John Bunyan is a towering figure within church history. Though he was born in the 17th century, his books are still being published, made into movies, and quoted from pulpits. He really did leave us many timeless works. I believe the reason they are timeless is because they are soaked in Scripture. Even the great C.H. Spurgeon said:
Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. . . He had read it until his whole being was saturated with Scripture, and though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress – that sweetest of all prose poems – without continually making us feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is bibline . . . for his whole soul is full of the Word of God.
John Bunyan truly was a man of the Bible, and this is evident with every word you read from his works!
Though Bunyan is still being published and quoted from pulpits, most Christians in the 21st century are unaware of who he is. In my own experience, if you mention John Bunyan, people assume they know who you are talking about because they think you are talking about Paul Bunyan! Though this is humorous, it is also sad. My hopes in writing this biographical blog on Bunyan is to introduce him to some folks that are unfamiliar with him. In doing so, I hope and pray that you will be spurred on by looking briefly at Bunyan’s life.
While we do not know a great deal about John Bunyan’s physical birth, we do know that John Bunyan was born in Elstow, England on November 30, 1628. His father was a working mechanic, and Bunyan himself says that they were of the lower class. Writing about his own upbringing, Bunyan said, “My descent was of a low and inconsiderable generation, my father’s house being of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families in the land.”
During Bunyan’s time, it was common for the poor to receive a basic education in reading and writing. Bunyan received this, but this was all he received. He was not educated in all the classics, nor did he learn Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Bunyan’s education consisted of knowing how to read and write. And though he was educated in reading and writing, he forgot even these upon leaving school at a young age. In reflecting on his education he said, “To my shame, I confess I did soon lose that little I learned, and that almost utterly.”
Unregenerate and Ungodly
There is a reason Scripture says, “Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions,” as well as, “So flee youthful passions.” When we are young and unregenerate, we seek to gratify our youthful passions and in doing so transgress our Creator in numerous ways. This was certainly true of Bunyan.
When reflecting on the sins of his youth, Bunyan said:
As for my own natural life, for the time that I was without God in the world, it was indeed according to the course of this world, and the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience. It was my delight to be taken captive by the devil at his will: being filled with all unrighteousness; that from a child I had but few equals, both for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God.
He goes on to say, “I was the very ringleader of all the youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness,” and, “I was one of those great sin-breeders; I infected all the youth of the town where I was born.” Bunyan was, on all accounts, a heathen. Within the village of Elstow, he was blot and blemish; a young man that you wouldn’t want your kids hanging around.
When we read stuff like this, it is easy to think that Bunyan is exaggerating. We think to ourselves, “Surely Bunyan was not that sinful as a youth!” But Bunyan was aware that people reading about his youthful passions may think this so he wrote, “In these things, I protest before God, I lie not, neither do I feign this sort of speech; these were really, strongly, and with all my heart, my desires.” Bunyan did not want people to minimize the heinous nature of his sin; he did not want them to believe that he was simply using hyperbole. He wanted them to be aware that he was at enmity with God.
First Marriage and Books
In 1648, when Bunyan was twenty years old, he began his occupation as a brazier (a tinker or metal worker), and started thinking about marriage and starting a family. Though Bunyan was an ungodly wretch, God gave him a godly wife named Mary that had come from a godly family. In reflecting on this he said, “My mercy was to light upon a wife whose father was counted godly. This woman and I came together as poor as poor might be, not having so much household stuff as a dish or spoon betwixt us.”
Though not much is known about Mary, biographers say that Mary seems to have been left in impoverished circumstances. Her father was dead and most people assume her mother was dead as well. They believe that this is the reason she would have married an individual like Bunyan. In all honesty, it is like biographers are trying to figure out how a godly woman like Mary would have married a wretch like Bunyan!
With that aside, this marriage proved to be a providential means that God used to begin softening Bunyan’s hard heart to the reality of his sin. Mary would often reprove and correct Bunyan for his corrupt lifestyle, and would tell him about how godly her father was. She also would force Bunyan to read Christian books that her father had given her.
The reading of these books made an impression on Bunyan. Faith Cook writes, “The first effect of Mary’s concern and books they were reading was to create in John the early awakenings of a desire to improve himself.” Bunyan himself put it this way, “I fell in very eagerly with the religion of the times; to wit, to go to church twice a day and that too with the foremost and there should very devoutly, both say and sing as others did, yet retaining my wicked life.” Bunyan was attending to religious things, but his manner of life had not changed. He mimicked the saints in the church, but lived like the same ole wretch in the community of Elstow. However, his conscience was awakened and his hard heart was being softened.
