Pilgrim Meets Evangelist
Updated: Apr 13
Editor's Note: This is the third post in a series on John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, "Before There Was George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien - There was John Bunyan." Read the second post here.
In our day there is much discussion around the word “friends,” especially with Facebook and other social media platforms that are everywhere. And we assume we can call many whom we have not even seen for years our friends. But just because we are friends with them on Facebook does that act really make them a friend? This discussion reminds me of two things: one anecdotal and the other biblical.
First, when my daughters graduated from high school, their classmates signed one another’s yearbook “friends forever.” Old cynic that I am, I reminded my girls that in ten years they would not even remember who some of these people were.
Secondly, a Scripture reference reminded me what a true friend is: “Open rebuke is better than secret love” (KJV, Proverbs 27:5). Further, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (KJV, Proverbs 27:6). These are twin hallmarks of true friendship. And both illumine for us this episode’s dialogue between Pilgrim and Evangelist. Let’s listen in.
WHAT PILGRIM SEES
Bunyan’s initial picture of Pilgrim is very interesting. In his dream, he describes Pilgrim as “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” (The Pilgrim’s Progress in Modern English, 3). The fact that he was dressed in rags shows he was completely bankrupt of any worldly goods or means of support. At first blush one might consider this has to do with worldly wealth. But remember, Bunyan wants his readers to focus on Pilgrim’s eternal not temporal estate. This depicts him in his sin before God needing a change of raiment. It can be understood in the storyline that this change of raiment is something only God can provide.
Second, consider his posture—what does it tell us? He was standing. This shows he was moved to take the initial step—to flee the City of Destruction. He took to heart the “Prepare to meet thy God!” warning of the Old Testament (Amos 4:12). His back was turned away from his own household. This, for Bunyan, is an early picture of what repentance looks like. Repentance, in biblical categories, is a turning away from one thing and turning to another. Literally, it is the changing of one’s mind and heart, the changing of one’s thoughts and affections, resulting in changing one’s life direction.
There is a major issue concerning this change, however. Repentance brings about a certain void in the one who repents. It is most difficult to create one vacancy of the soul without replacing it with something else—something more worthy and noble. Only Christ can fill this longing or hole. This is Pilgrim’s beginning turn from sin and turning to Christ. In the Pilgrim’s Progress (henceforth, PP), repentance is a sub-theme throughout the entire story line for Christian. He keeps returning again and again to “the narrow way” (see Matthew 7:13-14) to the Celestial City—although he often takes his eye off the goal, he always returns.
Third, he has a book in his hand. (No doubt Bunyan wants the readers of the PP to infer this is the Bible.) Bunyan describes his reaction to its contents: “As he read he wept and trembled. Unable to contain himself any longer, he broke into a mournful sob crying, ‘What shall I do?!’” (op cit, 3). No doubt he was warned of his soul’s need and the impending destruction of his home. He was seized with a deep phobia, attendant with a broken spirit, resulting in lament. (See the previous installment,"Christian's Angst," for more context on this event.)
Last, he has a great burden on his back. He does not know how to deal with it and confesses to his family: “Oh, my dear wife and children, I’m suffering from inner turmoil, because of a burden that lays heavily upon me” (op cit). The weight represents his sin—and the personal guilt and shame that come with it. This burden is one of the major themes early in PP as he struggles with his decision to leave the City of Destruction. But it is much too early in our story-line to give away how Pilgrim deals with the weight that produces his soul’s mournful cry.
WHO PILGRIM ENCOUNTERS
Pilgrim continued in his unstable state sobbing bitterly, “What must I do to be saved?” At that very instance a stranger appeared and asks him, “Why are you crying?” In response, Pilgrim recounted his inordinate phobia of death. “I fear this burden on my back will make me sink lower in the grave and I’ll fall into Hell!” Here, Bunyan portrayed Pilgrim seized and confused as to what to do next. It is no small thing he has taken the first step, to leave the city wherein his wife and children dwell. Evangelist, the stranger, pressed him further: “If this is your condition, why are you standing here?” “Because I don’t know where to go,” he responded. Evangelist hands him a letter containing the words, “Flee from the coming wrath!” (op cit, 4-6).
Bunyan, in fine allegorical style, has captured the essence of one under condemnation of the Law after exposure to God’s Commandments. This is commonly understood as “being under conviction.” Here is a rediscovered truth learned by Luther and the other Reformers. There must be the preaching of the Law before the preaching of the Gospel’s Grace. The Law is able to bring about guilt and shame. But, it is unable to rescue a person from impending damnation. This is akin to the drug addict or alcoholic who has never confessed their issue. There must be a realization and confession of the problem before there can be repentance and an outcry for help. Pilgrim experienced the Law from the book that he had been reading. Then, Evangelist puts a letter in his hand. This is “Bunyan-speak” for the beginning of the Good News already active in his mind, heart, and life.
