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An Introduction To John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress

Category Articles
Date September 15, 2005

“Sir, as to this matter, I am at a point with you;[1] for if I am out of prison today, I will preach the gospel again tomorrow – by the help of God!

These spirited but respectful words were John Bunyan’s parting shot to the judges who sentenced him to prison for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, threatening him even with death if he did not give up his ministry. During what became twelve years in jail, Bunyan’s tongue worked through his pen. Of the several books which he wrote or worked on during his imprisonment, one especially has become a classic in the fullest sense of the word: The Pilgrim’s Progress.John Bunyan

John Bunyan was born in November 1628, in the county of Bedfordshire, in England. His father was a brazier or tinker (a basic metalworker, a mender of pots and pans, for example). John Bunyan was briefly sent to school, where he learned to read and write, but he was soon taken out of school to follow his father’s trade, and – by his own admission – forgot much of what he had learned. From a young age, his ungodliness was proverbial, although even then he had terrifying dreams of God’s punishment of sinners. His life was providentially spared on at least one occasion, when he almost died in a boating accident.

In 1642 the English Civil War began. King Charles I had overstepped his authority, and his Royalists clashed with the Parliamentary army. Bunyan’s mother and sister died in 1644, and that same year (probably after his sixteenth birthday) John Bunyan enlisted in the Parliamentary Army. Again, his life was spared by God when a man who took his place at a siege was shot dead.

His regiment was disbanded in 1647 and he returned to the village of Elstow in Bedfordshire, where, shortly afterward, he married. His wife (whose name we do not know) had a godly father. Although they were “as poor as poor might be,”[2] Bunyan’s wife brought two books with her to the marriage: The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven by Arthur Dent and The Practice of Piety by Lewis Bayly. Reading these, and under some influence from his wife, Bunyan’s conscience began to afflict him, and he sought to be outwardly moral. However, he says that he “was not sensible of [did not feel] the danger and evil of sin.”[3] That soon changed, and Bunyan spent several years deeply distressed and sometimes despairing on account of his felt sin and need of salvation. He came into contact with an Independent church in Bedford, pastored by a godly man named John Gifford, and found profitable instruction in his wrestlings with God and with conscience. He struggled on in spiritual agony for years, assaulted by all manner of questions, concerns, doubts and temptations, longing to be saved but often fearing himself already damned.

Then, one day, “this sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven; . . . [and] . . . I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand, there, I say, as my righteousness . . . I also saw moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse: for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, the same yesterday, and today, and for ever (Heb. 13:8). Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed, I was loosed from my affliction and irons, my temptations also fled away . . .”[4]

With his soul finding peace – albeit after many long and painful struggles – through the righteousness of Jesus Christ, Bunyan was soon afterward admitted to the membership of the Bedford Independent church, and it was not long until he was invited to exercise his gifts as a preacher: “I preached,” says Bunyan, “what I felt, what I smartingly [acutely, deeply] did feel.”[5] Such preaching by an unlearned man, while effective among those who heard him, was not generally considered acceptable in the prevailing cultural and political climate, and became even less so in 1660, when King Charles II came to the throne.

Bunyan’s first wife died in 1658, and he married a godly woman named Elizabeth in 1659. She was pregnant with his first child (as well as caring for his four children from his previous marriage) when Bunyan came into open conflict with the authorities. During the rule of Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector from 1649 to 1658) churches like the one to which Bunyan preached enjoyed a degree of freedom; when Charles II came to the throne those freedoms were swiftly repealed. Bunyan was one of the first Nonconformist[6] preachers to suffer; a warrant for his arrest was issued in November 1660. Nevertheless, he arrived to preach at one of the illegal gatherings of Dissenting Christians. Some, fearful of the persecution, suggested cancelling the meeting. Bunyan said, “Our cause is good, we need not be ashamed of it; to preach God’s Word is so good a work that we shall be well rewarded, even if we suffer for it.”[7] Before he had long been preaching, the persecutors burst in, and Bunyan was arrested and eventually committed to prison for three months, charged with refusing to attend the services of the Established church and preaching to unlawful assemblies. Refusing to conform, and despite the pleas of his poor wife to the authorities, those three months eventually stretched to twelve years.

