Monday, February 25, 2013

Forgiving Legree

       At this moment, Legree sauntered up to the door of the shed, looked in with a dogged air of affected carelessness, and turned away.
       "The old Satan!" said George, in his indignation. "It's a comfort to think the devil will pay him for this some of these days!"
       "Oh, don't! -- oh, ye musn't!" said Tom, grasping his hand; "he's a poor mis'able crittur. It's awful to think on't! Oh, if he only could repent, the Lord would forgive him now! But I'm 'feared he never will."
       "I hope he won't!" said George. "I never want to see him in heaven."
       "Hush, Mas'r George! It worries me! Don't feel so! He an't done me no real harm--only opened the gate of the kingdom for me; that's all!"
       At this moment, the sudden flush of strength which the joy of meeting his young master had infused into the dying man gave way. A sudden sinking fell upon him; he closed his eyes; and that mysterious and sublime change passed over his face that told of the approach of other worlds.

- Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin is an interesting book. In the more than 160 years since its publication it has been met with mixed feelings. Stowe meant it to be a voice for the slaves of the South. (It was published not long before the beginning of the Civil War). But in the years following "Uncle Tom" became an offensive term, defined by the dictionary as "a black man who is thought to be too solicitous of or subservient to white people." It is a reaction that Stowe never intended and says a lot about our culture. For those who've never read the book, I'll provide a bit of background:

Uncle Tom's Cabin tells the story of a faithful slave who is sold when his master falls on hard times. Tom is forced to leave his wife and family and is passed from house to house. Eventually he falls into the hands of brutal landowner Simon Legree. Foul and heartless, Legree beats Tom within an inch of his life when the calm and quiet man won't reveal the whereabouts of two escaped slaves. The punishment is so severe that Tom eventually dies, on the very day that his original master's son George had come to bring him home.

I cannot in one paragraph convey the emotional power of Stowe's book, nor the poignancy of Tom's death, which I have recounted in the quote above. Read the book yourself, and you will see what I mean. A Christian sees Tom's persistent love, how he chides George for his lack of compassion, his longing for heaven and prayer that his murder might find that same salvation. In it they find a picture of Christ. Tom is not weak or subservient or solicitous. He is as our Savior was in Isaiah 53:7, "He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth." 

I have not read Uncle Tom's Cabin in years. But it came to my mind this weekend as we were singing "The Glory of the Cross" during Sunday's service. The first verse goes like this:

"What wisdom once devised the plan
"Where all our sin and pride
"Was placed upon the perfect Lamb
"Who suffered bled and died?
"The wisdom of a Sovereign God
"Whose greatness will be shown
"When those who crucified Your Son
"Rejoice around Your throne."

The truth in those words is incredible, and something occurred to me while I was singing that never occurred to me before. You may be familiar with the "courtroom analogy" used in evangelism to help unbelievers understand the magnitude of what Christ did for them in dying on the cross. It begins by putting the unbeliever in the place of a condemned criminal. You ask them to imagine that they have committed some heinous crime, such as rape or murder and that they face either $1,000,000 in fines or life in prison. No amount of arguing or pleading with the judge will make him change his mind. They obviously cannot pay the fine, and so are faced with a lifetime of punishment. But then, someone whom they have never met walks into the courtroom and places $1,000,000 on the judge's bench, stating that they've sold everything they own to purchase the freedom of the condemned. 

The magnitude of such sacrifice is staggering, and as an evangelism tool I believe the parable is complete. The unbeliever does not know Jesus, so to describe the Christ figure in the story as "someone they have never met" is correct. On the other hand, the courtroom analogy is missing something of what believers know to be true, something that both painfully and beautifully adds to the story of salvation, something that explains why Uncle Tom was such a picture of our Lord and Savior.

The man who walks into the courtroom and pays your fine is NOT someone who you have never met. He is the very person against whom you committed the crime. Imagine the victim of a rape walking into the courtroom and taking the punishment for the person who attacked them. It is unfathomable, but in essence that is exactly what Christ did. Every sin we have committed has been committed directly against our Maker and God. The offended party paid the ultimate price that we might have communion with Him. 

You and I are Simon Legree, the greedy, callous slaveholder who could care less how many lives he destroyed. And yet, Christ is eager to forgive us. I will never understand that, except to rest in the knowledge that my God is just as loving as He is just. Infinite righteousness and jealousy for the glory of His name are matched by infinite grace. So that we are able to sing with the hymn writer:

"Nothing in my hand I bring;
"Simply to the cross I cling;
"Naked, come to Thee for dress;
"Helpless look to Thee for grace;
"Foul, I to the fountain fly;
"Wash me, Savior, or I die."


  1. I'm going to change the way I have been presenting this analogy. What an excellent observation.

  2. You have been granted much insight and on!

  3. "The man who walks into the courtroom and pays your fine is NOT someone who you have never met. He is the very person who you committed the crime against. Imagine the victim of a rape walking into the courtroom and taking the punishment for the person who attacked them. "

    Any judge that allowed such a thing would be removed from the bench instantly and likely put in a mental institution.

    Punishment by proxy is immoral and promotes a lack of responsibility for one's own actions.