(I hope to continue this series, paragraph by paragraph, until I have gone through the whole book. I hope that those of you who haven’t read it before will pick it up, and that those for whom this may be old hat will be reminded and encouraged.)

Pilgrim’s Progress, Page 2:

Now, I saw, upon a time, when he was walking in the fields, that he was (as he was wont) reading in his Book, and greatly distressed in his mind; and, as he read, he burst out, as he had done before, crying, “What shall I do to be saved?”

This one instance is not, by itself, “the crisis” – the man has burst out this way before. The question had been asked many times, without answer. This is not a triumphant question; it is a question of despair, a rhetorical question that implies an answer of, “There is nothing I can do! There must be, but there is not! There must be, but I can never see how there could be!”

How do I know this? Look closely at the man, and at the question. He is not depressed because of circumstance (as we’ll see more clearly a little later). He is in agony because of his depravity. “Depravity” means not just “I do sinful things” but also “I am sinful.” Everything I do is poisoned from the start by my sinful motives. Depravity means that every effort to help only adds to the problem – not only will I be judged and sentenced for my crimes, but also that every self-interested try at removing the guilt is its own crime and carries its own sentence.

So the man screams out, “What must I do to be saved?” To me, he seems to spit the question out – knows there must be some action required from him, but is also bitterly aware that all his actions1 are sinful and can only push him further from God, not closer.

He does not ask “what can I do to save myself,” but “what can I do to be saved”, that is, he cannot save himself. In other words, “Though I can do nothing but sin, what can I do that would incite God to have mercy on me?

The question has no answer…but there must be some answer. The man thinks it all through again, arrives at the same terrible paradox, and cries out again.

And again. And again.

“Is it not against all natural reason that God out of his mere whim deserts men, hardens them, damns them, as if he delighted in sins and in such torments of the wretched for eternity, he who is said to be of such mercy and goodness? This appears iniquitous, cruel, and intolerable in God, by which very many have been offended in all ages. And who would not be? I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”
—Martin Luther

1 “all actions” – meaning that seemingly good things – repentance, lifestyle changes, and religious “awakenings”, and even “belief” – can be counterfeited. Because counterfeits calm real fears with false assurance (besides being sinful in themselves), they are worse by far than nothing at all.