With opportunity forced upon him, Bunyan began to write. His spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, was one of the fruits of his time in prison, and was the last of his prison works to be published before his release in 1672. This was the result of a pardon following from a Declaration of Indulgence by Charles II.[8] During his imprisonment, Bunyan had been able to maintain contact with the church, and had even been voted to be their pastor. Using his freedom fully, Bunyan was so active in travelling, gospelling and organizing that he became known as ‘Bishop Bunyan’. The threat of further imprisonment was never far off, though, and he was imprisoned again for six months in 1677. It was during this imprisonment that he probably put the finishing touches to a book the bulk of which seems to have been written during his first imprisonment: The Pilgrim’s Progress. The first part of this book was published in 1678, followed by other major works, including The Life and Death of Mr Badman (1680), a most excellent book called The Holy War (1682), and a second part to The Pilgrim’s Progress (1684), along with many other tracts and treatises.

Despite ongoing waves of persecution, Bunyan’s popularity grew. The Pilgrim’s Progress was a bestseller of the day. Thousands would gather to hear him preach (when he came to London, 1200 gathered at 7 o’clock on a winter workday morning to listen to him explain the Word of God). Among his regular hearers was perhaps the greatest Puritan theologian, John Owen, ‘the Prince of Puritans.’ King Charles II is said to have asked John Owen how a man of learning could go “to hear a tinker prate [prattle, chatter].” Owen answered, “May it please your majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning.”[9]

In 1688 Bunyan travelled from Bedford to the town of Reading, where he was seeking to reconcile a father to his estranged son. The work was successful, and Bunyan continued on to London on horseback despite a gathering storm. Arriving in London soaked through, he developed a fever, although he preached the next Lord’s day. His health then rapidly declined. By Friday 31st August 1688, several friends had gathered round the dying man. After some gracious conversation, they asked if anything more could be done for him. “Brothers,” he replied, “I desire nothing more than to be with Christ, which is far better.” Stretching out his arms, he cried, “Take me, for I come to thee!” and thus crossed over the river to the Celestial City.[10] He was buried in a cemetery called Bunhill Fields, used by the Dissenters. The book he carried with him to London was published shortly afterward by his friends: The Acceptable Sacrifice, or, The Excellency of a Broken Heart. Only a few months later would come the toppling of James II, ushering in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689 which would bring the first taste of the religious freedom that Bunyan had been denied during his life.

Such was the life and testimony of John Bunyan. The best known of his works today is The Pilgrim’s Progress. We turn now to consider some of the distinguishing features of this book that have made it valuable as a guide to Christian faith and experience.

Pilgrim’s Progress

As we have seen, Bunyan probably wrote the bulk of the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress during his lengthy imprisonment. When we know something of his life, we are able to see certain events, people and places reflected in his book. The full title gives us, in typically Puritan fashion, insight into its contents and purpose: The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to that which is to come, delivered under the similitude [likeness] of a dream wherein is discovered the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country. The second part of the book has an almost identical title, except that it sets forth the manner of the setting out of Christian’s wife and children, their dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country.

These titles tell us much. The main motif of the book is pilgrimage. The starting point is the City of Destruction, and the destination to which the faithful pilgrims travel is the Celestial City. The book is an allegory, and it is a testimony to the potency of Bunyan’s writing that many otherwise complicated dictionary or literary definitions of allegory refer to Pilgrim’s Progress as the simplest and best way of defining and illustrating the genre! Essentially, an allegory is an extended metaphor (a vivid comparison) in which the characters, events and locations represent or symbolize other things. Bunyan uses this as a means of teaching, employing this colourful and memorable style to fix truth in his readers’ minds and hearts. So, for example, the City of Destruction which “will be burned with fire from heaven”[11] is this present world, and the Celestial City to which the pilgrims travel is the eternal and heavenly kingdom of God’s Son, enjoyed by the saints after death.

The first part traces the pilgrimage of a man called Christian, who flees from the City of Destruction and makes his way through many dangers and difficulties to the Celestial City. Several of the people whom he encounters, or the locations through which he travels, are well known wherever the book has been read, and have entered the English vernacular, becoming accepted literary references. One of the first places to which Christian comes is the Slough of Despond, where he is almost swamped by doubts and fears. Almost thrown off course, the faithful Evangelist directs him to the Wicket Gate through which he must pass to find the path to the Celestial City. Going through, he comes to the House of the Interpreter, who shows him many wondrous things, and sends him on his way. From there Christian ascends a hill with the Cross upon it, where he loses the burden of sin from his back.[12] He goes on up another hill called Difficulty, and passes between two chained lions to a lodge where he rests and is armed for his onward journey. His arms and armour are immediately put to the test in a long and painful battle with Apollyon, the devil, where Christian wins through in the face of much distress. He meets a fellow-pilgrim called Faithful, and together they press on to Vanity Fair with all its carnality, where both are imprisoned and where Faithful is martyred.

