In 1672, about fifty miles northwest of London in Bedford, John Bunyan was released from twelve years of imprisonment. As with suffering saints before and since, Bunyan found prison to be a painful and fruitful gift. He would have understood the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, three hundred years later, who, like Bunyan, turned his imprisonment into a world-changing work of explosive art. After his imprisonment in the Russian gulag of Joseph Stalin’s “corrective labor camps,” Solzhenitsyn wrote,
I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I . . . have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” (The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, 617)
How can a man pronounce a blessing on imprisonment? Bunyan’s life and labor give one answer.
Beginning of God’s Work
John Bunyan was born in Elstow, about a mile south of Bedford, England, in 1628. Bunyan learned the trade of metalworking, or “tinker,” from his father. He received the ordinary education of the poor to read and write, but nothing more. He had no formal higher education of any kind, which makes his writing and influence all the more astonishing.
Bunyan was not a Christian believer during his growing-up years. He tells us, “I had few equals, especially considering my years . . . for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God. . . . Until I came to the state of marriage, I was the very ringleader of all the youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness” (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, 10–11).
He “came to the state of matrimony” when he was 20 or 21, but we never learn his first wife’s name. What we do learn is that she was poor, but had a godly father who had died and left her two books that she brought to the marriage: The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety. Bunyan said, “In these two books I would sometimes read with her, wherein I also found some things that were somewhat pleasing to me; but all this while I met with no conviction” (Grace Abounding, 13). But God’s work had begun. He was irreversibly drawing the young married Bunyan to himself.
‘Thy Righteousness Is in Heaven’
During the first five years of marriage, Bunyan was profoundly converted to Christ and to the baptistic, nonconformist church life in Bedford. It was a lengthy and agonizing process.
He was poring over the Scriptures but finding no peace or assurance. There were seasons of great doubt about the Scriptures and about his own soul. “A whole flood of blasphemies, both against God, Christ, and the Scriptures were poured upon my spirit, to my great confusion and astonishment. . . . How can you tell but that the Turks had as good scriptures to prove their Mahomet the Savior as we have to prove our Jesus?” (Grace Abounding, 40). “My heart was at times exceeding hard. If I would have given a thousand pounds for a tear, I could not shed one” (Grace Abounding, 43).
Then comes what seemed to be the decisive moment.
One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And methought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he wants [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. (Grace Abounding, 90–91)
So in 1655, when the matter of his soul was settled, he was asked to exhort the church, and suddenly a great preacher was discovered. He would not be licensed as pastor of the Bedford church until seventeen years later. But his popularity as a powerful lay preacher exploded. The extent of his work grew. “When the country understood that . . . the tinker had turned preacher,” biographer John Brown tells us, “they came to hear the word by hundreds, and that from all parts” (John Bunyan: His Life, Times, and Work, 105). In the days of England’s religious toleration, a day’s notice would get a crowd of 1,200 to hear him preach at seven in the morning on a weekday (John Bunyan, 370).
Prison and a Clear Conscience
Ten years after they were married, when Bunyan was thirty, his wife died, leaving him with four children under ten, one of them blind. A year later, in 1659, he married Elizabeth, who was a remarkable woman. The year after their marriage, however, Bunyan was arrested and put in prison for not conforming to the High Church standards of Charles II, the nation’s new king. Elizabeth was pregnant with their firstborn and miscarried in the crisis. Then she cared for the four children as stepmother for twelve years alone and bore Bunyan two more children, Sarah and Joseph.
