Tag Archives: Law and Grace

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.

God’s Law Made Precious

New Covenant

One of the amazing results of God’s grace is that it changes our relationship to God’s Law. The Law “is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12). This Law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, reveals the character and glory of God. It it sets forth a rule of life, teaching us to love God first and foremost, and to love others. We should walk in it with delight (Psalm 119:35) for it defines what we were created to do as image-bearers of God.

But if we are not in Christ, the Law offers no satisfaction; it can only condemn us. We can never fulfill its exacting demands. The Law weighs us down as a heavy yoke. It shows us clearly that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It beats us down and threatens us with the punishment of death due our sin (Romans 6:23).

The Law cannot save us, nor can it offer us a way to find joy and favor with God. If we are to walk in the Law with delight, we must have Christ. It is Christ alone who makes us right with God. In Christ the Law no more condemns us (Romans 8:1). His death paid the wages due our sin. His life provided for us a perfect righteousness. We are not saved by works or attempts at obedience (Ephesians 2:9) to God’s Law. In Christ our obedience to the Law is rooted in grace and expressed in gratitude.

The Law in the Old Covenant was engraved on tablets of stone; now in the New God writes it on our hearts:

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

The Law in the Old Covenant was a “ministry of death” (2 Corinthians 3:7); now in the New it is our great delight, made precious by the shed blood of Christ.

“For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man” (Romans 7:22).

The Law That Once Was Placed by God

1. The Law that once was placed by God
On tablets made of stone
Is now engrav’d on ev’ry heart
Whom Christ has called His own.
These Words that once condemned for sins
And showed the wrath of God
Are now the Christian’s great delight,
Made precious by the blood.

2. The Lord is God and He alone
Is worthy of our love;
For He has raised us from the pit
To dwell with Him above.
The Lord is jealous of our love;
All idols He abhors,
But those, in Spirit and in Truth,
Who seek Him He adores.

3. How precious are the Names of God,
His nature they declare;
But those who use His Name in vain,
The wrath of God will bear.
And precious is the Sabbath Day,
The gath’ring of the church,
Who come expectant of their Lord,
His Word to know and search.

4. The Lord has said that we must love
And honor we must give
To fathers, mothers He has giv’n
To teach us how to live.
All murder, theft, adultery,
All coveting and lies;
These sins the Christian must forsake,
Lest him God will chastise.

5. All those who cast aside these Words
And spurn them in this day
Do show that they are not of God,
Despite what they may say.
For what are these Ten Words but this:
The will of God revealed?
For unto love to God and man
The saints are saved and sealed.

Words ©1992 Ken Puls
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Run in with Moses

Now when I had got about half-way up, I looked behind, and saw one coming after me, swift as the wind; so he overtook me just about the place where the settle stands.

Christian: Just there, said Christian, did I sit down to rest me; but being overcome with sleep, I there lost this roll out of my bosom.

Faithful: But, good brother, hear me out. So soon as the man overtook me, he was but a word and a blow, for down he knocked me, and laid me for dead. But when I was a little come to myself again, I asked him wherefore he served me so. He said, because of my secret inclining to Adam the First; and with that he struck me another deadly blow on the breast, and beat me down backward; so I lay at his foot as dead as before. So, when I came to myself again, I cried him mercy; but he said, I know not how to show mercy; and with that he knocked me down again. He had doubtless made an end of me, but that one came by, and bid him forbear.

Christian: Who was that that bid him forbear?

Faithful: I did not know him at first, but as he went by, I perceived the holes in his hands and in his side; then I concluded that he was our Lord. So I went up the hill.

Christian: That man that overtook you was Moses. He spares none, neither does he know how to show mercy to those that transgress his law.

Faithful: I know it very well; it was not the first time that he has met with me. It was he that came to me when I dwelt securely at home, and that told me he would burn my house over my head if I stayed there.

Christian: But did you not see the house that stood there on the top of the hill, on the side of which Moses met you?

Faithful: Yes, and the lions too, before I came at it: but for the lions, I think they were asleep, for it was about noon; and because I had so much of the day before me, I passed by the porter, and came down the hill.

Christian: He told me, indeed, that he saw you go by, but I wish you had called at the house, for they would have showed you so many rarities, that you would scarce have forgot them to the day of your death.

