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Pilgrim's Progress: How To Beat Sin: A Case Study

Pilgrim's Progress: How To Beat Sin: A Case Studypilgrims progress review
Pilgrim’s Progress is the most widely read story in Christian literature, as of 2014 translated into 200 languages. Read on to see why!

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Next to the Bible, PILGRIM’S PROGRESS is the most widely read story in Christian literature, as of 2014 translated into 200 languages. Published in 1678, it came just 4 years after MILTON’S PARADISE LOST in 1674.

Both men were devout and committed Christians, and both these works proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but although they share a Lord and doctrine, the works are at the polar ends of style and complexity of CHRISTIAN LITERATURE.

John Milton was part of the elite few and John Bunyan was of the working class many. Both served on the Puritan side in the civil war (1642-1651) and both supported the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Both were punished for this when Charles II was restored in 1660.

But Bunyan was a private, foot soldier in the Puritan army while Milton was a prominent author and then executive member of the Council of State. Their work reflects their background and social status, the one appealing to the intellectual, wealthy, and “insider” class, the other to the working poor outsiders of 17th century England.

Both were geniuses, and while Milton’s genius was widely recognized, Bunyan’s success astounded everyone.

When Charles II asked prominent scholar John Owen why he went to listen to a simple tinker speak, Owen said, “I would willingly exchange my learning for the tinker’s power of touching men’s hearts.”

Pilgrim’s Progress: The Gospel In Story Form

No doubt Owen’s observation of Bunyan’s power of touching men’s hearts is well-founded. Bunyan was an excellent storyteller, but there is something else behind that power to touch men’s hearts: the power of the Gospel and the Word of God.

The Gospel begins with the “bad news,” thatall have sinned and come short of the glory of God. This is a result of the Fall of Genesis 3 and the aftermath that Milton has covered so well in Paradise Lost. The fact of sin and its inevitable wages of death applies to everyone:

They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Psalm 14:3

Bunyan’s hero, Christian, knows this. This conviction is the work of the Holy Ghost, and it is affirmed to Christian as he reads his book, probably the Old Testament and the stories of the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah. It is most compactly stated in the New Testament by St. Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. 2 Peter 3:10

One of the works of the Holy Ghost is to convict us of sin, and that work has been accomplished in Christian at the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress.

Not knowing what to do, he seeks help and gets it from Evangelist, a Gospel preacher, who motivates him with the words of Jesus to flee from the wrath to come and points him to salvation. This he finds at the “wicket gate,” representing Jesus, the One who called Himself “the Door.”

This, of course, is the heart of the Gospel, finding the way to everlasting life through Jesus Christ. Through that gate, begins the narrow way that leads to life, and early on Christian comes to the cross, where his burden rolls away, freeing him of the guilt and shame that had oppressed him.

Here, at the cross, he is encouraged by angels and given a scroll to guide him on his journey to eternal life, named by Bunyan the “Celestial City.” Along the way, he encounters people, situations, and places that test his faith.

He experiences joy, sorrow, love and doubt, cruelty and blessedness until he, at last, crosses the River of Death into the Celestial City.

Pilgrim’s Progress: Journey As Warfare

But the journey is hard and long, as is the Christian life, and Bunyan frames it as a warfare between good and evil, Jesus and His followers, and the devil and his.

Christian is armed with the Word of God, prayer, faith, and knowledge and given the whole armor of God to withstand the attacks of the enemy. The battleground is the world and its population the sought-after sheep Jesus has come to save and the Devil to destroy.

The hostile attacks begin with Beelzebub firing arrows at Christian as soon as he enters the Wicket Gate and build to his fierce encounter with Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation. But other kinds of attacks lay ahead, most prominently Christian’s short-lived friendship with Faithful who is taken from him by the wicked people in Vanity fair.

Later still imprisonment in Doubting Castle with his new companion Hopeful by the cruel Giant Despair.

But from here they escape using Christian’s key of “Promise” that opens all the locks of their imprisonment and frees them to proceed to the Delectable Mountains and the final stages of their journey.

Pilgrim’s Progress: Unforgettable Characters

Bunyan presents all of this in allegorical form naming CHARACTERS AND PLACES in striking ways that illustrate themselves perfectly. Where did this former tinker get this ability? From the Lord, in my opinion; remember Pilgrim’s Progress was inspired by a dream:

For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed;
Then he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction, Job 33:14-16

But even without recognizing God’s hand in all of this, literary critics saw Bunyan’s characters as creative masterpieces.

Nobel Prize winner George Bernard SHAW COMPARED BUNYAN favorably to Shakespeare finding his characters “more heroic than Shakespeare’s,” and I believe this is so.

