Help, in Pilgrim’s Progress, describing the Slough of Despond to Christian states,
This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended. It is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin, doth continually run, and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond: for still, as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place. And this is the reason for the badness of this ground (p. 92).
When sin and the curse of the law, weigh you down, like Christian, to the point you where you feel that you will be swallowed up, where do you go for help? When the accuser overwhelms your conscience with accusations of failure and guilt, how do you answer? What is your defense?
Do you, as some Bible teachers instruct, offer up your sin stained, imperfect obedience as your defense? God forbid!
Christian, as he was left to tumble in the Slough of Despond, endeavored to struggle to free himself. But, his efforts were vain because of the burden on his back. The guilt of sin and the weight of the law were too heavy. The best Christian could do only left him in despondency and despair.
Like Christian, believers need a firmer and surer ground. Believers need Help to draw them out of the miry bog and to place their feet upon firm ground and then bid them go on their way. As the Psalmist in Psalm 121:1-2a declares, “1 From where does my help come? 2 My help comes from the Lord…”
Over a half-century earlier, Calvin also taught that the believer never finds firm ground upon which to stand until his feet are set firmly upon Christ. In contrast to obedience as the primary basis for assurance, consider Calvin’s wise pastoral counsel,
“Now if we ask in what way the conscience can be made quiet before God, we shall find the only way to be that unmerited righteousness be conferred upon us as a gift of God… we profit nothing in discussing righteousness unless we establish a righteousness so steadfast that it can support our soul in the judgment of God. When our souls possess that by which they may present themselves fearless before God’s face and receive his judgment undismayed, then only may we know that we have found no counterfeit righteousness,” (3.13.3).
“…we profit nothing in discussing righteousness unless we establish a righteousness so steadfast that it can support our soul in the judgment of God…”
The cure for doubt and a troubled conscience is the amazing truth of justification. We, like Paul, must confess,
“18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh… 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!… 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Justification is the fountain whereby the fire of a man’s burning conscience may be extinguished before God. We must fly to Jesus who is our advocate (1 John 2:1), our intercessor (Isa. 53:12; Heb. 7:25), high priest (Heb. 2:17), propitiation (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2), righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). ). “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” (Ps. 46:1).
The believer does not trust in his good works but in Christ alone for salvation (i.e., the whole package). In Christ, the believer is safe and free from all accusation of guilt and condemnation. “33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Rom. 8:33).
In Christ we have boldness and access with confidence through…faith in him [Eph. 3:12 p.] This surely does not take place through the gift of regeneration (i.e., sanctification- J.F.), which, as it is always imperfect in this flesh, so contains in itself manifold grounds for doubt. Therefore, we must come to this remedy: that believers should be convinced that their only ground of hope for the inheritance of a Heavenly Kingdom lies in the fact that, being engrafted in the body of Christ, they are freely accounted righteous. For, as regards justification, faith is something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God’s favor but receiving from Christ that which we lack, (3.13.5).
“In Christ we have boldness and access with confidence through…faith in him…”
For Calvin, all false views of faith and justification deprive God of His glory and men’s consciences of assurance of pardon for sin and thus peace of conscience (cf., 3.4.27). All who seek to establish their own righteousness upon the works of the law (i.e., merit) make void God’s promises.
God’s promises are fulfilled by faith in Christ not by works of the law. Paul writes, “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith,” (Rom. 4:13). Again, Paul in Galatians 3:12, declares, “12…the law is not of faith… 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.”
“…anyone unconvinced that God is appeased by that one atonement in which Christ endured his wrath will never cease to tremble. In short, we must seek peace for ourselves solely in the anguish of Christ our Redeemer…”
Calvin then teaches us:
Scripture shows that God’s promises are not established unless they are grasped with the full assurance of conscience. Wherever there is doubt or uncertainty, it pronounces them void. Again, it declares that these promises do nothing but vacillate and waver if they rest upon our own works. Therefore, righteousness must either depart from us or works must not be brought into account, but faith alone must have place, whose nature it is to prick up the ears and close the eyes-that is, to be intent upon the promise alone and to turn thought away from all worth or merit of man…For anyone unconvinced that God is appeased by that one atonement in which Christ endured his wrath will never cease to tremble. In short, we must seek peace for ourselves solely in the anguish of Christ our Redeemer,”(3.13.4).
