The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Problem with Religion
As you’ve probably picked up by now, Keeping It Salty is all about finding Christianity’s well-worn truths whilst avoiding the pitfalls of religion. The Pilgrim’s Progress is full of these well-worn truths. Especially when it comes to those about navigating the religion vs spirituality line.
Of course, this is hardly surprising. Bunyan (its writer) would know about the pitfalls of religion. After all, he wrote this book in prison for getting on the wrong side of religious types of his day and refusing to stay quiet and stop preaching. Now it’s considered probably the greatest Christian classic ever written.
So, here are 4 lessons I learned from this great classic about the problem with religion and why Jesus’ way is different. I hope they’ll be helpful to you too!
Before I get on with the lessons though, here is a quick summary of the general plot.
The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Summary
The narrator describes a dream that they had. They saw a man called Christian who is in despair. He has been reading a book (most likely the Bible) and now senses a horrible burden (of his sin) on his back. He wants to free himself of this burden.
To do so, he leaves behind his wife, children and neighbours in the City of Destruction. Along the way he faces many challenges and meets with many people. These people either help him (such as the Evangelist) or lead him off course (such as Mr. Wordly Wiseman). He is also accompanied for stretches of the journey by different friends. Firstly, he walks alongside his friend Faithful – until he is condemned to death in the town of Vanity. Later, he walks with his friend Hopeful.
Eventually, Christian does lose the burden of his sin when he comes across a cross and a sepulchre. At the end of the story he and his friend Hopeful reach and are admitted to the Celestial City.
The book is a kind of spiritual roadmap for any Christian hoping to grow spiritually and stop sinning.
Lesson 1: Why Jesus Isn’t a Religious Type
Jesus claimed that He was a good and kind master. He assured us that, unlike the Pharisees, His was a light burden – ‘His yoke is easy and His burden light’ (Matthew 11:30). Unlike the ‘religious type’ Pharisees, who burdened their disciples with an impossible number of difficult rules, with Jesus as our teacher we can expect ‘rest for our souls’ (Matthew 11:29).
Sounds great! That is until you read other parts of the Gospels where Jesus’ expectations for us appear to be super-humanly high.
In Mark a rich, young ruler wants to follow Jesus and asks Him what it will take to be saved. Jesus refers Him to the ten commandments and the rich, young ruler assures Jesus that he’s been following these all his life already.
However, Jesus points to something more – more than the law of Moses, it would seem, not less. He looks at the young man and ‘loving him’ tells him that he needs to sell everything he owns. This proves to be too much and the rich, young man leaves deeply sad.
So how can Jesus be different to the ‘religious type’ Pharisees? It seems from this Biblical passage that Jesus is even worse than the Pharisees. He burdened this at first eager young man with yet another commandment and it proved too much. We might even say it was the ‘final straw on the camel’s back’.
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan beautifully sheds light on this Biblical passage and shows us what Jesus means when He says that His is a ‘light burden’.
Bunyan’s take on the Problem with Religion and How Jesus is Different
We first find the protagonist Christian: ‘clothed with rags … a book in his hand, and a great burden on his back’ (section 10). It later turns out that this burden came from reading this book – the Bible. This burden is so big that it totally stresses him out and he fears that its weight will ‘sink him lower than the grave’ (section 15). This burden however is not, unlike the Pharisees’ burden in the Bible, the burden of law. Instead, this burden is the burden of sin. Before reading the Bible Christian had this sin, he just wasn’t aware of it.
Jesus therefore doesn’t add any burdens we didn’t already have. Instead He makes us aware of the burden of our sin – which we always had – and shows us how we can be free of it.
When Christian attempts to get rid of his sin in The Pilgrim’s Progress, he learns that there is a big problem with taking the way of ‘religion’ like the Pharisees in Mark. Coming across a typical religious type ‘Mr. Worldly Wiseman’ he is advised to go to a village called ‘Morality’. Here he will find the house of a man called Legality who can help him with this burden.
Christian makes his way there but the way turns out to be impossibly steep and his burden seems even heavier than it did before. Legality – following religious law – doesn’t turn out to be the way to rid himself of the burden of sin. The way is too steep and he can never make it because, in all his messy human brokenness, he can never live perfectly enough to be ‘good’ by God’s standards. Instead he becomes more heavily burdened the further he gets. (section 37-46)
As a result, he must follow the narrow way of Jesus to make his burden lighter.
