Last week, I did a post highlighting the grace-filled life of John Bunyan, and this week I want to look into three of his most popular and theologically rich books.
1. Pilgrim’s Progress
The Pilgrim’s Progress is John Bunyan’s most famous work and the most popular novel in the history of the world (The Portable Bunyan). It’s a story about a man named Christian with a Book in his hand and a great burden on his back. It is the Book, the revealed Word of God, that has made him conscious of his burden and the awful consequences if he is not delivered from the guilt and power of his sin. While still in the City of Destruction he longs for peace with God, deliverance from the burden, and to get out on the road to Heaven.
The Book he is reading makes him cry out, “What must I do to be saved?” It is then that Evangelist draws near and sets him upon the right road. Turning his back on the City of Destruction, he starts out and comes to the Cross, where his burden tumbles away from him. Christian goes on a long journey where he deals with people such as Mr. Worldly-Wiseman who advises him to head toward the town of Morality where Legality can ease him of his burden. He journeys on through the Valley of Humiliation, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and ultimately crosses the River of Death into the Celestial City. Although his friend Faithful goes with him, his other traveling partner Ignorance is denied and thrown into hell.
It is quite noteworthy that Bunyan wrote such great theological and fictional works. Ernest Bacon describes Bunyan’s motivation for this shift from theology to fiction: “As he wrote the Confession of my Faith, it suddenly struck him how effective it would be to set forth the Christian’s pathway to Heaven, and the truths associated with it, in fictional or allegorical form. He remembered his youthful delight in stories such as Bevis of Southampton, George on Horseback, The Seven Champions of Christendom. What if he could set out the Christian life and trials and triumphs in story form? The Pilgrim’s Progress…! Yes, that was it exactly” (Pilgrim and Dreamer). As John Brown has rightly said, “He gave them theology in a digestible form” (John Bunyan: His Life, Times, and Work).
2. The Holy War
The Holy War is Bunyan’s allegorical rendition of the supreme realities in the spiritual development of humanity. It is ultimately the story of the most epic battle between God and Satan, beginning with creation, the fall, the ongoing spiritual battle and ultimate victory and reign of Christ. The story is centered on the city of Mansoul, which is located in the country of Universe. This city has been built by Shaddai for his own delight and in its center is the dwelling place of Shaddai himself. Diabolus, the king of the fallen angels, has formerly served Shaddai, but since has aspired to the crown, which rightfully belongs to the King’s son. His lust for the crown leads him to conquer the city of Mansoul.
Much of the story is this battle over Mansoul, which ultimately results in a victory for Shaddai by his Prince, Emmanuel. Although victory is achieved the story is left somewhat unfinished, as the battle continues in Mansoul. “The lesson of the final passage is that Mansoul is never entirely secure unless her citizens are absolutely loyal to the Prince Emmanuel” (John Bunyan the Man). Frank Harrison recognizes that, like many of his stories, this is greatly an autobiographical story of Bunyan’s struggles throughout life. Bunyan “has also been constantly engaged in Christian warfare…In fact, Bunyan is his own Mansoul” (John Bunyan: A Story of His Life).
3. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners
Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, written during his twelve-year imprisonment. It is a riveting and passionate portrayal of God’s amazing grace saving Bunyan from his sinfulness.
Although the work is autobiographical, Christopher Hill notes that “Grace Abounding is an unsatisfactory document for the biographer,” primarily because “The object of the work is to convey a message” (A Tinker and a Poor Man). In other words, Bunyan is not merely telling the story leading up to his conversion, he’s preaching to the church regarding the grace of God and the sin of man. Hill says, “Bunyan’s primary object in writing Grace Abounding was pastoral. He aimed not to convert but to convince the elect that they were indeed saved, whatever their doubts and temptations.”
This work is very significant for understanding Bunyan. The fact that it helps to know the man behind the book is especially heightened for Bunyan because so many of his other books are anonymously autobiographical. For example, when one reads Grace Abounding it becomes apparent that the Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t just about a random character named Christian—it arises out of Bunyan’s life experiences.
Though these three books are his most well-known, Bunyan produced numerous other writings during his imprisonment and ministry. All of his written works are available online for free.