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Pilgrim’s Progress

September 2003 | by Kenneth Dix

Barry Horner is an American pastor who has spent many years studying the life and writings of John Bunyan. He writes from an American perspective, not always applicable to the scene in Britain.

The author’s purpose is to stimulate interest in Bunyan’s famous allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, and to turn our attention from the book’s literary merits to the spiritual message intended by Bunyan.

He examines the themes of Bunyan’s masterpiece — the gospel itself, the centrality of Christ (Bunyan’s book pulsates with Christ), sanctification in the life of the believer, and Bunyan’s pastoral emphasis — an emphasis that ‘ought to be a mandatory study requirement for candidates entering the Christian ministry’.

Doctrines of grace

Dr Horner deals with a number of issues raised by Pilgrim’s Progress and by Bunyan’s theology in general.

He rightly affirms that Bunyan was a firm believer in the doctrines of grace and the sovereignty of God. These lay behind all Bunyan’s thinking, but never hindered his gospel preaching.

In his preaching there was an enthusiasm and an application of the truth to heart and conscience that is not always evident today.

And then, when was Christian converted? Was it at the Wicket Gate, or when he came to the cross? Horner maintains it was the former, seeming to ignore the fact that the name Christian was given to him at the beginning of the journey.

In fact, Bunyan does not speak of the conversion of his pilgrims, but of their setting out on a journey (in the case of Christiana, in response to an invitation from her ‘husband’s King’).

This emphasis fits comfortably with the New Testament description of believers as those who are ‘called’ — a calling that has its birth ‘while we [are] yet sinners’. In Christian’s case this was when he came under deep conviction and, for the winsome Mercy, in a determination to go along with Christiana.

Law and grace

Another issue Dr Horner discusses is Bunyan’s attitude to the relationship between law and grace. Bunyan followed the emphasis on grace adopted by Luther in his Commentary on Galatians, rather than the more law-orientated teaching of Calvin or The Westminster Confession.

Some eyebrows will be raised (and there is room for further study here) when Horner concludes that Bunyan should be admired for being reproached as a ‘mild antinomian’. But the author is not implying that John Bunyan was anything other than a very godly man.

Horner maintains that children’s editions of Pilgrim’s Progress should contain the whole text. They should be well illustrated, but the visual must take second place to the word content. Bunyan’s purpose was not to entertain.

Interestingly, Bunyan’s ‘visual aids’ were not line drawings; they were real: a real parlour full of dust; two real children sitting on chairs; a real man with a muck-rake; a live man in an iron cage.

Timeless lessons

The culture and atmosphere of Bunyan’s Bedfordshire have gone. So too has his style of speech, presenting a significant barrier to the increasing number of people unfamiliar with the language of the AV Bible.

But the spiritual lessons of Pilgrim’s Progress are timeless. Religion is no longer top of the agenda, but Talkative is still around to discuss almost everything except religion.

Ignorance no longer discusses justifying righteousness; he may not even know the name of Adam’s wife (cf. TV quiz). But Hill Difficulty remains, taking on a hundred forms unknown to Bunyan.

We all encounter the Slough of Despond — depression, whether spiritual, clinical, or both — and are deeply grateful when Hope comes alongside.

On the other hand, we can but covet the leisurely progress of the pilgrims, giving time for so much profitable conversation!

Know where you are going

Dr Horner has reminded us that the Christian life is a pilgrimage, a fact we tend to forget. In his words: ‘the predominant emphasis in The Pilgrim’s Progress is not on the departure from the City of Destruction — nor even on the journey itself, with its attendant trials and blessings — but on arrival at the Celestial City, resulting in unclouded fellowship with the Lord of that city’.

In this uncertain world the Christian is still someone who knows where he or she is going.

The subjects of death and heaven, says Horner quoting J. I. Packer, is something about which many writers seem to be ‘quite clueless’. We should determine to make it otherwise.

Pilgrim’s Progress — Themes and issues is published by Evangelical Press (512 pages, £11.95; ISBN 0-85234-529-1).