The Pastoral Heart of Bunyan

It has often been the case that the most ignoble of characters and chief of sinners become the best of Christians after Christ converts them. Seemingly, the greater the past life of sins and the deeper the misery before Christ, the more that soul will labor all the more abundantly and diligently for the Kingdom of God.  As our Lord points out in Luke 7:47,Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the sameloveth little.  This zealous heart and life of love for being forgiven much most certainly was the case in the life of John Bunyan. His conversion was one of extremes. Perhaps even more surprising than his former life of sin for many is that he was a relatively unlearned and unscholarly man. His life, perhaps more than any other, proves that old adage true, “God does not call the equipped, but He does equip the called.”

Born November 30, 1628, Bunyan was the son of a humble tinker[1]. He would eventually join the army during the start of the English Civil War. Though few stories exist from this time he spent in the army, he did record various events of God’s providential grace which kept him alive. This foray into military service would also prepare him to pen his later work, The Holy War.

Nothing about these early years suggest that Bunyan would later in life develop the heart of a pastor, let alone become one of the most influential Christians in the English-speaking world. Yet, the Lord was working in various ways that Bunyan later recognized as providential.

Calling People Out from Sin to Christ as One Called Out from Sin by Christ

John 6:44 found full expression in the life of Bunyan: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.” From his own admission, he wanted nothing to do with Christ. Having been taught how to curse and swear by his father, he became proficient at the use of vulgarities. He freely engaged in wanton sinfulness and deviancy.

In fact, he records an event early within his autobiography where one sinner actually called him out on his own. He writes:

Now therefore I went on in sin with great greediness of mind, still grudging that I could not be so satisfied with it, as I would. This did continue with me about a month, or more; but one day, as I was standing at a neighbour’s shop window, and there cursing and swearing, and playing the madman, after my wonted manner, there sat within, the woman of the house, and heard me; who, though she also was a very loose and ungodly wretch, yet protested that I swore and cursed at that most fearful rate, that she was made to tremble to hear me; and told me further, that I was the ungodliest fellow for swearing, that she ever heard in all her life; and that I, by thus doing, was able to spoil all the youth in the whole town, if they come but in my company.[2]

Indeed, what Bunyan was experiencing at this time was the conviction of the Holy Spirit as Jesus promised, “And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:” (John 16:8).

The Lord continued to work on Bunyan, calling him forth from sin and to repentance and faith in Christ. God used Bunyan’s first wife, the preaching of His Word, and other events to draw this lost sinner to Himself. Though by his own admission, he had tried to earn his own righteousness for some time, and boasted in himself while others applauded his new morality, it would eventually be thoughts of the new birth that led to his own conversion. Having recognized his own deplorable and wretched condition, and after honestly assessing himself and seeing no evidence of the new birth having taken place, he finally repented and trusted in Jesus as his Lord and Savior.

Like the Apostle Paul before him, Bunyan began to rejoice in Christ and despise his sin all the more. Just as Paul, growing closer to Christ and wiser with age, saw his own depravity all the more, so too did Bunyan. As Paul wrote first of being the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9), then the least of the saints (Eph. 3:8), and finally the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), Bunyan saw himself as a great sinner who had experienced abounding grace from the Lord:

In this discourse of mine, you may see much; much I say, of the grace of God towards me: I thank God, I can count it much; for it was above my sins and Satan’s temptations too… Oh! the remembrance of my great sins, of my great temptations, and of my great fear of perishing for ever!  They bring afresh into my mind, the remembrance of my great help, my great supports from heaven, and the great grace that God extended to such a wretch as I. [3]

And, truly, what born-again Christian has not experienced this very same feeling that Bunyan describes? The most effective pastors, it would seem, are those who love the Lord and despise their sin, recognizing naught of good have they done, but all their righteousness is found in Jesus alone.

Pilgrim’s Progress is an excellent example not only of Bunyan’s own conversion (though allegorical, the work has much overlap with his own autobiography), but it is also an example of the heart of the once lost sinner who is found by Christ, now imploring others to come to Christ as well. Part of what made his preaching and writing so effective was his experiential focus—though the Christian life should never be based off of mere experience alone as it is the objective standard of God's Word through the Gospel that brings the new birth to the heart of the sinner personally (Rom. 10:17). Bunyan knew the power of God and His Word and this continually reflected itself in how he spoke and wrote.

Tinker, Soldier… Preacher?

