John Bunyan: The Power of Simplicity and Story

For those of us who love the truths of Reformed theology, and look up to our heroes of the Reformation, there can be a tendency and even a weakness that assumes that profound truths and rich doctrine will always be expressed in dense and complex language. If we are not careful, we can admire those who make complex subjects more complex with their communication.

We can sometimes forget that value of speaking rich and complex truths in simple clear language. Even more, especially when instructing children, or those young in the faith, we have a responsibility to be plain and simple. Our words should make things clear rather than complicate the already difficult doctrines.

In this regard, I think we have much that we can learn from John Bunyan. I have always found it instructive that the great theologian John Owen admired John Bunyan’s ability to grip the heart in communicating the truth. John Bunyan had very little formal education and was trained in his father’s profession as a tinkerer, or a tinsmith. By contrast John Owen was an Oxford educated  academic.  But at times, Owen would go to hear Bunyan preach.

King Charles II once asked Owen why he, as someone so educated, would go to hear a tinkerer preaching. Owen’s response was "May it please your Majesty, if I could possess the tinker's abilities to grip men's hearts, I would gladly give in exchange all my learning.” If you have ever read any of John Owen’s works, you will know that he is both brilliant and verbose. But there is an enviable simplicity in Bunyan’s ability to communicate and the Holy Spirit used Bunyan to impact the hearts and lives of his listeners.

John Bunyan is probably most famous for writing Pilgrim’s Progress, which is an allegory concern of the Christian life from conversion to departure from earthly life into heaven. On the one hand, Bunyan shows remarkable ability as a story teller. On the other hand, Bunyan shows a profound ability to speak to matters of the heart. Bunyan understood the Christian life and Christian doctrine and this richness pervades his allegory. Even over four hundred years later, the story continues to display this remarkable connection to our Christian lives.

Here are a couple of things we might learn from Bunyan:

  1. Profoundly proclaiming the truth is not necessarily marked by verbosity. We should be more concerned with seeking to make the truth clear than seeking to impress people by marveling them with an ability to wax eloquently on a subject. This is a particular danger for pastors, theologians and academics.
  1.   We need to be willing to stand for the truth no matter the cost. John Bunyan was a baptist—baptized by immersion. In England, during his time, a Baptist could not be licensed to minister the gospel. As a result, Bunyan was thrown in prison. Yet, he refused to give up his call to preach the gospel just so he could get out of jail. Bunyan spent twelve years in prison because he refused to agree not preach the gospel if released.
  1. Bunyan used story to convey powerful truth. John Bunyan wrote allegories: his famous Pilgrim’s Progress and his lesser known The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680) and The Holy War (1682). Not only does Bunyan capture our imaginations with his story, more importantly he sows rich spiritual truths. Allegory, and even parables, are a lost art today. Most Christian fiction written today will not last to the end of the decade let alone stand for four centuries. Let me suggest two lessons from Bunyan here: (1) we need good fiction writers today who can communicate solid doctrine behind their stories; (2) we should not despise fiction. I confess, on most days, I’d rather read systematic theology than a work of fiction relatable to the Christian life. Christian fiction today can be rather anemic. But part of the staying power of Pilgrim’s Progress is its ability to capture all the rich doctrine of the Christian life in an allegory that it relatable but also easily interpreted. For those of us who are pastors, here we would be wise to pepper our sermons more with Bunyan and less with Owen if we were to capture the hearts and imaginations of our audience to show them the wonder of Christ.
  1. The target of ministry and discipleship is the heart. We should not minimize the mind and learning. Christianity is concerned with truth and doctrine. This requires that we love our Lord with our whole mind. Let us not minimize that. However, there can be a particular tendency of weakness in our Reformation-minded circles to assume that more learning and intelligence creates better hearts. We can become puffed up assuming that if we have only doctrinal learning we have reached the apex of discipleship. More learning becomes more discipleship. When we consider Bunyan we need to remember the heart is the target not just the mind. Bunyan’s allegory in Pilgrim’s Progress exposes with theological precision matters of the heart. Just consider for a moment that some of the rich topics in Owen’s collected volumes like justification, mortification of the flesh, or indwelling sin are covered by Bunyan in his more memorable Pilgrim’s Progress.  Bunyan’s work is more than an imaginative tale, it speaks to the heart via allegory. The church today needs John Bunyan’s just as much as it needs John Owen.   Bunyan shows us that there can be power in simplicity and story.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.


Tim Bertolet