Pilgrim’s Progress: From the City of Destruction to the Cross

This is Part One of our read along of The Prilgrim’s Progress for high school age and up.  Here’s the Introduction.

The City of Destruction

Something about Bunyan’s day that is very different from ours: everybody was a “Christian,” and almost everybody went to church.  That’s why the Pilgrim’s dilemma is so hard for his wife and neighbors to understand: aren’t we all “saved”? Why is he so burdened?  John Bunyan, in his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, refers to a period of intense soul-searching early in his own life, which doubtless weighed on him like the unwieldy burden on his character’s back.  Before this pilgrim hits the road, there are a few things to notice about him in the very first paragraph: his rags, his burden, his book, and his posture (standing with his “face from his own house”).  His name will soon be revealed as Christian, but later, {111}, he will refer to himself as Graceless.  Can one be both?  Do you think Christian is really a Christian at this point, or only “under conviction” prior to being saved?

The book he’s reading is assumed to be the Bible, but what part?  Read II Kings 22:8-13 for a clue.

One characteristic of our day that we easily recognize in Bunyan’s is spiritual apathy.  It seems human hearts are as hard in a Puritan age as they are in in a Progressive one, or else the whole City would be stirring with concern about their spiritual condition.  People learn to talk the religious lingo of their own time.  If you started behaving like Graceless in your own neighborhood, or even in your church, what reactions are you most likely to get?  And here’s an uncomfortable thought: what if you should feel burdened, and you don’t?

The Pilgrim soon has company on his journey.  Notice that Pliable is led by his heart, {22}, which might mean that Obstinate is ruled by his head, or the hardness thereof.  (My own tendency is toward Pliable—I don’t like to confront or make waves, and I’ll always regret the opportunities to speak for Christ that I’ve passed up.)  Now that Christian is on the journey, he feels calmer, and finds better news in his book.  But he’s leaving something out  in his explanation to Pliable—or rather, someone.  Who?

The Slough of Despond

Bunyan is supposed to have modeled the famous “Slough” on a geographical feature of his own neighborhood in Bedford County: Squitch Fen, a swampish area near his cottage.  “Squitchy” is a great word for describing the obstacle that Christian and Pliable blunder into, but while Pliable takes the quickest way out, Christian presses on.  It’s interesting that Bunyan inserts himself into the narrative here, {33}, as if his curiosity can’t resist knowing what makes the Slough so slough-y.  Note the answer, {33-35}, and think about how many times you’ve ignored the steps and pathways ordered by the merciful King—what kind of Slough did, or could, that foolishness lead you into?

Mr.  Worldly Wiseman

Carnal Policy is Worldly Wiseman’s hometown.  Carnal derives from the Latin word for flesh, and we’re accustomed to thinking of it as sensual: having a weakness for bodily pleasures like food and drink and sex.  But Paul doesn’t mean it that way, particularly in his letter to the Galatians. “Carnal,” in the Pauline sense, refers to man-centered holiness, or trying to appeal to God through good works. Mr. Worldly Wiseman reminds me of a preacher I heard long ago, who told us it wasn’t that hard to keep God’s commands–all you had to do was stop sinning.  Stop lying, stealing, committing adultery, etc., and God will accept you.  This is an extreme version of legalism (Mr. Legality is the teacher Worldly Wiseman recommends), but Christians fall into the same trap anytime they start thinking that a certain lifestyle or set of commands is a fast track to holiness.

When we think we’ve kicked Mr. Wiseman out the front door, we often find him sneaking in the back: Good for me; I gave up that trip to Splash Park in order to put the money in the collection plate.  Or, That’s Heather’s second baby out of wedlock—what’s wrong with her?  Or, There goes Brad obsessing over his guilt again.  Why doesn’t he just try obeying God?  When we think this way we’re thinking like that self-righteous preacher, and may not even realize it.  That’s why Christian is fooled into believing it will be a simple matter to get rid of his burden, until he encounters the mountain.  Hebrews 12:18-21 reveals what the mountain is.  What’s its name in the Old Testament?

