Bunyan now began to confess Christ as his Savior and Lord before men. He saw from the word of God that believers were baptized upon their profession of faith in Christ, so he desired to thus obey the Lord in baptism. He was accordingly immersed in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 10:47; 16:30-33; Rom. 6:3-11, etc.) In the town of Bedford was a company of Christians who were termed “Nonconformists” or “Dissenters,” because they would not conform to the rules and regulations of the State Church. These people believed, and rightly so, that the word of God was the only rule for faith and practice. With this company Bunyan associated himself, and he speaks of the great joy he experienced as he sat at the Lord’s table with the Lord’s people and remembered the Lord’s death till the Lord should come again (Luke 22:19, 20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; Acts 20:7). Ponder carefully these Scriptures. If you are a child of God you will surely be glad to hear the voice of the Shepherd (John 10:27) and obey Him in these two ordinances that He instituted for all who have trusted Him as their Savior.
The experience through which John Bunyan had passed now stood him in good stead. He began, as opportunity afforded itself, to speak of the Lord Jesus to both saved and unsaved. He did not rush ahead of God but gradually blossomed out into a clear, rugged preacher of the glorious gospel of the grace of God. The calls to preach became so many that, after prayerful consideration, he decided to give up his tinkering and devote his whole time to the ministry of God’s word. Hundreds came to listen to him from all classes and conditions of society. The simple folks loved to hear him preach because he used language they could understand; and his rough eloquence, born of sincere love for their soul, attracted and held their attention. The rich and educated too used to come and hear “the preaching tinker” as they called him; and they marveled at the ability of one who had received so little education. Many souls professed to be saved under his ministry, and the children of God were strengthened in the faith and “grew in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).
It so happened, however, that there was a law in England in those days which decreed that none but ordained ministers, or those intending to be, should be allowed to preach. Bunyan denied the right of the State to say who should, or who should not, preach. He believed that he had “the mighty ordination of the pierced hands” (John 15:16) and this, to his mind, was all that was necessary. He had his commission from the Commander-in-Chief who had said: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). In obedience to his Lord he went everywhere preaching the gospel to all who would gather to listen.
This brought him to the notice of the authorities, and complaint was lodged against him but, due to the brethren rallying to his support, the prosecution was dropped. Then came the restoration of the Stuarts to the throne of England, and such ministry as Bunyan’s was forbidden under severe penalties. For a time Bunyan used to disguise himself in order to pass unnoticed to the place where he was to preach; but at length he decided to dispense with all disguise and boldly preach the word, preferring to “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:24). He was asked to preach in a little village called Samsell and accepted the invitation. His friends warned him that the authorities knew of it and would take measures to stop him, but he went forward boldly, determined that nothing should make him afraid. He had the promise of the presence and power of his Lord, so why should he be afraid what man should do unto him?
Accordingly he went to Samsell to conduct the meeting. After he had opened the service with prayer, he read this text: “Dost thou believe on the Son of God?” While he was proceeding to speak from it a policeman walked in and, producing a warrant, arrested him on the spot. He was taken before a Justice of the Peace named Wingate, who tried to get him to promise to cease preaching, and to find sureties who would pledge themselves to see that he kept his word; but this Bunyan resolutely refused to do. Accordingly, Justice Wingate on the 13th of November 1660, committed him to the Assizes when he would be brought up for trial.
A few weeks later, when the Assizes met, Bunyan was brought before the court at which sat the following judges: Keeling, Chester, Blundale, Beecher and Snagg. His indictment was then read: “John Bunyan, of the town of Bedford, laborer, hath devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to church to hear the divine service, and is a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventions, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of the kingdom, contrary to the laws of our sovereign lord, the king.”
Without any opportunity being given for the examination of any witnesses for the defense he was found guilty, and Judge Keeling savagely and bitterly condemned him as follows: “Hear your sentence. You must be had back again to prison, and there lie for three months following; and at three month’s end, if you do not submit and go to church to hear divine service and leave your preaching you must be banished from the realm; and if, after such a day as shall be appointed you to be gone, you shall be found in this realm, you must stretch by the neck for it!” Bunyan’s reply is worthy of notice. Unafraid and unawed by these judges that had so unjustly condemned him, he replied, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach again tomorrow, so help me God!”
We may well thank God for such men as John Bunyan. The horrors of the prison, together with the separation from his wife and children, did not move his dauntless soul. It is to such men that we, in later years, are indebted for the religious liberty we now enjoy. These men valued a good conscience with God more than a good reputation amongst their fellows. They valued the liberty of heaven more than their freedom of movement on earth. This is the brand of Christianity that the world respects. Alas! There are too many so-called Christians who are intimidated by men’s opinions and threats, and suit their speaking to the likes and dislikes of their audiences, and who love the praise of men more than the praise of God. Verily, such have their reward, but not in heaven. Under God, it is due to such men as Bunyan that we are now permitted to preach the gospel freely, none daring to make us afraid. Let us ever remember that these privileges we enjoy have cost the blood and tears of thousands who gladly suffered torture, imprisonment, banishment and death rather than deny the faith or besmirch their good conscience before God. May it be ours to rightly value and follow their noble example.
