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Friday, August 18, 2017
Date Posted:
9/15/2004

John Bunyan


The Triumph of the Word of God in the Life and Literature of John Bunyan - Part One


IN TWO PARTS - PART ONE

What memories the name of John Bunyan stirs up in the minds of all those who have been introduced to his immortal dream from their earliest years. We see the man with the burden on his back. We see him leave his home in the City of Destruction and start for the Celestial City. We see him struggling in the Slough of Despond. We see him at the Wicket Gate. We follow him through the mysteries of the House of the Interpreter. We see him come to that place Somewhat Ascending, where stood a cross, and there he loses his burden for ever more.

We climb with him the Hill of Difficulty and face the lions with him at the door of the Palace Beautiful. We fight with him the fierce battle in the Valley of Humiliation with Apollyon, and further traverse in his company the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

We share with him in his joy as he catches up with Faithful and join with interest Faithful’s discourse with one Talkative, the son of Say Well from Prating Row. The same Talkative is well known to us all. We enter the town of Vanity and traverse the booths of its fair. We rejoice in the boldness of the two pilgrims and mingle our tears with joy at the martyrdom of Faithful. We are glad when Christian is joined with Hopeful, and we are intrigued with the description of one By-ends from the famous town of Fair Speech. Where the laws turn about and time serve a rule.

The other prominent citizens of the town are not unknown to us. Mr Smooth Man, Mr Facing Both Ways and Mr Anything. While that prominent ecclesiastic Reverend Two Tongues is featured daily in the religious press. Further, when we are informed that By-ends great grandfather was but a waterman, looking one way but facing another we are convinced that we know By-ends very well indeed.

We stand with the pilgrims as Demos tempts them and we are still with them when they behold Lot’s Wife solidified into a pillar of salt. We walk with them along the Bank of the River of Life, and stray with them into By‑Path Meadow. We enter Doubting Castle of Giant Despair, and descend to the depths of its discouragement and dismay.

We rejoice at the finding of the Key of Promise and after escaping, help to build their Warning Pillar to keep other pilgrims from going astray. We also reach the Delectable Mountains and climb in company with the pilgrims and shepherds the mountains Error, Caution and Clear. We too meet the flatterer and are caught up in the net of entanglement. We feel the chastisement of the Angel, and experience the perils of the Enchanted Ground.

Along with Christian and Hopeful we fall in with the lingerer Ignorance and learn that he was brought up with one Temporary in the town of Gracless, situated some miles from Honesty, and that his next door neighbour was one Turnback.

How refreshing to reach Beaulah after the sad encounter with Ignorance. We stand beside the pilgrims as we meet the two shining ones who convey the news that the River Without a Bridge must be crossed if they are to gain the city. We sink with Christian and Hopeful into the chilling waters of death’s current, but make the crossing with them and behold them mount the heights on which the Glorious City of God is built. We see the gates open and behold but for a moment the city shining like the sun, its streaked surface with pure gold and its citizens in robes of dazzling splendour. Yes and we join the Dreamer as the gates close, and the exclamation of pent up desire ‘I wished myself among them.’

When we read this story we knew that John Bunyan was not only the dreamer but he was telling in the form of a similitude his own life story. Yes, and ours as well, and how well he told his story. Immediately we wanted to know more about this dreamer and penman. Aye, and the more we learned the more we wanted to learn of him.

The notice of Bunyan in The Dictionary of National Biography runs to 18 columns, and the books written on Bunyan are too numerous to mention. The best volume of course of them all is that classic of research and learning John Bunyan, His Life Times and Work by John Brown, for many years minister at Bunyan’s meeting at Bedford, and first published in 1885.

Perhaps here it would be appropriate for me to read the brief notice of Bunyan inserted in the Oxford Companion to English Literature, compiled and edited by Sir Paul Harvey.

Bunyan, John 1628 to 1688. Born in Elstow, near Bedford. The son of a tinsmith, learned reading and writing at the village school, and was early sent to his father’s trade. On completing his sixteenth year he was drafted into the Parliamentary Army, and was stationed at Newport Pagnall from 1644 to 1646.  In1653 he joined the Non‑conformist church in Bedford preached there and came into conflict with the Quakers, against whom he published his first writings, Some Gospel Truths Open, 1656, and A Vindication Thereof, 1657.

He had profited by two religious books belonging to his first wife, who died 1656 leaving four young children and devoted himself to reading the Bible. ‘I was never out of the Bible, either by reading or meditation’.

He married his second wife, Elizabeth, 1659, and was arrested in November 1660 for preaching without a licence. Refusing to comply with the law, he was kept in prison for 12 years, until Charles II’s declaration of Indulgence. During the first half of this period he wrote nine of his books the principal of which was Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. In the same year appeared The Holy City, or The New Jerusalem. Inspired by a passage in the Book of Revelation.

After this he wrote no more until 1671 when he published A Confession of My Faith and a Reason of My Practice. After his release in 1672 he was appointed Pastor to the same church in Bedford but was again imprisoned for a short period during which he wrote the first part of Pilgrim's Progress ‑ From this World to That Which is to Come. The second part with the whole work was published in 1678. His other principal works are The Life and Death of Mr Badman, and The Holy War. Bunyan preached in many places but was not further molested. He was buried in Bunhill Fields, London.

