“All this is true, and much more.” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (3)

Apollyon accused, “You almost fainted when you first set out, when you almost choked in the Swamp of Despond. You also attempted to get rid of your burden in the wrong way, instead of patiently waiting for the Prince to take it off. You sinfully slept and lost your scroll, you were almost persuaded to go back at the sight of the lions, and when you talk of your journey and of what you have heard and seen, you inwardly desire your own glory in all you do and say.”

“All this is true, and much more that you have failed to mention,” Christian agreed. “But the Prince whom I now serve and honor is merciful and ready to forgive. Besides, these infirmities possessed me while I was in your country, for there I allowed them to come in. But I have groaned under them, have been sorry for them, and have obtained pardon from my Prince.”1

Personal reflection

If I ever flirted with the idea of the Christian life being one of health, wealth and happy relationships, God effectively ripped such notions out of my head and heart very quickly. My earliest weeks as a believer were filled with strife and conflict.

  • Sins I’d committed (all related to speech) were levelled against me.
  • Conflict with family over lifestyle changes created tension.
  • Trying to untangle the mess of Emily’s and my pre-Christian life together into something pleasing to God nagged at us.

This was a time of intense accusation mixed with serious conviction.

I wonder if this is the case for more of us than we think—and I wonder if it’s part of the reason so many get frustrated in their walk with the Lord? There seems to be an assumption that everything should be coming up Milhouse once we put our faith in Jesus. And as soon as anything remotely bad (or mildly inconvenient) comes up, we start shouting, “Why isn’t this working? Where are you, God?”

We forget that the Christian life is a war. It’s a war that’s already one, to be sure, but a war nonetheless. Our enemy is constantly accusing us, and yet we do not need to despair. We win the battle when say with Christian, “All this is true, and much more that you have failed to mention… But the Prince whom I now serve and honor is merciful and ready to forgive.”

Reading with Ryken

At a purely narrative level, the two episodes are among Bunyan’s most inspired creations. They take their place among the best of epic and romance adventures and are triumphs of the literary genre known as “fantasy.” Doubtless the book of Revelation was an influence on Bunyan’s imagination when he composed this chapter. The journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death is equally heightened, replete with such archetypal details as a place “as dark as pitch” and a narrow path with “a very deep ditch” on one side and “a very dangerous” bog or quagmire on the other. Adventures such as the two in this chapter require a childlike willingness to be terrified by monsters and dangers. C. S. Lewis’s comment on Edmund Spenser’s allegorical poem The Faerie Queene applies equally to Pilgrim’s Progress: it requires a dual response, one childlike and the other sophisticated and able to figure out the allegorical meanings of the details.

On the allegorical level, then, we are given pictures of the power of evil in the form of what the Bible calls “principalities and powers.” Compared to these giant threats, the more subtle obstacles to the Christian faith represented by people named Talkative and Timorous seem rather tame. The dangers through which Christian passes in this chapter are more than human.2

Next week

Next week’s discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters six and seven.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. A few questions and points to consider:

  1. How does Christian’s battle with Apollyon reflect your own experiences as a believer?
  2. What similarities do you see between the physical details of Christian’s adventures to this point and the dangers we face in our spiritual lives?
  3. What means has God given us to overcome these dangers?

Post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

“It fell to be seen no more.” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (2)

He ran till he came to a small hill, at the top of which stood a cross and at the bottom of which was a tomb. I saw in my dream that when Christian walked up the hill to the cross, his burden came loose from his shoulders and fell off his back, tumbling down the hill until it came to the mouth of the tomb, where it fell in to be seen no more.1

Personal reflection

A friend once told me one of his frustrations with The Pilgrim’s Progress was the placement of the cross—we don’t find Christian relieved of his burden until chapter three, which seemed oddly placed:

He’s already on the path to the Celestial City. He’s passed through the slough of despond, although not without being trapped in it for some time. He went astray following the devilish advice of Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, who encouraged him to take an “easier path,” that of morality and legalism…

So why do we have the cross here?

As much as we might prefer the book begin with Christian’s burden dropping from his back, we need to stop and consider whether or not this reflects our own experience? When you first became aware of the burden you carried—the weight of your sin—did you immediately know to run to the cross? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The journey itself is reflective of Bunyan’s own walk with Christ—one which was mired with despondency and futile attempts to justify himself through legalism and moralism, things “intent to rob you of your salvation by turning you away from the way in which I directed you,” as Evangelist told Christian.

As an adult convert, I certainly resonate more with Christian’s journey—one of haphazardly walking the path to the cross, and not finding relief until I stood at its foot. But the point, arguably, is not when Christian finds relief from his burden, but where.

Relief, true relief, is found only at the foot of the cross. Run to it!

