Tag Archives: debt of sin

Hopeful’s Testimony Part 4 The Futility of Works

Christian: And how did you do then?

Hopeful: I thought I must endeavor to mend my life; for else, thought I, I am sure to be damned.

Christian: And did you endeavor to mend?

Hopeful: Yes; and fled from not only my sins, but sinful company too; and betook me to religious duties, as prayer, reading, weeping for sin, speaking truth to my neighbors, etc. These things did I, with many others, too much here to relate.

Christian: And did you think yourself well then?

Hopeful: Yes, for a while; but at the last, my trouble came tumbling upon me again, and that over the neck of all my reformations.

Christian: How came that about, since you were now reformed?

Hopeful: There were several things brought it upon me, especially such sayings as these: “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” “By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” “When ye shall have done all those things, say, We are unprofitable,” with many more such like. From whence I began to reason with myself thus: If ALL my righteousnesses are filthy rags; if, by the deeds of the law, NO man can be justified; and if, when we have done ALL, we are yet unprofitable, then it is but a folly to think of heaven by the law. I further thought thus: If a man runs a hundred pounds into the shopkeeper’s debt, and after that shall pay for all that he shall fetch; yet, if this old debt stands still in the book uncrossed, for that the shopkeeper may sue him, and cast him into prison till he shall pay the debt.

Christian: Well, and how did you apply this to yourself?

Hopeful: Why; I thought thus with myself. I have, by my sins, run a great way into God’s book, and that my now reforming will not pay off that score; therefore I should think still, under all my present amendments, But how shall I be freed from that damnation that I have brought myself in danger of by my former transgressions?

Christian: A very good application: but, pray, go on.

Hopeful: Another thing that has troubled me, even since my late amendments, is, that if I look narrowly into the best of what I do now, I still see sin, new sin, mixing itself with the best of that I do; so that now I am forced to conclude, that notwithstanding my former fond conceits of myself and duties, I have committed sin enough in one duty to send me to hell, though my former life had been faultless.

Though Hopeful tried at first to suppress the conviction weighing upon his heart, he was unsuccessful. He tried not to think about the consequences of his sin, but he still felt guilty and condemned. He then thought of another way to ease his conscience. He feared judgment for all the wrongs he had done, and so he endeavored to mend his life by doing good. He tried forsaking sin. He abandoned sinful companions. He did things that he believed would commend him to God. He prayed, he read his Bible, he felt sorry for sin, he even witnessed to his neighbors—that the world might see he was reformed. But going through the motions of being right with God does not make one right with God. Any good feelings Hopeful gained by being religious were fleeting. Guilt and conviction continued to flood his soul and overwhelmed all his efforts to reform.

The truth began to dawn in Hopeful’s thinking as he pondered God’s Word. Scripture teaches the futility of works as a way to be right with God. As Hopeful remembered verses that he had read and heard, he realized two important truths.

  1. Even if he could live perfectly from this day forward, he could never repay his former debt of sin.Were he able to obey God’s commands and do all that was required of him, he would only be doing his duty.

So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10).

He could not do more to make up for past sins. The burden was too great. This was Christian’s great distress when he set out from the City of Destruction. Hopeful came to understand what Christian learned earlier on his journey when Worldly Wiseman sent him to see Legality in the Village of Morality. As Christian neared the cliffs of the High Hill (the thundering of God’s Law on Mount Sinai) the mountain seemed threatening, his burden seemed heavier, and he could not go on. Later in the allegory Faithful learned the same lesson when he was struck down by Moses on Hill Difficulty. Both Christian and Faithful attempted to gain God’s favor by obeying God’s Law. And both learned the same truth: the law cannot save us. No one will ever attain heaven by keeping God’s Law. We cannot find relief from our guilt or acceptance with God through our own attempts at obedience. In our sin, the Law only condemns us. It provides no relief, no reprieve, no respite. Our only hope of forgiveness is God’s grace and mercy given to us in Christ Jesus.

knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified (Galatians 2:16).

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8–9).

We can never do enough good works to cancel out our debt of sin. We are wholly unable to repay God; we cannot gain righteousness by our own efforts and strength.

  1. Even if he could repay his former debt of sin, he would still be weighed down with the debt owed daily for new sins.Though he tried reforming his life, he discovered that sin remained in his heart. Each day new sins added to his guilt before God. His sins separated him from God. Sin is thoroughly evil and contrary to God and His nature. Ralph Venning offers an apt description of the “sinfulness of sin.”

God is holy, without spot or blemish, or any such thing, without any wrinkle, or anything like it, as they also that are in Christ shall one day be (Ephesians 5:27). He is so holy, that he cannot sin himself, nor be the cause or author of sin in another. He does not command sin to be committed, for to do so would be to cross his nature and will. Nor does he approve of any man’s sin, when it is committed, but hates it with a perfect hatred. He is without iniquity, and of purer eyes than to behold (i.e. approve) iniquity (Habakkuk 1:13).

On the contrary, as God is holy, all holy, only holy, altogether holy, and always holy, so sin is sinful, all sinful, only sinful, altogether sinful, and always sinful (Genesis 6:5). In my flesh, that is, in my sinful corrupt nature, there dwelleth no good thing (Romans 7:18). As in God there is no evil, so in sin there is no good. God is the chiefest of goods and sin is the chiefest of evils. As no good can be compared with God for goodness, so no evil can be compared with sin for evil.

[The Sinfulness of Sin, Ralph Venning, 1669]

Sin is pervasive and insidious. It is mixed in all we do. Impure motives, wrong opinions, misguided ideas—we all have them. Even our righteous acts have enough sin mixed in to send us to hell. Hopeful confesses: “I have committed sin enough in one duty to send me to hell, though my former life had been faultless.” Sin has so tainted our thoughts and actions, that even our best efforts and most noble thoughts are as “filthy rags.”

But we are all like an unclean thing,
And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags;
We all fade as a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind,
Have taken us away.
(Isaiah 64:6)

Not every sin causes equally dire consequences or requires the same sort of restitution.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation (Matthew 23:14).

But every sin is grievous and damnable, because it is ultimately committed against our perfect and holy Creator.

How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? (Genesis 39:9b)

For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight—
That You may be found just when You speak,
And blameless when You judge.
(Psalm 51:3–4)

Jonathan Edwards rightly concludes:

Any sin is more or less heinous depending upon the honor and majesty of the one whom we had offended. Since God is of infinite honor, infinite majesty, and infinite holiness, the slightest sin is of infinite consequence. The slightest sin is nothing less than cosmic treason when we realize against whom we have sinned.

[The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners, Jonathan Edwards, 1734]

R.C. Sproul further explains Edwards’ conclusion:

“Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself. Have you ever considered the deeper implications of the slightest sin, of the most minute peccadillo? What are we saying to our Creator when we disobey Him at the slightest point? We are saying no to the righteousness of God. We are saying, “God, Your law is not good. My judgement is better than Yours. Your authority does not apply to me. I am above and beyond Your jurisdiction. I have the right to do what I want to do, not what You command me to do.”

[The Holiness of God, R.C. Sproul1985]

Hopeful understands the dire consequences of his sin. And he realizes the futility of his own works to atone for his sin. He cannot earn his own righteousness or attain God’s favor through his own efforts. He needs to look to the work of another. He needs a righteousness not his own. In the next post we will hear how Hopeful learned of the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.

A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary

The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2018 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.