Pastors are always on the lookout for the next book to help us be more effective and faithful in ministry. Some books help us shore up weaknesses, others teach us how to effectively carry out the everyday tasks of pastoral ministry, and then, there are those that inspire us to persevere through the challenges of shepherding God’s people. Throughout my two decades in ministry, I have been greatly sharpened, equipped, enlightened, challenged, and encouraged by books written for pastors. However, there is one book — not specifically for pastors — that I return to regularly because of the lessons within its pages: The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Despite its staggering popularity, I was never introduced to The Pilgrim’s Progress until my early thirties. I recall Dr. Andy Davis explaining to me and my classmates in seminary why he loved John Bunyan’s classic and how sure he was that it soon be a favorite of ours. Although skeptical at first, it only took a few pages for me to recognize why this work had captured the hearts and minds of millions of readers. The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory about a man named Christian journeying from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. While Bunyan’s allegory focuses on the ups and downs of the Christian life, it has also taught me important lessons directly applicable to the work of a pastor. Below are three of the lessons that have shaped me as a pastor.
Of John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Prick him anywhere — his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him.” Bunyan’s love of the Bible and belief in its power is demonstrated in all of his writings, especially The Pilgrim’s Progress. Page after page, his dedication to prioritizing Scripture is not only encouraging and instructive, it’s convicting. On his journey, when Christian needs to correct the false doctrine of a traveler named Ignorance, Bunyan puts Scripture in Christian’s mouth. In the Interpreter’s House, Bunyan reveals the great mysteries of God to Christian using Scripture. And when Christian reaches the cross and the burden of sin rolls off his back and he is finally free, the whole scene is filled with language and imagery from God’s Word. Every aspect of Christian’s journey — his thoughts, his prayers and cries to God, his dialogue with fellow travelers, his harrowing experiences — is saturated with Scripture.
As ministers of the Word, we must strive to prioritize Scripture in our ministry like Bunyan does throughout The Pilgrim’s Progress. The longer I am in ministry, the more assured I am of the necessity and effectiveness of God’s Word for everything pastoral ministry entails. Whether I am preaching, leading, praying, counseling, or discipling, Scripture must remain foundational. If we truly believe God’s Word is inspired, living, “able to make [one] wise for salvation,” and profitable for building up believers (2 Tim. 3:15–17), we must ensure Scripture is more than an accessory to our work. Those entrusted into our care need God’s Word to be a priority.
The Power of Hope
John Bunyan knew the power of hope in his own life and ministry. He brought the same hope he clung to during his twelve-year jail sentence for preaching the gospel to the pages of The Pilgrim’s Progress. As Christian encounters dangers, trials, disappointments, and temptations, he does not press on through sheer willpower; Christian clings to hope.
In the opening pages, Christian becomes convinced by the Book that he must escape the City of Destruction before it is destroyed in judgment. But as he pleads with his family to follow him to safety, he is quickly ridiculed, mocked, and ignored by his own family. Therefore, Christian leaves his family and his city behind him, placing his hope in the promise of salvation. Later in his quest, Christian meets two men who beg him not to go into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The men tell Christian that the Valley is filled with darkness, confusion, weeping and wailing, and even hobgoblins and dragons. But Christian continues forward undeterred, knowing that there is no hope behind him. One of the most powerful characters in the book is even named Hopeful. Hope is a powerful tool in the hands of Bunyan.
Pastors should be messengers of hope. Some who hear our sermons each week remain dead in their sin and need to hear about real hope, the hope of salvation, and eternal life. Many of our members are dealing with their own Valley of the Shadow of Death or Valley of Humiliation; they need to know they are not alone and that our God has overcome. Some of our people have long since given up hoping, reasoning that there is nothing good ahead for them. But as messengers of hope, we know different. We know that there are always reasons to hope in Christ. Therefore, let us take advantage of every opportunity to give people hope.
A Call to Persevere
The Pilgrim’s Progress is nothing if not a story of perseverance. Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the City of God is fraught with dangers and temptations to simply quit. He frequently encounters travelers that have given up, turned back, or who urge him to turn from his perilous, meaningless journey. But Christian remains steadfast. And if it is not the travelers tempting him to turn back, it’s the circumstances he encounters on his journey. In the Valley of Humiliation, Christian faces the demon Apollyon in battle.
Outmatched and tempted to turn and run, Christian remains resolute, stands his ground, and fights Apollyon with every ounce of strength provided him. Later, Christian is held captive and beaten mercilessly by Giant Despair in Doubting Castle. Discouraged to the point of taking his own life, Hopeful persuades Christian to persevere. But the most powerful picture of perseverance may very well be from a character named Faithful. Christian and Faithful travel together for a way, eventually passing through a town called Vanity Fair. It is in Vanity Fair that Christian and Faithful are wrongly arrested, persecuted, and Faithful loses his life. But to the very end, Faithful and Christian did not waiver, they persevered. There are few parts of Christian’s journey that are easy. However, Christian presses on, persevering to the very end.
The Christian life is a call to persevere. As Christians strive to run their race faithfully, they often face discouragement, temptation, doubt, and despair. But when we, as pastors, intentionally labor to encourage our people to persevere, we can have a significant and lasting impact on their lives. They need to be reminded in their pain and suffering that they are not alone (Isa. 43:1–7). They need to be reminded that their struggles pale in comparison to the glory awaiting them (Rom. 8:18). They need to be reminded that their faithfulness and service are not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). Let us call our people to run their race well, to persevere while we cheer them on until the very end.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is far from a book on pastoral ministry, and yet, Bunyan — a pastor himself — embedded throughout his tale theological truths and applications that can benefit all pastors. I pray it is as encouraging and edifying to you as it has been to me.
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