The prison where he was confined was as different from modern prisons as night from day. It was a dark and damp place, situated on the level of the river Ouse. It was often overcrowded, making it one of the most foul and loathsome places of confinement in England. In this fearful place Bunyan spent twelve long years. For some reason the sentence of banishment was never put into effect. His case caused quite a little trouble and came into the courts on several occasions; but this did not help him, as the judges seemed afraid to execute their sentence, yet had not the courage to release him so he was confined in Bedford jail for that lengthy period. Just think of it! Many of my readers are not yet twelve years of age and yet, for this period of time, Bunyan was “a prisoner of Jesus Christ,” all because, like Daniel, he had “dared to have a purpose firm, and dared to make it known!”
Someone has said: “Your Christian experience is worth just what it costs you.” It cost the apostle Paul the loss of all things and ultimately his own life. It cost Bunyan twelve years in a foul den. What has ours cost us? What have we suffered for the sake of the Gospel?
Must we be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas?
At any time, had he desired it, Bunyan could have obtained his liberty by promising not to preach any more; but he was made of sterner stuff than this, and counted it an honor to suffer for “Christ’s sake and the gospel’s.”
Let us not forget that he had a wife and children. How were his family to live if the breadwinner was in prison? Bunyan was able to earn a little money by tagging shoe laces, but this was not sufficient to keep them. How then were they taken care of? The same God that gives to the birds of the air their nests, and the flowers of the field their clothing, saw to it that during the whole time of His servant’s imprisonment, all their needs were supplied and they wanted for no good thing. Truly, God’s promises are not mere empty words, but real truths on which His children may confidently depend. “My God shall supply all your needs, according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). Upon these “exceeding great and precious promises,” Bunyan rested in simple faith; and proved, as thousands of others, that “those who trust Him wholly, find Him wholly true.”
Whilst his enemies were rejoicing in the fact that they had quieted his dissenting voice by putting him in prison, they little realized they were fulfilling the purposes of God. They were yet to discover that “God worketh all things together for good to them that love Him, who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28) and that “God makes the wrath of His enemies to praise Him!” It is quite true that Bunyan was shut out from man, but it is equally true that he was shut up to God who, in a marvelous way, opened up the Scriptures to him. As a result of much Bible study and prayer, the wonderful story of The Pilgrim’s Progress was written while he was in Bedford jail. This accomplished, and is still accomplishing, a work for God that never could have been done had Bunyan been at liberty.
The prison, as it were, became God’s university in which John Bunyan was educated in the will of God through the word of God, and thus enabled of God to pen this masterpiece of English literature, this greatest of all allegories, which has been used to the awakening and salvation of many thousands of precious souls. May God, in His grace, be pleased to use it to your salvation if you have not yet become a Christian! Cowper was right when he sang:
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform.
He plants His footsteps in the deep,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds you so much dread
Are great with mercies, and shall break
In blessings on your head!
Through the many years that have passed since it was written, an ever increasing number of Christians have found through its pages comfort in trouble, guidance in difficulty and deliverance from the bondage of legalism. Indeed, the whole Church has been edified, as in this beautiful allegory, the Christian life from start to finish has been so graphically pictured.
The Pilgrim’s Progress was not published until 1678, six years after Bunyan had been set at liberty. The manner in which he, together with a large number of other Nonconformists, as they were called, obtained his freedom is interesting. Some time after the return to the throne of Charles II, who during the Civil war had fled to France, he was waited on by a deputation of Quakers, one of whom was a man named Carver. This man reminded the king that during his flight from England after the battle of Worchester, he had aided him in his escape to France, and had been the one who had carried him ashore from a small boat when a privateer had been on the point of capturing him. This the king recalled, and the old sailor interceded with him for the Nonconformists in English prisons and said: “I am now come to ask thee to be kind to my brethren in their distress, as I was kind to thee in thine.”
The king replied that Carver might renew his request another time and he would consider it. Without any delay Carver, joined by other Quakers, appealed for the liberation of all Nonconformists of every name, and the result was that on September 13, 1672, Bunyan together with many others was set at liberty. Mr. Gifford having died, he was asked to become the pastor of the little congregation in Bedford. After much prayer he decided to do so and thus resumed his preaching of the glorious gospel of the blessed God. He was again mightily used to the in-gathering of many precious souls and the upbuilding of believers in their most holy faith.
