More on Bunyan's Pastoral Heart
The life of John Bunyan proves, perhaps more than any other, that God indeed does not call the equipped, but rather equips the called. Bunyan understood the great grace he had been gifted in Christ, and he was eager to use every moment and every ounce of strength to preach this same gospel to others.
Learning to Love the Communion of the Saints
While one may find many pastors who love the Lord, it is an unusual blessedness to find a pastor who loves his congregation as well. It was just as difficult in Bunyan’s day to find true worshipers of God who loved the Lord and the people of God, likewise.
Bunyan, however, was a man who loved both the Lord and His Church. This love for Christ's Bride allowed him to be effective in communicating Gospel truths. Since he truly loved the people he spoke to and wrote to, his great desire was to be plainly understood, rather than to be thought a great orator.
This love for God's people was taught to him in some profound ways, as he relates within his autobiography about one day being encountered by women speaking of spiritual matters who belonged to the Bedford congregation he would soon join:
But upon a day, the good providence of God called me to Bedford, to work on my calling; and in one of the streets of that town, I came where there were three or four poor women sitting at a door, in the sun, talking about the things of God; and being now willing to hear them discourse, I drew near to hear what they said, for I was now a brisk talker also myself, in the matters of religion; but I may say, I heard but understood not; for they were far above, out of my reach. Their talk was about a new birth, the work of God on their hearts, also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature; they talked how God had visited their souls with His love in the Lord Jesus, and with what words and promises they had been refreshed, comforted, and supported, against the temptations of the devil: moreover, they reasoned of the suggestions and temptations of Satan in particular; and told to each other, by which they had been afflicted and how they were borne up under his assaults. They also discoursed of their own wretchedness of heart, and of their unbelief; and did contemn, slight and abhor their own righteousness, as filthy, and insufficient to do them any good.
… And, methought, they spake as if joy did make them speak; they spake with such pleasantness of scripture language, and with such appearance of grace in all they said, that they were to me, as if they had found a new world; as if they were people that dwelt alone, and were not to be reckoned among their neighbours. Numb. xxiii. 9.
Bunyan recognized within those women something he had been missing: joy. He also recognized where the source of the joy he found within these women originated: Christ. These ladies had been drawn to Christ in salvation and had come to find their own wretched, miserable condition, and the perfect blessedness of Christ. It was from this river of joy that their words rushed forth.
The impact of this encounter upon Bunyan was striking. As he would soon discover, these women were members of the Bedford Free Church, which he would eventually join. A few years later, persecution would come against both himself and the church, but it was this first encounter with these women that would cause him to fall in love, not only with theology, but with the Lord and the fellowship of His people.
It has been often stated that doxology will never rise higher than theology. The two are always intrinsically linked. But, let it also be said that a pastor’s success in pastoring the flock entrusted to his care will never rise higher than the love, devotion, and care that he shows to that flock. As an under shepherd in Christ’s flock, Bunyan’s success as a writer, evangelist, preacher, and pastor can all be traced back to his observance of these two commandments: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31). The man who does not love the Lord simply cannot love the people of God, but the man who does not love the people of God proves He does not love the Lord (1 John 4:20).
Loving God’s Church became a reality in Bunyan’s life when he learned the true joy of knowing Christ and being known by Him. First broken over his sin, he found in Christ a mercy and grace that was rich and sweet. Seeing this same joy in others caused him to grow in love all the more with the congregation of Bedford.
Absent in Presence, Fond in Heart
It is no secret that John Bunyan was eventually imprisoned for his faithful preaching of the Word of God during a time when such could get one imprisoned. As a non-conformist, Bunyan had joined the Bedford Meeting in the 1650’s. Though he became a regular preacher both publicly and at their meetings he would not actually become their pastor until 1671 – while he was still imprisoned.
