One of the most familiar Puritans was John Bunyan. His allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, remains in print and by many statisticians is second only to the Bible as the all-time best-selling book. There are some 1,300 editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress currently in existence.
In an excerpt from Meet the Puritans by Dr. Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, the authors write: “John Owen said of John Bunyan, a powerful preacher and the best-known of all the Puritan writers, that he would gladly exchange all his learning for Bunyan’s power of touching men’s hearts.” We’re going to focus our attention upon this infuential Puritan for the next several days.
John Bunyan was born in 1628 at Elstow, near Bedford, to Thomas Bunyan and Margaret Bentley. Thomas Bunyan, a brazier or tinker who mended people’s pots and pans was poor but not destitute.
John Bunyan was not a well-educated man. He eventually became rebellious, frequently indulging in cursing. He later wrote, “It was my delight to be taken captive by the devil at his will: being filled with all unrighteousness; that from a child I had but few equals, both for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God.” When Bunyan was sixteen years old, his mother and sister died a month apart. His father remarried a month later.
Bunyan joined Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army during the English Civil War (1642-1648) where he continued his rebellious ways. Fighting in the English Civil War had a sobering affect upon John. On one occasion, his life was providentially spared. In his book Grace Abounding, John recounted an incident from this time, as evidence of the grace of God: “When I was a soldier, I with others, was drawn out to go to such a place to besiege it. But when I was just ready to go, one of the company desired to go in my room; to which when I consented, he took my place, and coming to the siege, as he stood sentinel he was shot in the head with a musket bullet and died.”
His military experience was later reflected in his book, The Holy War in which he used his knowledge of military language to describe the spiritual war of the believer. Bunyan spent nearly three years in the army, leaving in 1647 to return to Elstow and a tinker’s trade.
In 1648, Bunyan married a God-fearing woman whose name remains unknown, and whose only dowry was two books: Arthur Dent’s The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and Lewis Bayly’s The Practice of Piety. When Bunyan read those books, he was convicted of sin, but was not as yet converted to Christianity. He started attending the parish church, stopped swearing, and tried to honor the Sabbath.
Several months later, Bunyan came into contact with some women whose joyous conversation about the new birth and Christ deeply impressed him. He mourned his joyless existence as he realized that he was lost and outside of Christ. “I cannot now express with what longings and breakings in my soul I cried to Christ to call me,” he wrote. He felt that he had the worst heart in all of England. He confessed to be jealous of animals because they did not have a soul to account for before God.
Dr. Joel Beeke writes, “In 1651, the women introduced Bunyan to John Gifford, their pastor in Bedford. God used Gifford to lead Bunyan to repentance and faith. Bunyan was particularly influenced by a sermon Gifford preached on The Song of Solomon 4:1, “Behold thou art fair, my love, behold thou art fair,” as well as by reading Luther’s commentary of Galatians, in which he found his own experience “largely and profoundly handled, as if [Luther’s] book had been written out of my own heart.”
Bunyan recounts his own conversion this way in his book Grace Abounding. He writes, “One day, as I was passing in the field, this sentence fell upon my soul: Thy righteousness is in heaven; and me thought withal I saw with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ, at God’s right hand; there, I say, as my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was a-doing, God could not say of me, He wants my righteousness, for that was just before Him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself, the same yesterday, today, and forever. Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away. Now I went home rejoicing for the grace and love of God. I lived for some time very sweetly at peace with God through Christ. Oh! me thought, Christ! Christ! There was nothing but Christ that was before my eyes. I saw now not only looking upon this and the other benefits of Christ apart, as of His blood, burial, and resurrection, but considered Him as a whole Christ! It was glorious to me to see His exaltation, and the worth and prevalency of all His benefits, and that because now I could look from myself to Him, and would reckon that all those graces of God that now were green in me, were yet but like those cracked groats and fourpence-halfpennies that rich men carry in their purses, when their gold is in their trunk at home! Oh, I saw that my gold was in my trunk at home! In Christ my Lord and Saviour! Now Christ was all.”
Can you recall a moment in time in which the righteousness of Christ became your own, by grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone? If so, you know the truth of God loosing your burdens and afflictions from your soul. If you have not received Christ, you may. Right where you are.
Soli deo Gloria!