John Bunyan on prayer
When it comes to prayer, three ‘giants’ stand out among the third generation English Puritans, namely John Owen, Richard Baxter and John Bunyan. They all wrote works on prayer.1 John Bunyan’s, however, is the most accessible.2
John Bunyan (1628-1688)3 has become the most influential of all English Puritans, through his literary works, including his autobiographical Grace abounding to the chief of sinners and allegorical The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Holy War.4 Erroll Hulse says that he was also ‘the most imaginative and eloquent preacher of his time’.5
After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, and under the laws against nonconformity, Bunyan spent most of the next twelve years in jail for preaching without a licence. His imprisonment, however, gave him greater time and incentive to write. At least eight minor works by Bunyan were published between 1663 and 1665.
Bunyan was among those nonconformists pardoned by Charles II in 1672. He became pastor of a nonconformist church in Bedford, but in 1674 was arrested again for preaching the gospel.
At that time, he began writing his best-known work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, a masterpiece and all-time bestseller second only to the Bible. He was released in 1676 and brought the manuscript out of prison with him. John Owen recommended it to his own publisher.
Owen also admired Bunyan’s ability as a preacher. When asked by the King why he listened to an ‘uneducated tinker’, Owen is said to have replied: ‘Could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, please your majesty, I would gladly relinquish all my learning’.6
John Bunyan stressed the vital importance of prayer for the Christian. He said, ‘Prayer is an ordinance of God to be used both in public and private; yea, such an ordinance as brings those that have the spirit of supplication into great familiarity with God. It is also so prevalent an action that it gets from God, both for the person that prayed, and for them that are prayed for, great things.
‘It is the opener of the heart of God, and a means by which the soul, though empty is filled. By prayer the Christian can open his heart to God, as to a friend, and to obtain fresh testimony of God’s friendship to him’.
That private prayer is the privilege and duty of the Christian is a repeated theme in puritan writings. For Bunyan, prayer is most of all fellowship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, it must be undertaken with the deepest sincerity and affection.
To Bunyan prayer is a ‘sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God’.
Bunyan penned these words in Bedford Gaol, when he was imprisoned for opposition to using forms of prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer; he believed prayer should be extemporaneous and from the heart. They were originally published in 1662 in a treatise entitled I will pray with the spirit and with the understanding also; or a discourse touching prayer.
Bunyan’s rejection of the Prayer Book was symptomatic of the attitude of Puritans and Independents after the 1662 Ejection.7 Wakefield said Bunyan considered that ‘the Prayer Book is virtually forbidden in Scripture, by all the prohibitions of feasts and new moons and vain repetitions. Even the Lord’s Prayer can become blasphemy if uttered without spirit or understanding’.8
It was never intended, he believed, as a stifling form but as a model of prayer. Approaching the Almighty must not be undertaken flippantly or without faith; it must be ‘sensible’ – that is, with understanding and an awareness of sin’s danger and God’s mercy. This awareness will encourage us to pray for cleansing in the blood of Christ.
Prayer must be ‘through Christ’, says Bunyan, ‘or else it must be questioned, whether it is prayer’ at all. And, he adds, ‘this coming to God through Christ is the hardest part of prayer. Here the mystery of grace is perceived, for to come through Christ is for the sinner to be enabled of God to hide himself under the shadow of the Lord Jesus as a man hides under a thing for safety’.
Through Christ we find favour with God. So faith is essential, as by it we put on Christ and in him appear before God. When we pray we ‘must come to God by Christ’s merits, in his blood, righteousness, victory, intercession and so stand before him, being accepted in the beloved’.
Word and Spirit
As to whether private prayers are acceptable to God, Bunyan believed like most Puritans, that, ‘prayer is only true when it is within the compass of God’s Word; it is blasphemy, or at best vain babbling, when the petition is unrelated to the Book [Bible]’.
The Bible is a vital factor in puritan praying. William Gurnall emphasises the same, saying: ‘We must ask what God has promised, or we choose ourselves and not beg; we subject God’s will to ours, and not ours to his; we forge bond and claim it as a debt, which is a horrible presumption. He that is his own promiser must be his own paymaster’.9
John Owen too believed that the content of prayer should be informed by Scripture. Such theology goes back at least as far as Tertullian, who distinguished between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ prayer. For Owen, Scripture dictated the content and inspired the activity of prayer.10
The Puritans believed that Christians cannot pray successfully without the aid of the Spirit. Bunyan endorsed this as well – prayer must be ‘by the strength or assistance of the Spirit’. It is the Holy Spirit who quickens and stirs the heart ‘by, with and through the Word, by bringing that to the heart’.
What is it to pray with the Spirit? ‘The Spirit by the Word directs in the manner as well as the matter of prayer’, and is ‘the helper and governor of the soul when it prays according to the will of God; so it guides by and according to the Word of God and his promises’.
Bunyan is sure that ‘the prayer that goes to heaven is the one that is sent thither in the strength of the Spirit’.
The Puritans did not despise human understanding in relation to prayer. Bunyan ‘asserts that the understanding must be occupied in prayer as well as the Spirit’.11 Owen did ‘not think the Spirit inspires our supplications by an immediate divine revelation as he inspired the prophets of old, but rather by giving voice and action to – indeed making actual – our desires and requests’.12
As to the content of our personal prayers, Bunyan says prayer is to be made for the good of the church, that is, for the honour of God, advancement of Christ’s kingdom and the people’s benefit. If you ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem, you pray for all that is required of you’.
All prayer must be clothed in humility, since prayer submits to the will of God. Let God dispose of our prayers as ‘his heavenly wisdom sees fit’.
For Bunyan too, ‘one word spoken in faith is better than a thousand prayers’. Gurnall agrees: ‘there must be an act of faith exerted in prayer, as well as the habit of faith dwelling in the person’. ‘To pray in faith is to ask of God, in the name of Christ, what he hath promised, relying on his power and truth for performance, without binding him up to time, manner of means’.13
Such was puritan praying. May we follow their example and know like them that our voice has been heard on high.
1. R. Baxter, A Christian Directory, ‘Directions for prayer in general’, chapter 23, pp. 483-486. J. Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. by W. H. Goold (Banner of Truth), Vol. 4, pp. 36ff. J. Bunyan, Prayer (Banner of Truth). His text was 1 Corinthians 14:15. Bunyan here sets himself the task of ‘showing you the very heart of prayer’.
2. Quotes are from J. Bunyan, Prayer (Banner of Truth), unless otherwise stated.
3. See for biographies, W. Barker, Puritan Profiles (Mentor), pp. 307-313; also F. M. Harrison, John Bunyan: A story of his life (Banner of Truth).
4. W. Barker, Puritan Profiles (Mentor), p. 307.
5. Erroll Hulse, Who are the Puritans … and what do they teach? (Evangelical Press),
6. P. Toon, God’s statesman: the life and work of John Owen (Paternoster), pp. 161-2.
7. H. Davies, The worship of the English Puritans (Solo Deo Gloria Publications), p. 101.
8. G. S. Wakefield, Puritan devotion (Epworth Press), p. 69.
9. W. Gurnall, The Christian in complete armour, Vol. 2, p. 338.
10. S. B. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Banner of Truth), p. 229.
11. Wakefield, Puritan Devotion, p. 82.
12. Wakefield, Puritan Devotion, pp. 81-2.
13. Gurnall, Armour, pp. 338-9.