The article previously appeared as A Gate, a Cross, and a Hole in the Ground at Servants of Grace on April 2, 2017.
Is there a hole I can just dive into when sanctification gets hard, unwieldy and messy? Am I the only person whose mind drifts back to the days on the other side of the divide of faith and recalls how easy it was to exist with no thought to the consequences of sin? I try to suppress the whispering, but if I have allowed the ground of my heart to become fertile for the seed of discontentment to germinate, the whisperer may succeed.
The inclination seems to hit me especially when I’m in the midst of life amongst the church, or when I’m particularly aware of the world my generation is leaving to our children or the inconsistencies I see in my own life. When the burdens and the shame of inadequacies and failure weigh me down, I have allowed the ground of my heart to become fertile soil for the seed of discontentment—and love for the brethren withers.
For years, I was bothered by a little detail in The Pilgrim’s Progress that didn’t seem to add up, like a continuity error in a movie. I gave Bunyan a pass. Hey, the guy was in prison when he wrote the story, and I’m sure copy editors were hard to come by behind bars.
“I saw a man dressed in rags standing in a certain place and facing away from his own house,” Bunyan writes. “He had a Book in his hand and a great burden on his back.” We learn that this man is in agony, distraught and pitiful in his anguished cries and deep depression. “As I looked, I saw him open the Book and read out of it, and as he read, he wept and trembled. Unable to contain himself any longer, he broke out with a sorrowful cry, saying, ‘What shall I do?’”*
The story opens in the City of Destruction, a land that is inhabited by sinners, exists under the threat of destruction and death, and is ruled by Apollyon. The man with the Book has a huge, crushing burden on his back, which we perceive to be sin. But if all the residents of the City of Destruction are sinners, I pondered, why do we only see the burden on the back of the Pilgrim? Why is it that when he is pursued by his neighbors, Obstinate and Pliable, neither of them are burdened and therefore are able to catch up with him so quickly? Or when Pliable falls with Christian into the Swamp of Despondence, how is Pliable able to scamper out without difficulty, but the Pilgrim’s burden hinders his escape?
From what we know, everyone around Christian reviles God and mocks Christian’s new despair about his condition. Pliable cares more about ease of life than enduring the trials of faith. Obstinate believes following the Bible is incomprehensible, utter foolishness, “What?! And leave our friends and our luxuries behind us?” Neither man is weighed down by burdens nor the things of God.
In my most recent reading of this classic, I realized I was misapplying biblical metaphors, and I think Bunyan’s understanding of sin-identity in his illustration is brilliant. The “burden of sin” metaphor comes from Psalm 38:4. But the Bible also refers to unconfessed sin being burdensome (Psalm 32:3-4) and to the bone-crushing weight of guilt when accusations come against the conscience (Psalm 31:10; Psalm 38:3; Romans 2:15-16).
Pliable and Obstinate do have burdens, but the un-neighborly neighbors of the Pilgrim are not aware of them because the Spirit hasn’t laid conviction for their sins upon their consciences. They happily embrace their citizenship in the City of Destruction and the identity that comes with that dubious status. “I’m okay just the way I am.” Christian, however, has been reading his Book, and with every page, he feels the heaviness of conviction upon his soul and senses more acutely the danger he is in if he stays there. Without any context for identifying the contents of sin, the foulness of its iniquity, the vileness of the offenses that fill the burden and weigh it down, Pliable and Obstinate find Christian’s struggle incomprehensible. Their hearts are not good soil conducive to growing faith, so they think it’s normal to be without a burden. They haven’t read the Book; the words are not magnified by the Spirit to make them feel the load of guilt. For Christian, the crushing weight of accusation has become affixed to him like a leg iron ball and chain. “I fear this burden on my back will make me sink lower than the grave, and I will fall into Hell!”
The denizens of this world conduct themselves as though they are free—free to live life without any sense of conviction, which is, of course, a license to reject a divine cosmic order altogether. Obstinate is free to be obstinate and stubborn and implacable and rude. Pliable is free to be pliable and milquetoasty and weak and disloyal. But Pilgrim is going through a radical upheaval in his identity. Once known as Graceless in the City of Destruction, he is no longer free to be graceless. It would be to his peril should he choose to ignore the threat or resume his old identity.
This is known in the Bible as putting off the old man. (Romans 6:6; Colossians 3:9) He knows he must do something about the burden that highlights his sin and the dangerous situation he is in, and he is compelled to find any solution that will remove the burden from his back no matter what, even attempting to shed it by seeking out Mr. Legality in the town of Morality. But to his dismay, that only makes the load grow heavier. Works righteousness won’t work. (Romans 3:20; Romans 8:12-13; Galatians 2:16; Galatians 3) Pilgrim’s only relief is to seek refuge from beyond the Gate (Luke 13:24) through which/Whom we all must pass to get to the Celestial City.
The grace that once eluded Graceless covers him like a garment when he arrives at the Place of Deliverance, the Cross. It flows from supernatural (Holy Spirit supernatural, that is) confidence in the efficacy of the atonement purchased there, and it harmonizes with the promises of preservation and completion and glorification. Defined by the terms of the New Covenant, he will never—he can never—again be known as Graceless because he is now grace-filled.
And what of his burden? “Upon that place stood a Cross, and below at the bottom, there was a Tomb. . . . Just as Christian came up to the Cross, his burden came loose from his shoulders and fell off his back. It began to tumble and continued to do so until it came to the mouth of the Tomb. It then fell into the Tomb, and I saw it no more.” At the Cross, at the Cross, where I first saw the light, and the burden of my heart rolled away . . .
That hole I want to dive into when this world’s failures—when my failures and my shame—press in upon me? I can’t go there. It’s already occupied—by my burden. It tumbled off my shoulders and into that Tomb when Jesus set His mark on me and sealed me for heaven. That glorious, empty tomb was vacated when He rose to conquer the terror and finality of death that loomed over me when I resided in the City of Destruction. That hole once housed His body crushed for me under the weight of my sin, and now it buries instead for eternity my burden and those of all who believe in Him. It’s a bottomless pit.
Saul-now-Paul, Abraham, Peter; the woman at the well, the centurion, the martyrs under Nero; my cousins who have discovered sisterhood in Christ late in life but before it was too late; the sweet, young new convert who soaks up every Bible lesson and brings such enthusiasm to church fellowships; my 91-year-old mom who boldly challenges her too-sophomoric-for-his-britches son to take this most recent heart attack seriously; my friend who lost her husband a year ago, who rejoices that she will next set eyes on him with Jesus—all of their burdens are there.
If grace fills us, we can never go back—there is no back to go to. In the economy of justification, when we are released from sin and from the weight of guilt, we have new identities—we are slaves to Christ. He has purchased us out of a false latitude into a true freedom. We were never so free to be able to obey and glorify God as when He claimed us as His own. Remember that when your thoughts wander to wondering about the appearances of easy living: Pliables and Obstinates and the others who remain in the City of Destruction have no ability to please God, no comprehension of the promises of Christ’s inheritance, no hope at all of eternal happiness with the King. Not even in their best imaginations can they conceive of what it is like to have a relationship with the God of the universe. That can only come from a Gate, a Cross, and a Hole in the ground.
“He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) Saving and keeping us is His glorious task: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” (John 6:38-39)
Make the story of your pilgrimage known: not what you were, but what you are, by the mercy of God and the work of Christ.
*The text of The Pilgrim’s Progress came from the 1998 Bridge-Logos edition, revised and updated by L. Edward Hazelbaker, titled The Pilgrim’s Progress in Modern English.