Unregenerate and Religious
While Bunyan was living an ungodly life, he had an unusual encounter with a very ungodly women that led to a moral reformation. A woman that Bunyan described as a “loose and ungodly wretch” overheard his foul mouth and told him that, “He was the ungodliest fellow for swearing that ever she heard in all her life,” and that, “he was able to spoil all the youth in a whole town, if they came in his company.” This reproof from a vile, wretched, and ungodly woman led Bunyan to leave off his life of outward immorality. As one biographer put it: “Public reproof from such a woman was an arrow that pierced his inmost soul; it effected a reformation marvelous to all his companions, and bordering upon the miraculous.”
However, we must not mistake his moral reformation as regeneration and conversion. His spiritual life did not change. He was still dead in sin. All he did now was act in a civil and religious manner. He simply became, as Scripture says, “A white-washed tomb.” Even Bunyan himself said: “Now I was, as they said, become godly, and their words pleased me well, though as yet I was nothing but a poor painted hypocrite.” Bunyan’s moral reformation made people think that he was godly, but he knew that it was all a facade. He did not know Jesus Christ. He was still unregenerate.
Regenerate and Religious
As we move closer to John Bunyan’s conversion, it is important to keep in mind that the day and hour of Bunyan’s conversion is difficult to pinpoint. There are numerous accounts in his autobiography that read like conversion moments. His biographers are all in disagreement as well. It is as though both Bunyan and his biographers were unclear about the moment he was born again. With that said, I will deal with the two most significant moments in his life. One of these has to be the moment he was converted.
Bunyan had a wife and a blind daughter, therefore there was extra incentive to go out and make a living. As a tinker would walk through nearby towns and villages he would cry out, “Have you any work for a tinker? Have you any old bellows to mend?” And he would do this until some individual needed a tinker to come over and fix some things.
As Bunyan was doing this in Bedford, a village near Elstow, he came across a group of three to four women. He describes them as “poor women sitting at a door in the sun, and talking about the things of God.” As a “brisk talker” in religion, Bunyan drew near to participate in the conversation. However, this white washed tomb had never ran across Christians that were living and radiating with the joy that comes from being Spirit-filled Christians. As he listened to them, he thought to himself, “I heard, but I understood not; for they were far above, out of my reach.”
These poor ladies were indeed out of Bunyan’s reach. He said:
Their talk was about a new birth, the work of God on their hearts, also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature; they talked how God had visited their souls with his love in the Lord Jesus, and with what words and promises they had been refreshed, comforted, and supported against the temptations of the devil.
Their manner of discourse centered on the new birth, conviction of sin, and a genuine encounter with God through faith in Jesus. Bunyan was ignorant of all of these.
He continues talking about the women saying, “They also discoursed of their own wretchedness of heart, of their unbelief; and did condemn, slight, and abhor their own righteousness, as filthy and insufficient to do them any good.” These ladies were condemning themselves and casting their hope on the Lord Jesus Christ and His righteousness. The self-righteous Bunyan was being made aware of the insufficiency of his own righteousness.
He then said, “Methought they spake as if joy did make them speak; they spake with such pleasantness of Scripture language, and with such appearance of grace in all they said that they were to me as if they had found a new world.” In truth, these ladies had found a new world. They had been transferred from Satan’s domain of darkness into the Kingdom of Christ.
As Bunyan listened to them, his own condition was rising to the top. These poor women were different than him. This led Bunyan to shake and tremble in fear. He said:
At this I felt my own heart began to shake, as mistrusting my condition to be nought; for I saw that in all my thoughts about religion and salvation, the new birth never did enter into my mind, neither knew I the comfort of the Word and promise, nor the deceitfulness and treachery of my own wicked heart.
This conviction led him to earnestly desire to be a godly man. He rid himself of his ungodly companions, and began to soak up the Scriptures. After overhearing these poor ladies conversation he said, “I read as I never did before; and especially the epistles of the apostle Paul were sweet and pleasant to me; and indeed I was then never out of the Bible, either by reading or meditation; still crying out to God that I might know the truth, and way to heaven and glory.” Many biographers mark this as Bunyan’s conversion moment, and there are many reasons that this moment seems to be the moment of his conversion.