Faithful and MosesAs Faithful climbs Hill Difficulty he encounters yet more opposition. At the foot of the Hill he met Adam the First who tried to enticed him to give up his journey. Now he is assaulted by one who is more ruthless. About halfway up the Hill, Moses catches up to him, beats him severely and leaves him for dead.

This episode in Faithful’s journey raises some questions: Why was he so brutally beaten? What made him vulnerable to Moses’ attack? And why did it happen on Hill Difficulty, even near the Pleasant Arbor where Christian had sought rest?

Hill Difficulty represents our struggles and trials in this life—struggles and trials that we must endure by God’s design to strengthen our faith. Adam the First is our old sinful nature, “the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (Ephesians 4:22). Putting off the old man is an essential part of our walking by faith. But Faithful was tempted and inclined to go with “the old man”—inclined to act according to the flesh. And even though he eventually saw through the deception of Adam the First and successfully escaped being made Adam’s slave, his inclination toward relying on his own strength was not entirely abated. As he reached the midpoint of his climb up Hill Difficulty, his progress may have tempted him to put too much trust in his own efforts. It is in this moment of success and progress that Faithful turns, and swift as the wind, Moses comes and takes him down. The rod was severe, but Moses teaches Faithful a valuable lesson: The flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41). Faithful cannot make the journey in his own strength.

Law and Grace

Moses represents the work of the Law “for the law was given through Moses” (John 1:17a). Faithful’s struggle with Moses affirms that we can never achieve or maintain a right standing before God on the basis of our own efforts of obedience. No matter how successful we have been, or how much progress we seem to make, our works can never save us. Our efforts can never satisfy God’s righteousness. Judged by God’s Law they are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We are sinners who have broken God’s Law. We don’t gain God’s favor by our own works, and we can’t keep God’s favor by our own works. Paul asks in Galatians:

This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? (Galatians 3:2–3)

The Law brings condemnation and guilt for our sin. The Law beats us down and leaves us for dead. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). But the problem is not with the Law; it is with us.

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good (Romans 7:7–12).

The Law of God serves many good purposes. It reveals the holiness and righteousness of God. It tells us what God requires of us as creatures made in Him image. And it warns us of God’s wrath and judgment when we go astray. It was the reproach of the Law that shook Faithful from his ease at home and caused him to flee from Destruction.

But the Law has limitations. The law can teach us what is right and good, but it has no power to help us do what is right and good. The law can show us where we fail and fall short, but the law has no power to forgive or cleanse our sin. The Law can only judge and condemn us. It knocks us down and leaves us bruised and battered. Our cries for mercy are met with threats of death.

We need one greater than Moses if we are to find the help we need (Hebrews 3:3). The Law cannot show us mercy or give us life, but it can point us to One who can. The Law is “our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). The Law kills; only the Spirit can give life (2 Corinthians 3:6). When Faithful was left for dead at the feet of Moses, he had no hope in himself. But God in mercy sent a Rescuer. The Lord of the Hill, Christ Jesus, came and in mercy raised up Faithful. It was only by looking to the cross that Faithful could find the grace and mercy for which he longed. Our acceptance before God can never be based on our own obedience; it must only and always be rooted in Christ and His obedience. In our sin the Law can only condemn us. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). In Christ there is life: “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b). “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

Differing Trials

It is worth noting that Faithful’s experiences on the journey are not the same as Christian’s. Though both fled from Destruction and found mercy at the cross, their battles and trials were varied. Christian found a Pleasant Arbor about halfway up Hill Difficulty. Faithful was assaulted. Christian presumed upon God’s mercies, fell asleep and lost his roll (his assurance). Faithful relied too much on his own strength to make progress up the Hill and was beaten down by the Law. Christian took refuge and refreshed his soul at House Beautiful. Faithful missed the service that day and did not receive the benefit of the teaching and fellowship.

Yet here on the path, these two brothers cheer and admonish one another. We are each prone in varying degrees to different fears and temptations. We don’t all have the same strengths and weaknesses. It is the blessing of Christian discipleship that we can share our joys and struggles on the journey. We can learn much from one another as we pray for and encourage one another along the way. Let us resolve to walk together in faith and continually point one another to the hope we have in Christ alone.

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 ©2015 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.