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The World’s Greatest Pardon

A number of years ago I heard a man share a story that was very powerful, and he said that it was true. Over the years I would use this story as an illustration in my teaching and would always start with the words, “This is a true story.”

It struck me last year that if I am going to tell this “true story” and at the same time have integrity, I should confirm the veracity of it. In the process I learned it was not only true, but was an even better illustration.

Here is the story:

In 1829 two men, George Wilson and James Porter, robbed a United States mail carrier. Both were subsequently captured and tried in a court of law. In May 1830 both men were found guilty of six charges, including robbery of the mail “and putting the life of the driver in jeopardy.” Both Wilson and Porter received their sentences: Execution by hanging, to be carried out on July 2.

Porter was executed on schedule, but Wilson was not. Influential friends pleaded for mercy to the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, on his behalf. President Jackson issued a formal pardon, dropping all charges.

Wilson would have to serve time in prison, but incredibly, he refused to accept the pardon. An official report stated Wilson chose to “waive and decline any advantage or protection which might be supposed to arise from the pardon . . . “ Wilson also stated he “ . . . had nothing to say, and did not wish in any manner to avail himself in order to avoid sentence.”

The authorities did not know what to do with him. They sent it to the courts and it made its way all the way up to the Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court determined, “The court cannot give the prisoner the benefit of the pardon, unless he claims the benefit of it . . . It is a grant to him: it is his property; and he may accept it or not as he pleases.” Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “A pardon is an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws . . . (But) delivery is not completed without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and . . . we have no power in a court to force it on him.”

They hanged him. George Wilson chose to die.

I love this story because it reflects our standing before God. Every single one of us is in the same boat George Wilson found himself in. We are all guilty. As the Apostle Paul says “we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” You may think you are not that bad of a person, but we forget that so much of our sinfulness is in our thoughts and the intentions of our hearts.

What if God put a microchip in your brain and it recorded all of your thoughts and the motives of your heart for 30 days. Then he transcribes it into a document and distributes it to all of your family members, friends, and those you work with. You would have to leave town for good. Let’s face it, we are all sinners.

And because of our sin, we are separated from God. Paul tells us in Romans 6:23, that the wages or consequences of our sin is spiritual death. It is total separation from God.

The good news is that just like George Wilson, we have all received a pardon. When Jesus died on the cross, He bore our sins on His body. The Bible says that “God caused the iniquity of us all to fall upon Him. (Isaiah 53:6)

Therefore every single one of us has received a pardon for their sins. It is a gift of grace, it is nothing you earn. But as Chief Justice Marshall pointed out, the pardon is not complete without acceptance, and it may be rejected.

We all therefore must ask this question, “What have we done with the pardon God has granted us?” It is most critical to recognize the pardon is no good unless you have received it into your life.


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