Nevertheless, the reason for the difficulty in pointing to this as Bunyan’s conversion moment is because, shortly after this, he went through great bouts of depression that brought a lack of assurance. He simply did not believe himself to be saved. He said this in regard to conversion: “Gold! Could it have been gotten for gold, what could I have given for it! had I had a whole world it had all gone ten thousand times over for this, that my soul might have been in a converted state!” As you can see, there is nothing Bunyan wants more than conversion. He wants to be right with God. Yet, in Bunyan’s opinion, there is nothing that is so distant from him than conversion. He simply does not believe that he has crossed over from spiritual death to spiritual life. This is why pinpointing Bunyan’s conversion is so perplexing.
The second moment that I want to look at in Bunyan’s life is what many other people consider to be Bunyan’s conversion moment. As he was going through bouts of depression, lacking assurance, and crying out to God to have mercy on him, Bunyan had an encounter with God that profoundly impacted him. He said:
As I was passing in the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience . . . suddenly 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, is my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was a-doing, God could not say of me, he 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 for ever (Heb. 13:8).
Bunyan seems to realize for the first time that the very foundation of his right standing with God is Christ’s righteousness; not his good frame of heart or his bad frame of heart. Realizing this, Bunyan said, “Now did my chains fall from my legs indeed.” This led to a time of peace. His conscience was no longer being wounded left and right because his focus was on Christ. He said, “Here, therefore I lived for some time, very sweetly at peace with God through Christ; Oh, methought, Christ! Christ! there was nothing but Christ that was before my eyes.”
It is evident that this is a moment of utmost joy for Bunyan. This is why so many people point to this as the moment of his conversion. I do not have the authority to determine when this wretched tinker passed over from death to life; that prerogative belongs to God and God alone! All I can say is that these two moments are of utmost significance to Bunyan. These providential dealings where instrumental to his salvation. And as we read these accounts, we cannot help but have our affections moved by God’s dealings with this poor tinker.
From Tinker to Preacher
Within the town of Bedford, Bunyan was attending a small independent church that consisted of about 90 members. After the death of the pastor, John Gifford, in 1655, the church was looking for another pastor. In the meantime, Bunyan would fill the pulpit. As he filled the pulpit, the church began to increasingly notice Bunyan’s extraordinary giftedness. They desired Bunyan to become their pastor, and in 1656, they gathered together to vote him in. This call to be the pastor meant that he would regularly preach the word to the church, and that he would also gather the unconverted together within other villages in order to preach to them.
As Bunyan set out to do this, he had a remarkable impact. In his preaching he would do what we call law work. He would impress upon his listeners a sense of their own sin. He said:
In my preaching of the Word, I took special notice of this one thing, namely, that the Lord did lead me to begin where his Word begins with sinners; that is, to condemn all flesh, and to open and allege that the curse of God by the law, doth belong to and lay hold on all men as they come into the world, because of sin.
He would press upon the conscience a deep and terrorizing sense of the coming wrath of God, but then he would bring the good news of the gospel. He said that he “labored to hold forth Jesus Christ in all his offices, relations and benefits.” Heralding the word like this was something that Bunyan treasured. To give you an idea of this, here is how Bunyan reflected on preaching:
My heart hath been so wrapped up in the glory of this excellent work, that I counted myself more blessed and honored of God by this than if he had made me the emperor of the Christian world, or the lord of all the glory of the earth without it.
As you can see, the fact that God had called him to preach the Word was a great honor to him. It was an honor that he most certainly did not take lightly. Also, it was something that he was really good at too.
Just to give you a sense of the greatness of John Bunyan’s preaching, King Charles asked John Owen why he goes to listen to “that tinker” preach. John Owen, arguably one of the greatest puritan theologians, said, “I would willingly exchange my learning for the tinker’s power of touching men’s hearts.” In other words, John Bunyan may be an uneducated tinker, but the Spirit of God powerfully worked through his preaching ministry in order to bring men to Christ. This was to be a mark of his preaching ministry for the rest of his life.
From Preacher to Prisoner
When Bunyan was around thirty years old, his wife Mary passed away shortly after giving birth to their fourth child. Bunyan was left to raise their four children, one of whom was blind, by himself. This put great strains on him, and gave him great incentive to remarry.
In God’s providence, he was able to marry a woman named Elizabeth. Faith Cook puts it into perspective when she writes: “To take a man like John Bunyan and his four children was also to share his sufferings, but Elizabeth rose to the challenge.” Bunyan, now having a capable woman tending to the needs of his children, relentlessly continued his preaching ministry.
