John Bunyan is third in my list of "Great Johns of the Faith." I think my first exposure to Bunyan was an abridged version of The Pilgrim's Progress which my brothers and I read as children. I still have a hard bound copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress which I received as a gift from my Dad. Somewhere in my teen years I also read Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. And in recent months I've been reading his other allegory, The Holy War. But my greatest familiarity with Bunyan comes from The Pilgrim's Progress. I have read through part one 1 of Bunyan’s story five times (Spurgeon read it over one hundred times!). My love for it increases with the passing of years.
Why do I so love with this seventeenth century Puritan book? Let me tell you. I hope the telling will motivate you to read it as well - maybe for the first time.
1. The Pilgrim’s Progress is a vivid portrait of every true Christian’s spiritual journey. Every Christian needs encouragement in his spiritual life. I certainly do, and more than once, I have found strength in reading or contemplating Bunyan’s masterpiece.
I relate to “Christian” because I am one; and both his victories and failures are very familiar to me. I have carried a Burden (of guilt and sin) on my back which could only be removed at the Cross of Christ. I have fallen into the Slough of Despond; and I have been pulled out by Help. I have been in Doubting Castle, tormented by Giant Despair; and I have found my way out of Giant Despair’s dungeon with the Key of Promise. I have lost my Roll 2 through spiritual slothfulness. I’ve encountered Apollyon’s “darts as thick as hail,” 3 while in the Valley of Humiliation. And I’ve found great strength through other believers, just as Christian did in Faithful.
Bunyan’s story is my story. It’s about my life. It’s about every Christian’s life. That’s one reason I love it.
2. Bunyan's genius was taking Puritan theology and casting it into narrative and filling his story with rich symbolism and illustration. Of course, the entire book is an allegory. But within the story itself, there are many particularly striking illustrations of important truths of Scripture.
For example, when Christian goes to the Interpreter’s house, he sees “a very large parlour that was full of dust because never swept.” Then a man comes in and begins sweeping the room, but his sweeping so stirs up the dust that Christian almost chokes. Then, a damsel sprinkles the room with water, “which when she had done was swept and cleansed with pleasure.” Christian asks Interpreter, “what means this?” This was Interpreter’s answer:
“This parlour is the heart of a man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel. The dust is his original sin and inward corruptions that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first is the law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now, whereas thou sawest that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about that the room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou was almost choked therewith, this is to show thee that the law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, put strength into, and increase it in the soul, even as it doth discover and forbid it, for it doth not give power to subdue . . . . [and] even as thou sawest the damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of Glory to inhabit.”4
Do you see what I mean? Few paragraphs have been written which better explain the function of the Law and its relation to the Gospel. The metaphor carries the truth and drives it home to the heart.
3. Bunyan's story vividly demonstrates the difference between true and false Christians. One need only survey the many characters Christian encounters in his journey to see the difference between the genuine believer and the hypocrite. There are the positive examples of Evangelist, who points Christian to the Wicket (strait) Gate; and Faithful, who is martyred in Vanity Fair; and the four virtuous women at the House Beautiful: Discretion, Prudence, Piety, and Charity.
And there are the negative examples, such as Obstinate, who ridicules Christian for setting out on his pilgrimage to the Celestial City; and Pliable, who decides to join Christian in his journey, but is offended at the first sign of trouble (The Slough of Despond) and deserts Christian, never to return.
Or consider Talkative, a man who loves to talk about religious things, for he says: “to talk of such things is most profitable, for by so doing, a man may get knowledge of many things, as of the vanity of earthly things, and the benefit of things above . . . . the necessity of the new birth, the insufficiency of our own works, [and] the need of Christ’s righteousness.” 5 Yet, as Christian notes to Faithful, “he talketh of prayer, of repentance, of faith, and of the new birth; but he knows but only to talk of them . . . . His house is as empty of religion as the white of an egg is of savour.” 6
One also learns of Demas, who lived in the “delicate plain called Ease,” and called pilgrims to leave their path for “a little hill called Lucre,” where there was a silver mine. 7 And then there is Ignorance, who believes that he has a well-grounded hope because his heart tells him so, but when confronted with the fact that “there is none righteous, no not one” says, “I will never believe that my heart is thus bad.” 8
The distinction between genuine Christians and hypocrites is very blurry in people’s minds today. If someone has “accepted Jesus,” he is considered “Christian,” whether there are changes in his life or not. A person may profess the name of Christ and yet manifest no love for God, holiness, the Scriptures, the Kingdom, or Heaven, and still be assured of salvation. Such a person is simply a “carnal Christian,” we are told. Bunyan’s (and I believe, the Scripture's) theology does not have a category called “carnal Christian.” Can a Christian act or live in a carnal way? Yes. But it is neither normal or acceptable, and God is too faithful to leave one of His children in such a state. That leads to a fourth reason why I love Bunyan.
