I read John’s Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress every summer. Originally Titled “This World to That Which Is to Come,” Pilgrim’s Progress is a Christian allegorical tale Bunyan wrote while in prison for the gospel. It features a man by the name of Christian who journey matches the typical ups and downs of the Christian life. Though originally published in February 1678, Pilgrim’s Progress is regarded as one of the most significant works of English literature, has been translated into more than 200 languages, and has never been out of print. You can buy a copy or find it free online or for download (or, as I have been trying this year, let Audible.com read it to you).
Every year, I am struck by a different part of this book. Whether is was Christian running with his fingers in his ears away from his family in order to find eternal life. Or when he is confronted with his own laziness. Or when he and Faithful have a conversation with Talkative that reveals that truth faith is practical not about being smart. Or when Christian spends too much time in Vanity Fair. On and on I could go.
This year, I got stuck at the beginning of Christian’s journey, before he comes to the cross and loses his burden. The reason is that I have not considered what Bunyan has offered in these first few pages: the difficulties of initial belief in Christ.
Don’t hear me wrong. The message of the gospel is simple and easy to understand. But, as one author has put it, it is “Hard to Believe.” And Bunyan has laid out three of those difficulties, which I would like to share with you today.
(1) Worldly Peer-Pressure (esp. Family) = at the beginning of Christian’s realization of his sin and the burden sin was, he was confronted with others who had mere worldly, fleshly solutions. His family ridiculed his faith, scolded him for feeling guilt for sin, and neglected him. Others in his town of destruction mocked him, threatened him, while others tired to talk him out of forsaking sin and pursuing righteousness from God. All of these are Bunyan’s way of pointing out how difficult it is for an unbeliever surrounded by unbelievers to leave his sin and pursue Christ. It is exactly as Jesus said in Luke 14 – ” If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.”
(2) Guilt = immediately after leaving on his journey, Christian is met with “The Slough of Despond.” This is an illustration of the difficulty of guilt a sinner has to deal with when they decide to look at their sin right in the face. Sin, when properly understood, is quite depressing. And in its conviction, it causes many fears, and doubts and “discouraging apprehensions” (to use Bunyan’s words). Now a many by the name of HELP comes along to help Christian out of the pit. But the point is clear enough; an unbeliever who chooses to understand their sin properly can–and often will–get stuck in the overwhelming guilt that it brings. This can cause them to simply give up because (1) “who would ever want to help me as such a great sinner?, and (2) “I thought God was a God of love and joy. Why should I have to feel so bad about myself?”
(3) Legalism = once out of the Slough, Christian comes across Mr. Worldly Wiseman who convinces Christian that what he is seeking can come from just seeking out righteousness by morality, legalism, and civility. In other words, if you just be a good ‘ole boy, work hard, be kind to people, don’t drink, chew, or go with girls that do, then God will accept you and you won’t have to go through all the difficulties that more “carnal Christians” have to go through. You can create your own righteousness through a simple list of rules that make you worthy of a gold-star. Just make sure to believe in Jesus and then be a good boy or girl the rest of your life. Easy enough, right?
Well, many a people who begin to pursue Christ get lost right here. They think their goodness will save them and their “works of the law” will bring salvation. Bunyan clearly says why this is a problem: “Thy sin is great, for by [pursuing righteousness by legalism and self-morality] thou has committed two evils; thou has forsaken the Way that is good, to tread in forbidden paths.” The apostle Paul is even more clear in Galatians 3: ” 10 For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” 11 Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.”
From this point in Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian meets with Goodwill, the Interpreter, and eventually finds himself at the cross of Christ where his burden of sin falls off and he receives both forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life. From here, Christian is off on his journey and it is a great one and I encourage you to read Bunyan’s classic.
But for now, I ask two things: first, pray for your unbelieving family and friends. These are large obstacles for them to overcome and if not for God’s grace, you would not have overcome them and make it to the cross. So, pray that God would show much grace and give much help to those who are unbelieving that they would finally believe. And then, secondly, be patient with your unbelieving friends. Yes, they need to believe so that they will not perish. But be patient, for they have many obstacles to overcome to come to true faith. You had them to and God was kind to cause you to overcome them in His patient and loving time.
So, in knowing the obstacles of worldly peer-pressure (esp. from unbelieving families), the crushing weight of guilt, and the snare of legalism/morality, pray & be patient.