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Bunyan’s Theology and Christian’s Burden

At the beginning of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the main character, Christian, has a burden on his back. If the reader is wise to the allegory Bunyan is working with (as the introduction would certainly make them), they would more than likely conclude that the burden which Christian is caring is his ‘sin’.

This though, is a misunderstanding of where Bunyan is coming from – the burden is not Christian’s sin. Bunyan attempts to explain this to us, but in a roundabout way. He makes Christian enter though the Wicket Gate and yet still retain his burden. After this, Christian reaches the Cross and Sepulcher and it is only at this point that his burden is removed.

This ordering of events is highly important (and was a very deliberate move on Bunyan’s part). Throughout the rest of the allegory, Bunyan is clear to explain that the salvation of a person (e.g. what puts you on the path of righteousness and saves you) is that they have entered through The Wicket Gate and received their papers. But if Christian is actually saved at the Wicket Gate, then why does he still carry his burden? Why is the Sepulcher located AFTER the Wicket Gate?

The answer becomes clear after reading any of the major Puritan theologians: Christian was indeed saved after entering through the Wicket Gate, but the burden he carries is not sin, the burden is his conscience.

It might seem odd for Bunyan to make such an important item be simply Christian’s assurance of conscience. If Pilgrim’s Progress were written by a modern Christian, most likely they would have had Christian’s burden be his sin, which would indeed fall off at the Cross, but only AFTER that would he be sent to travel through the Wicket Gate. This, I think would be a correct allegorical description of biblical doctrine, but of course Bunyan would have disagreed with me.

So what exactly is our disagreement?

Most Puritans (Bunyan included), held to the rather strict version Calvinism espoused by Theodore Beza that is referred to today as Supralapsarianism. Without getting into too much detail, this particular doctrine holds that God has predestined and foreordained all men (and women and children) to be either ‘elect’ or ‘reprobate’ before the beginning of time, and without any regard to the actual individuals themselves. One of the consequences of thinking about salvation in this way, is that even if you may think you are ‘saved’, you may, in actuality, not be. After salvation, there remains a nagging thought that is hard to shake: “I may wish to be one of the elect, but God may have created me to be one of the reprobate.”

This is a rather large logical conundrum that the Puritans were constantly dealing with. Modern Calvinists downplay this conflict of conscience, but if anyone doubts this, they can simply read Bunyan’s autobiography ‘Grace Abounding‘ to see that it was a very real problem for Bunyan all throughout his life. The very purpose of writing the book was to help his fellow Puritans get through the same doubts about their salvation that he had gone through.

To be fair, there always seems to be doubts about salvation, no matter what system one holds to. It’s one thing to know what you must do to be saved, it’s quite another thing to feel assured that you yourself have actually done it. Many Christians I’ve known have confessed to ‘being saved’ multiple times. The first, when they first believed, and then multiple subsequent salvations later on, just in case they didn’t do it right the first time.

This is what makes assurance so important to Bunyan, and why he makes Christian’s assurance such a great burden to him. Although I wouldn’t personally have configured Christian’s path in quite the same manner, it at least makes sense why Bunyan wrote it how he did.

Perhaps trying to remedy the confusion that may have come out of this episode, Bunyan tells us in Part Two, that Christian’s wife, Christiana, WAS happy before reaching the Sepulcher, and afterwards was merely ‘ten times happier’.

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