Law and Gospel in Les Misérables


After watching Les Misérables, I couldn’t help but think about the contrast between Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean. Victor Hugo was a unbelieving deist and rationalist, but as a Christian, my thoughts began to dwell on what the two men seemed to represent: Javert, law; Jean Valjean, gospel. Their dying thoughts and words seem to reflect this contrast. [Note: All quotes are from the novel, except for Javert’s song.]

Download Discussion Guide for Les Miserables.[wpdm_file id=2]

Javert and Valjean, and the Death of Fantine (1918)
Javert and Valjean, and the Death of Fantine, 1918 (click to enlarge)

Javert was consumed by the law, which Jean Valjean broke:

[Javert] asked himself, “What has this convict, this desperate man, whom I followed to persecution, and who had me under his heel, and could have avenged himself, and ought to have acted so … done in leaving me my life, and showing me mercy? his duty? no, something more.

But he couldn’t comprehend how he, a man of the law, can also break it in not arresting Jean Valjean:

And what have I done in showing him mercy in my turn? my duty? no, something more. Is there, then, something more than duty? Here, he was terrified, he was thrown off his balance…

What! an honest servant of the law could find himself caught between two crimes, the crime of letting a man escape and the crime of arresting him! … What, then! all this was real! was it true that an ex-bandit, bowed under condemnations, could draw himself up and end by being in the right? was this credible?”

Javert never figured out that this “something more” is God’s grace and mercy law written on the hearts of all human beings (Rom 2:14-15). So in the musical, not knowing anything other than the law, he sings before he plunged himself into the river:

How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me? This desperate man whom I have hunted… He gave me my life. He gave me freedom. I should have perished by his hand. It was his right. It was my right to die as well. Instead I live… but live in Hell! And my thoughts fly apart. Can this man be believed? Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved? And must I now begin to doubt, who never doubted all these years? My heart is stone, and still it trembles! The world I have known is lost in shadow. Is he from heaven or from hell? And does he know… that, granting me my life today, this man has killed me, even so? I am reaching… but I fall. And the stars are black and cold, as I stare into the void of a world that cannot hold… There is nowhere I can turn, there is no way to go on!

Like Judas Iscariot, Javert never knew true repentance before God and being acquitted of a guilty conscience. Unlike Peter, he never had saving, justifying faith in the only Savior.

But Jean Valjean had asked God to be forgiven of his sins, and himself had forgiven others who have wronged him, including Javert and the innkeepers:

I have spent sixty years on my knees, I have suffered all that a man can suffer … I have lived without family, parents, children, or wife … I have become an honest man, again, in spite of everything; I have repented of the evil I did, and pardoned the evil done to me …

Those Thenardiers [the innkeepers] were very wicked, but we must forgive them.

We all struggle with the law, sin and forgiveness like Javert, with feelings and thoughts of guilt, even after reading so much about God’s grace and mercy throughout Scriptures. But we must remember that not one person in the whole world can be right before God and forgiven of sin by God through the law:

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Rom 3:23-25 a).

A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal 2:16).

God gave us the moral law, the Ten Commandments, not for us to obey them to earn salvation because no one is able to, but to point us to our sinfulness and drive us in our hopeless and helpless despair to the Savior, Jesus Christ. Because “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). The moral law functions as man’s teacher until Christ came,

So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith (Gal 3:24).

When Christ came, he fulfilled a mission only he, and no one else, could accomplish: to fulfill all the requirements of the law, something that no one is able to do (Matt 5:17). And how is anyone saved? “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal 3:25-26).

If Javert had only learned this truth about the relationship between law and gospel, he would have been driven to Christ because of his desperate sinfulness. But even Jean Valjean did not understand this salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, not by good works:

and at the moment when I am rewarded, when all is finished, when I touched my object, when I have what I wish, and it is but fair as I have paid for it and earned it …

Therefore, all preaching, teaching, and evangelism must start with the law and end with the gospel of salvation in Christ. Because without the law, there is only self-righteousness, no knowledge of sin, and no repentance like Jean Valjean’s. And without the gospel, there is only desperate grasping for straw, nowhere to turn, nowhere to go, except Javert’s world of dark and cold shadows.

Two other great resources about Les Mis:

Les Misérables: Law, Grace and Redemption by L. Michael Morales

Law, Gospel and Les Misérables by White Horse Inn


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