One of my favorite books is the classic Pilgrim’s Progress written by the Puritan John Bunyan. I’ve read the book more than once. I have read it to my children, and had them read it for themselves. References from the book regularly creep into my sermons, often extemporaneously. I recommend the book to all, but that does not mean I’m in agreement with all parts of the book. My former pastor – Darrell W. Sparks – was fond of comparing the reading of books to the eating of fish. “You have to spit out the bones,” he says. The great thing about Pilgrim’s Progress is that the bones are few and the meat is substantial. There is, however, a bone or two.
I also appreciate the ministry and legacy of C.H. Spurgeon, and he was an admirer of John Bunyan as well. He was especially fond of the Puritan’s most famous work, but he did have one qualm with the great book. Here are Spurgeon’s comments concerning one of the few bones from Pilgrim’s Progress, which are taken from his sermon “The Dumb become Singers”:
I am a great lover of John Bunyan, but I do not believe him infallible; and the other day I met with a story about him which I think a very good one.
There was a young man, in Edinburgh, who wished to be a missionary. He was a wise young man; he thought—”If I am to be a missionary, there is no need for me to transport myself far away from home; I may as well be a missionary in Edinburgh.” . . .
Well, this young man started, and determined to speak to the first person he met. He met one of those old fishwives; those of us who have seen them can never forget them, they are extraordinary women indeed. So, stepping up to her, he said, “Here you are, coming along with your burden on your back; let me ask you if you have got another burden, a spiritual burden.”
“What!” she asked; “do you mean that burden in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? Because, if you do, young man, I got rid of that many years ago, probably before you were born. But I went a better way to work than the pilgrim did. The evangelist that John Bunyan talks about was one of your parsons that do not preach the gospel; for he said, ‘Keep that light in thine eye, and run to the wicket-gate.’ Why—man alive!—that was not the place for him to run to. He should have said, ‘Do you see that cross? Run there at once!’ But, instead of that, he sent the poor pilgrim to the wicket-gate first; and much good he got by going there! He got tumbling into the slough, and was like to have been killed by it.”
“But did not you,” the young man asked, “go through any Slough of Despond?”
“Yes, I did; but I found it a great deal easier going through with my burden off than with it on my back.”
The old woman was quite right. John Bunyan put the getting rid of the burden too far off from the commencement of the pilgrimage. If he meant to show what usually happens, he was right; but if he meant to show what ought to have happened, he was wrong.
We must not say to the sinner, “Now, sinner, if thou wilt be saved, go to the baptismal pool; go to the wicket-gate; go to the church; do this or that.”
No, the cross should be right in front of the wicket-gate; and we should say to the sinner, “Throw thyself down there, and thou art safe; but thou are not safe till thou canst cast off thy burden, and lie at the foot of the cross, and find peace in Jesus.”
Spurgeon is correct. The cross must be front and center. This is a great reminder to me. Go to and point others to the cross first and foremost, because, as the Scottish lady rightly said, it’s better to wade through the slough of despond with the weight off your back than on it.