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Bunyan Characters Second Series: 22. CHRISTIAN

By Alexander Whyte


      "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch."--Luke.

      "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian."--King Agrippa.

      "Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity."--Paul.

      All the other personages in the Pilgrim's Progress come and go; they all ascend the stage for a longer or shorter time, and then pass off the stage and so pass out of our sight; but Christian in the First Part, and Christiana in the Second Part, are never for a single moment out of our sight. And, accordingly, we have had repeated occasion and opportunity to learn many excellent lessons from the chief pilgrim's upward walk and heavenly conversation. But so full and so rich are his life and his character, that some very important things still remain to be collected before we finally close his history. "Gather up the fragments that nothing be lost," said our Lord, after His miraculous meal of multiplied loaves and fishes with His disciples. And in like manner I shall now proceed to gather up some of the remaining fragments of Christian's life and character and experience. And I shall collect these fragments into the three baskets of his book, his burden, and his sealed roll and certificate.

      1. And first, a few things as to his book. "As I slept I dreamed, and behold I saw a man clothed in rags standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked and saw him open the book and read therein; and as he read he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain he broke out with a lamentable cry, saying, What shall I do?" We hear a great deal in these advertising days, and not one word too much, about the books that have influenced and gone largely to the making of our great men; but Graceless, like John Bunyan, his biographer, was a man of but one book. But, then, that book was the most influential of all books; it was the Book of books; it was God's very own and peculiar Book. And those of us who, like this man, have passed out of a graceless into a gracious state will for ever remember how that same Book at that time influenced us till it made us what we are and shall yet be. We read many other good books at that epoch in our life, but it was the pure Bible that we read and prayed over out of sight the most. We needed no commentators or exegetes on our simple Bible in those days. The great texts stood out to our eyes in those days as if they had been written with a sunbeam; while all other books (and we read nothing but the best books in those days) looked like twilight and rushlight beside our Bible. In those immediate, direct, and intense days we would have satisfied Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold themselves in the way we read our Bible with our eye never off the object. The Four Last Things were ever before us--death and judgment, heaven and hell. "O my dear wife," said Graceless, "and you the children of my bowels, I your dear friend am in myself undone by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me; moreover, I am for certain informed that this our city will be burned with fire from heaven, in which fearful overthrow both myself, with thee my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably come to ruin, except (the which yet I see not) some way of escape can be found whereby we may be delivered." He would walk also solitarily in the fields, sometimes reading and sometimes praying; and thus for some days he spent his time. Graceless at that time and at that stage would have satisfied the exigent author of the Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection where he says that "we are too apt also to think that we have sufficiently read a book when we have so read it as to know what it contains. This reading may be quite sufficient as to many books; but as to the Bible we are not to think that we have read it enough because we have often read and heard what it teaches. We must read our Bible, not to know what it contains, but to fill our hearts with the spirit of it." And, again, and on this same point, "There is this unerring key to the right use of the Bible. The Bible has only one intent, and that is to make a man know, resist, and abhor the working of his fallen earthly nature, and to turn the faith, hope, and longing desire of his heart to God; and therefore we are only to read our Bibles with this view and to learn this one lesson from it . . . The critic looks into his books to see how Latin and Greek authors have used the words 'stranger' and 'pilgrim,' but the Christian, who knows that man lives in labour and toil, in sickness and pain, in hunger and thirst, in heat and cold among the beasts of the field, where evil spirits like roaring lions seek to devour him--he only knows in what truth and reality man is a poor stranger and a distressed pilgrim upon the earth." John Bunyan read neither Plato nor Aristotle, but he read David and Paul till he was the chief of sinners, and till he was first the Graceless and then the Christian of his own next-to-the-Bible book.

