Crossing the River

Charles Haddon Spurgeon said he had read Pilgrim’s Progress one hundred times. Alexander Whyte said he had read it almost as often. These two giants of the British pulpit have been called the “last of the Puritans,” so thoroughly immersed were they in Puritan writings. Spurgeon gives us the key to Bunyan’s genius: “Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. He had studied the Bible; he had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture and…he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress — that sweetest of all prose poems — without continually making us feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere; his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God.”

The Bible was the antidote for Bunyan’s early, unpromising years, which held out little hope for his writing the most popular Protestant devotional work of the ages. This is not, to say the least, the usual expectation for a tinker (his father’s trade as well) with very little formal education. John Owen, Oxford’s Puritan theologian par excellence, who declined Harvard’s offer of its presidency, would take every opportunity to hear Bunyan preach. When King Charles II expressed surprise at this, Owen responded that he would gladly exchange all of his learning for the tinker’s ability to touch the heart. Bunyan kept his common touch: Once, when told he had preached a grand sermon, he replied, “Aye, you have no need to tell me that, for the devil whispered it to me before I was well out of the pulpit.”

The contrast between Bunyan’s mastery of devotional English writing and his earlier unregenerate use of the language is truly staggering. In his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he writes: “One day, as I was standing at a neighbor’s shop window, and there cursing and swearing and playing the madman after my unwanted manner, there sat within the woman of the house, and heard me, who, though she was a very loose and ungodly wretch, yet protested that I swore and cursed at the most fearful rate that she was made to tremble to hear me; and told me further, that I was the ungodliest fellow for swearing that she had ever heard in all her life, and that I by thus doing was able to spoil all the youth in the whole town, if they came but in my company.”

Bunyan says he was silenced and shamed by this reproof and soon after “I beetook me to my Bible.” By God’s grace in conversion and providence, the tinker would come to write what has been described as the finest piece of writing in the English language — his description in Pilgrim’s Progress of Christian’s crossing the river of death into the city of the great King. Robert Browning put it this way: “His language was not ours: ‘Tis my belief, God spake: No tinker has such powers.”

In his unregenerate state as a church bell-ringer, he feared death from the collapse of the belfry, but later he would write of the bells of heaven ringing for joy to welcome the pilgrims who had crossed the river. He would also write of two angels who would tell Christian and Hopeful that they would have to pass through the river of death before they could enter the heavenly Jerusalem. In the crossing of the river, Christian encountered “a great darkness and horror,” but Hopeful encouraged him with words from Isaiah: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee” (KJV).

On the other side, the two “shining Ones” met them and told them of the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem. Bunyan, “the immortal dreamer” continues: “Now I saw in my dream, that these two men went in at the gate; and lo, as they entered, they were transfigured, and they had raiment put on that shone like gold.… Then I heard in my dream, that all the bells in the city rang again for joy; and that it was said unto them, enter ye into the joy of your Lord. I also heard the men themselves, that they sang with a loud voice, saying, Blessing, Honour, Glory, and Power, be to Him that sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb forever and ever.… There were also of them that had wings, and they answered one another without intermission, saying, Holy, Holy, is the Lord. And after that, they shut up the gates: which when I had seen, I wished myself among them.”

The account of the pilgrims’ glorious reception in heaven, only part of which has been quoted here, is one of the most famous scenes in literature and has been called the crown of all Bunyan’s work. In Grace Abounding, he testifies that his former fears about death had been banished to the point where he cried, “‘Let me die’; now death was lovely and beautiful in my sight, for I saw we shall never live indeed until we be gone to the other world.” Puritan Thomas Shepard, one of Harvard’s founders, strikingly called death “the very best of all our gospel ordinances.” He points out that “in all his other ordinances, Christ comes, on occasion, to us; but in a believer’s death Christ takes us to be forever with Him.”

Another Puritan contemporary of Bunyan’s, Richard Baxter, wrote an enduring devotional classic The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, in which he urges his readers to spend half an hour every day “meditating on the joys of heaven.”

Renowned fifth-century preacher and administrator Peter Chrysologus (golden orator), who has been called the Chrysostom of Ravenna, indicated that one reason Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb was that his friend was to be “re-imprisoned…and re-submitted to the manifold incommodities of this life.”

At the end of part two of Pilgrim’s Progress, Mr. Valiant-for-Truth entered the river, saying, “Death where is thy sting?” and going deeper, he added, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he crossed over “and the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”

Mr. Stand-fast followed and when about halfway in he said, “‘This river has been a terror to many…yet the thoughts of what I am going to…doth lie as a glowing coal at my heart.’ After he had said, ‘Take me for I come unto thee,’ he ceased to be seen of them. But glorious it was, to see how the open region was filled with horses and chariots, with trumpeters and pipers, with singers, and players on stringed instruments, to welcome the pilgrims as they went up and followed one another in at the beautiful gate of the city.”

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