Below are my notes from a Bible Study on the Life of John Bunyan. These notes are roughly based on John Piper's biography of Bunyan given at the 1999 Pastors Conference. I have edited Piper's message and added my own thoughts from my own reading of Bunyan.
Romans 8:18 ‘For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us’…then Paul continues in verse 36: As it is written:
“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’’
Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.’
We all will suffer. I haven’t suffered considerably at all yet. But I know I will. God promises it to me! Suffering will work to wean me away from my hunger of the world and bring me to want more of God. I know it will happen and maybe soon. So I’ve decided to research into one man’s suffering so that we all can be taught how to suffer properly.
So that we can suffer rightly; delighting in God, clinging onto Him, not despising the day of the Lord’s chastening- for whoever the Lord loves He chastens. We’re illegitimate sons and not co-heirs with Christ if we do not know suffering (Hebrews 12:7).
Let’s have a look at what John Bunyan can teach us on How to suffer well.
On quoting 2 Corinthians 1:9 where Paul says, "We had this sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God that raiseth the dead."
‘By this scripture I was made to see that if ever I would suffer rightly, I must first pass a sentence of death upon every thing that can be properly called a thing of this life, even to reckon myself, my wife, my children, my health, my enjoyment, and all, as dead to me, and myself as dead to them. The second was, to live upon God that is invisible, as Paul said in another place; the way not to faint, is to "look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.’
In Bunyan’s preparation to suffer he saw that he wouldn’t be able to glorify God in suffering if idols were present in his life. He was intent on crucifying sin ‘even to reckon myself, my wife, my children, my health, my enjoyment, and all, as dead to me, and myself as dead to them’. The first lesson of suffering is counting it all loss for Christ. We can only have joy in Christ during suffering if we have a Christ to have joy in. If television or food or money or power or intellect is god in our day to day wealthy lives then why should God be God only in our suffering times. ‘To live upon God that is invisible’ is the starting point of counting ourselves dead to the world. If we are captivated with Him before suffering we shall be during suffering -only with a greater measure.
John Bunyan was born in Elstow, near Bedford,on November 30, 1628. His Dad was a godly man and a metal worker. Bunyan is said to have received two to four years of formal education. In 1644 his mother and sister died within one month of each other. One month after this Bunyan’s Father remarried.
At age 16 Bunyan was drafted into the Parliamentary Army were he witnessed one man dieing in front of him after being shot in the head with a bullet intended for Bunyan.
He is thought to have married at the age of 20 or 21 to a woman unnamed in his writings. They had 4 children the oldest of which was born blind.
Spiritually Bunyan described himself as having few equals: "... especially considering my years, which were tender, for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God . . . Until I came to the state of marriage, I was the very ringleader of all the youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness."
During the first five years of his marriage Bunyan converted to Christ by the grace of God. He joined a non-conformist church pastored by John Gifford. His Spiritual Auto-biography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners recalls his painful journey to the place of assurance. Bunyan wrestled on several occasions with the doctrine of election; thinking that he was a reprobate, had committed the unforgivable sin and will be condemned to Hell.
He writes: "I feared that this wicked sin of mine might be that sin unpardonable." "Oh, no one knows the terrors of those days but myself." "I found it a hard work now to pray to God because despair was swallowing me up."
His conversion experience is probably best attributed to the moment when he describes himself walking through a field:
One day as I was passing into the field . . . 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, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he wants [=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, today, and forever." Heb. 13:8. Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God [about the unforgivable sin] left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God."
In 1655, Bunyan’s gift of preaching was discovered. As he preached people responded.
‘But I at first could not believe that God should speak by me to the heart of any other man, still counting myself unworthy; yet those who thus were touched would love me and have a particular respect for me’ and though I did put it from me, that they should be awakened by me, still they would confess it, and affirm it before the saints of God; they would also bless God for me, unworthy wretch that I am! and count me God’s instrument that showed to them they way of salvation.’
John Owen said about Bunyan: "I would willingly exchange my learning for the tinker's power of touching men's hearts.".
His wife died in 1658 leaving Buyan with four children, one of which was blind. Bunyan then re-married a woman named Elizabeth. One year after the marriage Bunyan was arrested and put in prison due to the act of Uniformity. The Act required Pastors to accept and use the common book of prayer, and become ordained by the Episcopal Church. In the August, 2000 Puritan pastors were forced form their churches.
Bunyan was not tortured in prison although he could have been executed for his offence.
Elizabeth looked after the children as a step-mum for twelve years and gave birth to two more during Bunyan’s imprisonment.
‘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.’