Reading with Ryken

The importance of this leg of the journey is disproportionate to the small amount of space given to it. Losing the burden of sin at the foot of the cross is one of the two most important events in the first half of Pilgrim’s Progress (the other being Christian’s entry into Heaven). Whereas the obstacles to spiritual progress that have befallen Christian up to this point have painted a picture of the life before conversion, the ones that happen now represent impediments in the spiritual progress of someone who has been converted to the Christian life.

At the level of travel story, the physical events in this episode are threats to someone who needs to reach a destination. Viewed thus, the events in this chapter resemble those that any traveler encounters—distracting characters, people who give bad advice, the physical ordeals of traveling, losing time by falling asleep, and needing to backtrack to find a lost passport. On this plane, this unit is one of Bunyan’s nightmare passages.

But of course the second level at which the journey unfolds is the spiritual. We should view all the people whom Christian meets in this unit and the physical difficulties he undergoes as pictures of the temptations that befall Christians in their spiritual walk.2

Next week

Next week’s discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters four and five.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. A few questions and points to consider:3

  1. What spiritual realities did you resonate with in reading these two chapters?
  2. How are the early days after Christian’s conversion like the experiences of other people you have known?
  3. Why did Bunyan choose the specific spiritual vices that he did, as represented by their allegorical names?
  4. What real-life experiences or observations are embodied in Bunyan’s personified vices?

Post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

Read The Pilgrim’s Progress with me

One of my favorite parts of the day is reading books with my kids, especially with Abigail (our eldest). While I love reading with the younger two, Abigail’s old enough that I get to start reading cool stuff with her.

Last year, we read through The Chronicles of Narnia in its entirety (it took about three or four months). I’ve just introduced her to Calvin and Hobbes (and soon the complete collection will become part of our family library). More recently, we’ve been working our way through John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

pilgrims-progress

And I’ve been having such a good time reading it with her, I wanted to invite you to read it with me, as well.

Why this book?

One of the major reasons is this is one of the few books outside the Bible all Christians should read. In fact, historically, it’s been the most widely-read book outside the Bible, although this is not the case today. It’s a book that was instrumental in the faith of Charles Spurgeon and countless other believers. And it’s one of which’s influence is in danger of being lost. J.I. Packer wrote:

For two centuries Pilgrim’s Progress was the best-read book, after the Bible, in all Christendom, but sadly it is not so today.

When I ask my classes of young and youngish evangelicals, as I often do, who has read Pilgrim’s Progress, not a quarter of the hands go up.

Yet our rapport with fantasy writing, plus our lack of grip on the searching, humbling, edifying truths about spiritual life that the Puritans understood so well, surely mean that the time is ripe for us to dust off Pilgrim’s Progress and start reading it again.

Certainly, it would be great gain for modern Christians if Bunyan’s masterpiece came back into its own in our day.

Have you yourself, I wonder, read it yet? 1

The way this reading project will work is pretty simple:

  • We’ll read one chapter a week, starting the first week of March.
  • I’ll be sharing some reflections on the chapter in a new post, along with some additional questions for discussion.

Like I said, pretty straightforward, but I promise it’ll be worth it.

So how about it? Will you read The Pilgrim’s Progress with me?  

Always talking, never doing

One of the great tensions we face in the Christian life—and the Christian faith—is the tension between belief and action. When you see discussion of topics like antinomianism, of the relationship between law and gospel… at the heart of these debates and discussions is this tension.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan gives voice to this tension through the meeting of Faithful and Talkative. As his name suggests, Talkative loves to wax eloquent about any number of subjects, but especially that of religion and piety. Indeed, he talks a good game. But his talk isn’t enough. Bunyan writes:

talkative

“…to know is something that pleases talkers and boasters, but to do is that which pleases God. Not that the heart can be good without knowledge, for without knowledge the heart is empty. But there are two kinds of knowledge: the first is alone in its bare speculation of things, and the second is accompanied by the grace of faith and love, which causes a man to do the will of God from the heart.

“The first kind of knowledge will serve the talker. But a true Christian will not be content until his knowledge results in sincere works that please God. ‘Give me understanding, and I shall keep Thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart.’”

Talkative protested, “You are trying to trap me again; this is not edifying.”

Many of us have a similar response to the idea of obedience that Talkative does. We don’t like the idea that “a true Christian will not be content until his knowledge results in sincere works that please God.” It’s offensive and doesn’t feel terribly edifying to talk about.

But it shouldn’t be, not really. After all, Jesus Himself said, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24). In other words, Christ’s people don’t just hear, they obey.

Their belief flows into action—right action that pleases God. Their knowledge is “accompanied by the grace of faith and love, which causes a man to do the will of God from the heart.”

