One of the striking features of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress–perhaps most striking of all–is the way in which Bunyan so accurately portrayed the various characters that his protagonist, Christian, met with on his spiritual journey to the celestial city. Whether it was Evangelist, Obstinate, Pliable, Help, Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Legality, Formalist, Hypocrisy, Discretion, Piety, Prudence, Charity or the Interpreter, there is something apropos about how each of these figures surface in the particular situations in which Christian finds himself. It is fair to say that almost no one in church history had such a masterful grasp on both Scripture and the ability to discern individuals quite as much as Bunyan.
The world is full of Talkatives, Mr. Legalities, Mr. Worldly Wisemen, Obstinates and Pliables. Bunyan accurately describes the people with which we will meet in our lives as he wove the narrative about the believer’s pilgrimage to glory. However, it is a sad reality that we will meet almost each and everyone of these characters in the church in the here and now. Bunyan wrote his narrative in such a way as to reflect how he had met each of these characters in his own life and to bring the reader into contact with the many different individuals that he or she should plan on encountering in this life.
Years ago, when I first began the work of planting a church, a close friend of mine and I would often joke about writing The Pilgrim’s Progress for Church Planting. We would regularly have conversations about how learning the characters Bunyan’s work helped us identify the type of individuals with whom we would so frequently come into contact. Sometimes in the sharing of stories we would humorously insist that we met exactly the same person in our very difficult settings and stages of church planting.
In more recent years, I have come to believe that all pastors–who stay in the ministry long enough–will inevitably come across each and every character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Studying the characters that Christian met with on his journey can be an enormous aid to the pastor in assessing time, priorities and challenges as he seeks to be a faithful shepherd of the flock. For instance, every pastor will most certainly have a Talkative (or arguably more than one talkative) in the congregation that he pastors for at least some period of time. Talkative is that individual who will gladly talk about theology, doctrine, Christian living, the church, etc. but who will never put God’s word into practice in his or her life. Talkative is the individual in the church who James describes as a hearer but not a doer of the word. Talkative personally confesses that he would talk “of the vanity of earthly things, and the benefit of things above (thus in general)…the necessity of the new birth; the insufficiency of our works; the need of Christ’s righteousness, and so forth.” However, as Christian revealed to his traveling companion, Faithful, Talkative was among those who are “talkative fools whose religion is only in word, and are debauched and vain in their conversation, that (being so much admitted into the fellowship of the godly) do stumble to the world, blemish Christianity, and grieve the sincere.”
However, I have also come to realize that it is not just those with whom we rub shoulders that we discover in the characters of the Pilgrim’s Progress, but that we are all represented by the men and women found in the Bible–both good and evil–and that during our lives we will almost certainly meet all of the characters in Scripture.
Who has not know someone who has had exhibited the boldness of Paul, the gentleness of the Apostle John, the servant heart of Phoebe, the hospitable spirit of Martha or the affection of Mary Magdalene? Who has not known saints who have exemplified the impulsivity of Peter, the anxiety of Martha or the sinful ambition of James and John? Who has not met someone who resembled the rich, young ruler–who would not let go of his riches to follow Christ? What pastor has not met, over his lifetime, a Demas or Alexander the coppersmith or Hymenaues–who caused great harm to the ministry of the Apostle Paul? Who has not met a ruthless and bitter souled Saul–who was consumed with jealousy and sought to destroy David. Who has not met with a treacherous Judas to some extent in their Christian experience? Who has not crossed paths in the church with bickering women like Euodia and Syntyche? Who has not seen the sad turning away from Christ like so many who once professed faith in Him and who were even ministers of His everlasting Gospel? The list goes on and on but the point is simple, during our lives and in our Christian experience, we will almost certainly meet each and every person that we encounter in the Scriptures.
While this may serve as a great help to those who are seeking to walk the narrow path that leads to life, it is also a truth by which we should examine ourselves. Perhaps more sobering than realizing the benefit of learning the characters of Scripture and the Pilgrim’s Progress in order to act skillfully in church planting, pastoral ministry or even in our interactions with others is the fact that each and everyone of us is represented by one or more of the characters contained therein. There will be times and seasons when our lives resemble one character in Scripture and in the Pilgrim’s Progress more than at others–and there will be times when we resemble another. If it is true that we will meet with just about each and every character we read of in the Scriptures, and then–by way of allegory–in The Pilgrim’s Progress, it is true that we ourselves are also to be found in them. This should cause us to examine ourselves–as the Scriptures constantly call us to do. In doing so, we will not only be prepared for our interactions with the Obstinates, Pliables, Worldly Wisemen, Mr. Legalities and Talkatives of the world and the church–we will seek to conform our walk of faith to that of the Apostles and Prophets, the Bunyans and the Christians who have walked the long and narrow path before us. It is both our privilege and duty to do so. May God give us grace to apply ourselves to the Scriptures and to a diligent discernment of ourselves and those with whom we will surely meet with in this life on our way to glory.