Being one of the greatest books ever written (Christian or otherwise), we should begin by noting that there will be far more regarding The Pilgrim’s Progress that could be said than we will ever have time to actually say. My aim, therefore, during these discussions is to be more devotional than literary. For an excellent guide toward the literary excellence of Bunyan’s allegory, I would turn your attention to Leland Ryken’s little guide, which though apparently out of print is available for free as a Gospel Coalition course. Thus, as we focus upon the more devotional lessons and applications of this book, let us focus our attention upon three chief elements from these first pages: Christian’s flight from the City of Destruction, Pliable’s short journey, and the danger of Worldly-Wiseman’s counsel.
Bunyan thrusts us into the story by succinctly describing our main character: “I saw a Man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a Book in his hand, and a great Burden upon his back.”
The misery of this man, later called Christian, is twofold. The Burden on his back is a great pain, and the knowledge that his city shall be destroyed with fire from heaven is a great distress. Both being revealed to him through his Book, which, of course, is the Bible.
Too often, especially within our therapeutic culture, we only think of the Bible as a book of comfort and encouragement, yet to the unconverted, it should first be a source of misery.
Allow me to explain. The Heidelberg Catechism rightly notes that we must know three things to “live and die happily:” the misery of our sin, how we are redeemed from that misery, and how to be thankful to God for our redemption. Knowing the misery of our sin is certainly unpleasant, but it is necessary. How can anyone understand and be thankful for redemption from sin without first understanding its miseries? Christian may be miserable and greatly burdened, but he is far better off than those around him who remain ignorant to their peril. Their peace is fleeting, for destruction will surely come. Therefore, such misery is necessary for salvation. Much like pain is necessary to remove one’s hand from a hot stove, knowledge of his miserable condition was necessary for Christian to flee from the City of Destruction. In other words, ignorance may indeed be bliss but not for long.
Again, note the twofold nature of his misery. First, he rightly feared the coming destruction, yet he also felt the weight and guilt of his sin, represented by the Burden upon his back. Both cause him to flee from the City of Destruction, forsaking even his wife and children. It is here that we must take care to understand the allegory. Bunyan is giving a vivid portrait of Jesus’ command that love for Him must make even our love of family look like hatred in comparison. Of course, neither Jesus nor Bunyan were saying that a Christian should abandon his or her unbelieving household. By no means! In fact, the New Testament encourages believers to win over their family members with their living testimony of the grace and power of Christ. What is being shown in the book is simply that no one must wait to follow Christ until the rest of their family also desires to do so. As the hymn rightly says, “though none go with me, still I will follow. No turning back.”
As Christian leaves the City of Destruction, he is caught up by two of his neighbors, both desiring to persuade him away from his journey. Christian, instead, bids them to join with him in his pilgrimage. Obstinate, as his name suggests, flatly refuses and mocks Christian. Pliable, again as expected, is wooed by Christian’s descriptions of the joys promised within the Celestial City. While there certainly are many Obstinates in the world, they rarely tend to be among the church; rather, they prefer to keep their distance and scoff at anyone who would forsake earthly treasures for the hope of heavenly ones. It is, therefore, sufficient for us to note that Christian invited his company, answered his questions, and then turned his attention to Pliable, who desired to join Christian. So should our conduct be with the obstinate around us. We must never neglect the reality that no heart is so obstinate as to be made new by the Holy Spirit; however, we must take care not to neglect those who are interested in following Christ in hopes of winning through argumentation those who have none.
Pliable is a very fitting name for one who came with the intention of dissuading Christian yet was persuaded instead. Christian’s treatment of Pliable is again an example to us. Christian certainly knew the character of his neighbor and would have likely had doubts regarding the seriousness of his commitment. Nevertheless, Christian happily invited his company. Seasoned Christians, especially ministers, should take this to heart. Although you may rightly guess that an enthusiastic new convert will not go the distance, it is not our place to turn away those who would come to Christ. We ought to gladly hold out hope to any who begin their pilgrimage to the Celestial City.