Evangelist’s rebuke to Christian echoes Paul in Gal. 3:1-3.  The upside is that Christian has gained more humility {65}, and a sharper focus, after being re-directed on his journey.

The Wicket-gate

If you’ve ever played croquet, you remember that those little wire arches you’re supposed to hit the ball through are called wickets.  A wicket-gate is a small arched doorway, usually set in a larger door or gate (“Enter in the narrow door,” John 10:9).  Who is this Goodwill who opens the door?  Part Two of The Pilgrim’s Progress (which we won’t be reading this go-round) identifies him specifically with Christ.  What’s the significance of him quickly pulling Christian inside?

The House of the Interpreter  

The Interpreter’s House is the church, but who is the Interpreter, whose portrait {73} hangs in the entrance chamber?  He is usually identified as the Holy Spirit, though the Spirit is never represented as a man in Scripture, and the image is a little disconcerting to me.

Several parables are presented within the house of the Interpreter: the broom {74}, Passion and Patience {77}, the water and oil {80}, the warrior {83}, the man in the cage {84}, and Judgment Day {89}.  The man in the cage is the most disturbing to me, because it shows that there is a point of disobedience beyond which a man can no longer repent.  Does scripture make a case for this?  (Look up the references in {86} before you decide.  The picture disturbs me because I have relatives whose hearts seem hard, and it’s impossible to know if they’ve passed the point of no repentance.  Maybe it’s good that God only knows who they are, because otherwise we would stop praying for them.  Why does Christian receive these parables? (See {91}

The Cross and the Sepulcher

Here’s the first great turning point in the story—but not the climax, because we still have about 3/4ths to go!  How many Christian novels have you read that end at this point?  Bunyan is more realistic than that; he knows true conversion is only the beginning.  And that raises an interesting question: is this Christian’s true conversion?  If so, it echoes a question from the beginning of the story: was he a Christian before?  Is it possible to be a “Graceless Christian”?

In my own case, I don’t recall a conversion moment, because I was brought up in the church.  But I can remember several separate occasions when I was confronted with my own sin, along with the simultaneous realization that I didn’t have to bear it.  Sometimes a scripture would bring this home, at least once the lyrics of a hymn, and more than once an accusation that I recognized was true.  God is gracious to score our hearts this way because that brings us to repentance.  Far better the wounds of a friend than the flattering words of an enemy.  How about you?

When Three Shining Ones appear, it sounds almost like a fairy tale, where the hero is given magical gifts to help him accomplish his quest.  Except that these gifts aren’t magical (though they are supernatural), and every Christian receives them.  What are they and what do they represent?


  • The greatest value of The Pilgrim’s Progress, I think, lies in personal application.  While you’re reading, why not start a journal of personal progress, where you find people and events in your life that correspond (or perhaps directly contradict) Christian’s?  Have you known an Obstinate? A Pliable?  Was (or is) your obstacle to God a guilty conscience or an indifferent one?  Were you a Graceless Christian?  How have you used your three gifts?  Or are you more likely to take them for granted?  These are all things you can think about as you read, and then write.
  • Or draw!  If you’re more a visual person, consider drawing a map of your personal journey showing your own Slough (or Sloughs) of Despond, your first encounter with the cross.  How would you name the significant people you met on the way (such as Miss Partydown, Mr. Discouragement, Mother Nurture)?  Everybody’s journey is a little different, because we’re all a little different, and thank God for that!

On to Part Two . . .

Reading Ahead for You

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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

1 Comment

  1. Summer Lee on October 17, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Yes! I was a graceless Christian (if it be possible). I definitely identify with Christian when he begins dressed in rags, facing away from all he has known and weeping because he knows he is separated from God and deserves death. SOMETHING had to change! What a wonderful picture Bunyan has given us.

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