Talkative was content to talk a good game. He could speak truthfully, to be sure—but his lifestyle revealed the truth of his state before God. He was “a man whose religion is only talk and your conduct is at odds with what you profess with your mouth.” In fact, he was one who caused many to stumble by his example.

He professed faith but did not possess faith.

Many of us are not that much different. Our talk is good and right and true, but that’s about as far as it goes.

We are always talking, but never doing.

But we must be about more than talk. We must embrace the tension we perceive in the Christian faith, understanding that, really, there is no tension at all according to Jesus. We must not be one who simply hears and parrots, but one who hears and does.

 

Celebrating a Pilgrim's Progress

Today marks the 332nd anniversary of the publication of John Bunyan‘s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, the best-selling book in history (aside from the Bible).

First published on February 18, 1678, The Pilgrim’s Progress tells the tale of Christian, “a man clothed in rags…with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back,” on a journey to the Celestial City. This allegorical tale of the Christian life has been a powerful influence on believers throughout the last 300 years.

What The Pilgrim’s Progress taught me is that blessing comes with perseverance. The difficulties of Christian’s journey, the temptations that threatened to ensnare him, the despair he felt as he made his way through the Valley of Humiliation and Death, persecution he faced in Vanity Fair—all of these made his arrival at the Celestial City that much sweeter, where the King of Kings would welcome him home.

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 was 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 heart the men themselves, that they sang with a loud voice, saying, “Blessing, honour, glory and power be to him that sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb, for ever and ever.”

The Pilgrim’s Progress, p. 197, (Whitaker House edition)

Is this your goal? To be welcomed home to the Celestial City, and hear those words, “Enter into the joy of your Lord”? To sing alongside those who have entered before us, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13)

Is this the cry of your heart? To join Christ there because,

“…it is there that I hope to see alive my Savior who hung dead on the cross. It is there that I hope to be rid of all those things that to this day are an annoyance to me. They say that in that place there is no death, and I will dwell there with the company that I like best. For, to tell you the truth, I love Him because He eased me of my burden. I am weary of my inward sickness. I desire to be where I will die no more, with a company that will continually cry, ‘Holy, holy, holy!’”

The Pilgrim’s Progress, p. 77, (Crossway edition)

I hope it is. My hope for us all is that we do not grow weary of persevering. I want to be there alongside Bunyan and all the saints who have come before and will come after me, singing, “Holy, holy, holy!”

And I want to see you there, too.

Sunday Shorts (07/19)

“He moved out, took all our money, and left me with two children”

A powerful testimony from the Mars Hill Church blog:

After giving my heart to Jesus, he radically changed my life. I stopped being sexually active, changed my circle of friends, started singing in a choir, changed the way I dressed, started treating the people better, and used my free time to get closer to Christ. After college, I met and married a man who was serving Jesus. We had two beautiful boys, we were a part of a church, we served in the music ministry, and things felt right. My life suddenly changed, however, when I caught my husband having an affair. He moved out the same day, took all our money, and left me with two children.

Read the rest at Blog.MarsHillChurch.org.

“Why Johnny Can’t Preach”

Ben Quinn at Baptist Twenty-One offers a concise recommendation for T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach:

If you’re looking for a good book on preaching, you definitely want to check out T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach.  I realize that most of you theology buffs are thinking, “The last thing I want to read is a preaching book,” but I assure you that you won’t be disappointed.  The literary quality alone is the worth the price of the book ($9.99 at Amazon), and you can read it in one sitting.

Playing off the titles of Why Johnny Can’t Read (Rudolf Flesch, 1966) and Why Johnny Can’t Write (Linden and Whimbey, 1990), T. David Gordon argues, “that societal changes that led to the concerns expressed in the 1960’s to 1980’s in educational circles…have led to the natural cultural consequence that people cannot preach expositorily” (15).

Read the rest at BaptistTwentyOne.org

Dan Kimball: “The Toughest Chapter to Write and Thank You NT Wright”

Dan Kimball shares his struggles writing about the issue of homosexuality:

The most difficult chapter in this book I am struggling with in the final writing and editing is the chapter on homosexuality. I did write about homosexuality before in the They Like Jesus But Not The Church book and my theological understanding of what Scriptures teach or don’t teach on it. I also addressed it in the DVD curriculum for that book, as I interviewed my gay friend Penny for that session in the DVD. The DVD was important as I wanted people to not just think about homosexuality or read about it, but to see the emotions, the eyes as one speaks, and hear the heart of my friend Penny – so that those that may not understand can hear her perspective and damage Christians and the church have done to her over the years.

But this book I am writing now is a trade book not written to only church leaders like my others. So I feel more weight  because the reading audience is much broader and probably more diverse. With this specific chapter, I am finding myself retyping sentences and thinking through how all different viewpoints will be reading what I am writing. So this one is taking several days wrapping it up.

