Because every screenwriter, author, musician and producer is made in the Image of God you can often find inklings of this Christian message in the stories that they write and the art they create. Charles Dickens is no exception. In Dickens' famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, a masterful work of literature that has been required reading for decades, we see a clear depiction of the meaning of redemption.
There are actually multiple fields of discourse used in the Bible to describe the Christian message. Each word sheds light on it from a different angle; rich words like Adoption, Redemption, Justification, Reconciliation are just a few. Think how it feels to be adopted as an orphan, or to be set free after being a slave. Think how it would be to have all your debt forgiven, or to be pardoned after being a convicted felon. All of these images are used to describe the Christian message we call the Gospel.
In each field of discourse there are two common themes:
1) God was motivated by love when he did these things for us and 2) Jesus took our place and became our substitute in some way.
The word that best describes Dickens contribution in A Tale of Two Cities is Redemption. Redemption is freedom obtained at a price. The Christian idea of redemption is that - In love, God has purchased our freedom by substituting himself.
In Dickens' tale, the substitutionary savior is Sidney Carton and the person he frees is Charles Darnay.
Darnay has been convicted and he awaits the guillotine. But Sidney Carton has compassion on him and so he sneaks into his cell, knocks him unconscious, changes clothes with him, and takes his place setting him free.
This is a picture of the Christian message of redemption but our innate sense of abundant freedom makes it hard for us to grasp.
Most of us have never been in jail. And we have certainly never languished under a death sentence. Our days exhibit a certain amount of freedom appropriate for people whose national anthem concludes with the phrase “the Land of the free and the home of the brave” If we are anything, we are free.
And yet, the Bible says that there is more to our situation than meets the eye.
Men and women are complicated and mysterious creatures. We exhibit the genius, freedom and dignity appropriate to those who have been made in the image and likeness of God. But we also display the destructive tendencies and enslaving appetites of the most merciless animals.
This second part of us, is what the Bible refers to as our sinful nature. It is that part of us that has gotten us in trouble, and taken away our freedom. No matter how many times we sing the national anthem our sinful nature still holds us captive and in many ways we ourselves are locked up and enslaved by it.
This is why Jesus can say
"I tell you the truth anyone who sins is a slave to sin" (John 8).
Sin binds us with a death sentence. (Romans 6:23).
This is the prison holding all of us captive.
But God is like Sidney Carton in that he has compassion on us and takes our place. In order to take our place though, God had to become like one of us. And so Jesus, who is God eternal, took on flesh and became a man. As Nat King Cole sings every Christmas,
"veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail incarnate deity, . Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel*"
*Immanuel is the Hebrew word which means "God with us".
Jesus is God with us, God with flesh, who, in compassion, came in to break us free by taking our place. This is why he can say, "I come that they may have life and have it to the full" (John 10:10) and "I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:15).
Dickens' description of what happened in that cell illustrates clearly with what the Bible says about redemption. The whole plan is Sidney's idea from beginning to end just as setting us free is God's idea from beginning to end.
Dickens describes the scene as Sidney forces the incarcerated Darnay to switch outfits with him. He writes,
"With wonderful quickness, and with a strength both of will and action, that appeared quite supernatural, [Sidney] forced all these changes upon him. The prisoner was like a child in his hand."
Dickens is highlighting that true freedom is a gift of grace. This is why he describes him as a child. Someone else pays the price. Someone else takes his place. And just like him we have to receive our freedom like little children. Just as Darnay cannot take credit for his new life, neither can we. We can be freed by his grace and not by any religious or moral effort of our own. This is the Christian understanding of redemption.
Our freedom from the prison of death and sin was God's idea from beginning to end, and Jesus is the one who took our place and paid our price.
The price he paid was his life for ours. On the cross, where Jesus hung and died, he prayed “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” And when he rose from the dead three days later he proved to the world that his prayers had been heard.
Understanding Jesus' freedom-purchasing compassion in these terms means you understand redemption. You and I are not as free as we have been lead to believe. But the gift of freedom is there for all of us to take, if we will let him remove our prison clothes and dress us in his own righteousness.
Jesus’ promise is trustworthy and true. Go and ponder what he means when he says “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).