are they willing to entertain very Biblical contrition in order to demonstrate their sincerity? Are they reading their Bible? Will they attend church? Will they pray? Will they fast? Will they make amends? Will they attend counseling with the counselor of your choosing? Are they ready to live by boundaries? If not, I would suggest their repentance to be no more than vain babble.

  3. aspen

    And then there are the “religiously addicted” abusers, who do pray and fast (to excess), who do attend every meeting they can get to in multiple churches, who do all sorts of “religious good deeds” to make themselves feel good (getting “high” on religioun) and to make themselves look good to others. But even in all that, there is no real repentance, no real empathy for the ones they offend in “doing their good works”, no real love for their spouse and children, no real love for God. It is still “all about them”. But for people who don’t understand the underlying thought patterns, it looks very good, especially for the first while. Then, as reality starts to peek its ugly head through the religious facade, the person moves on to another church, more groups, still looking for those who “understand” and who “really want to follow Christ”, as opposed to those who challenge them on their thinking patterns and sinful behaviours. Fortunately, we have a God Who knows our hearts – and loves us anyway. He knows the true heart of the abuser. I can’t make the decision about his heart, but I can trust God to know and do the right thing, in His time. (I just get tired of waiting…)

    • anonymous


      I can totally relate to what you say about the abuser covering his tracks through various constructed appearances and good deeds. From the outside all looks noble and like genuine repentance has occurred, but from the internal view of the private relationship — where no ownership of mistreatment has occurred, no empathy has been shown, no understanding expressed or desire to rebuild trust has been demonstrated but instead quite the opposite – an attitude of entitlement to trust … a “How dare you not trust me!” spirit… This reality of a behavioral contradiction to what is being presented outwardly is all the more wounding because it reveals there has been no real heart change at all. It reveals dishonesty is alive and well and that manipulation of reality remains the favored method…. A grand “performance” is presented to onlookers so that ultimately the victim is made out to appear to be difficult and unforgiving. Shameful. The conscience of these men have to be seared. I don’t know how they sleep at night.

      • Aspen and Anon, I hear the pain behind your words. The religiously showy abuser is one of the worst, and so many in the church fall for it. Hugs and sympathy to you both.

    • Jeff S

      Yes, the outward must be an overflow from the inward, otherwise you just have a Pharisee. And who did Jesus rebuke the most? Those relying on the outward signs of repentance to mask their inwardly hostile-to-God hearts. They fooled many, but they did not fool Jesus.

  4. MeganC

    So so good, Jeff!! YES! I love this part right here:

    I believe as Christians we are called to suffer at times for the sake of the Gospel and to do it with joy, but this is completely different from suffering for a person who seeks to manipulate and control and will feign repentance in order to continue the abuse.

    I am so glad you wrote this post. I have wanted to paint a picture of what a repentant abuser looks like and this is a great portrait. A repentant former abuser does not demand mercy, demand the other person be healed immediately, demand forgiveness, demand spacey forgetfulness….a repentant man takes responsibility….for the sin and the OUTCOME of that sin. Admirable.

  5. anon

    I bumped into such a great passage a few days ago regarding those who are “religious addicts”…whitewashed tombs who hide behind their seemingly righteous facade…

    Psalm 94:20 “Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with You [Lord}?-They who frame and hide their unrighteous doings under [the sacred name of] law?”

    Pharisees cannot fellowship with Christ. They DO NOT KNOW HIM! They do not represent Him, nor His ways! And yes, He will not be fooled! Oh the comfort this brings! The “Grand Performance” will be laid bare and the truth will be made known.

    “Lord, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will prepare their heart; You will cause Your ear to hear, to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may oppress no more.”~Psalm 10:17-18 Amen!

    • Song

      Anon, Yes!!! Everything you said…Yes!! Perfect! Fantastic! Great verses!
      “They DO NOT KNOW HIM!” Exactly! They re-present an anti-Christ.
      Thank you for sharing your bumpings. 🙂

      • Anon

        You are welcome, Song! All of our “bumpings” are led by the Lord! 🙂

    • Barnabasintraining

      That is a great verse!

      I looked it up on Bible Gateway and got it in all the English versions. The wording of some is stronger than others, but it’s fun to see it said so many ways.

      Psalm 94:20

      • Anon

        Thank you BIT! So amazing to read all the different versions!

    • KayE

      Anon, that is so true. “Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” 3 John:11 ESV

  6. Joyce

    Oh wow – God gave me that verse before I left – Psalm 94:20. So cool to see it in all the versions. It was so hard to sort it all out because my husband seemed so right in all his accusations against me. And my church was telling me I had no reason to leave.

    • Anon

      Yes, there is so much confusion, Joyce. But isn’t it incredible how God will faithfully speak through His word? One of my first moments of absolute clarity that God was asking me to leave came from Nahum 1:13 “For now I will break off his yoke from you, and burst your bonds apart.” I had NEVER seen that passage before. Immediately as I read it the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart…”this is for you. It is time to leave.” I had a picture in my mind of us being at a fork in the road, yoked together, then God removing it. My ex went one way and I went another. At that moment the bondage began to lift.

      • MeganC

        Oh, I LOVE this verse, sweet Anon! I had never seen this one. I just looked it up in The Message and it said this:

        ….From now on I’m taking the yoke from your neck
        and splitting it up for kindling.
        I’m cutting you free
        from the ropes of your bondage.” [Nahum 1:13]

        God likes to do that. 🙂

  7. anon

    Yes He does! Thanks MeganC! So blessed by your posts!

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