Read the rest at Dan’s blog.

In case you missed it

Here are a few of this week’s notable posts:

Everyday Theology: “Money is the Root of All Evil” Exploring the truth that money is not the root of all evil, but the love of money is.

Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit & John Bunyan What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, and what we can learn from John Bunyan’s experience.

Everyday Theology: “Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child” Seeking to understand the purpose of godly discipline.

Book Review: Deep Economy Emily Armstrong offers her insights into Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy.

Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit & John Bunyan

john_bunyan

John Bunyan

Pretty much since the moment I became a Christian, I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly it means to “blaspheme the Holy Spirit.” How does that happen?

A few days back, I was once again reading Matthew 12:22-32, which deals with this issue. Here’s the story so you have some context:

Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, a he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someoneenter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. Whoever is not withme is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man l will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (emphasis mine).

Jesus casts out a demon, and the people begin asking if He is the Messiah. The Pharisees say that Jesus performs miracles by the power of Satan, rather than by the power of God the Holy Spirit. Essentially, they say that he’s practicing witchcraft (something punishable by death according to Old Testament law).

I’ve read this story probably a couple dozen times at this point, but when I read it this time, it was like a light was turned on in a dark room. To blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to continually and stubbornly reject His work and testimony concerning the identity of Jesus. To reject His work as that of Satan’s, and to unrepentantly reject God and His commands is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. And those who persistently & unrepentantly resist the Spirit and salvation through faith in Christ, will not be saved. A troubling thought, to be sure.

So, can a Christian blaspheme the Spirit?

No.

The testimony of John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, sheds some light on why this is so. [Read more...]

Vintage Saints-John Bunyan

Today begins new series of biographical sketches on the lives of godly departed saints. This week: John Bunyanjohn_bunyan

John Bunyan (November 28, 1628-August 31, 1688) was a Puritan author and preacher, best known for his classic work, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan received very little education before joining his father as a tinker tradesman, a lowly occupation usually associated with gypsies. He also led a thoroughly rebellious life against God. Describing his younger self, Bunyan said, “I had few equals, especially considering my tender years, for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God. Yes, so settled and rooted was I in these things that they became as second nature to me” (from his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners).

In 1644, after a series of tragic events, including the death of his mother and younger sister, and his father’s remarriage, Bunyan enlisted in the army at the age of sixteen. He served for three years, during which he saw little military action. In his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan tells of how as he and his company were going into battle, another officer took his place. That same officer was, as he stood watch, was shot in the head by a musketball and died. “Here were judgements and mercy, but neither of them did awaken by soul to righteousness. Therefore, I sinned still, growing more and more rebellious and careless of my own salvation.”

In 1649, he married his first wife. At this same time, Bunyan also began to conform his behaviour to more “polite” society, but was still did not know Jesus Christ. “I was nothing but a poor painted hypocrite,” he said amidst the praise due to his seeming growth in godliness. Eventually, true faith emerged around the year 1653, but it was long embattled.

Despair struck Bunyan when his first child was born blind, and after having three more children, his wife died in 1658. He remarried a year later. He experienced an extremely dark spiritual time, questioning his salvation, his repentence of earlier sins, and his relationship with God. Temptation and condemnation weighed upon him heavily, and he could rarely see hope, even in the words of Scripture.

Bunyan emerged from this dark time of trial as a bold and confident preacher, a Non-Conformist who practiced the faith apart from the State Church of England. In 1660, under the rule of Charles II, Bunyan was jailed for preaching of the Word of God without license. Despite his wife’s best efforts, he would remain in prison for the next 12 years.

During this time, Bunyan began his (in)famous writing career, in which he penned many books, including his autobiography. After his release, under Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence, Bunyan took on the role of pastor to the community of Bedford, his home.  When persecution was renewed in 1677, he was again jailed for six months. In 1678, the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in London. A sequel was published six years later.

The editors of the Whitaker House edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress describes Bunyan as follows:

Although Bunyan had a limited amount of schooling, his work as a writer was that of an accomplished artist. He handled all areas of writing—satire, heroic splendor, humor and spiritual fervor—with incomparable expertise. He was able to skillfully combine the spiritual principles of the Bible with the practical living of the common people he knew so well.

The Pilgrim’s Progress would go on to become a staple of every home in Britain, Europe and North America for more than two hundred years. Of this work, it’s said to be second only to the Bible in number of copies sold and translated into other languages.

John Bunyan died at the age of 59 in 1688 in London, after journeying to preach there. Having ridden during heavy rain to settle a dispute between a father and son, he developed an accute fever, possibly pneumonia. While Bunyan has long ago gone to see Jesus face-to-face, his writing and legacy live on to bring glory to God, and encourage us to perservere until the day we join him in the Celestial city.