4. The theme of The Pilgrim’s Progress is “the perseverance of the saints.” Today, at least in some circles, more emphasis is placed on the doctrine of eternal security, or in common parlance, "once saved, always saved." I do believe in eternal security. That God preserves his saints is a fully true and very precious doctrine. We are “kept by the power God through faith unto salvation” (I Peter 1:5). And it is also true that once a person is genuinely saved, such salvation cannot be lost.
The problem with these phrases is not so much what they say, as what they do not say. Some people believe that God preserves His people not from sin, but actually in their sin. Sometimes people have the notion that “once saved, always saved” simply means that once a person walks the aisle, signs a card, makes a decision, joins the church, is baptized, or “accepts Christ into her heart,” she has a ticket for heaven, regardless of how she lives. This is more akin to Antinomianism 9 than true biblical teaching. The message of both Bunyan and Scripture is far different.
The Scriptures teach that “whoever endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13 ). We are exhorted to “fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:12), and be “followers of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12). Jesus solemnly declares: "Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? And then will I declare to them, I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21-23). And Paul unequivocally says that only those who “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel ” are truly reconciled to God (Col. 1:21-23).
In other words, only those who persevere in faith and holiness prove that they are truly saved. It is true that none of Christ’s sheep will perish (Jn. 10:28). But it also true that all of Christ’s sheep “follow” him (Jn. 10:27).
The Pilgrim’s Progress is about the perseverance of a saint. Bunyan might well have titled his book “The Pilgrim’s Perseverance,” for that is it’s theme. The story of Christian’s dangerous journey illustrates the perseverance of every true Christian. The Christian life is a series of battles which must be fought in the strength of Christ. Yes, there will be failures - just as Christian fell into the Slough of Despond, sinfully listened to Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, was wounded by Apollyon, and locked in Doubting Castle. But just like Bunyan’s pilgrim, each obstacle is eventually overcome and “progress” is made in one’s journey to the Celestial City.
A strange scene in the Interpreter’s house well illustrates the truth of perseverance. Christian sees a “fire burning against a wall, and one standing by it always, casting much water upon it to quench it. Yet did the fire burn higher and hotter.” Again, he asks Interpreter, “what means this?” Interpreter answers: “The fire is the work of grace that is wrought in the heart; he that casts water upon it to extinguish and put it out is the Devil.” Then Interpreter takes him to the back side of the wall to show him why the fire burns higher and hotter, rather than going out. There Christian sees a man with a vessel of oil which he continually, but secretly, casts on the fire. The Interpreter says, “This is Christ, who continually, with the oil of his grace maintains the work already begun in the heart, by means of which, notwithstanding what the Devil can do, the souls of his people prove gracious still.”10What a beautiful picture of God’s work to keep us persevering!
I encourage you to read this wonderful book. Read it more than once. Read it prayerfully and search intently for its rich spiritual lessons. Examine your own heart as you read and be encouraged in your spiritual pilgrimage. For those not used to seventeenth-century language, it may be tough going, 11 but it will be worth it to those who have a taste for spiritual things.
1Part one of The Pilgrim’s Progress is about Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. The lesser known part two is about Christian’s wife (Christiana) and children’s subsequent journey.
2The Roll was Christian’s assurance of salvation. As Bunyan writes: “This roll was the assurance of his life and acceptance at the desired haven.” John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (New York: New American Library, 1981), p. 47.
3Ibid., p. 60
5Ibid., p. 74
6Ibid, p. 76
7Ibid., p. 99
8Ibid., p. 133
9An Antinomian (Antinomian means “against law”) is a person who believes that a Christian is not responsible to live according to God’s law. Antinomianism commits the error Jude warned against by turning “the grace of God into licentiousness” (see Jude 4; cf. Rom. 6:1-2).
10Bunyan, p. 37
11Though I prefer the original version, there are abridged and modernized versions available.