by Andrew Lansdown

A pardon for prisoners

I was sitting in prison with six other men. We were gathered around a table and we each had a mug of mud-tasting coffee and an open Bible. I was the only one not dressed in a khaki uniform, the only one who could pass through the gates later in the day and go home. These prisoners were my students and they were trying to understand the Christian answer to the profound, pressing question, "What must I do to be saved?"

Most interestingly, given our circumstances, the Bible records that this exact question was first asked and answered in a prison. Furthermore, it was posed by a prison warden and answered by two prison inmates! Knowing that these two "jailbirds" were Christians who had been jailed for preaching about Jesus, the jailer asked them, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They replied simply and directly, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:30-31, ESV).

"But why," one of my students asked, "why should we be condemned just because we don't believe?"

The good news of salvation is necessarily shadowed by the bad news of damnation and my students were momentarily troubled by that bad news.

breaking chain

I had already shown from the Bible that, by the sacrifice of His Son, God has done everything that needs to be done to achieve our salvation, which He offers to us as a gift; and in response, He requires simply that we take hold of the gift by believing in His Son. We do not have to perform onerous rituals to earn our salvation; nor do we have to meet impossible moral standards to merit it: we simply have to humble ourselves to accept it. From the human side, the sole requirement for salvation from sin and punishment is faith, trust, belief, in "the Saviour of the world" (John 4:42, 1 John 4:14).

One Bible passage we looked at in this regard was a statement by the Lord Jesus Himself: "God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Another Bible passage was written by the Apostle Paul, whom Jesus appointed to speak on His behalf after His resurrection and return to heaven: "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). In sum (to quote again the two prisoners mentioned above, one of whom was the Apostle Paul himself): "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved."

After considerable discussion, my students seemed at last to get what the Bible was saying about salvation—they seemed at last to grasp the fact that it is God's gift to those who believe in Jesus. But, to my surprise, they did not seem to welcome this good news. Indeed, no sooner had they grasped it than they began to object to it.

"But why should we be condemned just because we don't believe?"

"Yeah, it doesn't seem fair," another prisoner agreed.

"You've got it the wrong way around," I replied. "The Bible doesn't say that we will be condemned if we don't believe. It says that each one of us is condemned already, but if we do believe in Jesus Christ we will be pardoned."

I drew their attention to Jesus' own claim that "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him" (John 3:36). This statement reveals that God's condemnation of sinners is not only a future prospect but also a present reality. Because of our selfishness and wrongdoing, God is already infuriated with us. How we respond to His Son will determine whether His fury will continue or cease.

This is also the gist of other statements Jesus made. For example: "Whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already" (John 3:18); and, "whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24). Jesus plainly considers us to be in immense danger—condemned already and as good as dead. He also plainly considers that our response to Him will determine whether or not we remain in danger.

The psalmist declares, "from heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die" (Psalm 102:19-20). We are the prisoners of whom the psalmist is speaking. Having broken God's moral law, we have been bound over for judgment. But this situation gives God no pleasure. Long ago He looked down and saw us languishing in the death cells. He had pity on us and initiated a plan to set us free.

The law justly demanded our death, but God sent His Son to make amends on our behalf. The Lord Jesus willing went to the cross to suffer the punishment we deserve. His execution met the conditions to secure our release. God has written a pardon in His blood. This pardon becomes ours when we personally turn away from our sins and believe in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

God both urges and promises: "Take hold of the pardon by faith and go free!" But He also warns: "There is no other means of escape. If you reject the pardon, you will remain in prison and ultimately the death sentence will be carried out."

To answer my students' question with a question: Can God be fairer than that?

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