      2. In the second place, and as to his burden. We are supplied with no particulars as to the first beginnings, the gradual make-up, and at last the terrible size of Christian's burden. What this pilgrim's youthful life must have been in such a city as his native city was, and while he was still a young man of such a name and such a character in such a city, we are left to ourselves to think and consider. Graceless was his name by nature, and his life was as his name and his nature were. Still, as I have said, we have no detailed and particular account of his early life when his burden was still day and night in the making up. How long into your life were you graceless, my brother? And what kind of life did you lead day and night before you were persuaded or alarmed, as the case may have been with you, into being a Christian? What burdens do you carry on your broken back to this day that were made up in the daylight or in the darkness by your own hands in your early days? Were you early or were you too late in your conversion? Or are you truly converted to God and to salvation even yet? And are you at this moment still binding a burden on your back that you shall never lay down on this side your grave--it may be, not on this side your burning bed in hell? Ask yourselves all that before God and before your own conscience, and make yourselves absolutely sure that God at any rate is not mocked; and, therefore that you, too, shall in the end reap exactly as you from the beginning have sown. "How camest thou by thy burden at first?" asked Mr. Worldly-Wiseman at the trembling pilgrim. "By reading this book in my hand," he answered. And, in the long run, it is always the Bible that best creates a sinner's burden, binds it on his back, and makes it so terribly heavy to bear. Fear of death and judgment will sometimes make up and bind on a sinner's burden; and sometimes the fear of man's judgment on this side of death will do it. Fear of being found out in some cases will make a man's secret sin far too heavy for him to bear. The throne of public opinion is not a very white throne; at the same time, it is a coarse forecast and a rough foretaste of the last judgment; and the fear of it not seldom makes a man's burden simply intolerable to him. Sometimes a great sinner's burden leads him to flight and outlawry; sometimes to madness and self-murder; and sometimes, by the timeous and sufficient grace of God, to the way of escape that our pilgrim took. Tenderness of conscience, also, simple softness of heart and conscience, will sometimes make a terrible burden out of what other men would call a very light matter. Bind a burden on that iron pillar standing there, and it will feel nothing and say nothing. But, bind the same burden on that man in whose seat that dead pillar takes up a sitter's room, and he will make all that are in the house hear his sighs and his groans. And lay an act of sin--an evil word or evil work or evil thought--on one man among us, and he will walk about the streets with as erect a head and as smiling a countenance and as light a step as if he were an innocent child; while, lay half as much on his neighbour, and it will so bruise him to the earth that all men will take knowledge of him that he is a miserable man. Our Lord could no doubt have carried His cross from the hall of judgment to the hill-top without help had His back not been wet with blood. What with a whole and an unwealed body, a well-rested and well-nourished body, He could easily have carried, with His broken body and broken heart He quite sank under. And so it is with His people. One of His heart-broken, heart-bleeding people will sink down to death and hell under a burden of sin and corruption that another of them will scarcely feel or know or believe that it is there. Some sins again in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are far more heavy to bear than others, and by some sinners than others. I was reading Bishop Andrewes to myself last night and came upon this pertinent passage. "Sin: its measure, its harm, its scandal. Its quality: how often--how long. The person by whom: his age, condition, state, enlightenment. Its manner, motive, time, and place. The folly of it, the ingratitude of it, the hardness of it, the presumptuousness of it. By heart, by mouth, by deed. Against God, my neighbours, my own body. By knowledge, by ignorance. Willingly and unwillingly. Of old and of late. In boyhood and youth, in mature and old age. Things done once, repeated often, hidden and open. Things done in anger, and from the lust of the flesh and of the world. Before and after my call. Asleep by night and awake by day. Things remembered and things forgotten. Through the fiery darts of the enemy, through the unclean desires of the flesh--I have sinned against Thee. Have mercy on me, O God, and forgive me!" That is the way some men's burdens are made up to such gigantic proportions and then bound on by such acute cords. That is the way that Lancelot Andrewes and John Bunyan walked solitarily in the fields, sometimes reading and sometimes praying, till the one of them put himself into his immortal Devotions, and the other into his immortal Grace Abounding and Pilgrim's Progress.

      "Then I saw in my dream that Christian asked the Gatekeeper further if he could not help him off with his burden that was upon his back, for as yet he had not got rid of it, nor could he by any means get it off without help. He told him, 'As to thy burden, be content to bear it until thou comest to the place of deliverance, for there it will fall from off thy back itself.' 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 Salvation. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. 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 the cross his burden loosed 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. Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, 'He hath given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His death!'"

      "Blest Cross! blest Sepulchre! Blest rather be
      The Man that there was put to shame for me."