Don’t gloss over these words, “In short, we must seek peace for ourselves solely in the anguish of Christ our Redeemer.” Let this sink deep into your mind and heart! “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!”
“…we must seek peace for ourselves solely in the anguish of Christ our Redeemer…”
As the Spirit works through the promises of the Gospel, believers are brought to peace of conscience and assured of their standing before God. Paul, Calvin shows,
…consistently denies that peace or quiet joy are retained in consciences unless we are convinced that we are ‘justified by faith,’ [Rom. 5:1]. At the same time he declares the source of this assurance: it is when ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ [Rom. 5:5]. It is as if he had said that our souls cannot be quieted unless we are surely persuaded that we are pleasing to God, (3.13.5).
The conscience turned in upon itself, trusting in its own satisfactions forfeits assurance and peace whereas the conscience that looks to God alone in Christ may have sure assurance and peace. Again, Calvin comments,
But if it is a question of quieting the conscience, what will this quieting be if a man hears that sins are redeemed by satisfactions? When can he at length be certain of the measure of that satisfaction? Then he will always doubt whether he has a merciful God; he will always be troubled, and always tremble. For those who rely upon trifling satisfactions hold the judgment of God in contempt, and reckon of little account the great burden of sin…But having bidden farewell to satisfactions, he (i.e., Paul- J.F.) relegates them to the cross of Christ. So where Paul writes to the Colossians that Christ has “reconciled all things that are on heaven or earth…by the blood of the cross” [Col. 1:20], he does not confine this to the moment we are received into the church, but extends it throughout life. This is readily apparent from the context, where he says that believers have redemption of sins [Col. 1:14], (3.4.27).
“…our souls cannot be quieted unless we are surely persuaded that we are pleasing to God…”
Hence, justification not only has application for a believer’s past but also for the believer each day. As Paul declares in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Faith in God’s free grace alone is the only sure basis for peace of conscience and assurance. God’s free grace given in the gospel removes fear of punishment and establishes confidence in the believer’s standing before God’s judgment seat.
In contrast, legal-fear sets a threatening conscience against the promises of the gospel. Legal fear (and guilt) drives the believer away from Christ and directs his attention inward upon himself. Gospel-fear, however, directs the believer away from self to Christ. An accusing conscience properly informed by justification, directs the believer to lay hold of the promises of the gospel, which in turn leads the believer on to Christ.
“For to have faith is not to waiver, to vary, to be borne up and down, to hesitate, to be held in suspense, to vacillate- finally, to despair! Rather, to have faith is to strengthen the mind with constant assurance and perfect confidence, to have a place to rest and plant your foot [cf., I Cor. 2:5; II Cor. 13:4],” (3.13.3).
In 1 John 4:16-19, the Apostle John reminds us of this sure foundation for assurance and confidence,
16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.
Like Christian, in Pilgrim’s Progress, we will never find firm ground or pleasurable walking until our feet are planted firmly in Christ, who is our Rock (Ps. 18:2; 40:2; 62:2, 6).
Thus, peace of conscience is possible only when a sinner embraces a righteousness that can support his soul in the Day of Judgment. Once again, Calvin reminds us,
Let us ever bear in mind Solomon’s question: Who will say, ‘I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin? [Prov. 20:9]. Surely there is no one who is not sunken in infinite filth! Let even the most perfect man descend into his conscience and call his deeds to account, what then will be the outcome for him? Will he sweetly rest as if all things were well composed between him and God and not, rather, be torn by dire torments, since if he be judged by works, he will feel grounds for condemnation within himself? The conscience, if it looks to God, must either have sure peace with his judgment or be besieged by the terrors of hell. Therefore, we profit nothing in discussing righteousness unless we establish a righteousness so steadfast that it can support our soul in the judgment of God. When our souls possess that by which they may present themselves fearless before God’s face and receive his judgment undismayed, then only may we know that we have found no counterfeit righteousness,” (3.13. 3).
“…we profit nothing in discussing righteousness unless we establish a righteousness so steadfast that it can support our soul in the judgment of God.”
Since we have been delivered from our guilt and condemnation by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and thus have not earned one aspect of our salvation, are good works necessary?