Thus did God deliver His servant after all His purposes concerning him had been accomplished. The Pilgrim’s Progress had been written. Bunyan had learned the deep things of God in the solitude of his prison cell, and he came out of it a better man. He knew God better; he knew the Lord Jesus more intimately; he knew the Scriptures more fully, and had learned, like Paul, “in whatsoever state he was, to be content.” Truly, “walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage,” when those stone walls enclose a child of God, and the iron bars one whom the Son of God has made free. John Bunyan’s spirit was unfettered, his conscience was free, and his tongue became the pen of a ready writer. Thus did Bedford jail, dark, dank, and dreary, become the birthplace of the next best book to the Bible.
The first edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678 by Nathaniel Ponder and the title page read as follows:
The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World To That Which Is To Come. Delivered under the similitude of a dream. Wherein is discovered the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country. By John Bunyan. Licensed and entered according to order. London, printed for Nathaniel Ponder at the Peacock in the Poultrey near Cornhill 1678.
Its popularity was immediately assured. Old and young, educated and uneducated, churchmen and dissenters alike, purchased the book, and within ten years twelve editions had been published. Before Bunyan died, over 100,000 copies had been sold in England alone. Since then, it has been translated into over one hundred languages and has a sale second only to the Bible. Monuments have been erected to the memory of Bunyan but, like all monuments, they will crumble and fall. The greatest monument to his memory is the book he has written, a book that lives in the hearts and lives of thousands who, through the reading of its pages, have been brought to see their need of the Lord Jesus Christ and led to accept and confess as Savior and Lord the one whose precious blood secured their pardon.
Bunyan wrote many more books, the greatest of them being The Holy War, a book every Christian should read. Lord Macauley declared that had The Pilgrim’s Progress not been written, The Holy War would have been the greatest allegory in existence. Amongst his other books, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman and Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners are the best known. In all, Bunyan wrote and published about sixty volumes.
During the sixteen years that elapsed between his release and death, Bunyan was a busy man. Crowds flocked to hear him preach. Sometimes he would have 1200 people by seven o’clock on a winter morning. Everywhere he went, the people would crowd to hear him, many being unable to gain admission to the building. He had only one message: the all-sufficiency of the living Word Christ, and the “written word”—the Scriptures—to meet all the needs of both sinner and saint. These truths, preached in the power of the Holy Spirit of God, were blessed to the salvation and edification of thousands of souls.
John Bunyan died in the year 1688. The cause of his home-call was as follows. A young man had run away from his home, thus incurring the displeasure of his parents. The young man desired a reconciliation and asked Mr. Bunyan if he would try to use his influence to bring this about, which he promised to do. Accordingly, Bunyan started out on horseback to see the parents of this boy and secured their promise to receive him back. On the return journey he was caught in a heavy rainstorm which gave him a severe chill. Due to his enfeebled constitution, the result of his prison experiences, this developed into something more serious, and after a comparatively short illness, the “Immortal Dreamer,” as he was called, passed into the presence of the Lord he had loved and served so well. As his friends stood weeping at his bedside, watching their beloved friend’s life slowly ebbing out, Bunyan rallied himself and exclaimed: “Weep not for me! We shall meet, ere long, to sing the new song and remain everlastingly happy, world without end!”
The place of his death was Snow Hill and his body was laid in the Bunhill Fields, the Nonconformist burial ground. There it awaits that time when his spirit which is already with Christ shall, at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, be reunited to a changed and glorified body, according to the power whereby the Son of God is able to subdue all things unto Himself (Phil. 3:21; 1 Thess. 4:13-17). The plain inscription of the tombstone is “John Bunyan, Author of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress,’ Born 1628. Died 1688.” May the book he wrote, as we study its pages, become to us the blessing it has been to so many before! May his example of Christian fortitude and sincere devotion to the Lord Jesus be to each reader an inspiration and encouragement, not only to begin the “journey from this world to that which is to come”; but, during that journey, live for, and glorify the one whose precious blood makes possible The Pilgrim’s Progress!
The story itself is told as though it were a dream and is written in allegorical form. That is, it is similar to a parable, or an earthly story with a spiritual meaning. The Christian life, from its beginning to end, is described as a journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Each person who appears in the story has a name that exactly describes his character. Thus, a person named Mr. Good will be a good man, and a person named Mr. Bad, a bad man, and so on. Carefully remember the names of those who are introduced into this allegory, and it will give you a key that will help unlock its treasures, and will explain many things that would otherwise be difficult to understand.
The story is full of Scriptural truth, and large portions of God’s precious word will be quoted. May the good seed of the holy Scriptures find an abiding place in the heart of the reader; for we are assured from the Bible that those who are children of God have become such by being “born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever” (1 Pet. 1:23).
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a most important book for three reasons. First, because it tells us about the most important journey that anyone can go on, namely, a journey from this life to the life to come—from time to eternity. Second, because it reveals the most important persons that will be met on that journey, and warns or counsels us as to how we should receive or reject their instructions. Lastly, this book unfolds the most important subject in this world, namely, salvation from the penalty of sin (which is eternal separation from God) through faith in the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ—salvation from the power of sin through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believer; and salvation from the very presence and possibility of sin, through being at home with Christ at the end of the journey.