John Bunyan: Conversion in The Pilgrim's Progress
John Bunyan was a literary genius for relating complex theological ideas to common people. His most famous work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, has become precious to many believers as it chronicles the allegorical journey of the protagonist, Christian, and his pilgrimage toward the Celestial City. It is said that Spurgeon read this work every year to stir up his faith and for encouragement to run the race well.
Why did Bunyan write this allegory? What has caused it to gain so much popularity? Why is it so beneficial for Christians today?
The City of Destruction
What many might not realize about Pilgrim’s Progress is that it very closely describes its author’s conversion to the Christian faith. Before his conversion, Bunyan was said to have had the worst mouth in town, and it even shocked those who were nonbelievers.
Looking back in his work, “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, a reflection on his own conversion, Bunyan writes, “In these days the thoughts of religion were very grievous to me; I could neither endure it myself, nor that any other should; so that when I have seen some read in those books that concerned Christian piety, it would be as it were a prison to me… “ (pg. 14).
Bunyan saw no need of a saving faith in Christ, nor did he desire to leave what he would later describe in Pilgrim’s Progress as the “City of Destruction.” This city, which Bunyan describes as being full of evil and immorality, is where all humanity dwelt before they understood the end of that city – being burned with the fire of God’s judgment. Those who did leave to follow the King’s path were mocked and scorned by the city’s inhabitants.
“But poor wretch as I was! I was all this while ignorant of Jesus Christ; and going about to establish my own righteousness; and had perished therein, had not God in mercy showed me more of my state by nature” (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, 28).
In the pages before this quote, Bunyan describes how he attempted to earn Christ’s favor through religious works, morality, and outwardly appearing to be a believer. For another two years, Bunyan’s soul was in a state of discord and terror over the reality of his salvation.
This echoes the journey of Christian in the Pilgrim’s Progress. It was not until Christian had tried various means of removing the burden of sin on his back (his conscience) through legalism and other means (with many doubts and questions about the King’s character and his own identity) that he took the narrow and hard path towards the Cross. Only there was his burden of sin removed, and he saw Christ as his Savior. Here he was bestowed with new garments and learned to genuinely love the King of the Celestial City for his grace and mercy.
There Is Room
In this lengthier quote, Bunyan describes his conversion.
But when I had been long vexed with this fear [of being judged of God], and was scarce able to take one step more…these words broke in upon my mind, ‘Compel them to come in, that my house may be filled; and yet there is room.’ Luke xiv. 22, 23. These words, but especially those, ‘And yet there is room’, were sweet words to me; for truly I thought that by them I saw there was place enough in heaven for me; and moreover, that when the Lord Jesus did speak these words, He then did think of me: and that He knowing that the time would come, that I should be afflicted with fear, that there was no place left for me in His bosom, did before speak this word, and leave it upon record, that I might find help thereby against this vile temptation. This I then verily believed (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, 41).
The simple knowledge that there was room in God’s house for him and that he was loved by God was where his desire to earn salvation was crushed, and he found it all based upon the grace and mercy of God. There his burden of sin was removed and there he found saving faith in Christ.
There is room at the Cross of Christ. All are welcome.
Our Story Too
Coincidentally, this is the journey of many believers I know personally – of wrestling over assurance of their own salvation and struggling to see themselves as “worthy.” We cannot do enough to earn the favor of God. Yet God has purposefully made room for those who call on him in faith.
God gave Bunyan the incredible capacity to turn his conversion into an allegory that has touched the hearts of many believers. I have read it several times and each time I am deeply moved by Bunyan’s deep understanding of the human heart and the thoughts and doubts of genuine believers.
While there is much more I could expound upon with the Pilgrim’s Progress and Bunyan’s own journey, one of the best ways to understand the connection is to read Pilgrim’s Progress for yourself. Finally, a copy of Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinner’s.
I pray these resources are a rich blessing to your spiritual life and aid more in understanding the believer’s journey towards the Celestial City where we will dwell with the King forever.
Brittany Proffitt lives in Dallas and is a writer and content manager for So We Speak.