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Thoughts on John Bunyan and Charles Spurgeon

July 30, 2020 2 comments
Going through my ChristianAudio collection of past free monthly offers, I recently read the audio version of John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.  It is also available online in text format, such as this one at monergism.  (The audio version ends with the Conclusion, and does not include the supplemental material, starting with the November 1660 imprisonment, continuation of the author’s life, through to the postscript.)  I’ve previously read short excerpts or heard about it, including — as for example, in several of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons — Bunyan’s time of great anxiety and fears, before God brought him to full sense and assurance followed by his later usefulness to the church in Bedford.

The audio book divides the work into chapters, different mp3 tracks; apparently such chapter division was not original to Bunyan’s work but added later.  The section dealing with his doubts and dark times of heavy conviction is here in ‘chapter 3,’ the longest section.  A few interesting observations:  from early in the book, Bunyan observes the idea of the clean and unclean animals, in reference to “chewing the cud” and people who “chew on” the word of God.  Bunyan also, in his early days, observed in people what we see in all ages: professed believers, who were very concerned with their fortunes in this world, and who also greatly grieved the loss of their loved ones,  who had their focus on this world rather than the next.

Bunyan shared his desire to read old books, from long ago and before his day–and then acquired a copy of Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians which he especially liked.   It’s interesting that in his day, which we look back on as the golden era of Puritanism, he wanted to read books from an earlier time.  Luther’s time to his was still relatively recent, about 130 years past.  The Reformers evidently had access to the really ancient books, of Augustine and the early church–because they knew Latin.  Presumably, the writings of the Patristic and medieval years had not — at Bunyan’s time — yet been translated into the common language of English, and so Bunyan and other laypeople had limited access, to a few of the Reformers’ works translated into their own language.  What a blessing and privilege it is to us in our day, to have ready access to English translations of so many early authors, going back 1500+ years.

The audio book ‘Chapter 3’ is the section often mentioned by others, Bunyan’s years of dark fears and heavy conviction.  For a period of a few years soon after coming to salvation, Bunyan seemingly obsessed over various biblical texts, identifying himself with profane Esau, or Judas Iscariot, fearful of having committed the unpardonable sin, and finding that somehow every other godly character in the Bible who had greatly sinned at some point in their life — such as David, Solomon, Manasseh, and Peter — was somehow of a different case and classification from his, one that seems to have included some confusion (at the time) regarding the continuity of scripture from Old to New Testament:  “these were but sins against the law, from which there was a Jesus sent to save them; but yours is a sin against the Saviour, and who shall save you from that?”

This lengthy section recalled to mind the important teaching, that I’ve read from Charles Spurgeon and elsewhere, that God’s people have differing experiences, and it is not necessary, and indeed not at all to be expected, that every person who comes to Christ should have the same lengthy, dark and strong convictions as Bunyan had.  Spurgeon mentioned this in several of his sermons, responding to people who held off from coming to saving faith because they were waiting to have this special ‘preparation’ similar to Bunyan’s.  A few excerpts on this point, from Spurgeon:

From sermon #1490 (August 1879)
Upon certain strong minds God lays a heavy load of conviction, as, for instance, upon John Bunyan, whose five years of inward contention you will find mapped out in his, “Grace Abounding.” But these cases are not the rule and in such instances the Lord means to make a peculiarly useful and experienced man. In the formation of a competent leader and a spiritual champion, the Lord exercises the man to make him expert in dealing with others. But He does not do this with poor, weak minds which are rendered still weaker by the assaults of Satan and their inward fears. “He gathers the lambs in his bosom, and does gently lead those that are with young.”

From sermon #1555 (August 1880)
John Bunyan gives a long story in “Grace Abounding,” and I am thankful that he does, but he never meant that we were to imitate him in his unbelief and harsh thoughts of God. Those hideous doubts and horrible fears were not the work of the Spirit of God. They were the work of John Bunyan’s vivid imagination and the devil together. They had nothing to do with the pardon of his sin except that they hindered him from finding it month after month. Your business, poor guilty sinner, is to believe that mercy is dealt out by God to sinners, not according to their despair and remorse, but “according to the riches of His grace.” Where has God commanded us to despair? Does He not command us to believe? Where has He ever commanded remorse? Does He not bid us hope in His mercy? We are to come to Jesus just as we are and trust Him and we shall be forgiv all trespasses in a moment by our loving, waiting Father.
From sermon #1824 (March 1885)
Therefore do not judge yourself by any man’s biography. Do not condemn yourself if, after reading John Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding,” you say, “I never went into these dark places.” Be glad that you never did.

A similar point is made in the 1689 London Baptist Confession chapter 15.1 in the teaching regarding those of ‘riper years’.  As noted in this post from a few years ago, this paragraph (copied from the Savoy Confession) addresses the more outwardly noticeable salvation experiences of older believers.  Again, we are not to compare our own conversion experience to that of other believers, for God works in different ways.  Arden Hodgins here mentioned the example of David Brainerd, who like John Bunyan had an especially strong and intense experience of his sinful condition; all believers will experience something of this in repentance, but not necessarily to the same depth; or sometimes the understanding is unfolded later throughout the believer’s life of ongoing repentance.

Throughout, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is filled with scripture quotations, the evidence of a godly man fully acquainted with scripture, and a similar feature that I so love in Spurgeon’s sermons, the continual interaction with and use of scripture.  Bunyan’s Conclusion contains some excellent thoughts to consider, applicable to all of us in our walk with God:
I have sometimes seen more in a line of the Bible, than I could well tell how to stand under; and yet at another time, the whole Bible hath been to me as dry as a stick; or rather, My heart hath been so dead and dry unto it, that I could not conceive the refreshment, though I have looked it all over.
I find to this day seven abominations in my heart: 1. Inclining to unbelief; 2. Suddenly to forget the love and mercy that Christ manifesteth; 3. A leaning to the works of the law; 4. Wanderings and coldness in prayer; 5. To forget to watch for that I pray for; 6. Apt to murmur because I have no more, and yet ready to abuse what I have; 7. I can do none of those things which God commands me, but my corruptions will thrust in themselves. When I would do good, evil is present with me.
These things I continually see and feel, and am afflicted and oppressed with, yet the wisdom of God doth order them for my good; 1. They make me abhor myself; 2. They keep me from trusting my heart; 3. They convince me of the insufficiency of all inherent righteousness; 4. They show me the necessity of flying to Jesus; 5. They press me to pray unto God; 6. They show me the need I have to watch and be sober; 7. And provoke me to pray unto God, through Christ, to help me, and carry me through this world.