Sadly, even though Christian and Pliable begin their walk by discussing glorious truths of the riches that await God’s people, they are neglectful to keep watch in prayer (Colossians 4:2), so they slip into the Slough of Despond. In the grip of despondency, Pliable’s true nature is revealed. The newness of Christian’s message had worn off, and in the bog, the promises of the joys yet to come were revealed to have only been fascinating ideas to him. Spurgeon’s thoughts on Pliables in the church are well worth heeding:
May God grant that we may not have any Pliables in our church! Alas! we do get them sometimes, and they go a great deal further on the pilgrim’s road than Mr Bunyan describes. They go right by the Interpreter’s House; they climb up the Hill Difficulty; they even pass the cross; but, of course, they never feel their burden roll off their backs. They are not conscious that there is a burden there. When Christians sing, they also sing because they think they are to have the same inheritance by-and-bye. They generally go through the Valley of Humiliation in broad daylight. Apollyon never fights with them, and they wonder how it is that he does not assail them. They think what good people they are, and what bad people they must be who have those stirrings and smitings of conscience of which they hear us speak. They cannot understand why we talk about Christians having such fierce conflicts within; but if they really knew the Lord, they would soon understand all about it; and until they do know Him, much of our preaching must remain a mystery to them. Pliable was an utter stranger to vital godliness. He had converted himself; or, rather, Christian had converted him by his talk about Heaven; and, perhaps, if it had not been for the Slough of Despond, he would have gone, as Ignorance did, right to the riverside, and been ferried over by Vain-hope, only to be refused admission at the gate, and to be carried by the two Shining Ones, bound hand and foot, and to be cast into hell by the back door, for there is a back door to hell as well as a front one; and some professors, who have, apparently, gone very far on the road to Heaven, will ultimately go to hell by this door unless they repent of their sin, and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
As did Spurgeon, I pray there are no Pliables within the church, yet it is likely inevitable that there are. Indeed, many are intrigued by the promises of God, yet never go deeper. Like Pliable, they never confront their miserable condition in sin and, thus, never truly behold the glories of redemption, which are worth enduring any suffering to obtain.
Christian, on the other hand, struggles toward the other side. He desperately wades through despondency, being pulled down by his Burden, resolved to flee from the City of Destruction even if he should die in the process. Thankfully, he is helped out of the mud by a man named Help. Jude 22-23 commands us to each play the part of Help as we are able, “Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating ever the garment stained by the flesh.”
Finally, let us consider the advice that Christian gets (and almost follows) from Mr. Worldly-Wiseman. Making note of Christian’s Burden, Worldly-Wiseman counsels Christian to travel to the town of Morality where a man named Legality (or his son, Civility) will be able to remove Christian’s Burden. Christian is saved from this path of futility and destruction only by walking under the fiery heights of Mount Sinai.
What is going on here?
We should note that Worldly-Wiseman speaks somewhat truly. Legality, civility, and morality all have the ability to remove the burden of sin but not to salvation. They are like false prophets who heal wounds lightly, “saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). Indeed, John Owen warned about the danger of clothing ourselves with civility and morality rather than actually killing our sin. He says of that man, “He hath got another heart than he had, that is more cunning: not a new heart, that is more holy.” Such is always the wisdom of the world, relying upon behavior modification to assuage the guilt of sin rather than the blood of Christ to cleanse of sin.
Yet even greater a danger than morality and civility is legality, which is why Christian was sent to him. Legality has the additional weight of bringing the law of God into the equation. Indeed, many pagans have and continue to behave with morality and civility, but legality (or we would tend to say legalism today) appeals more to one whose conscience has been vexed by the Word of God, for it presents the law of God as the solution.
Evangelist rightly warns Christian that true comfort cannot come from the law, for as Galatians 3:10 says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.'” Indeed, the law is not a balm to heal the wounds of sin; it is more like an x-ray to reveal which bones are broken. The purpose of the law is to display to us the greatness of our sin that we may look to and rejoice in the superior greatness of our redemption through the blood of Christ.
I will close here with a few thoughts from Spurgeon on what he believed was Bunyan’s biggest fault within this book (and I am inclined to agree):
I always feel inclined to blame Evangelist for some of the discomfort that poor Christian suffered in the Slough of Despond. 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; so 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.” There’s a hint to some of you ladies, who give away tracts in your district, and never give your servant Mary one. 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!” “But did you not,” 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 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 art not safe till thou canst cast off thy burden, and lie at the foot of the cross, and find peace in Jesus.”
 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress (pp. 17-18). Counted Faithful. Kindle Edition.