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Notable Christians: John Bunyan

Jan 5, 2019

Most folks have heard of The Pilgrim’s Progress. And many folks have heard of John Bunyan, its author. But they may not know a whole lot more about either. The great Puritan preacher and writer (1628-1688) has given us some of the most memorable books in English literature.

Born some 50 miles north of London, he was not well educated, and had little spiritual interests as a child. His father was a tinker (a wandering repairer of metal goods) and he too took up that trade, interrupted by three years in the army (1644-1647).

Several years later he married and the couple had four children. But his wife died in 1659, and he remarried a year later. By the early- to mid-50s he was on a profound spiritual quest. His soul became restless as he questioned his own faith. During this time he read Luther’s commentary on Galatians.

Eventually he found peace with God and rejoiced in the grace and righteousness of God credited to his account because of the finished work of Christ. His spiritual story is found in his 1666 autobiographical work, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. In it he says this:

I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before him. 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, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.

To understand his life and times we must be aware of the political and religious scene back then. This was a time of Puritan ascendancy, with England becoming a commonwealth in 1649, and Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate lasting from 1653-1658. During this period the Puritans had much freedom to meet and worship.

However, the monarchy was restored in 1660 under Charles II and the Act of Uniformity was passed in 1662. In it the state prescribed what church life, ministry and worship was to be like. Many refused to bow to this, and over 2,000 clergymen were expelled from the Church of England as they refused to take the oath.

It is in this environment that we must understand the rest of Bunyan’s life. He began preaching and writing books from around 1655 onwards. He would not let the state dictate how and when he preached, so he soon fell afoul of the law.

Thus he was put in prison from 1660-1672. On a few occasions he was allowed to get out, so he would then visit his wife and young children, as well as engage in more unauthorised preaching and Christian ministry. He knew he had to obey God rather than man in this regard.

Of course it is his The Pilgrim’s Progress that we most remember him for. This famous work of Christian fiction was penned by Bunyan in the middle of his 13-year jail term. Although it was written while he was imprisoned, it was not published till 1678. He also penned another 13 volumes while imprisoned.

I trust that you have all read this classic work. But let me present just a few quotes – of many – from this incredible book:

“Wake up, see your own wretchedness, and fly to the Lord Jesus. He is the righteousness of God, for He Himself is God. Only by believing in His righteousness will you be delivered from condemnation.”

“Just as Christian came up to the Cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, fell from off his back, and began to tumble down the hill, and so it continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre. There it fell in, and I saw it no more!”

“What God says is best, is best, though all the men in the world are against it.”

“God’s grace is the most incredible and insurmountable truth ever to be revealed to the human heart, which is why God has given us His Holy Spirit to superintend the process of more fully revealing the majesty of the work done on our behalf by our Savior. He teaches us to first cling to, and then enables us to adore with the faith He so graciously supplies, the mercy of God. This mercy has its cause and effect in the work of Jesus on the cross.”

Bunyan died in 1688 at age 59. Despite a relatively short life, with only a bit over 30 of them lived as an active Christian, he wrote some 60 books, including his more famous volumes. He certainly was prolific, and in the last three years of his life he wrote ten books.

Another important book that he wrote was the 1682 The Holy War, another spiritual allegory. Let me offer just one quote from it: “Nothing can hurt you except sin; nothing can grieve me except sin; nothing can defeat you except sin. Therefore, be on your guard, my Mansoul.”

So much can be said about this mighty man of God. Let me offer just one quote from Joel Beeke’s 2018 book on Reformed Preaching:

King Charles II once asked John Owen, “the prince of the Puritans,” why he went to hear the preaching of Bunyan, the unlearned tinker of Bedford. Owen responded, “May it please your majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would gladly relinquish all my learning.”

Let me finish by looking at one recent book emphasising one key component of his Christian thinking. A relatively new book on Bunyan worth highlighting here is by Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley. Entitled John Bunyan and the Grace of Fearing God (P&R, 2016), the brief volume is very useful indeed.

Like most of the Puritans, Bunyan spoke much about godly fear – something few Christians today seem to discuss much. But it is a vitally important subject, one in which Bunyan saw as a great gift of God to his people. The authors examine his thoughts on this topic in detail.