Sadly, after Bunyan had been married to Elizabeth for about a year, he was arrested and thrown into prison in 1660. He was not thrown into prison because he was rebellious. He was thrown into prison because he refused to stop preaching. Within England, Parliament had a growing hostility towards nonconformist (people that refused to conform to the Anglican Church) like Bunyan (Bunyan was an independent Baptist). Parliament implemented a series of acts that placed greater and greater legal pressure on nonconformist that refused to give up preaching to gathered assemblies.
Bunyan, in light of the call of God upon his life to preach the gospel, refused to give up the preaching ministry. In Bunyan’s words, “Come, be of good cheer, let us not be daunted; our cause is good, we need not be ashamed of it; to preach God’s word is so good a work that we shall be well rewarded if we suffer for that.” Needless to say, Bunyan continued to preach the Word of God, and it is the preaching of the Word that ultimately got Bunyan thrown into prison.
He would spend the next twelve years of his life, from 1660-1672, in prison. This meant that he was in prison from the age of thirty-two to the age of fourty-four; arguably some of the best years of an individuals life. He was separated from his family, and his wife Elizabeth was forced to raise four kids that were not even biologically hers. This was a time of great suffering. However, great suffering usually produced great spiritual maturity.
Bunyan in Prison
It was no trivial thing to be imprisoned in the 17th century. Prison brought great sufferings. Bunyan said, “I have suffered as much misery as soe dismal a place can be capable to inflict and soe am likely to perish without your Majestie’s further compassion and mercy towards me.” It is evident that Bunyan believed that, apart from God sustaining him within prison, he would not have made it.
And his sufferings were not merely physical. They were also emotional. To be stripped from your wife and four children, one of whom was blind, was devastating. Bunyan gives us a glimpse of this when he writes:
The parting with my Wife and poor children hath often been to me in this place as the pulling of the Flesh from my bones; and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great Mercies, but also because I should have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor Family was like to meet with should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides; O the thoughts of the hardship I thought my Blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces.
I don’t think there is a more vivid picture of the inward pain that Bunyan was feeling than when he says that the departing with his wife and children has been to him like “the pulling of the Flesh from my bones.” His suffering meant they were suffering. This truth was almost too much for him to bear!
Thankfully, in the midst of all this, God dealt graciously with Bunyan. God began to illuminate Bunyan’s understanding of Scripture. While in prison Bunyan wrote, “Those Scriptures that I saw nothing in before are 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.” While in the midst of affliction, Bunyan’s faith was strengthening.
While his faith was strengthening and his understanding of Scripture was deepening, Bunyan picked up a pen and wrote. He wrote poems, letters, books, and sermons. Sure, the authorities thought that imprisoning Bunyan might silence him, but they never considered what the Spirit-filled, uneducated tinker might do with his pen!
For example, as George Whitefield reflected on Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan’s most famous writing, he said, “It smells of prison. It was written when the author was confined to
Bedford jail. And ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross: the Spirit of Christ and of Glory rests upon them.” This was the case with many of Bunyan’s works. Bunyan’s imprisonments did a great deal of harm to Satan’s domain of darkness because his imprisonments allowed him to take up a pen and write.
Bunyan in Bedford
Bunyan was well known by the time he was released from prison. Many people knew about his preaching, writings, and sufferings. This could have possibly afforded Bunyan the opportunity to go pastor in a more centralized location; maybe even in London. Bunyan would not do this though. He once again took up his pastorate in Bedford; that little village where he ran across those three to four poor women talking about the things of God when he was in his twenties. It is hard to overstate the love that Bunyan had for the people of Bedford. His life’s mission was to minister to them, and that is what he sought to continue to do when he was released from prison.
When Bunyan was nearing his sixtieth birthday, he set out to London on horseback in order to take a book manuscript to a publisher. On his trip, he was caught in a storm. Rather than pulling off the muddy road to take shelter, Bunyan continued to ride through the torrential downpour until he reached London. He was cold and shivering. His old and often sick body was failing. Soon a fever set in, and it was evident that Bunyan’s health was deteriorating rapidly.
On August 31, 1688, Bunyan passed away in London. He died apart from his wife Elizabeth, all his children, and his church in Bedford. But his last words were, “I go to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will, no doubt through the mediation of his blessed Son, receive me, though a sinner; where I hope we ere long shall meet and sing the new song and remain everlastingly happy, world without end.” This saint that was tormented with a lack of assurance early on in life, died with utmost assurance because he never took his eyes off of Christ.