In the Dungeon of Giant Despair

by

At one point on their pilgrimage, Christian and his companion Hopeful stepped aside from the true Way, into By-Path-Meadow, because it looked easier and seemed to be going in the same direction as the Way. Soon they realized their mistake and began the journey back towards the Way. As they traveled, they slept one night on the grounds of a castle, but it turned out that this was Doubting-Castle, owned by Giant Despair. When the giant found them, he threw them into his dark and nasty dungeon, and they suffered terribly, from capture on Wednesday until escape on Sunday.

On Thursday, at the suggestion of his wife, Diffidence, Giant Despair beat them severely and mercilessly. On Friday he told them to kill themselves since there was no hope for them. On Saturday, angered that they had not committed suicide, he showed them the bones of those he had previously murdered by tearing them to pieces. He assured them that their end would come soon in the same manner. Then he beat them again.

At midnight on Saturday, despite their wounds, Christian and Hopeful began to pray (like Paul and Silas in Acts 16:25), and they continued this prayer throughout the night. Then we read of the amazing escape: “Now a little before it was Day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in this passionate speech; ‘What a fool,’ quoth he, ‘am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty? I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will I am persuaded open any lock in Doubting-Castle.’ Using the key, Christian and Hopeful escaped.”

The Meaning
There are at least two lessons to be learned from this incident in Pilgrim’s Progress. The first lesson concerns the importance of keeping to the Way, no matter how much easier or more attractive the alternatives might seem. Many Christians have made shipwreck of their lives by following the ways of the world and emulating the values, ambitions, and lifestyles of their non-Christian neighbors, or their society, rather than following Christ. It is very easy to persuade ourselves that our situation is exceptional or that our circumstances warrant making a decision that goes contrary to Scripture. The end justifies the means, we say. This is never true. Keep to the Way.

The second and key lesson, however, concerns assurance. The most striking part of the story is where Christian realizes that he had the key all the time! There was no need for them to have spent even one hour in the dungeon. Sadly, Christian had forgotten that he had the key in his possession. What was the key? Well, it was the key called “Promise,” and because he had this key, there was no need to be in Doubting-Castle as a prisoner of Giant Despair. In modern language, Christian had in his possession all of the promises of God, and therefore he had no need to be a captive to despair. Christian ought to have trusted in God and His promises. Had he done so, he would not have been the prisoner of doubt and despair.

The Doctrine
At the heart of this incident from Pilgrim’s Progress is the issue of the assurance of salvation. How can I be sure that I am a Christian and so avoid doubt and despair? Christians in the Reformed tradition have not always agreed on this doctrine. Some have argued that assurance is of the very essence of saving faith and should, therefore, be the possession of every Christian. Others, including those who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith (18.3), have argued that assurance may be (and indeed ought to be) the possession of every Christian, but that it does not automatically accompany saving faith. Rather, they say, it often comes later, as men and women reflect upon the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

The great Scottish theologian Thomas Boston (1676–1732), recognized that there was some truth in both of these positions. He held to the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith that assurance of salvation is not of the essence of saving faith, and so there are many people who are true believers and yet lack assurance. He spoke of those who go to heaven “in as a mist,” truly converted yet unsure of their salvation. At the same time, however, he recognized that there is a certain assurance, or “appropriating persuasion,” that is indeed a constituent element in saving faith. It seems wise to follow Boston in this matter and to recognize both kinds of assurance.

The Application
Are you going through a time of doubt or despair? Have you become a prisoner of these enemies of God and the Gospel? If you are a Christian, the wonderful truth is that you already have in your possession all that is necessary for your deliverance — you need to trust in the promises of God.

Has the enemy tried to get you to doubt the truth of God’s Word? Have you sometimes been easily persuaded that the Scriptures cannot be trusted? As we seek to live the Christian life in a fallen world and in the midst of an increasingly pagan society, the enemy will do all that he can to breed doubt about the trustworthiness of God and His Word. Do not listen! God’s promises remain true.

Has the enemy tried to get you to doubt the reality of your own salvation? Has he tried to persuade you that you are a failure, that you will never be able truly to live a Christian life and that you are a terrible sinner? Has he even tried to persuade you that you are not a Christian at all? Do not listen! God’s promises remain true.

Has the enemy tried to breed despair in your heart? Has he tried to convince you that your Christian hope is a fantasy and that this world is all that there is? Has he tried to persuade you that Christianity is just one religion among hundreds of others and that it is not true? Has he tried to persuade you that Jesus Christ was just a man, like other men, and that he was not the Son of God? Has he tried to get you to the point where you despair of knowing anything for sure? Do not listen! God’s promises remain true.

There will come a day when the enemies of God, including doubt and despair, are utterly destroyed by God (as we see later in Pilgrim’s Progress when Doubting-Castle is torn down and Giant Despair is killed and then beheaded), but in the meantime we are in the midst of a battle.

Stand firm, then, learning from the experiences of Christian and Hopeful. In the first place, we must not be led off the narrow road that we are called to walk. In the second place, when doubt and despair would seek to imprison us, we must escape from these enemies by using the key that all believers have, the promises of God.

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