May 11, 2023

Derek Thomas on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress

Stephen Nichols & Derek Thomas
Derek Thomas on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress

Through all the hardships of life, we must always remember our unshaken identity in Christ. Today on the Open Book podcast, Stephen Nichols and Derek Thomas discuss a cherished Christian classic and its emphasis on the assurance of salvation.


Dr. Stephen Nichols: Well, welcome back to another episode of Open Book, and once again, we’re with Dr. Derek Thomas. It’s nice to see you, Dr. Thomas.

Dr. Derek Thomas: It’s wonderful to be back with you again.

Nichols: I just pulled this book out of your box, and it’s a wonderful leather-like blue cover—just a beautiful copy, a nice little design on the spine label—Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. This particular edition was published by Collins, London & Glasgow, and it doesn’t have a date here. This edition was printed in 1953, and the latest reprint was 1966. But there’s an inscription in this book—it’s a Psalm text.

Thomas: Yes, so, this inscription is Psalm 128: “Blessed is everyone that feareth the Lord; that walketh in his ways. For thou shalt eat the labor of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.” And it says, “God bless you, Derek, with Christian love from Jane.” And it’s my birthday, 7/2/73, so I’m twenty-one.

Nichols: Ah, this is great.

Thomas: It was a twenty-first birthday gift from Jane. We weren’t married then, but Jane was my wife’s roommate through college.

Nichols: Oh, wow. That’s wonderful.

Thomas: And it’s a very tragic story because Jane was a wonderful, wonderful, professing Christian—one of the most zealous evangelists that I’ve met in my life—but on the eve of graduation, she abandoned her faith.

Nichols: Oh, my.

Thomas: And I’m not sure whether she has ever returned. She went into a very dark place for a long, long time. So, this particular copy of Pilgrim’s Progress, a story which contains endless warnings about not persevering . . .

Nichols: Yes. I just was thinking she sounds like a character—sadly, a tragic character—in the book itself.

Thomas: Right, and how believable a profession of faith can appear to be, and even last for several years, and then to completely throw it away. And the question that Rosemary and I have asked ourselves, and friends of ours have asked over the last forty years is, “Was she ever truly converted, and is she backslidden, and will she return?” And I don’t have answers to these questions.

Nichols: Yeah. It’s not always easy or clear, is it?

Well, this volume you have here, well, first of all, you have some margin notes. You’re a very neat margin note writer, I should say. Maybe that’s because of your maths and science background. You write with precision. I did notice what I think is probably a tea stain or two, maybe coffee, but looks to me like it could be tea. But the thing I find interesting, too, is you have some Spurgeon quotes printed out, taped in. Wasn’t it Spurgeon who said that Bunyan bled “bibline”?

Thomas: Yes.

Nichols: Right? Was that a Spurgeon quote?

Thomas: Yes, you pricked him.

Nichols: Pricked him and Scripture comes out everywhere. But the quote here is taped right in the title page: “‘Next to the Bible, the book that I value most is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I believe I have read it through at least a hundred times. It is a volume to which I never seem to tire.’ – Charles Spurgeon.”

Thomas: And you and I, probably, can echo to having reread Pilgrim’s Progress—maybe not one hundred times.

Nichols: I don’t think I’m quite up to a hundred, but a number of times I’ve reread it.

Thomas: Yes. But it never ceases to inspire and captivate your interest because it’s a story, and it’s a road trip.

Nichols: You’re just drawn in.

Thomas: It’s a journey and full of some of the most wonderful pictures that you would find anywhere—memorable ones.

Nichols: Sure. I find myself knowing where those scenes are that you just sort of return to. You don’t always have to read the whole thing through, but just to pick it up and read through some of those scenes.

You’ve done a teaching series on Pilgrim’s Progress. You’re very familiar with the book. What would be one of your favorite scenes from Pilgrim’s Progress? I know that’s probably . . .

Thomas: In the second part—Bunyan wrote part one during his first imprisonment—there’s a point at which you find him waking up in the dream and then going back to sleep again in part one. And I think that’s the point at which he was released from prison. And then, he goes back into prison again and completes the book.

But it’s actually in part two—because people started to ask: What happened to the family? Why did he leave his wife and children behind? And it’s at that point—you need to remember that this is a dream—but he does write that because at least three attempts were made by others to cash in on what was now a very popular book. And we know of at least three attempts to write the second part. But he wrote the tale of Christiana and the four boys. And in that second tale, he describes a man with a muck rake, and he’s looking down, and all he can see is the muck, and he’s dejected and losing assurance.

Nichols: He’s overwhelmed.

Thomas: Overwhelmed by the trials of life. But what he does not see is that above his head, there is a crown, a golden crown that’s being held above his head. And that has stayed with me over the years, that we’re often looking down instead of reminding ourselves of who we are in Christ as adopted sons.

Nichols: You know, that’s such a major theme of the book, of just reminding us of who we are and Christian’s forgetfulness. You think of him in Giant of Despair’s dungeon, and he’s chained, and he forgets that he has a key.

I’m looking through this, and I see that not only do you have quotes from Spurgeon printed and taped in at various places, but you have chapter eighteen of the Westminster Confession printed out and in here: “Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation.”

Thomas: Because I think that’s what Pilgrim’s Progress is essentially about, especially part one. It is about an issue of assurance and how—especially for Reformed, Calvinistic Christians who wrestle with issues of law and gospel of perseverance—what does that mean in terms of my daily fall and decline into sin, and so on?

I actually think the eighteenth chapter of the confession is the best-written chapter in the confession because I think it shows that the divines were pastors who are actually wrestling with and experiential implications of Calvinism. So, I think there’s an overlap between not just the time period in which the eighteenth chapter of the confession was written and Pilgrim’s Progress, written just a decade or two later, but it is right at the heart of that Puritan wrestling with the experiential implications of Calvinism.

Nichols: Yeah. Well, there you have it. One of the best chapters written—and in one of the best books ever written—so chapter eighteen, very fitting that you have it inside Pilgrim’s Progress.

Well, this is wonderful. I’ve really enjoyed looking at this. You’re making me want to go back and pull my copy off the shelf and reread it again. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Thomas: Thank you.

Nichols: I’m Steve Nichols, and thanks for listening to Open Book, a podcast about the power of books and the people they’ve shaped. Want more of Open Book? Listen to past episodes at or find the show in any podcast app.

Open Book is a listener-supported outreach of Ligonier Ministries. We’ll be back in the library next week, so please join us again for another episode of Open Book.