John Bunyan's autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, is the best of all our commentaries on The Pilgrim's Progress, and again to-night I shall have to fall back on that incomparable book. 'Now, I saw in my dream that the highway up which Christian was to go was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall is called Salvation. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.' In the corresponding paragraph in Grace Abounding, our author says, speaking about himself: 'But forasmuch as the passage was wonderful narrow, even so narrow that I could not but with great difficulty enter in thereat, it showed me that none could enter into life but those that were in downright earnest, and unless also they left this wicked world behind them; for here was only room for body and soul, but not for body and soul and sin.' 'He ran thus till he came to a place somewhat ascending, and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below in the bottom a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with this cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.' Turning again to the Grace Abounding, we read in the 115th paragraph: 'I remember that one day as I was travelling into the country and musing on the wickedness and blasphemy of my heart, and considering of the enmity that was in me to God, that scripture came into my mind, He hath made peace by the blood of His Cross. By which I was made to see both again and again and again that day that God and my soul were friends by that blood: yea, I saw that the justice of God and my sinful soul could embrace and kiss each other through that blood. That was a good day to me; I hope I shall not forget it. I thought I could have spoken of His love and of His mercy to me that day to the very crows that sat upon the ploughed lands before me had they been capable to have understood me. Wherefore I said in my soul with much gladness, Well, I would I had a pen and ink here and I would write this down before I go any farther, for surely I will not forget this forty years hence.'
From all this we learn that the way to the Celestial City lies within high and close fencing walls. There is not room for many pilgrims to walk abreast in that way; indeed, there is seldom room for two. There are some parts of the way where two or even three pilgrims can for a time walk and converse together, but for the most part the path is distressingly lonely. The way is so fenced up also that a pilgrim cannot so much as look either to the right hand or the left. Indeed, it is one of the laws of that road that no man is to attempt to look except straight on before him. But then there is this compensation for the solitude and stringency of the way that the wall that so encloses it is Salvation. And Salvation is such a wall that it is companionship and prospect enough of itself. Dante saw a long reach of this same wall running round the bottom of the mount that cleanses him who climbs it,--a long stretch of such sculptured beauty, that it arrested him and instructed him and delighted him beyond his power sufficiently to praise it. And thus, that being so, burdened and bowed down to the earth as our pilgrim was, he was on the sure way, sooner or later, to deliverance. Somewhere and sometime and somehow on that steep and high fenced way deliverance was sure to come. And, then, as to the burdened man himself. His name was once Graceless, but his name is Graceless no longer. No graceless man runs long between these close and cramping-up walls; and, especially, no graceless man has that burden long on his back. That is not Graceless any longer who is leaving the Interpreter's House for the fenced way; that is Christian, and as long as he remains Christian, the closeness of the fence and the weight of his burden are a small matter. But long-looked-for comes at last. And so, still carrying his burden and keeping close within the fenced-up way, our pilgrim came at last to a cross. And a perfect miracle immediately took place in that somewhat ascending ground. For scarcely had Christian set his eyes on the cross, when, without his pulling at it, or pushing it, or even at that moment thinking of it, ere ever he was aware, he saw his burden begin to tumble, and so it continued to do till it fell fairly out of his sight into an open sepulchre.
The application of all that is surely self-evident. For our way in a holy life is always closely fenced up. It is far oftener a lonely way than otherwise. And the steepness, sternness, and loneliness of our way are all aggravated by the remembrance of our past sins and follies. They still, and more and more, lie upon our hearts a heart-crushing burden. But if we, like Christian, know how to keep our back to our former house and our face to heaven, sooner or later we too shall surely come to the cross. And then, either suddenly, or after a long agony, our burden also shall be taken off our back and shut down into Christ's sepulchre. And I saw it no more, says the dreamer. He does not say that its owner saw it no more. He was too wise and too true a dreamer to say that.