The changes in Bunyan from his days as a lost sinner to a born-again Christian are profound. However, his background did not lend itself well to preaching. After all, the preacher is one who must dutifully study the Scriptures, but Bunyan had to have his first wife help him read the Christian works she bought him (he could read, but having not practiced it for some time, needed much help). While a preacher must be violent and bold towards the wolves, he must also be warm, tender, and gentle towards the sheep; hardly the behavior one could expect from a solider.

Yet, as it would soon turn out, Bunyan had a penchant for preaching that few men possess. In fact, there is an anecdote that even the great John Owen once remarked that he would willingly trade all of his knowledge if he could simply preach like that tinker, John Bunyan.

What was it that made Bunyan so effective at communicating? His sincerity, sobriety, and simplicity. He was sincere when he presented the Gospel, sober in his communication, and simple in his expositions of God’s Word; this, once more, reflects his own experience for these were the very qualities and characteristics God had used to bring about his own conversion to Christ. It was after hearing the simple and sincere speech of plain women who had experienced new birth in Christ that attracted his attention, and it was to them, and their church, that he would ultimately return time and again in order to hear the truths of the gospel proclaimed.

Though Bunyan is most famous for having penned Pilgrim’s Progress—and rightfully so, as it is arguably one of the greatest and far-reaching works produced in the English language—he also regularly preached and wrote other pieces as well. One of his more well-known statements comes from his book Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ: A Plain and Profitable Discourse on John 6:37. Showing the cause, truth, and manner of the coming of a sinner to Jesus Christ; with his happy reception and blessed entertainment. In true Puritan style, the title plainly explains the contents of the work. Thus, it is no surprise to come across such an urgent, passionate, and warm invitation for sinners to receive Christ. He writes:

From the largeness and openness of the promise: “I will in no wise cast out.” For had there not been a proneness in us to “fear casting out,” Christ needed not to have, as it were, waylaid our fear, as he doth by this great and strange expression, “In no wise;” “And him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” There needed not, as I may say, such a promise to be invented by the wisdom of heaven, and worded at such a rate, as it were on purpose to dash in pieces at one blow all the objections of coming sinners, if they were not prone to admit of such objections, to the discouraging of their own souls. For this word, “in no wise,” cutteth the throat of all objections; and it was dropped by the Lord Jesus for that very end; and to help the faith that is mixed with unbelief. And it is, as it were, the sum of all promises; neither can any objection be made upon the unworthiness that thou findest in thee, that this promise will not assoil.

But I am a great sinner, sayest thou. “I will in no wise cast out,” says Christ. But I am an old sinner, sayest thou. “I will in no wise cast out,” says Christ. But I am a hard-hearted sinner, sayest thou. “I will in nowise cast out,” says Christ. But I am a backsliding sinner, sayest thou. “I will in no wise cast out,” says Christ. But I have served Satan all my days, sayest thou. “I will in no wise cast out,” says Christ. But I have sinned against light, sayest thou. “I will in no wise cast out,” says Christ. But I have sinned against mercy, sayest thou. “I will in no wise cast out,” says Christ. But I have no good thing to bring with me, sayest thou. “I will in no wise cast out,” says Christ.

Thus I might go on to the end of things, and show you, that still this promise was provided to answer all objections, and doth answer them.[4]

Clearly, John 6:37 was an important text for Bunyan, and a verse he treasured deeply: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” No doubt Bunyan had not only experienced the great joy of being received into the embrace of Christ, despite his numerous past sins, but he had also experienced the delightful assurance of knowing that nothing would ever cause Christ to cast him away, nor would anything separate him from the love that he had discovered in Christ His Lord. Thus, his ministry reflected a constant need to assure the sheep to rest in the finished work of Jesus, while warning sinners to flee from their sin into Christ's loving embrace.

There is much for both pastor and layperson to learn from this exposition of John 6:37 and his urgent, yet warm, call for sinners to repent of their sin and come to Christ (as is standard to all of Bunyan’s sermons and writings). Like the prophet Isaiah, he was one who had been commissioned to preach the gospel after having been confronted with the depravity of his own wickedness and the astonishing holiness of God. In turn, he understood deeply the great grace he had been gifted in Christ and he was not one to squander it. Rather, he used every moment and every ounce of strength to preach this same gospel to others.

Read more on Bunyan's pastoral heart here.

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.

Related Links

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.


[1]  A tinsmith who would go house to house repairing utensils.

[2] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Available at Monergism), 13.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] John Bunyan, Welcome to Jesus Christ: A Plain and Profitable Discourse on John 6:37. Showing the cause, truth, and manner of the coming of a sinner to Jesus Christ; with his happy reception and blessed entertainment, (Available at Monergism), 103.

Jacob Tanner