The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, is “one of the most significant works of religious English literature.” As the second most read book in the world next to the Bible, it has been translated into more than 200 languages and never been out of print.
Whether you read this beloved classic as a kid or as an adult, chances are that you were left with the memory of several vivid scenes from the pilgrim’s journey and some very interesting characters.
I heard the story as a kid, watched movie productions of it, and have read the book multiple times. Every time I do, something stands out from the pages and speaks to the current situation in my life or leaves a lasting lesson or memory about some rich truths from the Scripture. Sometimes, it answers a difficult theological question I’ve been chewing on.
Today, let’s look at six powerful lessons from Pilgrim's Progress that have stuck with me.
1. A Serious Flaw in Mr. Worldly Wiseman’s Counsel
Mr. Worldly Wiseman from Carnal Policy is one of Christian’s first few encounters after leaving the City of Destruction. He quickly diverts Christian from the Way of Peace by pointing him to a path that he claims will help him get rid of his burden much easier. Following his advice, Christian sets out to find a gentleman named Legality in the village of Morality.
Luckily, before he goes way off course, he is met by Evangelist. Quoting from Hebrews 10:38 and Mark 3:28-29, Evangelist convicts Christian of his error. Moreover, he lists three reasons why Mr. Worldly Wiseman’s counsel was wrong, one of which really struck a chord with me.
Evangelist points out that Mr. Worldly Wiseman had turned Christian away from the Way of Life and convinced him to exchange the counsel of God for another’s counsel.
It reminds me of the scene in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent cunningly and methodically convinced Eve to disobey the Lord. Mr. Wiseman’s questions were reasonable and had a note of concern in them, so Christian quickly lost sight of his path and plan.
The Lord instructs us to travel toward the narrow gate, although there are few people pursuing it. So that’s what we should do.
Christian’s mistake calls for our discernment when listening to a variety of counsel. There is one gospel and only one way to salvation. Everything else is a trap (Galatians 1:6-10).
2. The Effects of the Law and the Gospel on the Heart of Man
Further along on his journey, Christian meets Goodwill who directs him to the Interpreter’s house. Goodwill advises that the Interpreter will show Christian excellent things that will help him on his journey to the Celestial City.
When Christian arrives at the Interpreter’s house, the Interpreter lights a candle and walks Christian from room to room. Each room has a scene that is being enacted, and the Interpreter explains the meaning behind each one.
One such room is a very large parlor full of dust. The Interpreter calls for a man to sweep the room. When he begins to sweep, dust rises into the air and almost causes Christian to choke.
So, the Interpreter asks a damsel standing nearby to bring water and sprinkle the room with it. After she has sprinkled the water, they are able to clean the room without any hassle.
When Christian asks Interpreter about the meaning of this, he explains that the room is the heart of a man that has not been sanctified by the grace of the gospel, and the dust is original sin. The man that started sweeping is the law. The law, instead of cleansing the heart from sin, reviving it, and strengthening it, only chokes it.
The law is just a means to realize our sinful condition. It is a tutor, constantly reminding us of our sins and making us feel inadequate. It is choking us (Galatians 3:19-25).
The damsel that sprinkled the room with water is the gospel. When the gospel comes into a heart, it has the sweet and precious influence to vanquish sin. The soul is made clean by faith and made fit for the King of glory to reside in.
3. The Secret Behind the Brightly Burning Fire
Another room I recall from the Interpreter’s house is the one with fire burning against a wall. A man stands beside the fire and continuously pours water on it, but the fire only burns higher and hotter. Then, Interpreter brings Christian to the backside of the wall where there is a man with a vessel of oil in his hand. He uses it to continuously, yet secretly, pour oil into the fire.
“Then Christian said, ‘What means this?’”
Interpreter explains that the fire is the work of grace in the heart, and the devil has been trying relentlessly to extinguish the fire.
The man holding the vessel of oil is Christ. With the oil of his grace, he fuels the work that he has already begun in the heart—secretly so the devil cannot see how this work of grace is maintained in the soul.
