Religious Pharisees will tell believing children of God,
“No matter what you’re suffering, your greatest problem is your own sin.”
The ones I have known meant it this way:
Oh? You just heard that your child, or spouse, or parent is dead? Well, that’s very sad, but your greater problem is your own personal sin. Oh? Your husband is abusing you and your children? Well, that’s pretty bad—if it’s true—but your greater problem is your own personal sin.
I have heard this said to saints in the chains of slavery and oppression, to saints at the unexpected graveside, to saints in the most severe distress, suffering the greatest persecutions.
I never heard it said in reference to any specific, unconfessed, unrepentant sin in evidence in the life of a sufferer, and there was no connection made between our personal sin and our present suffering.
It was simply thought to be the correct Christian context for suffering, to remember that our greatest amount of weeping and mourning should be over our own personal sin, that any present suffering should always be dwarfed by the ongoing insurmountable problem of personal sin.
But John Bunyan, via Pilgrim’s Progress, answers that depressing insistence biblically:
Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which CHRISTIAN was to go was fenced on either side with a wall; and that wall was called “Salvation.”
“In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah; we have a strong city; salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks.” ~Isaiah 26:1
Up this way, therefore, did burdened CHRISTIAN run; but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.
He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulcher.
So I saw in my dream, that just as CHRISTIAN came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble; and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulcher, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
Then was CHRISTIAN glad and lightsome, and said, with a merry heart,
“He hath given me rest by his sorrow,
And life by his death.”
Then he stood still awhile to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him, that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.
“And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.” ~Zechariah 12:10
Now, as he stood looking and weeping, behold three shining ones came to him, and saluted him with, “Peace be to thee!” so the first said to him, “Thy sins be forgiven thee.”
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.” ~Mark 2:5
The second stripped him of his rags, and clothed him with change of raiment.
““And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.” ~Zechariah 3:4
The third also set a mark in his forehead, and gave him a roll with a seal upon it,
“In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise.” ~Ephesians 1:13
which he bade him look on as he ran, and that he should give it in at the Celestial Gate: so they went their way. Then CHRISTIAN gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing:
“Thus far did I come laden with my sin,
Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came hither. What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss!
Must here the burden fall from off my back!
Must here the strings that bound it to me crack!
Blest cross! blest sepulcher! blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me!”
In contrast to Bunyan’s story, in the religious Pharisees’ view, Christian would have had no business watching his burden fall into a sepulcher and leaving it there.
Rather, Christian ought to have fished it out and carried it away, so that he could always compare everything bad that ever happened to him in the future to the ongoing pain of constantly lugging that awful load of guilt and shame everywhere he went.
This idea offers no comfort (and I think it’s intended more to minimize suffering than to actually comfort), but the Bible comforts us.
The Bible doesn’t compare our present suffering to our ongoing struggle with sin.
Rather, the Bible compares our present suffering to our future glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).
The Bible calls us to LOOK UP from present trouble, to consider our union with Christ, our everlasting life, and our eternal joy together with God and all his people, forever.
And this is necessarily a different way of looking at our personal sin.
The true Gospel comforts repentant sinners, reminding us that Christ was charged and has already been punished in our place, and it warns unrepentant sinners that the wrath of God is severe and imminent.
As true Christians, we do properly hate and abhor our sin, but we also rejoice that our sins are taken away. We are called to enjoy this present union with Christ and this incredible gift of everlasting peace with God.
We were brought to His Cross as slaves to sin, and we have come away as slaves to God, with every proper liberty ours in Christ.
The Gospel is Good News, and it everywhere speaks comfort to the Christian on this very point.
We cannot be “grace-based” without understanding this truth.