“Tom Sawyer… skips school to swim and is made to whitewash the fence the next day as punishment. He cleverly persuades his friends to trade him small treasures for the privilege of doing his work. He then trades the treasures for Sunday School tickets which one normally receives for memorizing verses consistently, redeeming them for a Bible, much to the surprise and bewilderment of the superintendent who thought ‘it was simply preposterous that this boy had warehoused two thousand sheaves of Scriptural wisdom on his premises—a dozen would strain his capacity, without a doubt.'” –from Wikipedia (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Adventures_of_Tom_Sawyer)

Tom Sawyer commemorative stamp

“But they want to do it. Why should I?” Tom Sawyer finds a way of turning trouble into triumph, obligation into opportunity for ease and personal gain. You’ve got to hand it to him. Why do the work yourself when you can get someone else to do it for you?

The Tom Sawyer approach to Christian faith and life appeals to us. He gets to swim; others bear his responsibility and consequence. Tom gains treasure; others do the work. Tom appears holy to his Aunt, after all he’s got all the tickets as certified proof he learned the Scriptures.  

In the end, Tom gets to wave the Bible around as his prize, if anyone doubts his good character or faith. He’s got all the outward trappings of a fine, upstanding, learned Christian. What more does he need?

But Tom neither knows, believes nor does what that Bible says. He thinks he figured out a way to game the system. Tom hacked God’s own operating system. To paraphrase the prophet Waylon Jennings, Tom Sawyer is just a good ole boy, never meaning no harm. Beats all you ever saw, been in trouble with the Law since the day [he] was born… some day the mountain might get [him] but the Law never will. Tom surely has his fun; so do we!

Tom Sawyer presents a pretty good picture of false piety. We all find ways to get out of what God has given us to do. Sometimes we want and persuade others to do to the difficult work while we pursue personal pleasure and gain. We’re often content to wave our tickets proving we did our larnin’ without consciously embracing the vocation Christ gives us. 

On the one hand, Tom Sawyer illustrates that worst part of us, the persistent Old Adam in us. The Old Adam loves to escape duty but gain reward. God puts that Old Adam to death in Baptism. He must drown and die. A new life begins in us, embracing our vocation in Christ. 

Luther writes in the Large Catechism about the 4th Commandment:

[172] For if we wish to have excellent and apt persons both for civil and ecclesiastical government, we must spare no diligence, time, or cost in teaching and educating our children, that they may serve God and the world, [173] and we must not think only how we may amass money and possessions for them. For God can indeed without us support and make them rich, as He daily does. But for this purpose He has given us children, and issued this command that we should train and govern them according to His will, else He would have no need of father and mother. Let every one know, therefore, that it is his duty, on peril of losing the divine favor, to bring up his children above all things in the fear and knowledge of God…  


Old Adam prefers the Tom Sawyer thing and pawns off that sacred task of teaching our young people. On the other hand, rather, as a baptized people of God, pastor and parents now gladly take up that task to do the thing God Himself gives us to do. Teaching these young people whom God puts in our care is never about competition, but about faithful Christian people in good conscience embracing the task God entrusts to us.

For our times of reckless abandon, Jesus bore the consequence and fulfilled our obligation to God! The punishment we earn for sometimes shirking the duty God gives us is not merely whitewashing a fence, but death and hell itself. Jesus takes this punishment personally, to the grave. We swim in our Baptism, emerge cleansed by the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in His name. God credits you for all Jesus did for you.

Tom Sawyer can also be a good picture of the Christian’s complete freedom in Christ Jesus–reckless freedom from the curse and divine consequence of life under the Law. His your burden, yours His blessing. Christians are freed from the bonds of sin and death, free from all slavery under God’s curse, unafraid of failure or losing His favor, in Christ,

–JPW

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