John Bunyan was born in Bedfordshire, England in 1628. Like Andrew Fuller, Bunyan came from the working class and understood poverty early in life. His early life included a good deal of degradation as well as a stint in the army. Even after he had married, Bunyan was what we would call today a wayward Christian. He later realized he was no Christian at all. The story is oft told of how Bunyan heard a sermon one Sunday morning against the evils of Sunday sports. That afternoon, while playing "cats", Bunyan heard a voice in his heart which said, "Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to Heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?" Those words would not leave him over the next few months. In one of God’s divine encounters, John Bunyan began to turn from religion in form to Christ in fact. One day Bunyan tried to join in on a conversation about religion with several poor women he heard talking as he walked down the street. He thought himself to be quite knowledgeable about such things so he attempted to reason along with these godly women. Instead, Bunyan had no idea what they were speaking of. He wrote:
"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."1
Later those same women introduced Bunyan to their pastor, John Gifford. While not Baptist, Gifford and the church he pastored were definitely congregational and definitely not "high church." The church was comprised of both Congregational and Baptist believers. It was under Gifford’s preaching and teaching that Bunyan at last came to Christ. Bunyan's, Grace Abounding is his own spiritual biography. In it he tells how the verse, "He hath made peace by the blood of His cross" (Colossians 1:20), finally broke through to his heart and he was truly saved.
Several years (1656) after coming to Christ, Bunyan began to preach at the same church which Gifford had pastored. He was above all a preacher who would proclaim God's Word anywhere and everywhere:
"He himself ... went out to preach the Word in the open air on village greens, in barns, in private houses, and sometimes even in parish churches. Bedfordshire and neighboring shires are full of traditions of his preaching, and several Congregational and Baptist churches claimed to have been founded through his preaching."2
It was not long before Bunyan’s willingness and drive to preach the gospel everywhere got him into trouble. By 1660, Anglican royalists had stepped up their attacks on non-conformist preachers (Baptists, Congregationalists, and Puritans in general). It became illegal to preach in non-sanctioned places. So on Nov. 12, 1660, John Bunyan was arrested for preaching in a field near a farmhouse. Upon his arrest, Bunyan was informed that if he would apologize to the magistrates and refrain from preaching, he would be released. Bunyan replied that such a promise was not possible and thus began a twelve year imprisonment. His refusal to cease preaching reminds one of Peter and John's reply to the Jewish leaders when they were instructed to refrain from preaching:
Acts 4:18-20—"And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard."
During those 12 years of imprisonment, Bunyan wrote Grace Abounding, Confessions of Faith, and A Defense of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith. Ernest Bacon speculates that it was in the last part of his imprisonment that Bunyan began to formulate his greatest work, Pilgrim's Progress.3 Finally, King Charles II released most religious prisoners including John Bunyan. Bunyan emerged a leader among non-conformist and the pastor of the church at Bedford. He wouldn't have long to spend with his wife and seven children, however. On Feb. 1675, Charles II changed his mind and Bunyan along with others was arrested again. This time more legally minded friends accomplished the release of Bunyan after a short time. On leaving prison this second time, Bunyan released for publication part one of his monumental The Pilgrims Progress in 1678.
What may seem like a question for church historians and no one else is whether Bunyan was really a Baptist at all. The answer is important to modern Christians as you will see. There can be no doubt that Bunyan had little use for denominational titles. He once said:
As for those titles of Anabaptists, Independents, Presbyterians, or the like, I conclude that they come neither from Jerusalem nor from Antioch, but rather from hell and Babylon, for they naturally tend to division."4
In fact, it would probably be safer to call Bunyan a baptist rather than a Baptist. He was baptized as a believing adult and often taught that baptism should be administered only to those who had heard and embraced the gospel. At the same time, Bunyan did not believe that either baptism or the Lord's Supper should divide true Christians. "Instead of accenting the differences … he emphasized the fundamentals of the faith which all true believers shared. He defended the gospel as the basis of Christian unity … When he involved himself in controversy, he did so because he saw a challenge to the gospel itself."5 Bunyan was a baptist in the sense that he held to what became the foundational tenets of Baptists. He was committed to God's Word first and foremost; he held to a congregational form of church government; and he strongly emphasized justification by faith alone.
Bunyan certainly was in sympathy with the Particular Baptists in his firm grip on the Doctrines of Grace. We, of what is sometimes called the Reformed Faith, could learn much from John Bunyan. He was far more interested in God's glory and man's salvation than he was in restrictive denominational tags.
By the time of Bunyan’s death in 1688, eleven editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress had been published with over 100,000 copies in print. He left a legacy of many other great books and poems. None of these, however, are his greatest legacy to us. Bunyan’s greatest gift to the church was his demonstration that the Doctrines of Grace are not static or cold. The gospel is not predestination—it is Christ! Grace is how God brings us to Christ. Above all Bunyan loved Christ. He preached Christ and exalted Christ.
"There was first and foremost in John Bunyan a deep personal love for his Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ ... Bunyan's books are full of Christ - His welcome, His unshakable truth, His advocacy for sinners... His preaching and writing were Christ-centered, and it was this that carried men's hearts captive to Christ. If our present day preachers and theologians had the same emphasis a very different spirit would prevail in both the Church and the State."6
1 John Bunyan: Pilgrim and Dreamer by Ernest W. Bacon, Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1983., p. 65.
2 Ibid., p. 79.
3 Ibid., p. 118.
4 A Confession of My Faith by John Bunyan, 1672, p. 191.
5 Baptist Theologians by Timothy George and David S. Dockery, Broadman Press: Nashville, TN, 1990, p. 26.
6 Bacon, p. 178.
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