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The Pilgrim’s Problem

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a Christian classic that many of you have no doubt read. So revered it is that I know of some who say they read it every year. I’ve read it two or three times (beginning with a young reader’s version when I was a pre-teen), but I’ve never found it as satisfying as I felt I should, considering the high praise it receives from so many whose opinions I value. I didn’t know why until a few years ago, when someone whose name I’ve forgotten pointed out a fairly serious flaw in the plot. I was recently reminded of it when I read the following story, told by Charles Spurgeon.


By the way, let me tell you a little story about Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I am a great lover of John Bunyan, but I do not believe him infallible. And the other day I met with a story about him which I think a very good one. There was young man in Edinburgh who wished to be a missionary. He was a wise young man so he thought, “If I am to be a missionary, there is no need for me to transport myself far away from home. I may as well be a missionary in Edinburgh.”

Well, this young man started and determined to speak to the first person he met. He met one of those old fish wives with her basket of fish on her back. Those of us who have seen them can never forget them. They are extraordinary women indeed.

So stepping up to her, he said, “Here you are coming along with your burden on your back, let me ask you, have you got another burden, a spiritual burden?”

“What,” she asked, “you mean that burden in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? Because if you do, young man, I got rid of that burden many years ago, probably before you were born. But I went a way better than the Pilgrim did. The Evangelist that John Bunyan talks about was one of your parsons that do not preach the gospel, for he said, ‘keep that light in thine eye and run to the wicket gate.’ Why, man alive, that was not the place to run to! He should have said, ‘Do you see that Cross, run there at once.’ But instead of that he sent the poor pilgrim to the wicket gate first and much good he got by going there, he got tumbling into the slough and was like to have been killed by it.”

The young man was rather abashed. “But did you not,” the young man asked, “go through any Slough of Despond?”

“Yes, I did, but I found it a great deal easier going through it with my burden off than with it on!”

The old woman [continued Spurgeon] was quite right. John Bunyan put the putting off of the burden too far off from the commencing of the pilgrimage. If he meant to describe what usually happens, he was right. But if he meant to show what ought to have happened, he was wrong. The cross should be right in front of the wicket gate and we should say to the sinner, “Throw thyself down there and thou art safe, but thou art not safe ‘til thou canst cast the burden and lie at the foot of the Cross and find peace in Jesus.”

—Charles Spurgeon, cited in Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ (Crossway, 2016), 58–59.

Posted 2019·05·14 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Charles Spurgeon · John Bunyan · Sinclair Ferguson · The Pilgrim’s Progress · The Whole Christ

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