Pilgrim’s Progress and the necessity of “the burden”

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I’m excited to begin a church-wide study of my favorite extra-biblical book tonight, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I decided to go with the “Pure Gold Classics” edition, edited by L. Edward Hazelbaker. This is one of the few “modern English” editions that contains an unabridged account of parts I and II, and it has not disappointed so far.

One of the issues we will examine tonight from the early chapters is the necessity of a deep conviction of sin. Here’s how Bunyan describes his pilgrim at the beginning of the story:

I had a dream in which I saw a man dressed in rags, standing in a certain place and facing away from his own house. He had a book in his hand and a great burden on his back. As I looked, I saw him open the Book and read out of it, and as he read he wept and trembled. Unable to contain himself any longer, he broke out with a sorrowful cry, saying, ‘What shall I do?’

The “great burden on his back” is the weight of guilt he has begun to feel before God over his own sin. He did not begin staggering under this load until he began reading from “the Book,” his copy of God’s Word; to this point, he had blissfully pursued the same self-centered, worldly lifestyle of his neighbors in the City of Destruction, never once imagining himself to be at odds with his Maker. But now the Scriptures have shown him how miserably short he has fallen of God’s glory, how grievously he has broken God’s Law, and how desperate is his condition under God’s wrath. It is this “burden” which drives the man to flee from his home, that he might find relief through Christ, who awaits him on the other side of the Wicket Gate to free him of his heavy load. Though many, including his own family members, try to stop him, the oppressive weight of the burden will not allow him to remain in his old life:

So in my dream I saw the man begin to run. He had not run far form his own door before his wife and children, having seen it, began to cry after him to return. But the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on, crying, ‘Life! Life! Eternal life!’ So not turning to look behind him, he fled toward the middle of the plain.

Just as the conviction of sin moves us to begin the Christian life, it also keeps us going on it. Another man named Pliable hears of the pilgrim’s journey and joins him for a time, excited about the prospect of the Celestial City at the end of the road. But Pliable never received a “burden” as Christian did; he never experienced the thorough conviction of his sin by the Spirit, but merely jumped on the bandwagon when it passed by. But at the first hardship they encounter on the journey, Pliable abandons the pilgrimage and returns to the City of Destruction.

Finally, the weight of the burden keeps us from pursuing other paths, for true relief comes only through Christ. A man named Worldly Wiseman tries to turn the pilgrim off the road the Bible showed him, by offering a far less painful removal of his burden than through cross-bearing discipleship, in the village of Morality. But again the Law of God teaches the Pilgrim that all the clean, moral living and disciplined, religious activity cannot unburden him of his sin: only Christ can. And so, onward he presses to the Wicket Gate, to the only place, to the only Savior, where he can find freedom and life.

Well, these are just a few of the rich lessons of Christian experience we will begin looking at together this evening, as the Lord uses John Bunyan to teach us his Word. I can’t wait!

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About Eric Smith

Sinner saved by the grace of Jesus, husband of Candace, father of Coleman and Crockett, West Tennessean, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church, student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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