John_BunyanWhen thinking of The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the best-selling books of all time, you might not immediately think of this allegory as a work of theology. Some scholars, like Gordon Campbell, even suggest that “The Pilgrim’s Progress is a religious work rather than a theological work.”[1] To make this bifurcation, however, mistakenly suggests that the Christian life is somehow separate and distinct from the Christian mind. In fact, while John Bunyan (1628–1688) focused this renowned work on the journey of the Christian, he weaved his theology—sometimes subtly—throughout the narrative.

One way that theology shines through the story is in the conversation that the characters have with each other. The importance of Christian discourse to the volume even leads Michael Mullett to note that “the book is a dialogue at least as much as it is a travelogue.”[2] To give a taste of how Bunyan incorporates his theology into the story’s conversations, we’ll explore a section from The Pilgrim’s Progress on discerning a true “work of grace.”

First, a little background. At this point in the story, Faithful is engaging with Talkative to see if he has experienced a work of grace. Talkative rightly acknowledges that grace is the only way to eternal life since works of the law fail to transform a being. But while he can give “a hundred Scriptures for confirmation of this,” he does not grasp that grace cannot come simply by talking of it.[3] For bare knowledge merely condemns one.

So how can one discover a true “work of grace”?[4] Faithful explains that a true work of grace is wrapped up with what he calls “Heartwork,”[5] causing a change in the heart:

It gives him conviction of sin, especially of the defilement of his nature, and the sin of unbelief, (for the sake of which he is sure to be damned, if he findeth not mercy at Gods hand by faith in Jesus Christ.) This sight and sense of things worketh in him sorrow and shame for sin; he findeth moreover revealed in him the Saviour of the World, and the absolute necessity of closing with him, to which hungrings, &c. the promise is made. Now according to the strength or weakness of his Faith in his Saviour, so is his joy and peace, so is his love to holiness, so are his desires to know him more, and also to serve him in this World.[6]

In engaging the question of discerning a true work of grace, Bunyan finds himself in the company of the theologians of the heart. Yet just because this passage explores the affective aspect of saving grace does not mean that it is not theology. Rather, Bunyan thinks carefully and cautiously when seeking to determine a true work of grace. And elsewhere in the book, he brings tension to the rejection of antinomianism described here by upholding that people are justified by the righteousness of Christ alone apart from any righteous of their own—a rejection of the other extreme, Pelagianism.[7]

As a theologian of the heart, Bunyan makes some striking statements in this passage that foreshadow another theologian of the heart, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), who devoted his Treatise concerning Religious Affections to essentially answering the question of what constitutes a true work of grace. So as Bunyan emphasizes that grace is a divine gift based on the work of Christ, so Edwards describes a true work of grace as “spiritual, supernatural and divine,” arising first of all from God’s supernatural influences.[8] As Bunyan speaks of a “sorrow and shame for sin,” so Edwards argues that “gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation,” or a sense of one’s “utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness.”[9] As Bunyan describes a true work of grace as filling one with “hungrings and thirstings” after Jesus, so Edwards describes truly gracious affections as causing an increased “spiritual appetite and longing of soul after spiritual attainments.”[10] As Bunyan sees grace as flowing forth in a “love to holiness,” so Edwards says that “truly holy” affections are “founded on the loveliness of the moral excellency of divine things”; that is, they arise from “a love to divine things for the beauty and sweetness of their moral excellency,” or holiness.[11] And as Bunyan expects a true work of grace to manifest itself in holiness, so Edwards, in his ultimate sign of a gracious work of the Holy Spirit, argues that “gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice”; indeed, “Christian practice is the principal sign by which Christians are to judge, both of their own and others’ sincerity of godliness.”[12]

On the one hand, these parallels should not surprise us. Edwards was certainly aware of Bunyan,[13] and both writers stood in a stream of theology focused on the heart. Nonetheless, the parallels are still striking. And it is especially interesting to note that though Bunyan and Edwards discuss the question in different formats, both affirm that grace is a divine work based on Christ’s work while at the same time rejecting antinomianism. Some might call this “free grace but not cheap grace.”

While Edwards treats this topic more extensively in Religious Affections, Bunyan displays it in action—and in conversation—in The Pilgrim’s Progress. And that is one reason why we might describe Bunyan’s famed narrative as theology wrapped in story.[14] Each in their own way, Bunyan and Edwards are theologians of the heart who help readers discern a true work of grace, notably a divine work that results in the creature’s love to and delight in holiness.


[1] Gordon Campbell, “The Theology of The Pilgrim’s Progress,” in The Pilgrim’s Progress: Critical and Historical Views, ed. Vincent Newey (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1980), 257.

[2] Michael Mullett, John Bunyan in Context, Studies in Protestant Nonconformity (Keele, Staffordshire: Keele University Press, 1996), 194.

[3] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, ed. W. R. Owens, Oxford World’s Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 76.

[4] Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 81.

[5] Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 83.

[6] Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 81.

[7] Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 140–41; Mullett, John Bunyan in Context, 201.

[8] Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith, vol. 2 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), Religious Affections, 197. Italics original.

[9] Edwards, Religious Affections, 311.

[10] Edwards, Religious Affections, 376.

[11] Edwards, Religious Affections, 253–54.

[12] Edwards, Religious Affections, 383, 406–7.

[13] Jonathan Edwards, “‘Catalogue’ of Reading,” in Catalogues of Books, ed. Peter J. Theusen, vol. 26 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 128.

[14] See my forthcoming discussion of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant Tradition, ed. Kelly M. Kapic and Hans Madueme (New York: T&T Clark, forthcoming).


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