Christian is delivered, and travels on with another friend, Hopeful, who has come to be a pilgrim through the testimony of Christian and Faithful. Although the two escape the snares of the Hill Lucre, they are captured by the Giant Despair through Christian’s foolish going out of the way, and held for a time in Doubting Castle. Again they escape, this time through the use of the key called Promise. On they travel to the Delectable Mountains, where four shepherds called Knowledge, Experience, Watchful and Sincere care for them, and give them a sight of the Celestial City far ahead. Pressing on, through encounters with men including Ignorance and Atheist, they come to the Enchanted Ground. To prevent themselves being made drowsy and lulled to sleep, they talk of good matter, and so pass through the Enchanted Ground to the land of Beulah, a place of true rest and delight. One last obstacle awaits them before they can reach the heavenly city: a river, death. There is no way to the Celestial Gate but through the river, the depth of which changes depending on the faith of those passing through it. Hopeful passes through quite easily, but Christian is at first overwhelmed with fears. Hopeful strives to keep his friend’s head above the water with encouragements, and soon Christian gets a view of Christ that delivers him from his fears. So the two men pass through the River to the Celestial City, and are welcomed into glory.

In the second part a band of pilgrims follows the same route as Christian. The core of the band comprises Christian’s wife, Christiana (who takes to the pilgrim way after her husband crosses the river), her sons, and a young friend called Mercy. By adopting this method in the second part, Bunyan fulfils his intention of dealing with several matters not immediately relevant or easily covered in the first part: “What Christian left locked up and went his way, Sweet Christiana opens with her key.”[13] These new pilgrims also face a painful struggle before entering through the Wicket Gate, after which they spend time in Interpreter’s house. He sends one of his servants with them, a faithful man called Great-heart, who guides and guards them through their journey. As they travel, Great-heart often discourses of the journey of Christian before them, showing them some of what took place along the way; he also fights for the pilgrims, killing, for example, the Giants Maul and Slay-good.

One of Great-heart’s most notable conquests (with Christiana’s sons and another pilgrim called Honest) is the defeat of Giant Despair and his wife, Diffidence, together with the demolition of Doubting Castle. Other pilgrims join them as they travel, and they face particular battles and perils that Christian did not, although they pass through the same territory. There is even a marriage, between Christiana’s son Matthew and her young friend, Mercy. Eventually, the much-grown pilgrim band comes to Beulah, where they await their summons across the River, during which time several pilgrims offer one another counsel, encouragement and admonition before passing across.

Thus, in the course of these two parts of the book, we see men and women of various characters and dispositions fleeing the City of Destruction and arriving at the Celestial City at the end of their pilgrimage. The genius of this structure is to give Bunyan broad scope to deal with a wide variety of Christian experience, focusing both on the individual and communal aspects of Christian living. While the outlines above aim to give a fair representation of the journey taken by the pilgrims, there is no space here to provide more than the merest hint of some of the other characters (all with their own distinctive and instructive names and characters) across whom the pilgrims come in the course of their journey, and who illustrate some of the encouragements, dangers, temptations, errors and helps that exist along the way to the Celestial City.

There are several particular qualities of the book that should encourage us to read it, and which demonstrate how valuable it can be to Christians on our own pilgrimage.

Firstly, in reading The Pilgrim’s Progress we should note its earnest Biblicism. Bunyan’s knowledge and comprehension of Scripture become immediately apparent when reading the book, in at least three ways. There is, first of all, the direct quotation of Scripture. Time after time, one or another of the pilgrims utters, receives, offers, or dwells upon Scripture as the expression of their own desires or convictions, or as a source of instruction and comfort. The first action recorded of the burdened pilgrim is his reading of the Bible; the first plain expression of his heart’s conviction of sin and need of salvation is in the cry of the Philippian jailer from Acts 16.30: “What must I do to be saved?” Thereafter we find a multitude of direct quotes from the Word of God, appropriate to the particular needs and circumstances of the pilgrims.

