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Why Pastors Should Engage John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress

I trust none of my fellow ministers need to be convinced to read The Pilgrim’s Progress devotionally. You know its place and importance in the canon of spiritual classics. You’ve read it yourself. You’ve recommended it to others. You’ve alluded to it in sermons. You may have even taught it to a small group, a Sunday school, or your whole congregation at some point in your ministry. But let me encourage you to read it again through a new lens.

Over the course of the last two years I’ve had the privilege of teaching Bunyan’s immortal classic three times. And with each new reading I have been struck by how rich this devotional work is in pastoral theology. Memorable quotes and illustrations – both useful to pastors – can be found on nearly every page. But there is more here for those with the eyes to see it.

Though the central characters of the work are not pastors, ministerial figures play important roles in both parts I and II. Where would Christian have been without the aid of Evangelist, Help, Watchful, or the Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains? These pastoral figures play pivotal roles at critical moments in Christian’s journey to the Celestial City. And Mr. Great Heart, the central pastoral character of part II, plays a leading role in the nIn short, The Pilgrim’s Progress simply assumes that pilgrims need pastors, and those of us who serve as pastoral guides have much to learn from his description of them. Click To Tweetarrative from the House of the Interpreter forward. He is a living embodiment of Bunyan’s pastoral theology. In short, The Pilgrim’s Progress simply assumes that pilgrims need pastors, and those of us who serve as pastoral guides have much to learn from his description of them.

The Paradigmatic Puritan Pastor

Evangelist is the first, most important, and most dynamic pastoral figure of part I. He comes to Christian’s aid in the City of Destruction as he mourns his burdened condition. He points him to Christ and the way of salvation (the Wicket Gate), and urges him to fly from the wrath to come. Such was his evangel. He comes Christian’s aid a second time at the foot of Mt. Sinai after he had been led astray by the lies of Mr. Worldly-Wiseman. After questing the wayward pilgrim, Evangelist rebukes him, then instructs him, and finally restores him and sets him back path to the Wicket Gate. Evangelist comes to Christian (and Faithful) one final time before they enter Vanity Fair. He praises them for their faithfulness and exhorts them to persevere in one of the most moving monologues of part I. Then, he warns them of what lies ahead. In these three episodes, Bunyan provides a remarkably full sketch of the work of ministry. Pointing burdened souls to Christ, recovering wayward pilgrims, warning the faithful of the cost of the discipleship – this is the work of the Christian pastor.

The House of the Interpreter contains another interesting pastoral image. The House is a place of instruction and preparation, and the Interpreter takes Christian through a series of rooms that illustrate critical theological truths. In the first room the Interpreter shows Christian the portrait of a “very grave person.” The narrator describes it as follows:

            It had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon its lips, the world was behind his back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over his head.

Here is Bunyan’s paradigmatic Puritan pastor. Heaven is his focus. The Bible is his guide. His work is to “know and unfold dark things to sinners.” He “slights” and “despises” the world, “for the love that he hath to his master’s service.” Glory is his sure reward. And Christian is shown this first because he is “the only man, whom the Lord of the place whither thou art going, hath authorized to be thy guide in all difficult places thou mayest meet with in the way.” With just a few simple strokes, Bunyan captures something of the high calling and holy dignity of the Christian ministry. Pastors should return to this room often. Before leading Christian to the next room, the Interpreter warns, “take good heed to what I have showed thee, and bear well in mind what thou hast seen, lest in thy journey thou meet with some that pretend to lead thee right, but their way goes down to death.”

The Necessity of Pastoral Theology

False ministers (anti-pastors) also play a prominent role in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Mr. Worldly-Wiseman is one such figure. Through his false teaching and bad counsel, he nearly brought Christian’s pilgrimage to an end. It is worth nothing that Bunyan based that character on a real minister, the Rev. Edward Fowler, whose views he attacked in A Defense of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith. His sad example reminds us of the apostolic injunction to “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

False ministers, or at least the fruits of their labor, appear again at the opening of part II. When Christiana, Mercy, and the boys come to the Slough of Despond, they find it in an unusually bad condition – even worse than when Christian passed through! The reason for its deplorable condition is that men who “pretend to be the King’s Labourers” filled it with dirt and dung instead of stones. In other words, rather than pointing those who are mired down with guilt to God’s promises of forgiveness, they increase their guilt and obscure God’s grace. The pretenders are ministers who make the Christian pilgrimage more difficult by being too strict and exclusive.

By-Ends and his friends, Mr. Hold-the-World, Mr. Money-Love, and Mr. Save-all, though not ministerial figures, commend a form of anti-pastoral theology as well. They argue that a minister may use his religion to “get the good blessings of this life.” Moreover, he may even change some of his principles and preach even more frequently and zealously, if the temper of the people require it, in order to get a better living and a larger church. Christian and Hopeful make quick work of their unspiritual arguments, but the warning about ministerial greed is as needful today as ever.

Mr. Great-heart is, undoubtedly, the most outstanding ministerial figure in The Pilgrim’s Progress. He joins Christiana and her company at the House of the Interpreter and guides the pilgrims to the River, picking up a wide assortment of other pilgrims along the way. He is Bunyan’s pastoral guide par excellence; the portrait of the very grave person come to life. The Rev. G. B. Cheever provides a wonderful description of this remarkable character:

Mr. Great-heart, their conductor, [is] a man of great faith, a man of the same spirit as Christian, Faithful, and Hopeful. There is a combination of energy and gentleness in his character, a union of the fearless warrior and the kind and careful shepherd. He can fight with Giant Grim, can talk with the children, can condescend to Mr. Feeble-mind, can carry the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead             those that are with young. His portrait is drawn with remarkable freedom, as a frank, fearless, noble, open character, with neither severity nor prejudice to mar those confiding and attractive qualities.[1]

Pathway Unto the Holy Land

For all these reason and many others, the character Great-heart deserves to be studied and imitated by those called into the same vocation.

There are, of course, other pastoral figures in The Pilgrim’s Progress that are worthy of careful attention. Watchful, the Porter of the Palace Beautiful, is one of them. He appears in both parts of the work, and his examination of pilgrims reveals much about the author’s doctrine of the Church. The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains – Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere – are another. This idealized pastoral world, which appears in parts I and II, is filled with important pastoral lessons about the dangers of doctrinal error, despair, and hypocrisy, as well as the blessings of living innocently and charitably. But the unsung pastoral hero of The Pilgrim’s Progress is the author, himself.

It must not be forgotten that John Bunyan was, first and foremost, a pastor, and his magnum opus owes its very existence to pastoral concern. In the author’s apology – the least read part of the work – Bunyan explains why he set out to write his allegory in the first place. He compares himself to a fisherman or a fowler who is willing to go to great lengths to catch his game. His goal is the lure the reader into serious self-knowledge.

Wouldst thou lose thy self, and catch no harm?

And find thy self again without a charm?

Wouldst read thy self, and know thou knowest not what,

And yet know whether thou are blest or not,

By reading the same Lines? O then come hither,

And lay my Book, thy Head, and Heart together.

And having gained self-knowledge, to turn readers into pilgrims.

This Book will make a Traveller of thee;

If by its Counsel thou wilt ruled be;

It will direct thee to the Holy Land,

If thus wilt its directions understand.

[1]G. B. Cheever, Lectures on the Pilgrim’s Progress (Grants Pass: OR: SAT Publications, 2000), 257.

Bennett W. Rogers

Ben Rogers (Ph.D. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the author of A Tender Lion: The Life, Ministry, and Message of J. C. Ryle and has written several articles on J.C Ryle and John Bunyan. He is a pastor and teacher in Mississippi.

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