3 Lessons from the Life of John Bunyan

Austin T. Duncan | October 16, 2017

I read The Pilgrim’s Progress, like many of you, when I was a kid. In high school, I rejoined Christian on his journey through a Brit Lit class. When I discovered Reformed theology in my college years, I was reintroduced to John Bunyan through those little Puritan Paper books. In youth ministry, I’ve returned over and over to The Pilgrim’s Progress as a discipleship tool. It just seems to always have been around.

Teaching through the book of Hebrews recently brought The Pilgrim’s Progress back into my mind. The book of Hebrews is a book about perseverance. It employs the language of pilgrimage in a way that you don’t see anywhere else in the Scripture. Peter in his Epistle also talks about sojourners and aliens, describing Christians as people who don’t fit in. He looks at believers as those who are on a journey, those who need to be warned about dangers, those who need to ultimately remember the significance of persevering.

So, as I preached through Hebrews, I just kept bringing out illustrations from The Pilgrim’s Progress. I would get blank stares from the college students (which I’m totally used to). I asked them one Sunday, “How many of you have read The Pilgrim’s Progress?” Either they weren’t listening when I asked them, or the statistics frightened me a bit. It had to be less than 10%. I think in prior generations it wouldn’t have been that way, but the book is increasingly less well-known.

This is unusual in history because The Pilgrim’s Progress, written by John Bunyan, was a 17th-Century English novel and allegory that had, to say the least, a formative effect on Christianity in the English-speaking world. It’s been through 1,300 different editions and translated into 200 languages. Next to the Bible, it’s the second best-selling English book of all time. It was lauded by great Christian leaders, like Spurgeon who said he would read it once a year as a habit. I think The Pilgrim’s Progress is how Bunyan is best known, and rightfully so. Some have considered it the first English novel. It is a classic in the true definition of the word.

This summer I went on a rampage of sorts. A Christian rampage. My strong desire was to make sure that more people, especially Millennials, would read this powerful old book and learn lessons from the life of John Bunyan. I held a summer book club for college students where we weekly worked our way through big chunks of The Pilgrim’s Progress, digesting and applying it as we went. I was eager for these young Christians to be helped by this resource of antiquity, to read this storied allegory. Granted, they might read it on their phone, but still, they would read it. And through that study we all became more acquainted with the godly man behind The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan.

Maybe you’ve dismissed The Pilgrim’s Progress as a childhood book or a heavy-handed allegory, and you’ve moved on to more Pulitzer-worthy readings. Or maybe you don’t have a taste for fiction because you’re a warrior for the truth. I want you to be reintroduced to the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan, and to his extraordinary influential work. Bunyan’s life and words hold great treasure for those who are willing to journey with him. I’ve learned several lessons from this great man of God, and I want to share a few of them with you.

3 Lessons from the Life of John Bunyan

Centrality of Salvation

When you read Bunyan, you go away mindful that the predominant concern of his existence on this planet was the salvation of souls. He lived for the sake of the souls of the people in his congregation and longed to see them find Christ, to live in holiness, and to walk in obedience. John Bunyan breathed the gospel.

This is a helpful lesson for all of us, especially when we consider Bunyan’s many hardships. He was imprisoned for almost a third of his life, forcing him to leave his already poor family with almost nothing, including his blind daughter. He would find himself in and out of churches, constantly fighting one spiritual battle or another. And He did all of it for the salvation of those around him, for the sake of the gospel.

We’re interested in a thousand things that aren’t the gospel of Jesus Christ. A thousand political things, or a thousand preferential things, or a thousand things that you post about on Facebook. Reading Bunyan, you can’t get through a page without him talking about the gospel. In Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan writes:

“Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go, was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.

He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off 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.”

Bunyan pictures Christian’s journey in this culminating moment of forgiveness and satisfaction of the wrath of God at the cross. It’s an exceptional example to all of us to be mindful of the priority of salvation in our thinking, in our conversations, in what consumes us. If you find yourself more concerned with temporal things – and we all get sucked into them – I wonder if you’re feeding them instead of feeding your soul on that main priority, the truth of salvation.

Significance of Suffering

Bunyan knew extraordinary suffering. You see that in The Pilgrim’s Progress because of all that Christian goes through. It’s reflective of Bunyan’s understanding of suffering in the Christian life. It’s why George Whitfield said that The Pilgrim’s Progress “smells of the prison.” But Bunyan always saw God’s hand in his suffering.

This is instructive to all of us who will, according to Jesus, suffer in this world. We will get sick, be persecuted, and eventually we will die. In this life, we will go through spiritual difficulties that will stretch and challenge our faith. Bunyan saw them all as coming directly from the hand of God, that’s why it’s so significant to learn suffering from a man like Bunyan. Listen to what he writes.

“Since the rod is God’s as well as the child, let us not look upon our troubles as if they came from and were managed only by hell. It is true a persecutor has a black mark upon him, but yet the Scriptures say that all the ways of the persecutor are God’s… We should not be afraid of men, as if they were let loose to do to us, and with us, what they will. God’s bridle is upon them, God’s hook is in their nose. Yea, and God has determined the bounds of their rage, and if he lets them drive his church into the sea of troubles, it shall be up to the neck, and so far it may go, and not be drowned. I say, the Lord has hold of them, and orders them. Nor do they at any time come out against his people but by his license and commission how far to go and where to stop.”

The suffering Bunyan knew wasn’t just random. He preached these things to his church who knew that the confiscation of their property was an imminent threat and the loss of their life and freedom was ever before them.

That’s a powerful lesson for people who cannot handle anything but extraordinary comfort. Our own hearts can be brought to complaining, grumbling, and dissatisfaction 10,000 times a day.

To see what God did in Bunyan’s life through his intense and painful experiences is a reminder that suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to you. The worst thing that can happen to you is to be without faith in Christ. So, Bunyan would remind us that suffering is not outside of God’s will for his children. When it comes we must embrace it as from His hand and see that He’s going to use it to cause us to hold fast to Him.

Priority of Progress

One of the great lessons I learned in studying through the book of Hebrews is that the sentence that we like to use, “once saved always saved” is completely true, totally unbiblical and absolutely unhelpful. The Bible never says it, though the concept is theologically true. God will finish his work in the elect no doubt about it, but the Bible never employs that kind of language when it talks about perseverance.

I don’t think the doctrine of perseverance is rightly understood by many Christians today. The fruits of perseverance are things like obedience to God’s will, being a part of the church, availing yourself of prayer, desiring to be in fellowship with God’s people, longing for God’s glory, longing for heaven, love for the church and for brothers and sisters in Christ. You see all those things lacking in Christians today. Instead of bearing the fruit of grace in their lives, people are saying things like “once saved always saved.”

When the puritans talked about the doctrines of perseverance, they employed a far more Biblical understanding than the cheap version you hear given today. “Once saved always saved” is such a trite phrase. It doesn’t warn Christians like the Bible repeatedly warns Christians to persevere unto the end. The Pilgrim’s Progress makes no sense if you don’t have room for a call and a warning about perseverance. There’s a balance in sanctification and in perseverance between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man, and Bunyan got it. He said,

“This is Christ, who continually with the oil of his grace, maintains the work already began in the heart. You see, a prevailing view of God’s grace does understand that ultimately we persevere because Jesus is working in us, but it doesn’t do so without extraordinary effort and a mindfulness of the consequences of apostasy.”

We ought to be making measurable progress in our pursuit of Christ, in our sanctification, with a Biblical understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We must take a hold of the means of grace, and obey God from the heart.

I recommend to you that reading Bunyan is worth it. Every Christian in centuries before our own, if they had books, they had a copy of the Bible and they had a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and there’s a reason for that. It’s a book that can help you hold onto these three realities like Bunyan did: the priority of salvation, the endurance of suffering as a good soldier of Jesus, and the priority of perseverance in the Christian life.

Read more about the life of John Bunyan: John Bunyan, Joy, and Suffering

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