April 28, 2022

Joel Beeke on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress

Stephen Nichols & Joel Beeke
Joel Beeke on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress

Christians are not meant to be lone rangers traveling to eternity. We have fellow believers as our companions and the Scriptures as our map. To begin season three of Open Book, Stephen Nichols enters the library of Joel Beeke to discuss John Bunyan’s beloved classic on the Christian life.


Stephen Nichols: Welcome back to another episode of Open Book. In our first season, we were in the library of Dr. Sproul. We visited with Dr. John MacArthur in our second season. And for this, our third season of Open Book, we'll be visiting with Dr. Joel Beeke. So, let's go into Dr. Beeke's library and see what books have influenced him.

We are in the office of Dr. Joel Beeke and it's full of books—which shouldn't surprise anyone who knows anything about you, Dr. Beeke—but your office is full of books. Dr. Beeke is not only the President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, he's also the minister at Heritage Reformed Congregation here in Grand Rapids. You're the founder and the editorial director of Reformation Heritage Books, and you're also author/editor. Last count was seventy books, so books are a significant part of your life.

Joel Beeke: Seventy books, that's embarrassing; but I actually just finished my one hundredth book.

Nichols: Okay. Well, there we go.

Beeke: This must be ten years old.

Nichols: I knew it was more, but I wasn't sure. Our first season, of course, was with Dr. Sproul, and he was up over one hundred, so there you go. You're going to keep going.

Beeke: I feel closest to God when I write, Steve. Over the years, I'm almost like a compulsive writer. If I don't write for a couple weeks, it's odd, but I actually start feeling more distant from God. Writing just draws me in closer to the Lord, sort of like journaling used to do for some of the old divines. I just need to write.

Nichols: It's part of who you are.

Beeke: Yeah.

Nichols: And part of writing is being a good reader.

Beeke: Right.

Nichols: And you are a good reader, and you picked this great book. Everyone should have read this. If they haven't, I don't know what's wrong with them. Let's go ahead and jump in. Why'd you pick Pilgrim's Progress?

Beeke: Well, when I was fourteen years old, I came under very deep conviction of sin and had a difficult time really believing that God could save a wretch like me. I turned to my dad's bookcase and I began to devour the Puritan books. I'd stay up late at night, every single night, trying to get comfort for my soul, trying to get into spiritual liberty. Those books did so much for me. It impacted my entire life.

But one book was very special. That was Pilgrim's Progress. I read it in my bedroom late at night, but my dad also read it to us every Sunday evening for about thirty minutes, and it was just phenomenal. When my parents had their fiftieth anniversary, all five of us children said, "We're going to thank my dad for one thing, and my mom for one thing." This was just before my dad passed away with a heart attack—on the pulpit, actually, straight from the pulpit to glory—but all five of us thanked my dad for the Sunday evening family worship Pilgrim's Progress sessions, because it just stood out in the week.

I remember my brother saying, "Dad, I want to thank you that my oldest memory in life is sitting on your lap while you were reading Pilgrim's Progress, and the tears were streaming down your face, and I remember looking up into your face and thinking, ‘God is real.’ So, Dad, I want to thank you, I never had to doubt the existence of God because my oldest memory is you reading Pilgrim's Progress.”

So what my dad would do is he would read this book to us, and we'd sit at his feet, the five of us just right around in a little semicircle. About thirty minutes a night, Sunday evening, he'd come to a section, and he'd set the book down, and then he'd turn to us, and he'd just teach us. And we'd ask him questions. “What does Miss Talkative mean?” “What's the house interpreter?” “What's the man in the iron cage, Dad?” He'd often teach us with tears, and it was just so, so impressionable. When we got to the end, he'd start over. All twenty years I was home, one time he said, “Maybe we should try The Holy War.” We got about a quarter of the way into The Holy War, and it was too difficult for some of us that were small.

Nichols: Not the same.

Beeke: He said, “Well, let's go back to Pilgrim's Progress.”

Nichols: That's great. How many times do you think you made it through over those twenty years?

Beeke: Oh, probably once a year. Maybe once every year and a half.

Especially if those teaching times, right?

Beeke: Yeah. We certainly went through it a dozen times minimum.

That's great. So many great scenes, so many fascinating characters you bump into. Do you have any that stand out for you? Episodes?

Beeke: Oh yes, oh yes, many of them. I love it when Christian, with his friend, is in Giant Despair and suddenly Christian says, “Ah, I think I've got a key in my pocket—the promises of God that will unlock every gate in the castle.” This is a genius stroke, right? Because the promises of God are the foundation of our salvation…

Nichols: And they're right there.

Beeke: …and when we really embrace the promises, you know, we'll be lifted out of every depression and every vestige of unbelief will be scared away.

It can slay the giants.

Beeke: That's right.

Nichols: You know, there's an edition—you've probably seen this one—that Eerdmans puts out with full color pictures.

Beeke: Oh, yes.

Nichols: There's the Doubting Castle, and the Giant of Despair is this big club. When my kids were little, they sort of gravitated to that. They always pointed at that picture called the “big giant page,” so I remember that.

Beeke: Well, I love the one that the Gospel Standard Strict Baptists did of a guy who did oil paintings. I think it's about 7x10. Every scene on the left side of the page is the text on the right side. Every single page is beautiful. Beautiful.

Nichols: Oh, you're kidding. Oh, that would be a great one.

We actually carry that book in RHB, and it's just wonderful.

Nichols: And this one here you have, this was the very recent one, just came out from Banner of Truth.

Beeke: Yes. It’s a good, basic one.

Nichols: It's a nice, little hard back, has a few notes on the side just to help you walk through, a few etchings.

Beeke: Yeah, that's a good one. And then there's the other one that's good is the one that has William Mason's notes in it. William Mason had some pretty insightful things. It's not overloaded with notes, but they're really good notes.

Nichols: Well, this is a great book to start off our time with—Pilgrim’s Progress, a classic. I know so many have been impacted by it, but that's such a great story that you shared with us.

Beeke: Yes. Well, one more quick thing I want to say.

Nichols: Yes, please.

Beeke: One thing my dad really stressed with us is he said, “You notice Christian was never alone.” He always had Faithful with him. When Faithful died in Vanity Fair, then Hopeful was there. We're not meant to be lone rangers traveling to eternity. The beauty of Pilgrim's Progress is actually every stage all the way along, everything Christian goes through, is experientially grounded in the Scriptures. So that ties in together just so beautifully his vivid imagination, which some friends said was so vivid you shouldn't even publish it, right? “You're a Roman Catholic,” they said, “because your imagination is so vivid.” But he said, “No, no, no. My imagination is always tethered to Scripture.” And so when he published it, he was afraid it wouldn't sell at all…

Nichols: Yeah, that was not the problem.

Beeke: …and it became one of the world's greatest bestselling books ever. But part of it, I think, was because it was so scriptural, and he always had this subliminal message of “this is the way a Christian lives experientially—he's walking to eternity.”

Nichols: Isn't it Spurgeon who said, “Prick him and he bleeds Bibline”?

Beeke: Yes, Bibline blood everywhere.

Nichols: That famous line from Spurgeon. Very true of Bunyan.

Beeke: That's true.

Nichols: Well, we're off to a great start here with our first time in your library. Thank you.

Beeke: My pleasure.

Nichols: I'm Steve Nichols, and that was another Open Book. Open Book is a podcast about the power of books and the people they've shaped. If you've enjoyed this episode, please leave a rating or review wherever you're listening. It's the best way to help others discover us, and it's a great encouragement to me. I'll see you next week for another episode of Open Book.