woensdag 8 januari 2014

John Bunyan and his Relevance for Today 2

A short sketch of Bunyan's life
       After this introduction, I first want to give you a short sketch of Bunyan's life. Perhaps you know already something about it. Ne­ver­theless, I want to pay some attention to it, because there is a close relationship with the message of Bunyan and his life. He learned his theology by his struggles and trials. This unites him to Luther. According to Lu­ther you can never become a real theologian when you have no trials and do not know of the assaults of the Satan. Luther said:  
I have discussed my theology with the devil (meaning the devil accusing him and pointing him to his sins) and I know it holds good (meaning the righteousness of Christ is a sufficient answer against all the accusations of the devil.)

       Bunyan was born in 1628 in Elstow, a little village not far from Bedford. His parents belonged to the Church of England. They did not pay much attention to the eternal welfare of their son. Nevertheless Bunyan as a young boy had deep impres­sions of the coming judgement and of the everlasting punishment. In the seventeenth century among all people, whether they were Protestant or Roman Catholic, there was still a strong sense of eternity. What divided Protestants and Roman Catholics was not the sense of eternity, but the answer on the ques­tion: How a man can be right in the sight of God?
       When Bunyan grew older, the deep impressions disappeared. He became a ring­leader in doing evil. He especially committed the sin of cursing and desecrating the name of the Lord. The middle of the seventeenth century has been very exciting for England. There was a civil war be­tween king Charles I and his parliament. Bunyan served in the parlia­mentary army. His life was on several occasions spared in a won­derful way. Only after his conversion he fully realised that.
       Not long after he left the army Bunyan married. Just as he, his wife came out a very poor and simple family. She was an orphan. Her farther left her among a few other things two books, namely The Plain Man's Pathway to Heaven by Arthur Dent and The Practice of Piety by Lewis Bayly. Sometimes she read out of the books for her husband.
       Bunyan's wife urged him to go to church and he started doing it. He had already sto­pped with his habit to swear and to curse. Although he went to church on the Lord's Day at the same time he played sports after the service was over on the meadow on the village. He was especially fond on bell-ringing.
       But after severe struggles he abandoned it completely. He started going to church two times on a Lord’s day. He began to read the Bile. The epistles of Paul were too difficult for him, but he enjoyed the stories of the four gospels. In his autobiography Grace Abounding Bunyan says of this period of his life:
I thought no man in England could please God better than I.

       Bunyan was trying to please the Lord by the works of the law. He did not realise that we can never please the Lord in that way. But then there happened something that brought a complete change in his life and his views. Doing his works as a tinker in one of the streets of Bedford (I suppose it was a nice day in spring or in summer) he he­ard three or four women speaking about the dealing of the Lord to their souls. He immediately realised that these women possessed somet­hing, he did not have. They had peace with God. He realised that he did not have it, although outwardly so many things had changed in his li­fe.
       The women belong to the congregation of a certain John Gifford. Gifford had been an officer in the army of the king. After his conver­sion he had become a minister of a so-called Open Communion Baptist Church in Bedford. The baptism on profession of faith was preferred about the baptism of infants, but people professing infant baptism were allowed to come to the Lord's Supper.
       Bunyan went to worship in the congregation of Gifford. he told the children of the Lord about the struggle of his soul to find peace with God. They pointed him to the promises of God, but he could not see how to apply them to his soul. In Grace Abounding it says:

But the had as good have told me that I must reach the sun with my finger as have bidden me to receiver and rely upon the promi­se; and as soon as I should have done it, all sense and fee­ling was against me, and I saw I had a he­art that would sin, and that lay under a law that would condemn.

       Bunyan could not see what was the relation between law and gospel. He could not understand the unconditional nature of the gospel. Through many struggles and trials he was brought to the freedom of the children of God. The preaching of Gifford meant much for him. Bunyan learned the meaning of the words: "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." (Romans 4:5). In his book The Doctrine of Law and Go­spel Unfolded he has written:

This is a legal and old covenant spirit that secretly persuades the soul that if ever it will be saved by Christ, it must be fitted for Christ by its get­ting a good heart and good intentions to do this and that for Christ.... Friend if thou canst fit thyself what need hast thou of Christ? If thou canst get qualifications to carry to Christ that thou mightst be accepted, thou dost not look to be accepted in the Beloved.

       Around 1653 Buyan had joined the congregation of Gifford. According to an old tradition he was baptized in the river Ouse in that year. In 1655 he became a deacon. As was usual in Baptists circles he spoke as a deacon an edifying word. In 1660 the mon­archy was restored in England. The ecclesi­astical end political situation changed. Bunyan was one of the first who felt it. Because of lay-prea­ching he was arrested. He was in prison for twelve years. There he wrote several books. At the end of this period he started writing The Pilgr­im's Progress.
        In 1672 Bunyan was released form prison. In that year Charles II proclaimed his Declaration of Indulgence that gave more freedom for dissenters who would not worship in the Church of England. In 1676 Bunyan was arrested again. Now he was in prison for only half a year. During his second imprisonment he finished The Pilgrim's Progress. He asked the great theologian John Owen who was one of his close friends, advice before publishing it. The advice of Owen was positive. The Pilgrim's Progress immediately proved to be a great success.
       During Bunyan's lifetime, more than 100.000 copies were sold in Britain. It was translated into Dutch in 1682. Nowadays, it has been translated into more than 200 languages. I just want to make a remark on the friendship between Owen and Bunyan. After 1672 Bunyan quite often pre­ached in London. More than one Owen came to the services in which Bun­yan preached. He invited him to his own church. Owen was one of the greatest Eng­lish theologians of his day. He was highly educated. Once Charles II asked how it was possible that he went out to hear the pre­aching of such an uneducated tinker. The answer of Owen was:
 Could it please your majesty, if I would posses that tinker’s abi­lity for prea­ching, I would gladly relinquish all my learning.

       Bunyan died on the 31-th of august in the year 1688 just a few months before the so-called Glorious Revolution in which William III of Orange played such an important role. Nearly at the end of The Pilgrim's Progress Bunyan writes about the glory of heaven and then he says:

       There were also of them that had wings and they answered one another wit­hout
       intermission saying: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord. And after that they shut up the gates;
       which when I had seen it, I wished myself among them.

       When Bunyan died this desire came into fulfilment into his own life.