Lesson 2: Spiritual Survival Skills
The advice of ‘religious type’ Mr Worldly Wiseman turns out to lead Christian off-track. Yet Christian still needs some pointers if he’s going to survive the challenges of spiritual growth. He gets these from a man called ‘Evangelist’ who points him to a ‘narrow path’ and tells him that the Celestial City is that way. (section 59)
Along this narrow path, Christian must develop spiritual survival skills … and quickly.
First, he must learn to use the verses of the Bible as a sword to fend off the evil monster Apollyon. (section 151-152)
Next, he must learn to use the keys of God’s promises to get out of the castle owned by the great Giant Despair. (section 292)
Then, he must cling to belief in order to make his way through a river which gets deeper or shallower depending how much belief we have. (section 390)
And of course, he must learn that this is the only way to be free from sin and stay on track for the Celestial City. The way of Legality, the ways that feel ‘easier’ to the flesh, or any apparent ‘shortcuts’ are shown to side-track you, put you in danger or cause you never to reach your destination.
These survival skills are ones we should be adopting too.
Lesson 3: How Spiritual Obstacles Unburden Us from Sin
In light of what Bunyan tries to tell us, Jesus’ message to the rich, young ruler appears differently. Jesus is ‘overburdening’ the ruler, but it is intended as a lesson. He hopes to demonstrate three things:
- The rich, young ruler can never fulfil God’s law by himself. By highlighting the rich, young ruler’s secret idol of wealth – the thing he cannot find it within himself to give up – Jesus shows him that he hasn’t and cannot fulfil the law by himself. The way of the law is steep and (unlike the narrow way Christian finds) doesn’t go via the foot of the cross to make it possible to overcome.
- The young ruler is seeking salvation in the wrong way. Jesus tries to redirect him – ‘take up the cross, and follow me’. Jesus is opening up a way to salvation and it is by following His direction that he can be saved. Fulfilling a list of religious laws, won’t do it.
- ‘Wealth’ is the first obstacle the ruler must overcome to follow Jesus’ path. In The Pilgrim’s Progress Christian must leave behind all his possessions – and family! – in the City of Destruction to follow the narrow path that Jesus laid. The rich, young ruler must do likewise.
Jesus challenges the young man to take a way that will lead him to being totally unburdened from sin. In The Pilgrim’s Progress this is made possible by being led to the foot of the cross, where Jesus did that great work of dying for our sins.
Along the ‘narrow’ way more generally however, Christian finds himself undergoing a spiritual obstacle course which forces him to let go of sin to survive. Similarly, to get over the first hurdle towards salvation, the rich, young ruler must give up his love of wealth.
Lesson 4: The Invitation to Spiritual Growth
Both Christian and the rich, young ruler in Mark experience a deep sadness when they realise they have a heavy burden of sin they cannot shake off in their own strength. This turns out to be the invitation to spiritual growth.
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian talks about how this moment of deep sadness (section 350) and the fear of the Lord that follows, can be responded to in two different ways. Either you try to suppress the feeling – thinking it is a sign of weakness – or you respond to it and crying out for help from God ask to be directed to the path Jesus forged for us.
The first response, according to Bunyan, leads to destruction. This is because we continue to hope that we can become perfect enough to deserve salvation without Jesus’ help (which is never going to happen).
The second response leads to salvation because we turn to Jesus to save us from our own brokenness. (section 368-370)
We don’t know how the rich, young ruler responds to this sadness. All we know is that Jesus, in love, gave him at the very least an opportunity to respond. He challenged him to take the narrow way He forged and rely on Him to atone for his sins. In doing so, Jesus hopes the rich, young ruler will avoid the pitfalls of religion, which would encourage him to look to himself to do things perfectly enough to be considered ‘righteous’ or ‘free from sin’.
Jesus’ Way and the Problem with Religion Compared
Bunyan shows us that Jesus isn’t concerned with how perfectly we can follow a long list of religious laws.
The act of following these laws in itself doesn’t free us from sin or make us ‘good people’. This is because it doesn’t get to the root of the problem – it doesn’t necessarily change the heart motivations that cause us to sin. Besides, we’re lying to ourselves if we think we can really live perfectly enough to be considered ‘good’ by God’s standards.
Instead He wants to invite us to follow Him on a spiritual journey. Along the way we will be forced to respond to obstacles that will strengthen us, bring us closer to God and enable us to shed the sin that is burdening us.
Comment below your answers to the prompt questions. I’d love to hear them!