How to Get Out of Jail

Eugene Talmadge

If you’re from Georgia, this name probably won’t be new to you, but I recently learned about Eugene Talmadge. Everything I’ve read about Talmadge tells me he was a … character. Colorful and controversial. A man you either loved or hated.

To bring the non-Georgians into the conversation, Eugene Talmadge was a four-time governor in Georgia (!933-37, 1941-43). Even before becoming governor, Talmadge had a reputation for corruption, a man who liked to play by his own rules. Talmadge was most notorious for his racism. He heavily advocated for segregation and was unashamed of his views on white supremacy. He admitted to flogging people and openly praised Adolf Hitler.

You can see why he was controversial. Yet he was elected governor. Four times.

Georgia State Penitentiary

I don’t want to address his political or racial views; rather, I want to tell you about something Talmadge did in 1936. He was touring the Georgia State Penitentiary, and as the story goes, he would ask inmates one question as he passed their cells.

“Are you guilty?”

You can imagine the response of these incarcerated men. Standing before them was the man who had the power to pardon and he was asking about their guilt. Each prisoner emphatically stated he was innocent.

But then he stopped at the cell of Leland Harvey and Aubrey Smith, two men who were serving 150-year sentences for armed robbery.

“Are you guilty?”

To the surprise of those standing with the governor, they both said, “Yes!”

Eugene Talmadge turned to the warden and told him, “It seems you only have two thieves in your penitentiary.” And with that, Governor Talmadge pardoned the two men. His reason?

“Truthful men should never be confined with a bunch of liars.”

The unusual pardon these two men received reflects a greater pardon that we can all receive. Every one of us is a condemned sinner before God. It doesn’t matter whether you’re serving a 150-year sentence in prison or serving as a model citizen in your community. You are a sinner.

Jesus Christ died to take that very sin from you; He died to extend to you forgiveness and an eternal pardon, but there’s one thing you have to do first: you have to admit you’re a sinner.

A lot of people will go into eternal judgment screaming their innocence. They’ll be shouting how good they were. Yet over their protestations, Scripture declares,

“There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12).

It’s a tragedy for so many people to face condemnation, because forgiven and pardon are freely offered.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

When the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts, convicts us, and asks the question, “Are you guilty?” the one right answer—the only saving answer—is “Yes.”

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Confession. Repentance. Belief. Trust. Forgiveness. New life. Eternal life.

“Are you guilty?”

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