So ends Sir Paul Harvey’s inset

What was the secret of Bunyan’s life and literature? Why was it that such a poor, unschooled tinker should become the most prominent man of letters for all time as far as English literature is concerned. I believe that it was a triumph of the word of God in Bunyan’s life reflected and embalmed in Bunyan’s writings, which made them what they are. A vitality which can never decay is about them. But that vitality has its source in the eternal life of the Word of God. The light is borrowed but as the light from which it was borrowed is itself the light of life need we wonder at its non‑decaying brilliance.

Note carefully Bunyan’s own testimony and confession, ‘I was never out of the Bible, either by reading or meditation’.  C.H.Spurgeon once said this of Bunyan ‘O that you and I might get into the very heart of the Word of God, and get that word into ourselves as I have seen the silkworm eat into the leaf and consume it. So what we do with the Word of God, not crawl over its surface but eat right into it till we have taken it into our inmost parts.’  It is idle merely to glance over the words, or to recollect the poetical expression, or the historical facts.  But it is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible till at last you come to talk in scriptural language, and your very style is fashioned upon scripture models, and what is better still, your spirit is flavoured with the words of the Lord.’

I would quote John Bunyan as an instance of what I mean. Read anything of his and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. He has studied our authorised version, which will never be bettered as I judge till Christ shall come. He had read it until 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’.  So said C.H.Spurgeon.

It would of course be impossible to trace the triumph of the Word of God in all of Bunyan’s literary works, forty one of which were published before his death and fifteen or sixteen of which were published after his decease. We must limit our enquiry and what better method could we devise than by concentrating on part of Bunyan’s masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress, which was first published 300 years ago. Hence the tercentenary celebration. It should be said, however, that it was only in the second and third improved editions, published late in 1678 and 79, that some of its best known and most characteristic personages, such as Mr Wordly Wiseman, Mr By-ends and his family, and Mrs Diffidence, the wife of Giant Despair, appear. I think we will be amazed as we survey our pilgrim and his progress of the triumphant impact of God’s Word on his life. To take the Bible from Bunyan is like taking the hair from Sampson, he becomes like other men. Any study of Bunyan’s book reveals in the first place the dominance of the word of God. The dominance of the Word of God in the life and literature of John Bunyan.

Bunyan commences the record of his dream thus. As I walked through the wilderness of this world I lighted on a certain place, where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep. And as I slept I dreamed. And behold I saw a man clothed with rags standing in a certain place with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden on his back. I looked and saw him open the book and read therin, and as he read he wept and trembled, and not being any longer able to contain he’d break out in a lamentable cry saying ‘What shall I do?’

Notice in his first two sentences Bunyan introduces us to the book, and all his other sentences, though either directly or indirectly, from that book and the message which it contains. Notice that all though the man holds the book it is clearly seen that the book really holds the man. It is not that Bunyan mastered the book, it is that the book mastered Bunyan. This is the secret. The triumph of the Word of God in the life and literature of John Bunyan. The dominance of the word is demonstrated all through the volume. The burdened man, we are informed, spent his days walking in the fields ‘as he was wont, reading his book.’  Note the change of emphasis.  First of all it is a book in the man’s hand.  Then it is the book. Now it is his book.  The Bible to Bunyan once was a book.  Then it was the book. And then it became his book.

Now as we proceed on our story, Christian does not conceal the effect of the book on his life, and how it gave him the great burden upon his back.  To Mr Worldly Wiseman’s query  ‘How cames’t thou by the burden at the first?’  He replies openly ‘By reading this book in my hand.’  By God’s Word is the knowledge of sin.  One has only to read Bunyan’s Grace Abounding To the Chief of Sinners a marvellous piece of religious biography, unrivalled save by the confessions of Augustine, to realise how deeply the word exposed to him his appalling guilt and wretched filth before his God.

Bunyan’s unparalleled description of the true ministry of Jesus Christ must not be overlooked. In the house of the interpreter Christian saw the picture of a very grave person hung up upon the wall. And this was the fashion of it ‘It had eyes lifted up to heaven. The best of books in his hand, and the law of truth was written on his lips. The world was behind his back.  It stood as if it pleaded with men, and the Crown of Gold did hang over its head.’ Note ‘the best of books in his hand’, ‘the law of truth was written upon his lips’.  Further, the man in the interpreter’s house, who had the dream of the dreaded judgement day trembled before the man who sat on the cloud because he opened the book.  The Bible was always to Bunyan the Supreme Court of Appeal.

When our pilgrim reaches that place somewhat ascending and gazes at the Cross, losing forever his burden, three shining lights appear to him.  Interpreters of Bunyan tell us that these represent the divine three meeting the sinner at the cross.  As the first one said ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee.  So God the Father forgives the sinner.  As the second stripped Pilgrim from his rags and clothed him with change of raiment, so God the Son gives to us his robe of righteousness in exchange for our rags of filthyness and as the third gave him a Roll with a seal upon it, which he bid him look on as he ran, that he give it in at the Celestial Gate, so God the Holy Ghost, the author of the book imparts its sealing truths with power to the believing soul.

When debating with formalists and hypocrisy Christian emphasises the word by stating ‘I will tell you moreover that I had then given me a Roll sealed, to comfort me by reading as I go on in the way.’  Moreover, when questioned by Prudence in the Palace Beautiful how he was able to vanquish his doubts, fears and perplexity, Christian replies ‘Yes, when I saw what I saw at the cross, that will do it.  And when I look upon my ‘broidered coat, that will do it, and when I look into the roll that I carry in my bosom, that will do it. And when my thoughts wax wan about wither I am going, that will do it.’  O the comforting power of the Word of God.

I don’t think I need to dwell further on the fact of the dominance of the word in the life and literature of Bunyan.

To be continued next week ………………………

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