John Bunyan: Awakening Natural Men to Spiritual Realities

4 min

The small group of men, women, and children near the village of Bedford, England, had assembled to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. They met not in a cathedral but in a cottage, and everyone in the room knew that this Nonconformist meeting was illegal.

There was no high altar, no surplice, no prayer book, no candles, and no stained glass. A simple table served as a pulpit, upon which rested the well-worn Bible of their pastor, John Bunyan.

Most of the people in the room were farmers. Of our Lord Jesus it had been written, “The common people heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37). The same could be said of John Bunyan. A tinker by trade and a mender of pots and pans, he spent the week traveling through the countryside with his brazier, a portable “fire pit” that held the coal used in his trade to heat metal. In the countryside, talking to farmers and their wives, John Bunyan had come to know the common man and his language. He spoke to the people in a direct way that they understood and loved.

But that day, in the humble place where the folk had gathered to worship, a few present were especially dear to the pastor. Nearest to the pulpit was seated his wife, Elizabeth, and their children. Because of Bunyan’s many years in prison, Elizabeth had been forced many times by circumstances to raise the children without her husband. By 1675, Bunyan had already spent twelve years of his life in the Bedford jail.

At Elizabeth’s side sat the children God had given the couple. Mary, the oldest daughter, had been blind from birth and had never seen the light of the sun. Bunyan’s few references to her were always tender; he called her “my poor blind child.” Sometimes, during her father’s extended imprisonments, Mary had been forced to beg for the sustenance of the family. Her father’s heart ached regarding this reality, but as he told his family, “I must venture all with God, though it goeth to the quick to leave you.”

On this day, the eyes of “poor blind Mary” were raised to meet her father’s eyes. While she was unable to see anything physically, her spiritual vision was very clear.

Little did John Bunyan know that this day would bring him yet another painful separation. As the singing ended, the snort of a horse was heard outside. A party of armed men stomped up the stairs and into the room. Bunyan’s wife Elizabeth knew fully what the sound meant, but God’s past mercy gave her strength once more for this hour.

The assembled saints kept their seats. All eyes were fixed, not upon the sheriff and his men, but upon their beloved pastor. John Bunyan looked directly at the sheriff standing in the back and calmly announced his text from Luke 23:40, “Dost not thou fear God?”

Instead of disbanding the service, the sheriff instead quietly slipped into a chair. His men did likewise. Bunyan could sense the abiding power of God in the room, and he knew that he must obey God rather than men.

Slowly, Bunyan read again his text from the words of the penitent thief on the cross, “Dost not thou fear God?” He then read the rest of the verse and the one thereafter: “seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.”

Bunyan looked up from his Bible. He saw the sheriff was visibly shaken by the text. The sheriff was holding the warrant for Bunyan’s arrest; the hand that held the warrant began to tremble. Bunyan knew the power of the Word of God, and he proceeded, “Behold, how this man trembles at the Word of God.”

Bunyan proceeded to preach. He described the wretchedness of man’s sin and the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. The preacher knew what it was to be a lost, dying sinner. He had once been a man as wicked as the sheriff — a blasphemous, lustful, and proud young man. The text brought to mind Bunyan’s own conversion. He remembered the passages of Scripture that seemed to forever condemn him under the righteous judgment of an offended God.

Bunyan had been terrified by the Scriptures in Hebrews that warned of falling “into the hands of the living God.” He feared that he, like Esau, could find no place of repentance. But he eventually found rest in the Lord Jesus, and the burden of sin rolled from his shoulders at the foot of the cross.

In his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, John Bunyan related the agonizing process by which God brought him from sin to salvation, from doubt to faith, from darkness to light, and from defeat to victory. Now, in his sermon this particular day, he sought to proclaim the Good News of salvation to farmers and the sheriff alike. If the grace of God could save Bunyan who considered himself “the chief of sinners,” then the same grace could save the sheriff!

Through the entire sermon, the sheriff sat riveted to his seat. At the end, the sheriff could not bring himself to bind the man of God. Instead, with great respect, he served the arrest warrant to Bunyan and told the Nonconformist preacher that he should follow him to the Bedford jail.

Then, the sheriff left the cottage. Bunyan was a free man at that moment. He could have disappeared into the hills. There may have been times when this would have been appropriate. But John Bunyan believed that he should demonstrate before his family and congregation that he was willing to suffer for the sake of the Lord Jesus, and that he was not afraid of imprisonment or even of death.

The most difficult matter in this arrest was separation again from his wife and children. But Bunyan had taught them that the Christian life demands sacrifice for the cause of truth. He wrote about this situation in his autobiography.

Sources and Further Reference:

Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. London, UK: Penguin, 1987.

Duke, Roger D. and Phil A. Newton. Venture All for God: The Piety of John Bunyan. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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