As a hiker, I have always had a fascination with pilgrimages. Whether it’s the Jesus Trail in Israel, the Pilgrim's Way in England, or the Camino de Santiago in Spain, there is something very compelling about going on a pilgrimage. To be on a quest, out in the wilderness, seeking truth, upward and onward, just you and God.
And I’m far from alone. Millions of Christians go on pilgrimage every year. They travel all over the world, to all kinds of places, for all kinds of reasons. This is no recent phenomenon. At least since the 4th century, if not earlier, Christian people have been traversing the globe for holy purposes. In 1510, Martin Luther himself went on a pilgrimage. While at university in Erfurt, Germany, he traveled 1,000 miles over 70 days, to get to Rome.
The book is an allegory, a great piece of literature, one of the first novels written in the English language.
With such a rich background of pilgrimages throughout the history of the church, it’s no wonder The Pilgrim's Progress has retained its popularity over the years. In fact, at one time, it was second in popularity only to the Bible itself.
John Bunyan wrote this classic tale in 1678. The book recounts the journey of a young man named Christian. He travels from the City of Destruction, through toil, trial, and trouble, all the way to the Celestial City. The book is an allegory, a great piece of literature, one of the first novels written in the English language.
There are some positive aspects to the book. It is filled with interesting characters like Giant Despair of Doubting Castle, as well as creative place names like the Slough of Despond.
From a theological point of view, there are positives as well. The Bible is rightly held up as the only authority for faith and life. Sinfulness is shown as the natural condition of all people. The world is exposed as corrupt and broken, and salvation is needed for people to escape death and hell. That's all fine and good.
But something is missing, something vital, especially at the beginning of the story. It's an element that, had it been there in the first few paragraphs, the book would have been a whole lot shorter. So what is it? The Gospel.
Before he leaves on his quest, Christian is burdened by his sin and the coming judgment upon the city. He meets the Evangelist and asks him, "What must I do to be saved?" Now, what Evangelist should have done (if he were really an evangelist!) is preach the gospel to him. What he should have said was, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved! You and your whole family!" (Acts 16:31). Instead, he hands a parchment to him that says, "Flee from the wrath to come." He can't even bring himself to say it, so he hands Christian a religious tract instead.
Another problem at the outset is that Christian leaves his family behind to go on his quest. Even when they come running after him, he puts his fingers in his ears and runs away, caring only for his own salvation. What happened to his Christian vocation as a husband and father? What happened to his God-given duty to teach the Gospel, the word, and prayer to his family?
Yes, Pilgrim’s Progress makes for interesting reading and has some insights along the way. But this glaring omission of the Gospel, right at the beginning, undermines the value of the rest of allegory and sets the law-centered tone for what is to come.
In this way, it’s somewhat parallel to what happened to Luther when he made the aforementioned journey to Rome. He was excited at first to see the grandeur of the city, but when he arrived, he was disappointed to find widespread corruption and abuse taking place at the highest levels of the church. This was an important reality check for him. He came back to Germany more determined than ever to clearly and boldly proclaim the truth of God’s word.
Here’s the truth about the “salvation pilgrimage” of any Christian: Jesus has already made the journey for us.
Luther came to realize that, without the Gospel, without the good news of Christ crucified and resurrected for us, then we can’t even make a single step in the Christian life. Unless we have the Gospel, we cannot escape from the wrath to come. In Christ, we have passed from death into life. There is no condemnation for those who are in the Son of God. That’s the true evangel of an evangelist.
Here’s the truth about the “salvation pilgrimage” of any Christian: Jesus has already made the journey for us. He’s already walked the road. He’s already made that pilgrimage. He’s paved the way as our pioneer and perfecter, the founder and finisher of our faith. He went the way of sorrows, the Via Dolorosa, all the way to the cross and to the tomb for us, indeed, for everyone.
That’s a good reminder for us as we continue to celebrate the Reformation, this year highlighting Luther’s important work from 1520, The Freedom of a Christian. For that is what the Reformation was and is all about: freedom. The freedom that comes by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone.
Ultimately the Christian life isn't about progress, it's about promise--the Pilgrim's Promise.
*You can find out more about The Pilgrim’s Progress in this conversation on Banned Books.