It will be remembered that the first time we saw this man, with whose progress to the Celestial City we are at present occupied, he was standing in a certain place clothed with rags and with a burden on his back. After a long journey with him, we have just seen his burden taken off his back, and it is only after his burden is off and a Shining One has said to him, Thy sins be forgiven, that a second Shining One comes and strips him of his rags and clothes him with change of raiment. Now, why, it may be asked, has Christian had to carry his burden so long, and why is he still kept so ragged and so miserable and he so far on in the pilgrim's path? Surely, it will be said, John Bunyan was dreaming indeed when he kept a truly converted man, a confessedly true and sincere Christian, so long in bonds and in rags. Well, as to his rags: filthy rags are only once spoken of in the Bible, and it is the prophet Isaiah, whose experience and whose language John Bunyan had so entirely by heart, who puts them on. And that evangelist among the prophets not only calls his own and Israel's sins filthy rags, but Isaiah is very bold, and calls their very righteousnesses by that opprobrious name. Had that bold prophet said that all his and all his people's unrighteousnesses were filthy rags, all Israel would have subscribed to that. There was no man so brutish as not to admit that. But as long as they had any sense of truth and any self-respect, multitudes of Isaiah's first hearers and readers would resent what he so rudely said of their righteousnesses. On the other hand, the prophet's terrible discovery and comparison, just like our dreamer's dramatic distribution of Christian experience, was, to a certainty, an immense consolation to many men in Israel in his day. They gathered round Isaiah because, but for him and his evangelical ministry, they would have been alone in their despair. To them Isaiah's ministry was a house of refuge, and the prophet himself a veritable tower of strength. They felt they were not alone so long as Isaiah dwelt in the same city with them. And thus, whatever he might be to others, he was God's very prophet to them as his daily prayers in the temple both cast them down and lifted them up. 'Oh that Thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down . . . But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags, and our iniquities like the wind have taken us away.' Thousands in Israel found in these terrible words a door of hope, a sense of fellowship, and a call to trust and thanksgiving. And tens of thousands have found the same help and consolation out of what have seemed to others the very darkest and most perplexing pages of the Pilgrim's Progress and the Grace Abounding. 'It made me greatly ashamed,' says Hopeful, 'of the vileness of my former life, and confounded me with the sense of mine own ignorance, for there never came into mine heart before now that showed me so by contrast the beauty of the Lord Jesus. My own vileness and nakedness made me love a holy life. Yea, I thought that had I now a thousand gallons of blood in my body, I could spill it all for the sake of the Lord Jesus.' And if you, my brother, far on in the way of Salvation, still think sometimes that, after all, you must be a reprobate because of your filthy rags, read what David Brainerd wrote with his half-dead hand on the last page of his seraphic journal: 'How sweet it is to love God and to have a heart all for God! Yes; but a voice answered me, You are not all for God, you are not an angel. To which my whole soul replied, I as sincerely desire to love and glorify God as any angel in heaven. But you are filthy, and not fit for heaven. When hereupon there instantly appeared above me and spread over me the blessed robes of Christ's righteousness which I could not but exult and triumph in. And then I knew that I should be as active as an angel in heaven, and should then be for ever stripped of my filthy garments and clothed with spotless raiment.' Let me die the death of David Brainerd, and let my latter end be like his!
