SAM HOLMES thrust his ugly face between the bars of his cell in Frankfort, Kentucky, and morosely watched his friend Lucien Young walk down the long gray corridor toward him. Samuel Holmes, convicted of murder by a jury of his peers, was waiting to die.
But this friend of his - this Lucien Young - was a different sort of fellow. From Richmond to Lexington, they called him a hero. Not long ago, he had rescued three Kentuckians from sure death on a desperate, sinking ship. Now he was hailed by the people, cited by the legislature and praised by even the governor!
Striding down the dismal prison corridor that day, Lucien Young had every right in the world to believe he was about to save another life - the life of his old school friend, Sam Holmes. His hand in his pocket touched one of the most powerful papers any man can sign, that magical paper that keeps a man from the final, awful silence of the death chamber. In his pocket, neatly folded, was a governor's pardon, and on it was Samuel Holmes' name.
“If anyone else had appealed, Young - for your sake, for the sake of what you did for this state, your heroism - I'll sign. I'll pardon Samuel Holmes because he's your friend.” The governor had said that, gravely making the document official with his pen.
But Lucien Young had to be sure.
“Sam, old fellow, suppose'n the warden was to come by, stop here like he was afixin' to unlock this barred door, and then, quick as a jackrabbit, swing it back on its hinges. What'd you do?”
Sam Holmes' face was a mask. “I reckon I'd leave. Mighty quick.”
“And suppose'n after you'd gone a piece up the corridor, somebody was to shout after you, ‘Samuel Holmes, you are a free man’.”
Holmes grunted. “I'd keep on agoin’.”
“And then - suppose you got out the gate, the governor came and shook you by the hand and said, ‘Samuel Holmes, I do hereby pardon you’.” Lucien Young's eyes glowed. “What do you reckon you'd do first?”
“I reckon I'd head first for Lancaster.”
“And get me a shotgun. And the first thing I'd do - I'd find me that Judge Owsley and blast him wide open. And then I'd look around fast for that devil that witnessed against me and kill him too!”
It was only a short walk from Samuel Holmes' cell to the dirt road that went by the prison. But it seemed like a mile. Outside the prison, Lucien Young took the governor's pardon from his pocket, ripped it across and across again, and again. The small pieces fluttered down into the dirt.
This is the story that the Richmond Register published, the story of how a pardoned murderer let his chance to live slip through his fingers. But there is more to the story than that: Think it over. Why did Sam Holmes lose his pardon?
When he was forgiven, he would not forgive. He admitted no regret. He had a chance at mercy and he seized it as his big break to get even. Genuine sorrow? Honest repentance? There wasn't a trace of it.
Yes, there are some curious things about this story.
For example - the governor granted the pardon for only one reason, for the sake of the prisoner's friend. It certainly wasn't Sam Holmes character and it wasn't the way he kept the prison rules during his term that made the governor sign the pardon papers.
“For your sake - for the sake of what you did.” That's the reason the governor of Kentucky pardoned Sam Holmes.
And strangely enough, that's exactly why God can forgive us. He forgives us for only one reason - for Christ's sake.
Our character? How well we keep the rules of our particular society or community? It makes no difference at all.
But while we're condemned, under sentence of an awful punishment, eternal death, God sent us a pardon, unasked and totally undeserved. And He does it on one account. Because of the worthiness of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Because of His Son's atoning death on the cross.
The Bible puts it compactly and simply into one verse, ‘Even as God, for Christ's sake, hath forgiven you.’ (Ephesians 4:32).
But what happened next in this sad story of Sam Holmes? His friend brought to his cell forgiveness that was unconditionally complete and completed!
Of course it was. The governor hadn't vaguely suggested, “Have a heart-to-heart talk with this Holmes' man. Then bring your report back to me. If he sounds deserving, if I like the way he presents his case, well, maybe I'll consider this business of a pardon.”
That wasn't the story at all. When the governor took his pen away from the paper, the bargain was made. Lucien Young was ready to declare, “The governor has forgiven you. He told me to tell you.” Lucien Young never had it in his mind to say, “The governor will pardon you, maybe.” The business was settled.
“God hath reconciled us unto himself by the death of His Son.” That's right. The word “hath” is in the past tense, and it means exactly what it says. God's end of the forgiveness bargain is already done. You don't have to beg for mercy. God already extended it to you - a long time ago.
No matter what you've done, what kind of a life you're leading now, or how well you've kept the rules, God has forgiven you unconditionally and completely. Has forgiven you, that is. “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20). That's the kind of pardoning God we have.
But there's still more to the Sam Holmes' story. He was forgiven by the governor, that's true; but in spite of that, he remained actually unforgiven. And why? All because of a stubborn heart that refused to repent.
This divine compassion of God - it could be thrown away on us. How? Simply because there must be two parties to make a bargain, especially a bargain of forgiveness. Forgiving goes out from one heart, but it has to go into another. If it doesn't, it isn't any forgiveness at all.
And that's the way it is with God's pardoning too. Unless we admit, right down in our deepest heart, that we've sinned, that we need forgiveness, that we need God, we throw His forgiveness right back in His face. So, in spite of the governor's pardon, Sam Holmes was still a condemned man!
Did the governor condemn him? No. He signed the pardon.
Did Lucien Young sentence him to death? Not at all. He had the signed pardon right in his pocket.
Then why was Sam Holmes executed? Because he refused to repent.
Thinking about this tragic little biography read this from the Scripture:
“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world;
but that the world through him might be saved.
He that believeth on him is not condemned:
but he that believeth not is condemned already,
because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world,
and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
Sam Holmes died condemned. He was forgiven by the governor of Kentucky, but doomed by his own stubbornness. What about you? Will you die too, condemned by your own stubbornness? Desperately, you need God's forgiveness, and you can have it if you repent in your heart and reach out and accept God's great pardon - Jesus Christ who died on the cross that you might live!