Jean Valjean and Grace

By Grant Hawley1

Victor Hugo's classic Les Misérables tells the story of a peasant named Jean Valjean, who escapes after having been imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. He finds no help for some time, since he is a fugitive. Then one evening, he knocks on the door of the Bishop of Digne, who has compassion for him. The Bishop gives him shelter and food, treating him with the dignity that he has not been given in many years, if ever. This touching exchange illustrates the enormity of such a small thing:

The Bishop, who was sitting close to him, gently touched his hand. "You could not help telling me who you were. This is not my house; it is the house of Jesus Christ. This door does not demand of him who enters whether he has a name, but whether he has a grief. You suffer, you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And do not thank me; do not say that I receive you in my house. No one is at home here, except the man who needs a refuge. I say to you, who are passing by, that you are much more at home here than I am myself. Everything here is yours. What need have I to know your name? Besides, before you told me you had one which I knew."

The man opened his eyes in astonishment.

"Really? You knew what I was called?"

"Yes," replied the Bishop, "you are called my brother."

"Stop, Monsieur le Curé," exclaimed the man. "I was very hungry when I entered here; but you are so good, that I no longer know what has happened to me."

But Valjean repays his great kindness by stealing his silverware. At this point, it might seem as though grace has no power to change a man's heart. He has been shown grace but abused it. This only shows that people can and do abuse grace.

But after Valjean has been arrested for stealing, the Bishop covers for him, saying that the silverware was a gift (Did he not say, "Everything here is yours"?) and rebukes Valjean for forgetting to take the silver candlesticks:

"Ah! Here you are!" he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. "I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?"

Valjean deserves punishment, but he receives blessing. He has done nothing to earn the grace he receives. It is given freely. The reach of the Bishop's grace toward Jean Valjean astonished him. And as Valjean stands trembling before the Bishop, the Bishop says, "Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good."

Valjean went on to become an honest and trustworthy businessman who treats his employees with respect and kindness and becomes so well known as a righteous man that he is elected mayor. A dose of grace was abused, but limitless grace transformed this man. Nineteen years of hard labor and imprisonment as punishment for stealing bread could not soften Jean Valjean's heart, but one evening and morning of true grace did.

Limitless grace is what God has shown us, and this grace is powerful in transforming us as well. This is what the Apostle Paul was discussing when he wrote to his dear friend Titus:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)

Grace, unmerited favor, is what trains us to live godly lives.

1Excerpt from Free Grace Theology: 5 Ways It Magnifies the Gospel.