Leo Tolstoy in 1863
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a man of huge contradictions. He was born into the wealthiest class in Russia in the 1800’s, and though he took advantage all the benefits of his privileged life, he despised his wealth and was envious of the simple life of the poor. He is considered by many to be the greatest novelist the world has ever known; yet, he would grow tired of writing and would quit for years at a time, spending much of his time as a field hand. He struggled mightily with the words of Jesus and wrote powerful books on what it meant to really follow Jesus with all your heart and mind and soul, obeying him in absolutely everything. And when he wasn’t writing books on whole-hearted obedience to Christ, he was in bed with the female servants in the family’s huge mansion. He wrote books on the duties of the governing authorities before God and would thunder on about God’s coming judgment on their disobedience, violence, and injustice. Those books influenced many world leaders, including Gandhi, who influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela; and so it might be said that Tolstoy did much for world peace. Yet, there was never any peace in his own home, as he could be so overbearing and miserable to his own wife and children that they could hardly stand to have him around. Leo Tolstoy was a very good man and he was a very bad man.
Tolstoy despised his wealth and felt he could live more like Jesus if he lived the simple life of the poor farm-hands who worked his fields. He wrote wonderful stories about value of physical labor and about the dignity of the poor. At times, especially as a young man, he would attempt to live their life for a while, working along side of them in the fields, sharing their meager food, and sleeping in their primitive cottages. So Tolstoy was shocked one day when in a friendly conversation one of the poor workers told him, “We are not impressed, Leo, by your coming to live like us. You’ve always got your rich father to fall back on. You can leave this poverty any time it gets too rough for you, but we cannot. If it is a bad year in the fields, we won’t have enough to eat and some of us will die. But you won’t. You will go back to the big house with plenty of food. You’ve done it before and you’ll do it again. You aren’t one of us, Leo,” they said to him, “you just like to pretend you are one of us, until you get tired of it.”
The Gospel tells us that Jesus ‘took our place’ by dying on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. I began by telling you about Leo Tolstoy because what Tolstoy attempted was in fact, a very Christ-like thing to do. Tolstoy left his privileged position to live the life of the poor. Jesus left an infinitely more privileged position, the position of God in heaven, to come to earth and live the life of the people he created. The difference was Jesus that was playing for keeps. He came to earth to stay. He experienced all the joys of human life; a loving family, good friends, rewarding work, good food, and all the rest. But Jesus also experienced all the very worst that human life has to offer; poverty, danger, temptation, grief at the death of loved ones, rejection, betrayal, injustice, extreme pain and agony, death, and even hell. Unlike Tolstoy, Jesus lived an entire life, even unto life’s bitter end, without escaping to the comfort of his father’s house. The only thing Jesus had to fall back on was the same relief and comfort and strength that we are offered, that which comes from the promises of God’s Word and from turning to the Heavenly Father in prayer. Jesus certainly did ‘take our place’ by becoming one of us in every way.
Then on the cross, Jesus took our place in an even deeper and more profound way. Jesus took upon himself the punishment for our sins that we deserved, dying for us and even going to hell for us, so that we might live with him in heaven. While we were helpless, sinners, and enemies of God, Christ died for us, said Paul, taking upon himself the curse that should have been ours.
The Bible describes a God of love who is, at the same time, a just God; and in his infinite justice and wisdom, God could not simply overlook all the sins of all the world. “The wages of sin is death,” says the Bible. Right after the first sin, God told Adam and Eve they would return to the dust from which they were created. So we were helpless, and there was nothing we could do to atone for our many sins. The only way such an infinite number of sins could be taken care of was by an infinite being taking upon himself the just punishment for all that sin. So on the cross Jesus forgave our sins by becoming our substitute.
This idea of Jesus as our substitute has been illustrated in many ways over the years. One of the most famous illustrations is of the judge who hears the case, is informed of the guilty verdict by the jury, pronounces the death sentence, and then comes down off the bench and offers himself taken away to prison and execution in the place of the accused. The image is outrageous. No judge would ever do that and no court would ever allow it. And God’s merciful forgiveness of our sins by the death of the sinless Jesus in our place, is just as outrageous and unexpected. But that is indeed the clear Biblical truth.
One of the best illustrations of this comes from the days of the Watergate scandal. President Nixon’s chief of staff, Charles Colson was convicted of participating in the cover-up, and was sentenced two years in prison. Not only was Colson’s political career coming to an end, but his personal life at this time was falling apart. Among other things, Colson’s marriage was on the verge of breaking up, and, his son was having his own troubles with the law, and needed his father. Knowing all this, then Minnesota congressman Al Quie learned of an obscure law that allowed another man to serve prison time in place of the convicted man for non-violent crimes. Despite having his own family and career, Quie offered to be that substitute, and serve Colson’s term so that Colson could at least attempt to save his marriage and look after his son. It was an incredible offer. The judge refused the request, but Colson was profoundly moved by the offer, and that was a part of what led Colson to give his life to Christ.
Al Quie in Congress, 1977
What Al Quie offered to Charles Colson is just a small illustration of what Jesus provided for us when he went to hell in our place, and then rose from the dead so that we might also defeat death. Jesus took our place, so that we could live in his place, forever.
Isaiah 53:4-6 – Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Romans 5:17 – For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Galatians 3:13 – Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”
O God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
–Book of Common Prayer