In addition to the direct quotations, the reader familiar with his Bible will quickly identify and relish the Scriptural flavour of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Charles Spurgeon said that Bunyan’s book was the Bible in another shape. He suggested that Bunyan had read his Bible “till his whole being was saturated with Scripture” so that when we read Pilgrim’s Progress “we feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.” [14] Even when Bunyan is not directly quoting Scripture, and giving chapter and verse, he seems unable to write without its words and phrases flowing from his pen.

Neither should we forget Bunyan’s doctrinal insights. Throughout the two parts, the various characters engage in conversations both with friends (usually recollections of Christian truth and experience, or warnings of dangers) and with enemies (there are several debates, accusations answered, or rebuttals of error given). What is immediately evident is Bunyan’s practical grasp of the living truth: the Bible is no dead book, but the believer’s guide in faith and life. Bunyan was a warm-hearted, committed, thoroughly and truly evangelical Calvinist.[15] As Spurgeon says so often, Calvinism is simply a nickname for the truth of the Bible, and thus we see in Pilgrim’s Progress a sovereign and merciful God saving sinners by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Justification by faith in Christ the Redeemer lies at the heart of Bunyan’s narrative.

The defining metaphor of Bunyan’s book is Biblical; the broad sweep and careful details are all Biblical; the language is Scriptural; the teachings – explicit and implicit – are grounded in the Word of God. The whole is delivered with the passionate earnestness of a man whose own soul depends upon the truths which he so sincerely and potently expresses to others.

Secondly, Bunyan provides a realistic depiction of decided and vigorous Christianity. Bunyan lived in an age and under circumstances in which genuine Christianity could never be a game or a hobby, but was often a matter of life or death, especially for Nonconformists. However, these issues are more than cultural ones, merely temporal and circumstantial; they are spiritual and eternal. At the crux of all is the question that once thrust itself upon Bunyan’s own soul: “Wilt thou leave thy sins, and go to heaven? Or have thy sins, and go to hell?”[16] Christian comes to a similar point, where (as he tells Evangelist) he is not willing to die, nor able to face judgement.[17] However, having been guided to the path to the Celestial City by Evangelist, he then holds to it through many trials and dangers, kept on the way through the grace of God until he reaches the end.

While not everyone experiences (or needs to experience) the depths of woe or precise conflicts depicted in Pilgrim’s Progress, these realities of spiritual conflict underpin the narrative. Here is an honest treatment of what it means to be a Christian, and to enter into a life of obedience to Jesus Christ, a life which necessarily involves arduous labour, much striving, and fierce fighting against errors and dangers. The Pilgrim’s Progress is Christian life as it is (a life of earnest faith, sacrificial love, and determined obedience to Christ to the very end), not as we would often like it to be (an easy ride to heaven), and therefore Bunyan’s book is profoundly instructive and enlightening: we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14.22).

It is also deeply encouraging, because it reminds us of Christian advance and development: this is the pilgrim’s progress. Through the pages of both parts we see the development of godly character, as the characters advance in their understanding, strength, and capacity to face the rigours of the pilgrimage. There are painful lessons to learn, surely, but there is also an evident progress in godliness, whereby new challenges are met with greater resolve and capacity than before. We see this, for example, in the development of Christian and Christiana’s sons in the second part, but also in the increasing maturity of Christian as an individual. Neither must we forget that Christian and all his true fellow pilgrims do reach the Celestial City, crossing the river into the glorious presence of the King.

Thirdly, Bunyan instructively portrays Christian individuality, companionship, and community. The first part of the book focuses on the journey of one man, Christian. We keep company with him on his way, and learn from his pilgrimage as an individual. But we are not the only ones keeping him company: his notable fellow-travellers are Faithful (martyred in Vanity Fair) and Hopeful. This element is further developed in the second part, in which – under the leadership of Great-heart – an ever-growing band of pilgrims make their way to the Celestial City. Again, Bunyan’s brilliance and grasp of Biblical truth enable him to weave together the individual, social and corporate elements of Christian living. Each one individually must make their way to the Celestial City, but they do not do so in isolation. Christian depends heavily at key moments on his friends, and they depend on him in their moments of concern and weakness. Sometimes the friends trip each other up (it is Christian who leads Hopeful to Doubting Castle); more often, they instruct and encourage one another. The value of Christian companionship and the beauty of true friendship are everywhere evident.

