Pilgrim’s Progress






Please turn in the pew Bibles to Psalm 110 and verse 54. “Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.”


People who read a lot sometimes play a little game which goes like this: What is the most famous opening line, the most famous first sentence, of any book in English literature? You might say, “In the beginning God created”—the opening line of the Bible. But the Bible is not technically English literature. The Bible was not originally written in English. It is a translation from the Greek and Hebrew. So back to our question: What is the most famous opening line among all the books written in English.

Probably it is "Call me Ishmael," which is the first sentence of Herman Melville's great novel, Moby Dick. But I also like Jane Austen’s opening sentence from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Now if you are a SF fan, probably the most famous opening line from any Sci-Fi novel, is "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." which is from William Gibson's Neuromancer. Or, some SF fans might prefer the opening sentence from George Orwell's 1984: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

You may have your own favorite first sentence, and your opinion is just as good as that of anyone else, but I would like to call your attention to another opening sentence: "As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream." That is the first sentence of Pilgrim’s Progress.

Pilgrim’s Progress is certainly one of the most significant books in all of English lit., and it has been translated into more than 100 languages. It was written by John Bunyan in 1678. Over the last 300 years and counting it has been the second most read book in English. The most read book is the KJV of the Bible. The second most read book is Pilgrim’s Progress.

John Bunyan begin writing the book in the Bedfordshire county jail. He hints at that in his opening sentence. He says, “I lighted on a certain place where was a den.” The “den” was the county jail.

Imprisonment is the major theme of Pilgrim’s Progress. Escape from prison is Bunyan’s primary purpose. But it is not Bunyan who needs to escape. John Bunyan might be literally and physically in jail, but as far as he is concerned he is not really and truly in jail. The real prisoners are outside the prison walls. What the book is saying to us by way of symbols and allegory is that this world is a prison of the soul.

This full title of the book is: The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to That Which is to Come: Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream wherein is discovered, the manner of his setting out, his Dangerous Journey; and safe Arrival at the Desired Country—which is quite a mouthful and you can see why we usually abbreviate it to just Pilgrim’s Progress. But the title and the opening sentence convey the overall theme of the book—which is that the Christian does not belong here. We are on a pilgrimage from this world to That Which is to Come.

The book Pilgrim’s Progress is not a literal journey along a physical road. It is rather a total shift in the way we look at the world and our place in it. Pilgrim’s progress is about a way of thinking, a biblical way of thinking, as opposed to a worldly way of thinking.

The book begins with the pilgrim whose name is Christian, living in the "City of Destruction" (which we might call the ordinary worldly way of looking at things). He reads the Bible and is weighed down by the great burden of his sins. This leads to a crisis, his burden is unbearable, but he cannot do anything about it as long as he lives in the “City of Destruction”—that is, as long as he thinks in worldly terms. He flees from the city toward the "Wicket Gate", which represents the way of salvation.

Now the book introduces a number of people who try to reason Christian out of his desire to break out of jail, so to speak. We meet Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and then we meet Mr. Legality and his son Civility who live in the village of Morality. All of these characters are saying to Christian that you don’t have to worry about salvation. You can just go along with the rest of the world and live like everyone else and you will be all right. Just take it easy and forget all that spiritual stuff.

Now by the world, you need to understand that John Bunyan, and the Bible also, are not referring to what we now call nature. The world is not the animals and plants and stuff like that. The world is a way of thinking. We sometimes refer to it as worldly thinking or carnal thinking or fleshly thinking. It is the way of thinking that prevails in ordinary human society. This world is indifferent to godly things. It does not care about any relationship with God, and regards anyone who does as a little off kilter, a little touched, a little insane.

Thus, the world lives in a condition of spiritual ruin. All people have destroyed any possibility of a relationship with God by their sins. People live under the wrath of God, under the sentence of death and destruction. That is why Bunyan called ordinary human society the “city of destruction.”

But most people never realize their condition. They are content to live in that city. They think that they are just fine. They do not want to break out of their prison. They don’t even see it as a prison. If you try to talk about spiritual things to them, you might as well be speaking a foreign language, because they are on a different wavelength. They tune in to a different frequency.

That is the attitude of the city of destruction, but God calls his people to another city. We have a different home, a different way of thinking.

In the opening sentence of Pilgrims Progress, Bunyan speaks of walking through “the wilderness of this world.” This world, that is human society, is a wilderness to a Christian. It is a wild and strange place.

It is like a desert where souls shrivel under the heat of sin’s glare and lack of the life with God, and the flesh burns with consuming desires. This world is a place void of the true praise of God, which is continual in heaven. Here predatory human beasts roam about, seeking to competitively devour each other so as to establish their exclusive, autonomous, ungodly reign.

But having said that, we are here. We are here not as citizens, but as ambassadors. II Cor.5:20 speaks of us as “ambassadors for Christ.” Think about the position of an ambassador. An ambassador is present in a country but he represents the interests, the attitudes, the ways of thinking, of another country, of his own country. The Christian in this world, in this society is like an ambassador. We represent a foreign power.

We may describe ourselves today as citizens of the United States of America. But really that is just a shadow that is passing away. Really, we are citizens of another country, of the Kingdom of God.

Now let’s apply this. If we look at human history, God’s people have always gotten in trouble whenever we have forgotten where we are from.

What happens is that we identify various nations, or movements, or causes or ideas as being the kingdom of God, and all human things, all nations, movements and causes are flawed with sin and thus they all fail in the end. Sometimes Christians set great store by certain people, they want to put their heroes on a pedestal and worship them, but the heroes always have clay feet.

Now that is not to say that we cannot do the will of God and that is not to say that God does not use many people to accomplish his purposes, but the people are still flawed, and we should not make of them more than they are.

And we should be very careful about not mixing the celestial city with the city of destruction. We have just begun the process of a electing a president. They voted in the first primary in Idaho on Thursday, and already we are hearing claims from some candidates that they are real Christians. They are “Playing the Christian Card.” They say, “Vote for me, look what a superior Christian I am.”

I am very suspicious about a politician who wants me to vote for him because he says he is a Christian. Jesus is the most important part of my life. I deeply resent anyone who tries to use Jesus to get votes. I mean, tell about what you are going to do about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tell me what you are going to do about health insurance for American Children. Talk to me about issues that the country actually faces and I will vote for a candidate on those issues.

But don’t try to bring Jesus into it because Jesus is too important for something so inherently sinful as human politics.

So what kind of attitude should I have as person living in this wilderness? The attitude of a pilgrim. I am just passing through. We are all just passing through. We find this attitude throughout the Bible. In Psalm 119:54, the writer speaks of our life on this earth as “the house of my pilgrimage.” In Hebrews chapter 11, a chapter sometimes the rollcall of the faithful, because it lists for us a series of examples or models of faith from the OT—in Heb11:13 we read. These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

Even so, every Christian is a “stranger and pilgrim on the earth.” We are not of this earth. Indeed, we are at war with the powers that rule the earth. I said earlier that we are ambassadors from another country. Our country is at war with this country. There is no common ground, there is no compromise possible between a worldly way of thinking and a godly way of thinking.

In Pilgrim’s Progress in the opening paragraphs, when Christian realizes his situation, he is so overwhelmed with fear and terror that he runs away from the city of destruction. He is overcome by an awareness of his sinfulness. He realizes that his whole way of thinking and living is ugly in the sight of God. In desperation he flees to the cross, where he finds God’s forgiveness and love.

Even so, as God’s people, we flee the city of destruction, we flee worldly ways of thinking, and depend entirely upon Jesus, and look to the celestial city of God’s love and mercy.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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Last Modified: 01/14/12