      But, then, how it could be that this so happy man was scarcely a stone-cast past the cross when he had begun again to burden himself with fresh sin, and thus to disinter all his former sin? How a true pilgrim comes to have so many burdens to bear, and that till he ceases to be any longer a pilgrim,--a burden of guilt, a burden of corruption, and a burden of bare creaturehood,--I must leave all that, and all the questions connected with all that, for you all to think out and work out for yourselves; and you will not say any morning on this earth, like Mrs. Timorous, that you have little to do.

      3. The third of the three Shining Ones who saluted Christian at the cross set a mark on his forehead, and put a roll with a seal set upon it into his hand. A roll and a seal which he bid him look on as he ran, and that he should give that roll in at the Celestial Gate. Bunyan does not in all places come up to his usual clearness in what he says about the sealed roll. We must believe that he understood his own meaning and intention in all that he says, first and last, about the roll, but he has not always made his meaning clear, at least to one of his readers. Theological students, and, indeed, all thoughtful Christian men, are invited to read Dr. Cunningham's powerful paper on Assurance in his Reformers. The whole literature of Assurance is there taken up and weighed and sifted with all that great writer's incomparable learning and power and judgment. Our Larger Catechism, also, is excellent on this subject; and this subject is a favourite commonplace with all our best Calvinistic, Puritan, and Evangelical authors. Let us take two or three passages out of those authors just as a specimen, and so close.

      "Can true believers"--Larger Catechism, Question 80--"Can true believers be infallibly assured that they are in an estate of grace, and that they shall persevere therein to the end? Answer: Such as truly believe in Christ, and endeavour to walk in all good conscience before Him may, without extraordinary revelation, by faith grounded upon the truth of God's promise, and by the Spirit enabling them to discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of eternal life are made, and bearing witness with their spirits that they are the children of God, they may be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace, and shall persevere therein unto salvation." Question 81: "Are all true believers at all times assured of their present being in a state of grace, and that they shall be saved? Answer: Assurance of grace and salvation not being of the essence of faith, true believers may wait long before they obtain it, and, after the enjoyment thereof, may have it weakened and intermitted through manifold distempers, sins, temptations, and desertions; yet are they never left without such a presence and support of the Spirit of God as keeps them from sinking into utter despair." "A Christian's assurance," says Fraser of Brea, "though it does not firstly flow from his holiness, yet is ever after proportionable to his holy walking. Faith is kept in a pure conscience. Sin is like a blot of ink fallen upon our evidence. This I found to be a truth." "It was the speech of one to me," says Thomas Shepard of New England, "next to the donation of Christ, no mercy like this, to deny assurance long; and why? For if the Lord had not, I should have given way to a loose heart and life. And this is a rule I have long held--long denial of assurance is like fire to burn out some sin and then the Lord will speak peace." "Serve your God day and night faithfully," says Dr. Goodwin. "Walk humbly; and there is a promise of the Holy Ghost to come and fill your hearts with joy unspeakable and glorious to rear you up to the day of redemption. Sue this promise out, wait for it, rest not in believing only, rest not in assurance by graces only; there is a further assurance to be had." "I would not give a straw for that assurance," says John Newton, "which sin will not damp. If David had come from his adultery and still have talked of his assurance, I should have despised his speech." "When we want the faith of assurance," says Matthew Henry, "let us live by the faith of adherence." And then the whole truth is in a nutshell in Isaiah and in John: "The effect of righteousness shall be quietness and assurance for ever," and "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And hereby we shall know that we are of the truth, and so shall assure our hearts before Him."

      * LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH

Back to Alexander Whyte index.

See Also:
   1. IGNORANCE
   2. LITTLE-FAITH
   3. THE FLATTERER
   4. ATHEIST
   5. HOPEFUL
   6. TEMPORARY
   7. SECRET
   8. MRS. TIMOROUS
   9. MERCY
   10. MR. BRISK
   11. MR. SKILL
   12. THE SHEPHERD BOY
   13. OLD HONEST
   14. MR. FEARING
   15. FEEBLE-MIND
   16. GREAT-HEART
   17. MR. READY-TO-HALT
   18. VALIANT-FOR-TRUTH
   19. STANDFAST
   20. MADAM BUBBLE
   21. GAIUS
   22. CHRISTIAN
   23. CHRISTIANA
   24. THE ENCHANTED GROUND
   25. THE LAND OF BEULAH
   26. THE SWELLING OF JORDAN

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