However, one must not make the mistake of thinking that Bunyan favored a stoic testimony while lacking the heart for direct pastoral ministry. On the contrary, he cared greatly for the congregation of Bedford and, though imprisoned, continued to fondly recall them in thoughts and prayers. (Surprisingly, during the years of his imprisonment, he was given multiple opportunities to leave his jail cell, visit his family, and visit the congregation, which he would do before dutifully returning to his cell, where he would also preach to fellow inmates.)
Like the Apostle Paul before him in Colossians 2:5, Bunyan saw himself standing in spiritual solidarity with the Bedford congregation. This is perhaps most clear in the preface to his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. He opens the work with these words to his people:
CHILDREN, grace be with you, Amen. I being taken from you in presence, and so tied up, that I cannot perform that duty that from God doth lie upon me to youward, for your further edifying and building up in faith and holiness, etc., yet that you may see my soul hath fatherly care and desire after your spiritual and everlasting welfare; I now once again, as before, from the top of Shenir and Hermon, so now from the lions’ dens, from the mountains of the leopards (S. of Sol. 4.8), do look yet after you all, greatly longing to see your safe arrival into the desired haven.
Frankly, one might read these words as though he had prepared this preface as a letter to his congregation to read posthumously, and perhaps that was his intention. However, one gets the immediate sense that Bunyan was of the caliber of noble pastors who, though facing harsh persecution and distress, cannot help but think of the needs of his congregation. Perhaps it was this deep longing and care for his flock in prison remotely that endeared him so greatly to his people that they voted him their pastor even before his release.
Not Many Wise, Not Many Noble, Not Many Powerful
Bunyan’s life was one used mightily by the Lord and both his family and flock were greatly blessed by his earnest strivings for the Kingdom of God as are multitudes many centuries later while Christians continue to benefit greatly from his writings, especially Pilgrim’s Progress. But what is most striking about Bunyan’s life for both pastor and laity to learn is this simple Scriptural lesson that the Apostle Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31: “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”
Bunyan was, before conversion, the least likely candidate for pastoral ministry. He was foolish and sinful—even by worldly standards, shameful, despised, and lowly; but God took this man from the miry clay and set his feet upon the solid rock of Jesus Christ and his life witnessed that the one who boasts must boast only in the Lord.
God's pastors, may we learn from the humility of Bunyan to lead our flocks well. Preach to the congregation that is present without worrying about tomorrow. He was a simple man who earnestly desired to share the rich truths of Scripture that he loved so deeply with his hearers. If he seemed a fool for so doing, then he would all the more gladly bear that reproach if it meant calling sinners to Christ. Not only love to preach to your people but to be with them. Bunyan loved the fellowship of the saints and longed to not only see that number grow, but to see the present number grow in sweet communion. And with every success he answered with boasting in Jesus Christ alone. He kept one thought central: “Grace had abounded to me, the chief of sinners.” Let us, like Bunyan, continually cling to these same truths, for then we will find the loving, bold, and tender heart of a pastor.
God's people, notice that what makes John Bunyan so attractive as a minister is his love for the Lord and his love for fellow brothers and sisters. Make certain that your affections are set on Christ. Love the people of your local church too, knowing that the Lord is producing within you all an eternal weight of glory together.
And, should you find that you have a pastor like Bunyan, then here is what you must do: Pray for him, praise the Lord for him, and boast in Jesus Christ, who is the true Shepherd and overseer of all His elect.
Jacob Tanner is pastor of Mt. Bethel Church of McClure in Central Pennsylvania. He has spent time as a reporter, journalist, and editor, and has written for various Christian websites. He and his wife, Kayla, have one son, Josiah. He is currently completing his M.Div. through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Podcast: "Wycliffe on Being a Pastor"
"John Bunyan on Prayer" by Amy Mantravadi
"Watson’s Wisdom on Prayer" by Donald McKim
"Dangerous Journey: A Vision for the Christian Life," with Derek Thomas
"The Gospel Pure and Simple," with Sinclair Ferguson, Liam Goligher, and Mark Johnston.
 As was the focus of Paul, 1 Cor. 2:4-5.
 Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, 16.
 “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.”
 Bunyan, Grace Abounding, 4.
 See Paul’s heart in Philippians.