Why We Should Read Pilgrim’s Progress
I have read through part one of Bunyan’s story four times now (Spurgeon read it over one hundred times!), and my love for it increases with the passing of years
by Brian C. Hedges
It has been said that, next to the Bible, the most read book in the English language is John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim ‘s Progress. I wonder if that is still true. Most people today (including Christians) have not read it. The books that command the attention of children and adults today are not nearly so substantial. The Prayer of Jabez, Left Behind and Harry Potter have now usurped the place which Bunyan’s wonderful allegory about Christian’s dangerous journey to the Celestial City once held. Perhaps that is one reason why Christian thinking is so shallow and Christian experience is so thin.
How I thank the Lord for godly parents! One of the first books I remember receiving from my father was a hard bound copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress. It still sits on my shelf. I also remember an abridged version which my brothers and I read as children. I have read through part one of Bunyan’s story four times now (Spurgeon read it over one hundred times!), and my love for it increases with the passing of years.
Why do I so love this seventeenth-century Puritan book? Let me tell you. I hope the telling will motivate you to read it as well – many of you for the first time.
First of all, 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. 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 through spiritual slothfulness. I have encountered Apollyon’s darts as thick as hail, while in the Valley of Humiliation. And I have found great strength through other believers, just as Christian did.
Bunyan’s story is my story. It is about my life. It is about every Christian’s life. That is one reason I love it.
A second reason why I love Bunyan’s book, is because of its many rich word-pictures. 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 wast 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.
Few paragraphs have been written which better explain the function of the Moral Law and its relation to the gospel. The metaphor carries the truth and drives it home to the heart. This is only one of many such word-pictures to be found in Bunyan’s classic which can help us better to understand both biblical doctrine and Christian practice.
Thirdly, this book is valuable because it shows the difference between true and false Christians. In a very heart searching way, Bunyan reveals the difference between a true Christian who struggles and fights against sin and a false professor who manifests no spiritual transformation. 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 Gate (the ‘strait’ gate); and Faithful who is martyred in Vanity Fair; and the four virtuous women at the House Beautiful, Discretion, Prudence, Piety and Charity.
Then 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.’ 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.
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. 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.’
The distinction between genuine Christians and hypocrites is very blurred 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 or heaven, and still be assured of salvation. Such a person is, in Bunyan’s reckoning, no genuine believer but a gospel hypocrite.
The theme of The Pilgrim’s Progress is ‘the perseverance of the saints’. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints has been all but lost in the past century. Thankfully, the revived interest in the doctrines of grace promoted in recent times by the writings of such men as Arthur W. Pink and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, may be turning the tide. But most people have traded the phrase ‘perseverance of the saints’ for the less comprehensive ‘preservation of the saints’ or the half-truth ‘once saved, always saved.’ That God preserves his saints is a fully true and very precious doctrine. We are ‘kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation’ (I Pet. 1:5). It is also true that once a person is genuinely saved, such a 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. And many people now 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 his heart, he has a ticket for heaven – regardless of how he lives. This is Antinomianism. The message of both Bunyan and Scripture is far different.
The Scriptures teach that ‘he that shall endure to the end, the same shall 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 them who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises’ (Heb.6:12). Jesus solemnly declares: ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name and in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matt.7:21-23). Job affirms that ‘the righteous shall hold on his way (Job 17:9), and Paul unequivocally says that only those who ‘continue in the faith grounded and settled’ and are not ‘moved away 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 (John 10:28). But it is also true that all of Christ’s sheep ‘follow him’. Pilgrim’s Progress is about the perseverance of a saint. Bunyan might well have entitled his book The Pilgrim Perseverance, for that is its 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. 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.
What a beautiful picture of God’s work to keep us persevering! Let us read this wonderful book. Read it more than once. Read it prayerfully and search intently for the rich spiritual lessons it contains. Use it to examine your own heart and to encourage you in your spiritual pilgrimage. For those not used to seventeenth-century language, it may in places be tough going, but it will be worth it to those who have a taste for spiritual things.
Banner of Truth Magazine, December 2002
Living in the World 6 November 2020
This article is the contents of an address first given in February 2020 at the Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Newcastle, UK. * * * LIVING in the world. How are Christians to live in the world? The question can be answered in many ways. The topic is potentially vast in scope — that becomes more […]
When coming to consider plagues throughout history and some Christian responses, it is appropriate to begin with this extract from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: O Almighty God, who in thy wrath did send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in […]