It comforts me to know that Christ is working in us so faithfully to keep the fire burning in our hearts. His grace is sufficient in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9), even working against the devil’s plan to smother it.
4. The Place Where Christian’s Burden Rolls Away
If there is one thing from The Pilgrim’s Progress that few forget, it is the scene at the cross. After leaving Interpreter’s house, Christian travels along a highway that is fenced on either side with a wall called Salvation. He runs up this highway with great difficulty because of the heavy load on his back. He runs till he comes to the cross.
At that moment, “his Burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the Sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.”
Christian immediately becomes light and filled with joy. He is amazed at the power of the cross in making his burden light. He is soon met by three Shining Ones who each have something to offer.
- One announces that his sins are forgiven.
- The second strips off Christian’s rags and clothes him with a “change of raiment” (Zechariah 3:4).
- The third sets a mark on his forehead and gives him a scroll with a seal on it to show at the entrance to the Celestial City (Ephesians 1:13).
“What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss?
Must here the Burden fall from off my back?
Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?
Blest Cross! blest Sepulchre! blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me!”
John Bunyan beautifully depicts the scene at the cross—the moment when each person is saved. Being clothed with righteousness and sealed with the Holy Spirit keeps us grounded and confident in the salvation we have received from Him.
5. The Valley of the Shadow of Death
Along his journey, Christian has to pass through a solitary place called the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Christian progresses through the valley with a drawn sword. He passes by a deep ditch and a dangerous, bottomless quag. The pathway is so exceedingly narrow and dark that Christian has a tough time staying on the path, struggling to avoid slipping into either the ditch or the quag.
At times, when his sword isn’t of much help, he seeks an even more powerful weapon—prayer. He cries, “O Lord, I implore You, deliver my soul!” (Psalm 116:4).
Several times, he thinks of going back, but instead, resolves to press on because the danger of going back might be worse than moving forward.
That’s when he hears the voice of another traveler uttering these words: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me” (Psalm 23:4).
The lessons we can learn from this section of Christian’s journey are immense.
We come to understand that there are others travelling with us. We understand that God is always with us, although everything around us seems dark and somber.
Like Christian, we can emerge at the other end of the valley, uttering victoriously, “He turns the shadow of death into morning and makes the day dark as night” (Amos 5:8).
6. The Key of Promise That Opens Doors
Christian and his fellow traveler, Hopeful, are captured by Giant Despair and taken to the Doubting Castle. He holds them captive for days with no food or water. The giant beats them and leaves them in their miserable state. Hearing their lamentations, the giant advises them to take their own lives.
That is when doubts start to fill the travelers. Like Job, Christian cries, “So that my soul chooses strangling And death rather than my body. I loathe my life; I would not live forever” (Job 7:15-16).
But Hopeful comforts him by reminding him about the Lord of the country and everything they have to look forward to. He is hopeful that they will be able to find a way of escape. He reminds Christian of his victory over Apollyon, his escape from the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and his courageous act at Vanity Fair, and he pleads for a bit more patience.
So that night, they start praying and continue till dawn. It’s then that Christian remembers the key called Promise that he has been carrying in his bosom. He realizes that the Promise key is capable of opening any gate in Doubting Castle. With the key of Promise, they escape the giant’s dungeon.
When doubts cloud our heavenly vision, we should remember to look for His promises. Promises of God break chains and open locks. They remind us of His sovereign rule and His providence in the past. They nudge us with hope and longing for the future.
What scenes from Pilgrim’s Progress do you remember? Is there a lesson that has stuck with you from this Christian classic? Share in the comments below.
Alice William is a wife and programmer with a passion for writing. She started the blog, Walking in the Word, by journaling her Bible Studies. Her desire is to encourage other women in their walk with God with words that He has used to strengthen her own walk with Him. Her recent eBook An Ode to the Word is a collection of 31 poems inspired by the word of God referenced in God’s word. Each poem is drawn from the verse that talks about the word of God, sparking your curiosity and inviting you to a deeper experience with God's word. You can connect with Alice on Instagram and Pinterest.
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