Bunyan’s characters are quite tightly drawn, their characters strikingly evident in their names.

My favorite character is Christian, of course, but I delight in the names of others, like Obstinate and Pliable, Worldly Wiseman, Talkative, and Giant Despair. Above all the quirky, striking, and unforgettable men on the jury of Vanity fair:

Then went the jury out, whose names were, Mr. Blindman, Mr. No-good, Mr. Malice, Mr. Love-lust, Mr. Liveloose, Mr. Heady, Mr. High-mind, Mr. Enmity, Mr. Liar, Mr. Cruelty, Mr. Hate-light, and Mr. Implacable; who every one gave in his private verdict against him among themselves, and afterwards unanimously concluded to bring him in guilty before the Judge.
And first, among themselves, Mr. Blind-man, the foreman, said, I see clearly that this man is a heretic. Then said Mr. No-good, Away with such a fellow from the earth.
Ay, said Mr. Malice, for I hate the very looks of him. Then said Mr. Love-lust, I could never endure him. Nor I, said Mr. Live-loose, for he would always be condemning my way.
Hang him, hang him, said Mr. Heady. A sorry scrub, said Mr. High-mind. My heart riseth against him, said Mr. Enmity.
He is a rogue, said Mr. Liar. Hanging is too good for him, said Mr. Cruelty. Let us despatch him out of the way, said Mr. Hate-light.
Then said Mr. Implacable, Might I have all the world given me, I could not be reconciled to him; therefore, let us forthwith bring him in guilty of death.
And so they did; therefore he was presently condemned, to be had from the place where he was, to the place from whence he came, and there to be put to the most cruel death that could be invented.

Bunyan’s characters are sometimes called “two-dimensional,” and this is fair because with most their appearance is brief and there is little time for character development. But this is not so for Christian. As we walk with him on his pilgrimage, we see the kind of development St. John calls for in Believers:

I have written unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one. – 1 John 2:14

Over the course of his journey, Christian matures from fearful to courageous, passionate to patient, hasty to thoughtful, credulous to confident, and pupil to teacher.

Pilgrim’s Progress: The Celestial City

Christian has arrived at that fulness by the time he reaches the Delectable Mountains and does according to the St. Peter’s council:

And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:5-8

He has, in short, grown into the abundant life Jesus has promised and is ready to be received by Him into the Celestial City.

Pilgrim’s Progress: An Abundant Entrance.

At last, the pilgrims reach the cold River of Death and help one another to cross it to the threshold of the Celestial City:

Now I saw in my dream that these two men went in at the gate; and lo, as they entered, they were transfigured, and they had raiment put on that shone like gold. There were also that met them with harps and crowns, and gave them to them—the harps to praise withal, and the crowns in token of honour.
Then I heard in my dream that all the bells in the city rang again for joy, and that it was said unto them, “ENTER YE INTO THE JOY OF YOUR LORD.”
I also heard the men themselves, that they sang with a loud voice, saying, “BLESSING, AND HONOUR, AND GLORY, AND POWER, BE UNTO HIM THAT SITTETH UPON THE THRONE, AND UNTO THE LAMB, FOREVER AND EVER”.
Now just as the gates were opened to let in the men, I looked in after them, and, behold, the City shone like the sun; the streets also were paved with gold, and in them walked many men, with crowns on their heads, palms in their hands, and golden harps to sing praises withal.
There were also of them that had wings, and they answered one another without intermission, saying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord”. And after that, they shut up the gates; which, when I had seen, I wished myself among them.

Pilgrim’s Progress: A Book For All Seasons

My Dad read me Pilgrim’s Progress before I could read it myself. But when I could, I read it eagerly, as I read the Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. It was a book of adventure, almost a swashbuckler.

As a young man, it was an important part of my literary education, and I still value Pilgrim’s Progress as a highlight of those years.

When I had children of my own, I read it to them and rejoiced to see them savor the story much as I had so many years before. During these years, we focused on the moral and spiritual standards it taught, and I believe the book prepared them well for life.

I was amused when I saw that George Bernard Shaw read Pilgrim’s Progress to his father and motivated myself to read it again in my old age. What blessed me most during this reading was the fact that challenges await us even as we near the celestial gates. As Bunyan ended his work, he saw fit to make this point:

Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction! So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.

But what a dream! What an anointed story. What motivating words to encourage our own pilgrimage.

Read Pilgrim’s Progress today for yourself, your loved ones and especially for those who need to lose their sins, their shame, and their guilt at the Cross of Jesus and begin their walk to the Celestial City!

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