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An Introduction to John Bunyan’s The Acceptable Sacrifice

Category Articles
Date January 26, 2006

The collected works of John Bunyan fill more than two thousand pages in three thick volumes, The Acceptable Sacrifice; or The excellency of a Broken Heart was unexpectedly the last of his manuscripts that Bunyan himself handled.

On a mid-August morning in 1688 John said goodbye to his wife Elizabeth, mounted his horse, and left for a preaching engagement in London where any announcement of his coming always drew immense crowds. In his saddlebags that day was the nearly completed manuscript for The Acceptable Sacrifice; or the Excellency of a Broken Heart.

He had planned a route through Reading where he would not only make his overnight stop, but where he would also speak to a father about reconciling with his estranged son who was a neighbour of Bunyan’s in Bedford. After spending the night with Pastor John Rance, Bunyan called on the angry father the next morning and was the Lord’s instrument in restoring the relationship. It was midday before he resumed his journey to London and during the afternoon a storm broke upon him. Rather than finding shelter, the preacher rode for hours in a relentless downpour. After he finally stopped, wet and weary, he developed a severe cold.

The next day Bunyan did not feel like traveling, instead, according to biographer Ernest Bacon, he “stayed in the house preparing The Acceptable Sacrifice for the press.”[1] By Sunday he felt well enough to preach at a church a mile away. “Here,” Bacon reports, “as he looked on the crowded congregation, much of his old vigour returned, and he preached a powerful sermon from John 1:13. Though he did not know it, it was to be his last.”[2] After his exertion on the Lord’s Day he fell into a relapse. By Tuesday his body, weakened by twelve years in the foul Bedford jail, was seized with a violent fever and perhaps pneumonia. Ten days later on August 31-less than three months from his sixtieth birthday-the author of Pilgrim’s Progress followed his Pilgrim across the river of death and was gloriously escorted up into the Celestial City.

More than a dozen of his works were published after his death, most of them in 1692. But The Acceptable Sacrifice was the first of Bunyan’s posthumous publications. George Cokayn, one of those by his side throughout the tinker’s dying days, wrote a preface three weeks after his friend was buried in Bunhill Fields on September 3, and the book was released just before the end of 1688.

In this book Bunyan opens and richly applies verse 17 of David’s penitential Psalm 51, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” Displaying the fruit of much meditation and Scripture-soaked reasoning, Bunyan demonstrates that “a spirit RIGHTLY broken, an heart TRULY contrite, is to God an excellent thing”. This is a classic example of Puritan thoroughness when dealing with a subject. Bunyan begins by showing us “what a broken heart and what a contrite spirit is”, that the heart is broken and the spirit made contrite by the hammer of the Word of God, and what are the signs of a heart thus broken and a spirit made contrite. These aren’t dry, theoretical musings. George Offor, the original editor of the book remarked, “No one could speak more feelingly upon this subject than our author”.

Because nearly a fourth of the text deals with “The necessity there is that the heart must be broken,” those whose hearts are not yet broken before the Lord should also read the book. By God’s grace they may begin to feel the weight of the stony hardness of their heart toward the things of God and awaken to the desperate need for it to be broken. Christians who read this section will have more insight into the natural spiritual condition of the human heart and appreciate better than ever why the Bible declares, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

In the fifth part of the book, Bunyan explains why God considers a broken heart such an excellent thing, and in the sixth the advantages to a Christian to keep his broken heart tender. Here Bunyan’s pastoral spirit reveals itself when he appends to this material an even longer segment on how to keep the heart tender. First, he gives six cautions (things to avoid), and then these five directions: (1) labour after a deep knowledge of God to keep it warm upon thy heart; (2) labour to get a deep sense of sin in its evil nature, and in it’s soul-destroying effects upon thy heart; (3) consider of death, both as to the certainty of thy dying, and uncertainty of the time when; (4) consider also the certainty and terribleness of the day of judgment; (5) consider, Christ Jesus did use no means to harden his heart against doing and suffering those sorrows which were necessary for the redemption of thy soul.

