The One Book: The Pilgrim's Progress

I was once asked what I considered the best theology text.  I took a breath and as I did the person reiterated, “The best.” Their emphasis on the definite article reminded me that they wanted one and only one.  It brought me up short as does the question before me.  What one book has made a singular impact on my Christian experience?  What one book would I commend to others?  It is The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.  There are so many things one might say about this book so let me pull from the obvious, the lessons Christian learns at the House of Interpreter.  Here they are:

  1. As Christian enters the house he is shown a portrait of a man who is described as “very grave.”  According to the Interpreter, this grave man is a pastor and “He is the only man, whom the Lord of the place whither thou art going hath authorized to be thy guide…”
  2. The second lesson is learned watching a man sweeping.  All his sweeping simply stirs up dust until water is sprinkled about the room.  The lesson is that the law has no power to subdue our sin.  Only the gospel of grace applied through faith can reign over our corruption.
  3. After watching two children named Passion and Patience interact with one another and with earthly treasures Christian learns that it is best to wait contentedly for the best things in the next life.
  4. The fourth lesson is a dual lesson.  Not only does Christian learn that the Devil continually seeks to devour the pilgrim but also that Christ is the One who maintains the good work that is begun in the heart of a believer.
  5. The fifth lesson comes to Christian while watching a valiant man fight his way through wicked men in order to attain entrance to a beautiful palace.  The lesson is not explained but Christian says, “I think verily I know the meaning of this.”  Perhaps a study of Matthew 11:12 will help us to know too.
  6. The sixth lesson is in some ways the most troubling.  Christian speaks to a caged man who is in great despair because the man no longer believes that the Lord of the land is gracious toward him.  To this the Interpreter says, “Let this man’s misery be remembered by thee, and be an everlasting caution to thee.”
  7. The last lesson comes in the form of a man roused from sleep by a dream of the final judgment for which he was not ready. 

With these lessons conjuring both hope and fear in Christian, the Pilgrim once again girds up his loins to address himself to the journey but not before the Interpreter encourages him to keep these lessons  as “a goad in thy sides, to prick thee forward in the way thou must go.”  Now, that, my friends, is a hint.  These lessons are to be applied on the journey to the Celestial City.

Let me give you an example. After becoming discouraged with the narrow path Christian suggests to Hopeful, his traveling companion, that they leave the narrow way and take what seems to be the easier route through By-Path Meadow.  However, this turns out to be disastrous.  Not long after departing from the way they are abducted by Giant Despair and thrown into the dungeon of Doubting Castle.  Christian finds himself in a cage of despair and doubt.  He even contemplates ending his own life.

Now, think back to the Interpreters house.  Do you remember what Christian said after the Interpreter showed him the man in the cage of his own despair?  He said, “[this] is fearful; God help me to watch and be sober; and to pray, that I may shun the cause of this man’s misery” (38).  With that in mind think again of Christian in his cage of despair and doubt.  It was on Sunday a little before daybreak (notice the resurrection imagery) that Christian discovered himself thrilled with excitement.  Why?  I’ll let him tell us. 

Christian said, “What a fool am I, thus to lie in a stinking Dungeon when I may as well walk at liberty?  I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will (I am persuaded) open any Lock in Doubting-Castle.”  How wonderful!  Christian recognizes that liberty from doubt and despair lay near to any believer.  But the question is how did this all come about?  Notice the line just before Sunday’s liberating thought.  It reads, “Well, on Saturday about midnight they began to pray and continued in prayer till almost break of day” (121).  Christian had learned his lessons well from the Interpreter. Prayer keeps us from despair.

These are just some of the lessons that any Christian needs while walking the narrow path.  Bunyan’s little book simply articulates and illustrates what we will experience along the way. It is as much a coach as it is an entertaining tale that hits close to the home of any believer.  Take up and read.

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He holds a Ph.D. (Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia) in systematic theology and is an adjunct professor at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Senior Editor for Place for Truth.


Jeffrey Stivason