Tag Archives: faith and works

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.

The Fallacy of Talkative

Faithful: Well, I see that saying and doing are two things, and hereafter I shall better observe this distinction.

Christian: They are two things, indeed, and are as diverse as are the soul and the body; for as the body without the soul is but a dead carcass, so saying, if it be alone, is but a dead carcass also. The soul of religion is the practical part: “Pure religion and undefiled, before God and the Father, is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” This Talkative is not aware of; he thinks that hearing and saying will make a good Christian, and thus he deceives his own soul. Hearing is but as the sowing of the seed; talking is not sufficient to prove that fruit is indeed in the heart and life; and let us assure ourselves, that at the day of doom men shall be judged according to their fruits. It will not be said then, Did you believe? but, Were you doers, or talkers only? and accordingly shall they be judged. The end of the world is compared to our harvest; and you know men at harvest regard nothing but fruit. Not that anything can be accepted that is not of faith, but I speak this to show you how insignificant the profession of Talkative will be at that day.

Faithful: This brings to my mind that of Moses, by which he describes the beast that is clean. He is such a one that parts the hoof and chews the cud; not that parts the hoof only, or that chews the cud only. The hare chews the cud, but yet is unclean, because he parts not the hoof. And this truly resembles Talkative; he chews the cud, he seeks knowledge, he chews upon the word; but he divides not the hoof, he parts not with the way of sinners; but, as the hare, he retains the foot of a dog or bear, and therefore he is unclean.

Christian: You have spoken, for aught I know, the true gospel sense of those texts. And I will add another thing: Paul calls some men, yea, and those great talkers, too, sounding brass and tinkling cymbals; that is, as he expounds them in another place, things without life, giving sound. Things without life, that is, without the true faith and grace of the gospel; and consequently, things that shall never be placed in the kingdom of heaven among those that are the children of life; though their sound, by their talk, be as if it were the tongue or voice of an angel.

Faithful: Well, I was not so fond of his company at first, but I am as sick of it now. What shall we do to be rid of him?

Christian: Take my advice, and do as I bid you, and you shall find that he will soon be sick of your company too, except God shall touch his heart, and turn it.

Faithful: What would you have me to do?

Christian: Why, go to him, and enter into some serious discourse about the power of religion; and ask him plainly (when he has approved of it, for that he will) whether this thing be set up in his heart, house, or conversation.

Christian Faithful and TalkativeIn the previous post Christian exposed the truth about Talkative. Talkative speaks like a pilgrim, but his life does not bear the marks of a pilgrim. Now Christian explains the fallacy of Talkative’s thinking. Talkative believes that simply hearing and speaking the truth makes him to be “a good Christian.” He craves conversation but not commitment. He delights in doctrine but not devotion. Talkative has a dangerous disconnect in his thinking. He does not grasp the vital relationship between faith and works.

Talkative has presumed that since we are saved by grace alone, our works are of no regard. In one sense he is correct “for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16). Salvation is certainly by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Our works cannot save us.

“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).

But in another sense Talkative is gravely wrong. Works must certainly follow our faith. We are not only justified (declared righteous) in salvation, but sanctified (made righteous). We are saved—set apart— for good works. Paul follows Ephesians 2:8–9 with verse 10:

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

Good works are the necessary fruit of true faith that bear witness to the glorious salvation that has been wrought in us by God. False faith produces assent but not action. True faith is a faith that works.
Christian makes three references to Scripture to emphasize this important connection between faith and works:

1. Speaking truth and living truth “are as diverse as are the soul and the body.” We read in James:

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (James 2:26).

Christian explains to Faithful: “for as the body without the soul is but a dead carcass, so saying, if it be alone, is but a dead carcass also.” A faith without works is a dead faith. We read in James:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only (James 2:14–24).

2. “The soul of religion is the practical part.” Our love to God is made manifest in our actions and obedience, not our ideas and theories.

If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:26–27).

“Pure and undefiled religion” is defined in terms of doing, not in terms of knowing, hearing or saying. It’s not what we know or hear or say that matters most, but what we do with what we know, hear and say. Again we read in James:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does (James 1:22–25).

3. At the last day “men shall be judged according to their fruits.” We see this in the parables that Jesus told in Matthew 13 and 25. In Matthew 13 Jesus explains the parable of the sower as it relates to fruitfulness:

Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty (Matthew 13:18–23).

Christian notes: “Hearing is but as the sowing of the seed” and “talking is not sufficient to prove that fruit is indeed in the heart and life.” Fruit is the evidence of a new heart and a changed life. It is made evident in our obedience to God’s Word. It is fruit that will be gathered in at the harvest.

… at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn (Matthew 13:30).

Faithful then draws out an analogy from the Law of Moses. In Leviticus 11:3–8 and Deuteronomy 14:6–8 God describes that food that Israel was permitted to eat and the food that they were to avoid. Two traits were required for animals to be considered clean:

“And you may eat every animal with cloven hooves, having the hoof split into two parts, and that chews the cud, among the animals” (Deuteronomy 14:6).

“Among the animals, whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud—that you may eat” (Leviticus 11:3).

Talkative resembles the unclean because he lacks a significant trait. He “chews the cud” (he reads and ponders the Word of God) but does not “part the hoof” (he does not turn from sin and walk in a way that is pleasing to God and in obedience to His Word). Christian concludes by drawing yet another illustration, comparing Talkative to a “sounding brass or clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1) and to a lifeless instrument that makes an uncertain sound (1 Corinthians 14:7).

Faithful is now ready to be rid of Talkative’s company. He has seen through the false veneer of Talkative’s profession. Christian encourages Faithful to speak again with Talkative and confront him concerning the power of the gospel to change hearts and lives. This, Christian tells him, will either drive him away or, if God touches his heart, will turn him away from his deception and to the truth.

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 ©2016 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.