To know and love God properly means to have a biblical fear of God. This is part of God’s gracious provision for us. Bunyan contrasted this grace with ungodly, or man-made fear. As the authors put it, “Though this combination of grace and fear may seem strange to many modern Christians, who think of the fear of God only in connection to punishment, Puritan theology commonly linked fear to God’s glory, not just to His punishment.”

Image of John Bunyan and the Grace of Fearing God
John Bunyan and the Grace of Fearing God by Joel R. Beeke, Paul M. Smalley Amazon logo

They offer plenty of helpful quotes from Bunyan on this, and he of course simply ran with the biblical evidence of the matter, such as the fear of the Lord being the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7); the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10); and a fountain of life (Prov.14:27). Some might object that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). But Bunyan anticipated this objection:

Bunyan answered by saying that fear “may be taken several ways.” There is the fear that devils and the damned have toward God, as well as fear that the Spirit produces in driving sinners to seek salvation in Christ. However, there is also the “son-like, gracious fear of God.” This fear is not cast out by divine love. God’s love casts out the fear that pertains to “torment” (1 John 4:18), the fear that anticipates God’s wrath against His enemies. Godly fear is different, for it looks forward to God’s blessing (see Eccl. 8:12), and it remains in God’s children forever. This grace of fear makes a person excellent, beautiful, and honorable in God’s sight – more so than any other quality.

This volume is well worth getting and deserves a careful reading. This much misunderstood and neglected topic is desperately needed in today’s church. The authors deserve great credit for bringing the words and thoughts of Bunyan on this matter to our attention.

But reading Bunyan himself is something all contemporary Christians should be doing as well. He was a man who suffered much and struggled much, but God used him so very richly to bless millions of people, both then and now. And if you have some of his classic works sitting on your shelves, dig them out, blow off the dust, and read them again for the enrichment of your souls.

Let me conclude with some words by John Piper on this great saint:

Everything he wrote was saturated with the Bible. He pored over his English Bible which was all he had most of the time. Which is why he can say of his writings, “I have not for these things fished in other men’s waters; my Bible and Concordance are my only library in my writings.” The great London preacher Charles Spurgeon, who read The Pilgrim’s Progress every year, put it like this:

“He had studied our Authorized Version . . . till his whole being was saturated with Scripture; and though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems— without continually making us 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.”

Bunyan reverenced the Word of God and trembled at the prospect of dishonoring it. “Let me die with the Philistines (Judg. 16:30) rather than deal corruptly with the blessed word of God.” This, in the end, is why Bunyan is still with us today rather than disappearing into the mist of history. He is with us and ministering to us because he reverenced the Word of God and was so permeated by it that his blood is “Bibline”—the essence of the Bible flows from him.

(For Australians, all the books mentioned here are found at Koorong Books: www.koorong.com/ )

[1719 words]

4 Responses to Notable Christians: John Bunyan

  • Bunyan gets to the heart.
    A tiny analogy how I sum up the fear/love of God: I once stood on the top observation deck of one of the Twin Towers in New York – it had floor to ceiling windows looking out over the city. I pushed myself up against the glass as much as I dare and drank in the sheer exhilaration of just a thick piece of glass between me and uppermost air of the city – and looked down! My knees quivered with awe – boy, was I glad and thankful I dare trust the ‘grace and mercy’ of that glass . An odd analogy, but it speaks to me. Thanks, Bill.

  • The Holy War is another very moving book penned by Bunyan.

    Authors who have been influenced by Bunyan include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott and George Bernard Shaw.

  • In Pilgrim’s Progress we come across the market town of Vanity Fair, in which everything can be had for a price in the town’s market… How like contemporary Western culture with its relativist smorgasbord of often contradictory philosophies of life and its slavish insistence that the only necessary foundations of national life are “the economic fundamentals”. No wonder many of us are increasingly prone to believe we are living in the City of Destruction and long for that other, better place, the Celestial City.

  • I read, or rather listened to The Pilgrim’s Progress on Audible late last year. There’s also a new film adaptation coming out very soon.

    When I visited London a few years ago, I stumbled across Bunyan’s grave in a cemetery. That was a pleasant surprise, I was wandering around hoping to find some historically significant grave sites.

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