As an aside: The Evangelical Church has described the Salvation event as a “one time for all” crisis moment or event. It could be that a person comes forward at an altar call to “make a decision for Christ,” or it could be that the person confesses Christ at their Confirmation. And no doubt many “Christians” experience these dynamics. Bunyan does show Pilgrim having his “crisis of faith,” which is similar to the way described. This one time experience is not stand-alone however in Bunyan’s story. Nor is it the be-all end-all we have been led to believe in our cultural Christian ethos. His experience is presented as the beginning point of the life-long process of following Christ; it is his initiation into his odyssey. This encounter has far-reaching, even eternal effects. It lasts from the time Pilgrim leaves the City of Destruction until he finds his way home to the Celestial City—this decision is his point-of-entry of the life-long journey.
HOW EVANGELIST INSTRUCTS
After reading the letter, then looking the stranger up and down, Pilgrim replies with a question.
“Where must I flee?” (op cit, 5).
Evangelist points with a long bony finger over a very wide field. “Do you see that Narrow Gate over there?”
“No,” Pilgrim responded.
Then Evangelist put forth another question, “Do you see that shining light there?”
“I think I do?” Pilgrim responds with uncertainty.
“Then Evangelist said, ‘Keep that light in your eye and go up directly toward it. Then you will see the Gate. When you knock on the Gate, you’ll be told what you must do” (op cit, 5).
As with this encounter between Evangelist and Pilgrim, the evangelist’s work has always been to help, instruct, and point people to the light—Jesus as the only way of salvation. Our American culture has been so saturated with the Bible since the Republic’s founding, even our language is replete with biblical jargon. We constantly hear phrases like; “the straight and narrow way,” “the handwriting on the wall,” and “I saw the light.” And we see “John 3:16” banners plastered at The Super Bowl and other sports events. All testify to the enduring Word of God in our midst. These are left in our vernacular and employed as tools for all to hear the Gospel.
We recently lost one of the greatest evangelists in the history of the church—the Rev. Billy Graham. No one who ever heard him speak could doubt who Jesus was and what His Gospel could do. Whether religious talk in the marketplace or an evangelist in a stadium; the Gospel goes forth. Billy Graham did by preaching a sermon what Evangelist did by personal instruction. There are many means that point those who are in the darkness to the light of Jesus—just like Evangelist of our allegory.
WHAT PILGRIM CAN TEACH US
First, Jesus declared in the Gospel of John, “I am the light of the world, he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (8:12). The most important thing for Pilgrim at this point of the narrative is that he was able to see the light. His wife could not see the light. His children could not see the light. His neighbors and other kinsmen of the City of Destruction could not see the light, only Pilgrim. This demonstrates that any Godward movement on our part is a God-initiated thing. We must take advantage of the opportunity, however minuscule.
He was exhorted by Evangelist, “Keep that light in your eye and go up directly toward it. Then you will see the Gate.” This bespeaks the fact that the light of salvation comes to us in fits and starts, even in small increments. We must move towards the light when we can discern it, while we see it and have the desire to follow it. We must act upon the light given us. We are not necessarily responsible for what we don’t have, but we are responsible for what we do have. I, with Evangelist, would exhort you. If you believe you have some light of the Gospel of Christ—then move toward that light, toward him. Act on what you have. Respond in kind to what you know to be the truth.
Secondly, Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that “[S]traight is the gate . . . which leads unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14). It takes the Light of the Christ’s Gospel for one to find their way to the Gate. We often hear of the “Straight and Narrow” in our popular jargon. To me, these are tiny reminders that there is but One Way. And that Way—that gate—is Christ himself. The first Christians, the first followers of Christ, were known as people of “The Way” or “That Way.” Jesus intentionally makes the way of salvation difficult. One must push to get in and leave all other things of this world behind to gain entrance. He wants the sincere follower to know that to follow him we must be absolutely committed to the exclusivity of casting our lot with Christ forever and trusting Him alone for eternal salvation.
Please consider this invitation from Bunyan to come to the light as Pilgrim had to do. It is only by coming to this Light that one can find the Gate. Tune in again for our next installment to see if Pilgrim follows the instructions given to him by Evangelist.
This article is copyrighted by Roger D. Duke and Duke Consulting Group. They have granted Stage & Story the right to publish it.
Dr. Roger D. Duke is an advisory board member and the scholar-in-residence at Stage & Story. Dr. Duke is an ordained Baptist minister and has taught at the college and graduate school levels for over 20 years. Dr. Duke holds graduate degrees from The University of the South’s School of Theology at Sewanee, TN; The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Harding University’s Graduate School of Religion. He has written or contributed to more than ten volumes (including works on John Bunyan) with the latest volume scheduled to be released in 2018. Visit his website at www.drrogerdduke.com. His published work can be found on his website and his Amazon Author's Page. He has been happily married to Linda Young Duke for nearly 44 years. They have three adult children and four robust grandsons.