Why Evangelicals Don’t Read Pilgrim’s Progress (And Why They Should)
by John R. Muether
“Read any new books lately?” Visitors to the Reformed Theological Seminary library often ask this, eager to learn what to add to their reading lists. Before introducing them to what’s new, though, I remind them of what’s old that they should be reading. High on that list, yet often overlooked, is Pilgrim’s Progress, the all-time best-selling Protestant devotional book, though that might be hard to imagine after visiting most Christian bookstores or church libraries. Even in abridged and modern versions (which I don’t recommend), John Bunyan’s classic has been crowded out by “left behind” novels, purpose-driven how-to books, and Jabez-inspired prayer manuals.
Why is this? My personal experience may shed some light. I first read Pilgrim’s Progress about 25 years ago, expecting a devotional classic, and I was not disappointed. After many dangers, toils and snares, Christian comes to that marvelous experience of the cross that Bunyan describes vividly: “So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
It was truly an inspirational story – from the City of Destruction through the Slough of Despond to the Cross of Christ – with a cheerful ending: “Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, ‘He hath given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His death.”‘ And: a quick read too! Who claimed that the Puritans were verbose? I was only on page 35 in my edition when I became perplexed: How was Bunyan going to command my attention for the next 153 pages? Convinced the story was over, I nearly put the book down.
I discovered, though, that the story was not over. Christian was not yet saved. Still ahead lurked Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle and Deadman’s Lane. He would meet Simple, Sleep and Presumption; Formalist and Hypocrisy; Messrs. Facing-both-ways, Two-Tongues, Turn-about and many others, all of whom also came from the City of Destruction through the cross. These were fellow travelers who presumably had rejoiced at the cross as Christian had. But these were counterfeit pilgrims filled with dangerous, deadly presumption.
SALVATION IS A JOURNEY
Why was this a struggle to read? My difficulty, and its seeming inaccessibility to modern readers, owes to American evangelical prejudices. Specifically, the book makes little sense for those with a decisionalist approach to salvation, reducing the saving work of God to a spectacular, instantaneous conversion experience. Bunyan does not describe the Christian life that way. Salvation entailed a lifelong process of journeying through the wilderness of life, and conversion was requested at every moment. Christian’s journey to the Celestial City was threatened at every turn. He was sustained by the company of Hopeful and Faithful but nearly deceived by Talkative and Ignorance. Throughout the story Christian was always most vulnerable whenever puffed up with presumption.
Pilgrimage is a pervasive theme throughout Scripture. Peter addresses believers as “aliens and strangers” (NIV) or “sojourners and exiles” (ESV) (1 Peter 2:11). In contemporary parlance, we are homeless. As homeless people, we encounter unjust accusations (2:12), suffering (2:19), daily insults (3:14) and fiery trials (4:12-14). Similarly, Paul constantly reminds us of our pilgrim status when informing us that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20; Colossians 3:1-3).
The letter to the Hebrews is an operating manual for pilgrimage. It locates the Christian squarely in the desert, likening the Christian life to the wilderness wandering under the Old Covenant. In 3:7-4:13 the analogy is particularly compelling. Theologian Richard Gaffin comments on this passage:
Israel in the wilderness and believers under the New Covenant are in analogous situations. Christians receive the same promise of rest (3:11; 4:1); they are exposed to similar trials and the same danger of unbelief and apostasy (3:12,19; 4:6); they are exhorted to the same perseverance in faith (3:8, 14; 4:1,11). In New Testament as well as Old Testament times, God’s people are pilgrims and travelers; now as then, they are a people “on the way.”
EMBRACE THE PILGRIMAGE
In Hebrews 11, the author conducts his great survey of pilgrims. He describes these Old Testament saints as strangers and pilgrims on earth, with no abiding city, relying on faith in the promises of God, knowing that their inheritance was something better than this present world.
In these New Testament texts, the writers lean heavily on the Old Testament. In the desert wandering of the Israelites, we see Christian pilgrimage. The story of the Old Testament pilgrims is our story, written for us, Paul says, “on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
As pilgrims, however, we do not merely recapitulate the story of Israel. We find our identity in union with our Lord and Savior the Bible’s ultimate pilgrim. Jesus created the world, John tells us, but that very world would despise Him. He would be tested in the wilderness, suffer rejection by His people, and wander this earth without a place to lay down His head. As a pilgrim, Jesus set His face upon Jerusalem so we may set our face upon Zion. To be a pilgrim is to embrace, in imitation of Christ and His pilgrimage, the life of the cross.
God’s pilgrims also accept His provision. In the Old Testament it was manna in the wilderness. In the New Testament, Peter offers “grace and peace (1 Peter 1:1,2) to the elect strangers, or exiles. This benediction is no social pleasantry or pious sentiment. It is an official declaration from Christ’s ordained officer. God nourishes His modem pilgrims, as He did His ancient pilgrims, through His grace.
By remembering our desert location, we increasingly realize our desperate state and our need for God’s provisions. The means of grace, through the ministry of the Word and sacrament, offer genuine nourishment. To reject that healthy diet and seek alternative nourishment is to claim to be wiser than God and yearn for the diet of Egypt.
Pilgrimage has consequences. Sustained reflection on this theme will reap several benefits for us. First it will subvert common misunderstandings of the Christian life. The besetting problem for American Christians – evangelical or mainline – is an overwhelming self-confidence that attends our notions of the Christian life. One advantage to singing the great hymns of the faith is their emphasis on our weakness and frailty. Many are hymns of pilgrimage, such as:
“Lead on O King eternal, the day of march has come. Henceforth in fields of conquest, Thy tents shall be our home.”
CRIES OF WEAKNESS
Echoing Hebrews 11, this is a claim of pilgrimage. God’s triumphant people are satisfied to live in tents while awaiting a permanent home. Similarly, Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” is the cry of a pilgrim: “Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also.”
We can cite others, but we must not omit this Welsh classic:
“Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand;
Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more.”
Pilgrimage also should yield more deliberateness and thoughtfulness in the Christian life. We will reflect more critically on the surrounding culture and the worldliness for which we are too readily “prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.” We will grow in appreciation of and dependence upon God’s grace, and we will see His grace mediated through the Church, where we receive the benefits of the redemption purchased by Christ. Moreover, it will make us rethink worship: what we do and what we should expect (and not expect). Casual church attendance or impulsive church shopping are characteristics of those too comfortable in the wilderness of this life. A discerning pilgrim cultivates the ability to distinguish pilgrimage from its counterfeits. Churches that design worship for “seekers” often attract shoppers or browsers – not true pilgrims. Worldly people at home in Vanity Fair are very different from the heavenly people gathered on Mount Zion.
Read any old books lately? How about Pilgrim’s Progress? “This book will make a traveler of thee,” Bunyan wrote in his introduction. It will reorient us to see the Christian life as one of gradual progress through a dangerous journey – a sojourn that works out salvation with fear and trembling, relying on the provisions of a gracious God through every step. So read – or re-read – Pilgrim’s Progress. Only be sure to continue past page 35.
Reprinted by permission from Reformed Theological Seminary, Fall 2003
John R. Muether is Library Director and Associate Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. His most recent book is “With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship” (P&R, 2002), co-authored with D. G. Hart.
John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is published by the Banner of Truth.
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