And if that wasn’t practical enough, Bunyan continues with a section that begins with, “Let us now, then, make some use of this doctrine”. He then amply supplies six such applications, some with multiple sub-points. Still not done pressing the text and its claims upon his readers, Bunyan closes the book with answers to three possible objections to what he’s written.

Nevertheless, why should people so many centuries removed from Bunyan read The Acceptable Sacrifice when there are so many books on evangelical spirituality being written in our own day? While it’s true that Bunyan’s writing style will sound a bit wooden to our ears, his prose is within easy reach of the average reader. If you aren’t accustomed to reading older, classic books, think of it as digging for diamonds in a mine proven to be full of them. The reward will be well worth the effort.

Puritan writers like Bunyan were inclined to write enduring works, not books for the moment. Their themes, like the one of this volume, were timeless, not faddish. These men recognized that any subject addressed in Scripture is a universal issue and that people in every age and every land will need the message. And when, as here, that ageless subject is handled in a searching, practical way, God’s people will always welcome it. That’s why Bunyan’s works continue to be reprinted generations after his death.

Another distinctive of Bunyan’s books is his dependence upon the Word of God. Hardly a paragraph-short or long-in The Acceptable Sacrifice is without Scripture, either in the text itself or in a footnote. A great many of his illustrations are biblical ones. Compare that to some current works on Christian spirituality where page after page can be turned without any reference to the Christian Bible. John Bunyan believed that it was impossible to relate to God apart from ongoing direction from the written revelation of God. As a result his books constantly take the reader to Scripture. That’s why C.H. Spurgeon, coining a word, somewhere said of him, “Cut Bunyan anywhere, and his blood is bibline.”

Bunyan’s bibline blood also caused him to write doctrinally driven spirituality. Much contemporary literature in the field of Christian spiritual formation relies heavily on experience, psychology, or even non-Christian forms of spirituality. Books like The Acceptable Sacrifice are all about experiential (or “experimental” as the old writers would have put it) Christianity, but Bunyan knew that right Christian living derives from true Christian thinking. The “bones” of his theology draw little attention to themselves, but it’s Bunyan’s solid understanding of biblical doctrines such as depravity, conviction, regeneration, repentance, and others that define and support the message fleshed out in these pages. So as is typical of Puritan writing, and as is characteristic of all balanced Christian spirituality, Bunyan gives us a healthy blend of “life and doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:16, NIV), that is, piety and theology, heart and head.

One other feature distinguishing this book from many written today about Christian living is its frequent and direct appeal to the reader’s conscience. Bunyan does not simply provide information for the reader; he confronts him with it, driving it home with precision and urgency. For example, in one place after he presents the truth of Scripture he says, “Reader, be advised, and consider of these things seriously, and compare thy soul with them, and with what else thou shalt find here written for thy conviction and instruction”. And just a few pages later he concludes a section with, “Wherefore, let me advise you that you be not afraid of, but that you rather covet a broken heart, and prize a contrite spirit; I say, covet it now, now the white flag is hung out, now the golden sceptre of grace is held forth to you. Better mourn now [when] God inclines to mercy and pardon, than mourn when the door is quite shut up. And take notice, that this is not the first time that I have given you this advice”. What John Geree wrote in 1646 about every Puritan pastor’s preaching is true about this Puritan’s writing, “He esteemed those sermons best that came closest to the conscience.”

And now may the Lord use this book to break the hearts of every unbeliever who reads The Acceptable Sacrifice, for as Bunyan put it, “God will break ALL hearts for sin, either here to repentance and happiness, or in the world to come to condemnation and misery”. And may He use these pages in the lives of His people to help them keep their hearts tender and broken before Him.

[1] Ibid
[2] John Geree, “What Were the Puritans?”, The Banner of Truth, Issue 426, p. 15.

Donald S. Whitney
Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Author of Spiritual Disciplines for the Spiritual Life (NavPress, 1991, with accompanying study guide), How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian? (NavPress, 1994), Spiritual Disciplines within the Church (Moody, 1996), and Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health (NavPress, 2001).

The Acceptable Sacrifice is published by the Banner of Truth (ISBN 085151 8524). Please see our book catalogue for further details.

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