The second part introduces Great-heart, one of the most potent and instructive portraits of a true pastor in Christian literature, the pilgrims in whose care prosper under his loving guidance and guardianship. The familial as well as communal elements of Christian living are also woven into this narrative. Christianity is not a religion of isolation, but of fellowship with the Triune God and with those who also belong to God. The Christian alone before God, and in Scriptural companionship with other believers (friends, family members, and true churches under the loving guidance of faithful pastors), are both carefully depicted in the pages of Bunyan’s book.

Finally, if this brief introduction and overview have encouraged you to read The Pilgrim’s Progress, how can we best make use of it on our own journey from this world to the next?

We should read it humbly. The Lord God brought his servant John Bunyan through deep waters to teach him these truths, and he lived and died resting in and upon them. In an age of spiritual giants and fierce battles for the truth, Bunyan was highly esteemed and respected. He knew his Bible thoroughly, and was loved as a faithful pastor and sure counsellor and guide. Such a man with such a reputation ought to be read with care and with the expectation of learning much.

We should read it attentively. Bunyan wrote it not merely to give enjoyment, or as a book for children. He wrote to communicate the truth in an engaging, attractive and memorable fashion. It was given to teach, and so we should read it carefully to learn about the Christian life which we are called to live. It is not a story-book; it is a life book. It deals with eternal realities about which we desperately need to learn if we are to live our lives to the glory of the living God.

We should read it prayerfully. There are deep truths to be learned, and the book is worthy of careful and prayerful thought; while it teaches the truth simply, some portions are less easy to understand, and some of its lessons can be distressing at first encounter. We should never read it in place of our Bibles, but with our Bibles to hand, to see the truth which Bunyan wrote, and to understand his wise application of God’s truth to our lives. It has much to teach the man who is not too proud to learn.

We should read it repeatedly. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon is reputed to have read this book over one hundred times. That might be beyond most of us, but it is no bad model. The Pilgrim’s Progress remains fresh because is it so intensely Scriptural. It will be continually instructing us. As Christian learned godliness as he travelled, so will we. As our own pilgrimage advances, Bunyan goes on pastoring us. He constantly teaches us things newly applicable to the trials which we presently face, providing encouragements, instructions, exhortations, and counsels as we make our way from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City by the same well-worn path of faith in Christ and obedience to God travelled by innumerable pilgrims before us.

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[1] The sense is, “In this matter, I cannot back down, and take my stand against you here.”

[2] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (London: Penguin, 1987), p.9 (paragraph 15). This book is Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography.

[3] Ibid., p.10 (paragraph 19).

[4] Ibid., p.59 (paragraphs 229-230).

[5] Ibid., p.70 (paragraph 276).

[6] A Nonconformist (or Dissenter) was someone who was, on principle, not a part of the established Church of England.

[7] Frank Mott Harrison, John Bunyan (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1964), p.86.

[8] This was a decree by the king that gave some freedoms to Nonconformists, who by this time had suffered horribly under cruel and godless persecutions. Although Bunyan was blessed with relatively good conditions during his time in jail, many Dissenters died in prison, or were released with their health permanently damaged.

[9] John Owen, Works (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 1:xcii.

[10] Paraphrased from Harrison, John Bunyan, p.196.

[11] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Penguin, 1987), p.51.

[12] This scene is represented on Bunyan’s tomb in London. One side of the tomb shows Christian climbing the hill with his burden, the other shows him coming to the cross and the burden rolling away down the hill, never to be seen again.

[13] Pilgrim’s Progress, p.277.

[14] C H Spurgeon, Autobiography (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 4:268.

[15] Although we must surely not forget the profound influence of Luther upon Bunyan and his understanding: Luther’s commentary on Galatians had a deep impact on Bunyan during his conversion, and he evidently felt real affinity with Luther, saying, “I do prefer this book of Mr Luther upon the Galatians, (excepting the Holy Bible) before all the books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience” (Grace Abounding, p.35, paragraphs 129-130).

[16] Grace Abounding, p.11 (paragraph 22).

[17] Pilgrim’s Progress, p.52.

Jeremy Walker is associate pastor with his father Austin of the Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, Sussex, England.

The following works of John Bunyan are published by the Banner of Truth and advertised in the current catalogue. Acceptable Sacrifice, All Loves Excelling, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, Pilgrims Progress, Prayer, Works Of John Bunyan 3 Vol Set.

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