The third Shining One then came forward and set a mark on the forehead of this happy man. And it was a most ancient and a most honourable mark. For it was the same redeeming mark that was set by Moses upon the foreheads of the children of Israel when the Lord took them into covenant with Himself at the Passover in the wilderness. It was the same distinguishing mark also that the man with the slaughter-weapon in his hand first set upon the foreheads of the men who sighed and cried for the abominations that were done in the midst of Jerusalem. And it was the same glorious mark that John saw in the foreheads of the hundred and forty and four thousand who stood upon Mount Zion and sang a song that no man knew but those men who had been redeemed from the earth by the blood of the Lamb. The mark was set for propriety and for ornament and for beauty. It was set upon his forehead so that all who looked on him ever after might thus know to what company and what country he belonged, and that this was not his rest, but that he had been called and chosen to a heavenly inheritance. And, besides, it was no sooner set upon his forehead than it greatly added to his dignity and his comeliness. He had now the gravity and beauty of an angel; nay, the beauty in his measure and the gravity of Goodwill at the gate himself. And, then, as if that were not enough, the third Shining One also gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which he was bidden look on as he ran, and which he was to give in when he arrived at the Celestial Gate. Now, what was that sealed roll but just the inward memory and record of all this pilgrim's experiences of the grace of God from the day he set out on pilgrimage down to that day when he stood unburdened of his guilt, unclothed of his rags, and clothed upon with change of raiment? The roll contained his own secret life, all sealed and shone in upon by the light of God's countenance. The secret of the Lord with this pilgrim was written within that roll, a secret that no man could read but he himself alone. It was the same roll that this same Shining One gave to Abraham, the first pilgrim and the father of all true pilgrims, after Melchizedek, the priest of the Most High God, had brought forth bread and wine and had blessed that great believer. 'Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.' And, again, after Abram had lost his roll, like our pilgrim in the arbour, when he recovered it he read thus in it: 'I am the Almighty God: walk before Me, and be thou perfect. And I will make My covenant between Me and thee.' And Abram fell on his face for joy. It was the same roll out of which the Psalmist proposed to read a passage to all those in his day who feared God. 'Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what He hath done for my soul.' It was the same roll also that God sent to Israel in his sore captivity. 'Fear not, O Israel, for I have redeemed thee; I have called thee by thy name, thou art Mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee.' The high priest Joshua also had the same roll put into his hand, and that not only for his own comfort, but to make him the comforter of God's afflicted people. For after the Lord had plucked Joshua as a brand out of the fire, and had made his iniquity to pass from him, and had clothed him with change of raiment, and had set a fair mitre on his head, the Lord gave to Joshua a sealed roll, the contents of which may be read to this day in the book of the prophet Zechariah. Nay, more: 'Will you have me to speak plainly?' says great Goodwin on this matter. 'Then, though our Lord had the assurance of faith that He was the Son of God, for He knew it out of the Scriptures by reading all the prophets, yet, to have it sealed to Him with joy unspeakable and glorious,--this was deferred to the time of His baptism. He was then anointed with the oil of assurance and gladness in a more peculiar and transcendent manner.' 'In His baptism,' says Bengel, 'our Lord was magnificently enlightened. He was previously the Son of God, and yet the power of the Divine testimony to His Sonship at His baptism long affected Him in a lively manner.' And we see our Lord reading His roll to assure and sustain His heart when all outward acceptance and sustenance failed Him. 'There is One who beareth witness of Me, and His witness is true. I receive not witness from men. I have a greater witness than even that of John. For the Father Himself that hath sent Me, He beareth witness of Me.' No wonder that our heavy-laden pilgrim of yesterday gave three leaps for joy and went on singing with such a roll as that in his bosom. For, at that supreme moment he had that inward illumination and assurance sealed on his heart that had so gladdened and sustained so many prophets and psalmists and apostles and saints before his day. And though, like Abraham and all the other saints who ever had that noble roll put into their keeping, except Jesus Christ, he often lost it, yet as often as he again recovered it, it brought back again with it all his first joy and gladness.
But, as was said at the beginning, the Grace Abounding is the best of all our commentaries on The Pilgrim's Progress. As thus here also: 'Now had I an evidence, as I thought, of my salvation from heaven, with many golden seals thereon, all hanging in my sight. Now could I remember this manifestation and that other discovery of grace with comfort, and should often long and desire that the last day were come, that I might be for ever inflamed with the sight and joy of Him and communion with Him whose head was crowned with thorns, whose face was spit on, and body broken, and soul made an offering for my sins. For whereas, before, I lay continually trembling at the mouth of hell, now, methought, I was got so far therefrom that I could not, when I looked back, scarce discern it. And oh! thought I, that I were fourscore years old now, that I might die quickly, that my soul might be gone to rest.'
Then Christian gave three leaps for joy and went on singing:
'Thus far did I come laden with my sin, Nor could ought ease the grief that I was in Till I came hither: . . . Blest Cross! blest Sepulchre! blest rather be The Man that there was put to shame for me.'
* LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH