ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–It’s a salvation story of epic 11th-hour proportions. Its cast includes a respected judge, a wife desperate to see her husband come to faith in Jesus Christ and a Southern Baptist pastor who spoke the right words at just right time.
Bob Wattles of Orlando, Fla., was a longtime Orange County circuit judge who won both praise and criticism for his rulings but was always respected for acting according to his deeply held principles. At age 62, Wattles made his greatest decision of all, giving his life to Christ just eight weeks before losing his battle with cancer on Sunday, Jan. 24.
So, how did his end-of-life miracle come about? First, some background into the judge’s spiritual condition.
“Bob grew up in a Christian family, but I don’t know if he ever established a personal relationship with Christ,” said Patricia Strowbridge, Wattles’ wife of nearly 15 years. “As he grew older and because of the requirements of his job, I think whatever bit of relationship he had really got squashed down to the point that he drifted so far away that he was unable to surrender any part of his life to Christ.”
Her husband’s choice not to accept Christ weighed heavily on Strowbridge.
“This was a heartache to me for many, many years,” she said. “At the very end of his life, I didn’t know where his relationship was with the Lord, and this was very troubling to me because I felt that, with cancer winning the battle, my children would look at me and ask, ‘Is Dad in heaven?’ I would never be able to lie to my children; if they saw doubt in my eyes, it would break their heart. I prayed so hard that he would find a way of surrender to Jesus Christ.”
As Wattles’ cancer continued to spread, Strowbridge knew she needed outside help. She called on Randall James, a pastor at First Baptist Church in Orlando and chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. James also is a former chief-of-staff for four Orlando mayors and had known Judge Wattles for about 16 years.
“Patricia called me because she knew I had been treated for cancer for the past 23 years,” James said. “She asked me if I would speak to her husband and I told her I would be honored to.”
While James wanted to encourage Wattles not to give up his fight against cancer or succumb to self-pity, he knew that the judge had a far bigger need.
“During our very first conversation, I posed the question, ‘Do you know for sure that if you died tonight you would be in heaven?’ ” James recalled. “The answer was something to the effect of, ‘I hope so.'”
James knew what he had to do next.
“I told him, ‘You can have the same assurance that your wife and I have that we will one day be in heaven. It requires a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
James then shared with Wattles what he calls the “ABCs of evangelism.”
“I said to the judge, ‘A, admit you are a sinner; B, believe that Jesus died on the cross and that His blood paid your sin debt; and C, confess Jesus Christ as Lord.’ I told the judge we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation, but that Jesus made it as simple as possible. We don’t have to write a check, join the church or even be baptized; we only have to accept Jesus into our hearts.”
With that, James extended an invitation.
“I said to the judge, ‘Because accepting Christ is so simple, what do you have to lose, brother?’ I then prayed the prayer of salvation and asked him if he had accepted Jesus into his heart and he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Welcome to the Kingdom of Christ.'”
That conversation took place at a prayer and healing service at First Baptist Orlando last November and the timing could not have been better.
“When Randall said to my husband, ‘… what do you have to lose, brother?’ a complete change came over him and he said, ‘You’re right, and accepted Jesus into his heart,'” Strowbridge said. “Right after that, his condition began to grow even worse.”
Just six days before Wattles went home to be with the Lord, Strowbridge invited James to the house to speak with the judge once more.
“When Pastor Randall left that evening, he gave me a hug and said, ‘Your husband is well with the Lord,'” Strowbridge recounted. “That gave me a lot of encouragement because Pastor James was the last person my husband had a coherent, lucid conversation with. When he woke up the next day, he could no longer speak intelligibly [because the cancer had entered his brain]. By the weekend, he had lost all coherence.”
For James, that final visit with Wattles was a sweet time of fellowship between two children of God.
“We reconfirmed his salvation and talked about heaven,” James said. “We chatted about a few other things, then I got down on my knees at his bedside. He … reached out his hands and I took hold of them.”
It was a familiar sight to James.
“His fingers were completely swollen, and I knew why. They were swollen from the chemotherapy and the steroid that helps build strength following chemo treatments. So I took his two swollen hands, prayed with him and gave him a kiss on the cheek and walked out.”
Six days later, Wattles lost his battle with cancer.
“I am so glad that his pain and suffering is over,” James said. “He is at peace with Jesus.”
On Thursday, Jan. 28, James had the opportunity of giving the message at Judge Wattles’ funeral at First Baptist, which was attended by nearly 1,000 people, including about 60 Orange County judges. James was bold in sharing the plan of salvation.
“We are all just visitors and aliens on this earth,” James said. “If we want to have eternal life with God the Father, we must turn from our sins and confess our faith in Jesus Christ. This is how we can be sure that we will spend eternity in heaven. I know that this is where Bob is right now and that he wants everyone in this room to be where he is now.
“In fact, Bob is more alive now than ever.”
David Ettinger is a staff writer and editor at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla.