John Bunyan: A Pilgrim’s Progress
Acts 4:13-20, Matthew 10:5-13
John Bunyan was born, lived and died in the little village of Bedford in England. He lived his entire life within 5 miles of his village, except for a few brief trips to London. He was born in 1628 in the middle of a civil war that was raging throughout the country. An unhappy time. And an unhappy home.
For he came from an unhappy and unhealthy home, and when his mother and sister died suddenly, and his father remarried immediately after, John ran away from home, angry at his father. At 16 he joined the army of Oliver Cromwell to fight against the monarchy of Charles 1st. He became a “roundhead” fighting against the King. He managed to survived this three-year ordeal of danger.
At 18 he quit the army to marry his sweetheart Mary. Talk about two poverty stricken people joining forces. His wife brought a dowry of two books with her – religious books. When she married him, however, John could neither read nor write. Whatever he had learned in earliest childhood of those basic skills were long gone. Those two books did not look like much of a dowry! He couldn’t read and he was spiritually illiterate too. His family home had been a pagan home of disregard for God and church. But those two devotional books were the beginnings of his religious education. For part of Mary’s gifts to her young husband was to teach him how to read and write and to cause him to think about God.
John was a Tinker by trade. His family had been tinkers for three generations. The job took him from house to house throughout the area mending pots and pans, and sharpening knives for a living. For generations his family had lived on the borders of destitution and poverty, and now he too joined the ranks of the penniless poor along with his new bride.
His becoming a Christian was slow and arduous work. It would take 7 years of Mary’s living out her faith before he came to faith in God. He felt himself too sinful to be saved. Too lost to be found. Too guilty to be granted grace. But there was a passage of Scripture that haunted his mind, which refused to let him slip into despair. It was the text from John Chapter 6. It comes from the mouth of Jesus Himself “He that comes to me I will in no wise cast out.”
One day he overheard three women, sitting in a doorway, sitting out in the sun, discussing the things of God. They were obviously poverty stricken, but their words and their lives communicated joy and peace, and that convicted him further, and shortly after that encounter, he believed that text of scripture applied to him too, and immediately the burden that he had borne of sin and guilt and shame slipped off his back and he was a free man. He ran home to tell Mary that he too had found Christ as his savior.
That event takes place when he is 25 years of age. He joined the small independent Baptist church in the town of Bedford, and began his pilgrimage of faith.
But two years later Mary dies, leaving him with four young children to raise. Mary had been more that a wife to him. She had been his midwife into the world of the mind and into the Kingdom of God. John is now a single parent raising his family by himself. Shortly after Mary’s death he was chosen to be a lay preacher of the church.
Success met his efforts in preaching as people began to gather to hear this unlearned preacher. By day he was a tinker. By night he was an evangelist. By weekday he toured the community, on weekends he held services where ever he was invited. When nothing else was on the go, he began to write some booklets for wider distribution of the message that God had laid on his heart.
4 years later he re-married, and Elisabeth became his wife and mother to his children, and supporter of his ministry to the Bedford people.
If the story had ended there, it would not be unusual. But it is what happens next that changes the lives of this family and the Christian world for the next 3 centuries
Oliver Cromwell died, and the nation had had enough of puritanical rule, and so Charles the Second was invited to take back the throne. When he did the fortunes of men like John Bunyan changed overnight. An Act of Parliament was brought into effect which said that any person preaching without permission of the State Church was engaged in illegal activities and would be imprisoned.
But John Bunyan felt impelled by God and conscience to tell people the good news about God. He was invited to a nearby village to preach. It was a set-up. The police were waiting, and he was arrested on the spot. The justice of the peace was sympathetic. He offered a deal to John Bunyan. If he would promise to quit preaching, all charges would be dropped.
He could not make that promise. He was a bit like Jeremiah the prophet. Jeremiah had resolved to speak no longer in God’s name, but the prophet says “But I couldn’t stop myself for God’s word was in me like a burning fire shut up in my bones.” And Bunyan also felt internally impelled to share God’s word
When the Justice of the Peace heard of Bunyan’s resolve he had no choice but to commit him to trial. Bunyan was put on trial a few weeks later. The indictment read as follows:
“John Bunyan of the town of Bedford, laborer, has devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to church to hear divine service, and is a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conferences, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of the kingdom….”
John Bunyan was found guilty and this was the statement of condemnation:
Hear your sentence, you must be taken back to prison, and there remain for the next three months, and at the end of three months, if you do not submit and go to church to hear divine service and leave your preaching, you must be banished from the realm; and if after such a day you are still found in this realm, you must hang by the neck for it.”
Wow! Prison, banishment, and death were the possibilities that lay before him. But listen to the response of John Bunyan to the judge. He stood up and said: “If I were out of prison today, I would preach again tomorrow, so help me God.”
So in 1660 John Bunyan who was now 33 years old was locked up in prison. But not for three months, not for 6 months, but for six years. He was not deported or hanged, but he was kept locked away with the proviso that all he had to do was to agree not to preach anymore and he would be freed immediately. After 6 years they let him out because he was a model prisoner. And what did he do? He went out and started preaching again. So the magistrates re-arrested him, tried him and found lots of evidence of his new misbehavior and he went back to prison for an additional six years, with the same condition: “Agree to stop preaching, and you are a free man.” He could not make that promise. He lived inside his prison for 12 long years. After 12 years he was released again. He resumed his preaching again, and for three years they allowed him his liberty. But soon he landed back in prison again, but this time only for another 6 months.
What a waste of a man’s life. What a terrible tragedy for his young family. But wait! John Bunyan did not desert them entirely. While other prisoners spent their days in idleness, he spent his in industry. He had a family to support. So he began to make lace and had it sold so he could provide for them.
On another front those years could not be considered as wasted years. If Bunyan had not been locked away, his life might well have amounted to little. But prison was his study and his sanctuary. Into that prison he took his Bible and some writing paper. His imprisonment became a means of grace to the entire Christian church. For if his voice was to be silenced, his pen was not. He resolved to write the messages that God had placed on his heart. And from the pen of this once illiterate and unregenerate man flowed words of imagination and power. 53 books in all. It is interesting to note that John Bunyan read almost no other book but his Bible, and actually wrote more books than he would ever read.
His most famous book, Pilgrim’s Progress, was begun while in prison. The walls of his cell prevented him from seeing much of the world outside his prison, but that freed up his imagination to see things others did not.
The Legacy of John Bunyan
There are so many things that flow from the life and writings of John Bunyan. Let me share a few of them.
- Theology for the Average Person
He was one of the very first to write theology for the average person. The common people heard him gladly and for three hundred years his “Pilgrim’s Progress” and the Bible were read together. He transformed abstract words like, Faith, Love and Truth into characters that people could grasp and understood. He created a unique version of “A Living Bible” that made the central message of scripture clear to an illiterate age. And even to our day, perhaps the clearest way of communicating truth to our culture is to clothe it in Christian character and behaviour. After all, we may be the only Bible some people read!
- Religious Liberty
There was a second gift that Bunyan brought to the church. Every time we enter or pass a Baptist church we should give thanks to God. John Bunyan was one of the very first Baptists. The movement had started in England just before his birth. By the time he was thrown into prison there were 200 to 300 Baptist congregations in the British Isles. All of them small and struggling. But Bunyan, along with his fellow Baptists wanted liberty of conscience for all, and a freedom to minister as God led them. They wanted a separation of church and state so that coercion was not applied by either state or church against the other. All over Europe the church had allied itself with the reigning government and had created state churches which tried to suppress any other form of the church. Catholics in France, Lutherans in Germany, Presbyterians in Scotland, Calvinists in Holland, and Anglicans in England, and so it was around the world; Church & State married to each other.
Bunyan and the Baptists simply wanted freedom for themselves and all others to follow God as each person and congregation thought best. It was a legacy that determined how the church would develop on this continent. The entire Christian church should be grateful that the men like John Bunyan and his fellow Baptists were the thin edge of the wedge that brought freedom and later renewal to great parts of God’s church. Thank God for the Baptists!
- The Long Pilgrimage
He also helped people understand how to walk the long pilgrimage of faith. There were those who taught that all you need was one or two enormous life changing experiences and that was the nature of the Christian life. Get saved and sanctified and voila! You are ready for heaven.
John Bunyan offered a different pattern. He knew that God works in us long before we work with him. Then once we are liberated from the guilt and weight of our past, there is still the need for “a long obedience in the same direction”, to quote Eugene Peterson. Bunyan shows us that there is a walk to walk, with continuing temptations to resist. He tells the story of Christian life with its emotional ebb and flow, its days of despondency and its days of joy, and gave hope to those who struggled in their walk with God. We are not alone. This is the nature of the Christian life.
He invites all of us to join the long pilgrimage, with God as our traveling companion. This is what John Bunyan taught us is the true nature of the Christian life!