In 1672 Bunyan was released form prison under the Declaration of Religious Indulgence. He was licensed to pastor his church of 120 in Bedford again.
Bunyan was imprisoned for the second time in 1675 until 1676. During this time it is said the he wrote Pilgrims Progress.
Bunyan died in the August of 1688 from a fever caught when riding from reading to London. He died without the comfort of his family in the house of Strudwick the Grocer.
What was the effect of this suffering? How did it produce or make way for a greater amount of God-centeredness in his life? These five observations are taken from a biographical lecture on Bunyan by John Piper.
So what did Bunyan’s suffering do for him?
1. Bunyan's suffering confirmed his calling to write for the afflicted church.
The most well known Bunyan book is evidently Pilgrims Progress. Published in over 200 languages, it’s said to be the second best selling book of all time under the Bible. According to Whitefield "It smells of the prison. It was written when the author was confined in Bedford jail. And ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross: the Spirit of Christ and of Glory then rests upon them."
In the year of it’s publication (1678) the book went through three editions. I first read Pilgrims Progress two years ago last Christmas and loved it! As I presume you know the book tries to capture the Christian life by following a man named Christian on his pilgrimage to the Celestial City. From the joys of the delectable mountains pictured as the church to Christian’s verbal battles with Mr Worldly Wiseman and other characters the book remains balanced in representing the true gospel in a Puritan style.
Bunyan is said to be the author of 58 books from various genres. He wrote children’s literature, doctrinal expositions such as his book on prayer, allegory (the pilgrims progress, holy war, the Life and Death of Mr Badman). He wrote controversy (books on Quakers and baptism), poems as well as his own Spiritual Auto-biography named ‘Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners’.
All of this came from a man who had no formal education and didn’t read Hebrew or Greek. Yet he was used of God and fulfilled the example of Acts 4:13 ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marvelled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.’
Apart from The Pilgrims Progress I’ve only read two other books by Bunyan, Grace and Abounding and a short book named ‘the Heavenly Footman.’ This writing seeks to give a description of the man that gets to Heaven. How does the elect person live in the world so that they will not get caught up with earthly riches but treasure Christ who is invisible? How can we press on to win the prize? It is an exhortation to push on, persevere to the end and not look back in case we are consumed like Lot’s wife. The book reminds us to not be passive in pursuing the goal of heaven as some do. We can’t rest on the doctrine of eternal security until we have made our calling and election sure.
His writings from jail and suffering indicated the joy and peace that comes from a God who Bunyan had not yet seen but yet believed.
2. Bunyan's suffering deepened his love for his flock
An excerpt from his book Christian Behaviour proves this point:
Thus have I, in a few words, written to you before I die, a word to provoke you to faith and holiness, because I desire that you may have the life that is laid up for all them that believe in the Lord Jesus, and love one another, when I am deceased. Though then I shall rest from my labours, and be in paradise, as through grace I comfortably believe, yet it is not there, but here, I must do you good. Wherefore, I not knowing the shortness of my life, nor the hindrance that hereafter I may have of serving my God and you, I have taken this opportunity to present these few lines unto you for your edification.
Bunyan loved the gospel ministry counting imprisonment as a small price to pay for being a preacher of the gospel. He said:
"My heart hath been so wrapped up in the glory of this excellent work, that I counted my self more blessed and honoured of God by this, than if I had made me the emperor of the Christian world, or the lord of all the glory of the earth without it! O these words, ‘’He that converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death (James v.20). ‘’The fruit of righteousness is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise’’ (Prov. xi.30). ‘’They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever’’ (Dan. xii. 3). ‘’For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For ye are our glory and joy" (1 Thes. ii. 19,20). These, I say, with many other of a like nature, have been great refreshments to me.’’
He loved the duty of preaching and the duty of rejoicing in his congregation of 120 people.
3. Bunyan's suffering opened his understanding to the truth that the Christian life is hard and that following Christ means opposing the system of this world.
In his book The Greatness of the Soul Bunyan pleads for his readers to persevere (as he did with the book The Heavenly Footman) and not waste our lives.
The book is based on Mark 8:36-37:"What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" His purpose? "awaken you, rouse you off of your beds of ease, security, and pleasure, and fetch you down upon your knees before him, to beg of him grace to be concerned about the salvation of your souls."
Bunyan bears the mark of a Puritan by clearly illustrating the cost, commitment and sacrifice of the Christian life. As Christ put it ‘For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost.’ (Luke 14:28). Commenting on John 15:2 2 ("Every branch that bears fruit, He prunes"), he writes:
"It is the will of God, that they that go to heaven should go thither hardly or with difficulty. The righteous shall scarcely be saved. That is, they shall, but yet with great difficulty, that it may be the sweeter."