For twelve years, Bunyan chose prison and a clear conscience over freedom and a conscience soiled by the agreement not to preach. He could have had his freedom when he wanted it. But he and Elizabeth were made of the same stuff. Though he was sometimes tormented that he might not be making the right decision in regard to his family, when asked to recant and not to preach he said,
If nothing will do unless I make of my conscience a continual butchery and slaughtershop . . . I have determined, the Almighty God being my help and shield, yet to suffer, if frail life might continue so long, even till the moss shall grow on mine eyebrows, rather than thus to violate my faith and principles. (John Bunyan, 224)
In 1672 he was released from prison because of the Declaration of Religious Indulgence. Immediately, he was licensed as the pastor of the church in Bedford, which he had been serving all along, even from within prison, by writings and periodic visits. A barn was purchased and renovated as their first building, and this was where Bunyan ministered as pastor for the next sixteen years until his death. (There was one more imprisonment in the winter and spring of 1675–76. John Brown thinks that this was the time when The Pilgrim’s Progress was written.)
In August 1688, Bunyan traveled the fifty miles to London to preach and to help make peace between a man in his church and his alienated father. He was successful in both missions. But after a trip to an outlying district, he returned to London on horseback through excessive rains. He fell sick of a violent fever, and on August 31, 1688, at age 60, he followed his famous fictional Pilgrim from the City of Destruction across the river into the Celestial City.
‘Jesus Was Never More Real’
The question, then, that I bring to Bunyan’s suffering is: What was its fruit? What did it bring about in his own life and, through him, in the lives of others? Knowing that I am leaving out many important things, I would answer that with just one observation: his suffering drove him into the word and opened the word to him.
Prison proved for Bunyan to be a hallowed place of communion with God because his suffering unlocked the word and the deepest fellowship with Christ he had ever known. He wrote,
I never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as now [in prison]. Those scriptures that I saw nothing in before were made in this place and state to shine upon me. Jesus Christ also was never more real and apparent than now. Here I have seen him and felt him indeed. . . . I never knew what it was for God to stand by me at all times and at every offer of Satan to afflict me, as I have found Him since I came in hither. (Grace Abounding, 121)
Bunyan especially cherished the promises of God as the key for opening the door of heaven. “I tell thee, friend, there are some promises that the Lord hath helped me to lay hold of Jesus Christ through and by, that I would not have out of the Bible for as much gold and silver as can lie between York and London piled up to the stars” (Works of John Bunyan, vol. 3, 721).
One of the greatest scenes in The Pilgrim’s Progress is when Christian recalls, in the dungeon of Doubting Castle, that he has a key to the door. Very significant is not only what the key is, but where it is:
What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That is good news, good brother; pluck it out of thy bosom, and try.
Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out. (The Pilgrim’s Progress, 132)
Three times Bunyan says that the key was in Christian’s bosom, or chest. I take this to mean that Christian had hidden it in his heart by memorization and that it was now accessible in prison (though he had no Bible available) for precisely this reason. This is how the word sustained and strengthened Bunyan.
He Bled Bible
Everything he wrote was saturated with the Bible. He pored over his English Bible, which was all he had most of the time. Which is why he can say of his writings, “I have not for these things fished in other men’s waters; my Bible and Concordance are my only library in my writings” (John Bunyan, 364). The great London preacher Charles Spurgeon, who read The Pilgrim’s Progress every year, put it like this:
Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God. (Autobiography, vol. 2, 159)
This, in the end, is why Bunyan is still with us today rather than disappearing into the mist of history. He is with us and ministering to us because he reverenced the word of God and was so permeated by it that his blood was “Bibline” — the essence of the Bible flowed from him.
And this is what he has to show us. To serve and suffer rooted in God is to serve and suffer saturated with the word of God. This is how we shall live. This is how we shall suffer. And if we are called to be leaders among the people of God, this is how we shall help our people get safely to the Celestial City. We will woo them with the word. We will say to them what Bunyan said to his people — and I say to you, dear reader:
God hath strewed all the way from the gate of hell, where thou wast, to the gate of heaven, whither thou art going, with flowers out of his own garden. Behold how the promises, invitations, calls, and encouragements, like lilies, lie round about thee! Take heed that thou dost not tread them under thy foot. (Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, 112)
Credit: John Piper