With over 250 million copies sold since its release in 1678, Puritan author John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress has shaped the western Christian mind in untold ways. It was written, like some other famous Christian literature, from a prison. And apart from the Bible, is the most successful piece of Christian literature, probably in history. Charles Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers”, claimed to have read the book more than 100 times in his lifetime. He read it multiple times a year, every year of his adult life! However, today, most Christians do not have an appetite for such books. The five best-selling books of Junes 2022 on the popular site, christianbook.com, were Jesus Calling, The 5 Love Languages, Total Money Makeover, Get Out of Your Head, and Boundaries. I am sure these books have merit, and I’ve honestly never read any of them. But I would be willing to wager that as far as depth of thought, Biblical grounding, and sheer beauty are concerned, none of these books hold a candle to this classic work of Paul Bunyan. Perhaps we do not read this book anymore because it is difficult, old, or too serious. However, for these exact reasons, I am going to do my best to convince you that most Christians should seek to read this book at least three times before they die.
You should read Pilgrim’s Progress because it is old and difficult.
The first time that I picked this book up to read, I only made it a quarter of the way through before abandoning the work and turning my attention to lower hanging fruit. The second time I tried to read it, I could not put the book down! Finally, the third time that I read this book, I was driven to my knees in my prayer throughout. My joy in reading the book increased. There were only two variables in the reading equation, (1) me, and (2) the book. The book did not change, but the result of reading it did change meaning that from my first, to second, to third time reading, I changed into the kind of person that enjoys this kind of book.
We live in a culture that thinks of everything preferentially, that some people like coffee, others don’t, some like classical music, others don’t, some like old books, others don’t and that your preferences don’t change. This presumption, if true, would invalidate Scripture which frequently commands us to love the correct things. Romans 12:9 is a good example of this in saying “Detest what is evil; cling to what is good.”
In order for me to obey this verse, I must have some control over what I love and what I detest. In other words, I can grow to love certain things and I grow to detest certain things. We need more people in the world that love old books because many are filled with rich wisdom. This means we must cultivate a love for them.
This looks like persevering in our studies, silencing our inner critic, prayerfully meditating on passages of these books, asking God to show you what is good about it. As we do this with these old and difficult books, we will find that through Godly discipline we are cultivating character and setting our minds on what is good, beautiful, and true. As we grow to love these old and difficult books, we will be shaped into the kind of person that delays gratification and looks forward to future joys. Read Pilgrim’s Progress because it is difficult and persevere to be the kind of person that someday enjoys it.
You should read Pilgrim’s Progress because it humbles us.
This book portrays the life of a Christian in a way that is radically different from the modern man’s conception of Christianity. One in which the Christian life is difficult. The book opens with a scene that is shocking for the contemporary reader, Christian abandons his wife and children in search of eternal life. From there, he immediately runs into a despondent state, and must battle lions, giants, Satan, the valley of death, enchanted grounds, mountains, and a raging river. From the beginning of the Christian life to the very end, there are temptations, and difficulties on every side. Clearly, Bunyan viewed the Christian life as one of absolute faithfulness, and our endurance to the end as nothing short of a miracle in this sin-soaked world. While this might sound depressing to the modern mind, it is honest, and far closer to the biblical portrait of “the way”. Jesus counseled us to count the cost before following Him, and while forgiveness and reconciliation are the free gifts of God, they will certainly cost us everything.
Luke 14:25-26 says, “Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
The more clearly that we know this to be true and are humbled by the enormity of the task of staying faithful to Christ for our whole lives, the safer we will be. Pilgrim’s Progress, with its allegorical nature, has a way of communicating the magnitude, length, and difficulty of the Christian life in a way that humbles us and teaches us to depend on God for endurance to reach the end. Modern modes of evangelism and discipleship are prone to describing the Christian life as easy, because the grace to enter into it is free, but the word of God teaches us something far different:
Hebrews 3:12-13 says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 1But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin”.
The Christian life is epic, this is contrasted to the “easy-believism” of our day that treats grace as fire insurance and the Christian life as basically a happier version of the successful secular life. Pilgrim’s Progress captures that sentiment well, and it might save our lives!
You should read Pilgrim’s Progress because it develops the Biblical category of pilgrimage.
Thinking of the Christian life in terms of pilgrimage helps us understand our need for the true fellowship of other pilgrims.
Hebrews 11:13 says, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
The book, obviously, is about a pilgrim that is making progress towards the celestial city. And this story is truly all our stories. It powerfully reminds us on every page that this world is not our home. That we are strangers and pilgrims, looking forward to a city whose builder and foundations is God. In a good way, the book reeks of being written from prison. It has the feel of a man that is not enamored with this world and its shiny objects, but is looking forward to another life, a man that has crucified his own flesh with its desires and is living with a single eye for Christ. As you read, you will notice that Christian meets many other pilgrims. Some endure to the end, and some do not. But what is undoubtable is that Christian could not have made the journey alone, whether it is evangelist, the porter, faithful, or the shepherds, Christian needs other men that are on the same journey as him to endure. They keep him on the straight way, encourage him when he is faint, and teach him where the path is. It is no different for us, we need other pilgrims that will stay faithful to the end and help us through our own pilgrimage.