In his book The Excellency of a Broken Heart he says,
"Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think . . . . It is wounding work, of course, this breaking of the hearts, but without wounding there is no saving. . . . Where there is grafting there is a cutting, the scion must be let in with a wound; to stick it on to the outside or to tie it on with a string would be of no use. Heart must be set to heart and back to back, or there will be no sap from root to branch, and this I say, must be done by a wound."
This concept has been lost in some churches. Salvation has become easy: an on the spot quick decision into the church community rather than decision that will radically transform a whole worldview and lifestyle. Salvation has often become reduced to completing a simple prayer instead of living a life characterised by hating sin and enjoying God. Raising a hand, praying a prayer, or completing a course, does not evidence salvation. Those methods can and are used by God. They can profit but I believe that they deceive more people than they bless.
It’s hard to enter the Kingdom. Luke 13:24 ‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able.’
Salvation is identified by the endurance of sufferings with joy. This is what Bunyan found. His sufferings allowed him to experience Christ’s words when He said: "The way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt. 7:14).
4. Bunyan's suffering strengthened his assurance that God is sovereign over all the afflictions of his people and will bring them safely home.
Denying the Sovereignty of God leads to discomfort. If we do not embrace the fact that God has appointed who will suffer (Rev 6:11), and at what times they will suffer (Acts 18:9-10), and the type of sufferings they shall endure (Acts 9:16) then we have a problem. Denying that God is sovereign over suffering (meaning he not only permits but plans the suffering) will paralyse a whole theological system and leave you with a God whose plans have been ultimately distorted and upset. This Arminian God provides no comfort for the Christian because the Arminian can’t say to the suffering saint ‘I did that for your good’ instead He will say ‘I’m sorry about this suffering or that suffering but I’m trying to make it better.’
For Bunyan the centre of his Christian understanding was found in the Sovereignty of God. Therefore the backbone of Bunyan’s joy during pain was God’s sovereignty as found in Genesis 50:20 ‘what you meant for evil God meant for good’.
The Sovereignty of God during trials brings comfort and joy! We can say ‘It’s working for my good. My Father has planned this for my exceeding weight of glory. My King leads me to suffering so that I can submit more of myself to him.’
In his book Seasonable Counsels: Advice to Sufferers this is what he says
"It is not what enemies will, nor what they are resolved upon, but what God will, and what God appoints; that shall be done. . . . No enemy can bring suffering upon a man when the will of God is otherwise, so no man can save himself out of their hands when God will deliver him up for his glory. . . We shall or shall not suffer, even as it pleaseth him."
Shall we except from God good and not evil?
"Let me beg of thee, that thou wilt not be offended either with God, or men, if the cross is laid heavy upon thee. Not with God, for he doth nothing without a cause, nor with men, for . . . they are the servants of God to thee for good. (Psalm 17:14 KJV; Jer. 24:5). Take therefore what comes to thee from God by them, thankfully."
5. Bunyan's suffering deepened in him a confidence in the Bible as the Word of God and a passion for Bible memory and Biblical exposition as the key to perseverance.
During Bunyan’s time in Prison he said this:
‘’I never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as now. Those scriptures that I saw nothing in before were 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. . . I have had sweet sights of the forgiveness of my sins in this place, and of my being with Jesus in another world. . . I have seen that here that I am persuaded I shall never, while in this world, be able to express.’’
One scene from The Pilgrims Progress captures well what it is to have faith in the promises of God. Christian has been locked away in Doubting Castle until he makes a discovery: a key in his chest pocket called ‘promise’….
What a fool I have been, to lie like this in a stinking dungeon, when I could have just as well walked free. In my chest pocket I have a key called Promise that will, I am thoroughly persuaded, open any lock in Doubting-Castle." "Then," said Hopeful, "that is good news. My good brother, do immediately take it out of your chest pocket and try it." Then Christian took the key from his chest and began to try the lock of the dungeon door; and as he turned the key, the bolt unlocked and the door flew open with ease, so that Christian and hopeful immediately came out.
The point is that Bunyan wouldn’t have had access to this key if he didn’t memorise the Bible. He had the scriptures stored is his heart, he studied scripture intently. Spurgeon puts it like this:
"He had studied our Authorized Version . . . till his whole being was saturated with Scripture; and though his writings . . . continually make us feel and say, 'Why, this man is a living Bible!' Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak with out quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God."
I pray that God would help us to suffer well to the glory of God!
Help us Lord to suffer well!