First, allow me to say how excited we all are at the energetic response we have seen across the various small groups, as we embark on our time together as a church in Pilgrim’s Progress. There is great enthusiasm for the story, for the community we are experiencing, and, thankfully, for how it exposes us to gospel verities. After all, the purpose of Pilgrim’s Progress is really to get us thinking about the Bible. In fact, Charles Spurgeon, who confessed to having read Pilgrim’s Progress over one hundred times, said, “Next to the Bible the book that I value most is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress…it is a book of which I never seem to tire, but then the secret of that is, that [it] is the Bible in another shape. It is the same heavenly water taken out of this same well of the gospel.”
From what we are hearing, there is great discussion bubbling up in the small groups, such that, sometimes our leaders have to pick and choose which morsels they will serve up from a given chapter of Pilgrim’s Progress. The reality is that there is so much in the storyline, that there is no way to treat every detail in, well… detail. This makes each small group unique, as it hones in on the various aspects of the story and study guide that best meet the needs of the group that night.
Ch. 2 is full, dramatic, telling, and trajectory-setting for the rest of the journey. From his opening encounter with Mr. Worldly-Wiseman whose council of self-reliant legalistic moralism (is there any other kind of moralism?) led Christian up a treacherous mountain, to the ever-timely Evangelist pointing him to the cross and the gospel, the reader can sense this is no simple nursery rhyme unfolding. The next thing we know, Christian is snatched “roughly” through the narrow (wicket) gate by Good-Will (a picture of Christ), who then sends him on his way to the Interpreter’s house. Historians believe that Bunyan had in the back of his mind his experience of going to the church house in Bedford, where faithful Pastor John Gifford showed him Bible truths he would need for his own journey. Here, Christian was taken into a museum-like setting and shown several things that represented biblical truths regarding the Christian life – things of encouragement, instruction, and warning. First, the picture of a very grave person (the gospel minister), to a dusty parlor (a lesson on law and gospel), and so forth.
One item that has seemed to occasion fairly common interest and curiosity across our small groups is a strange, even disturbing scene at the Interpreter’s house.
Who can forget it?
A man in an iron cage.
It is a dark, grim, morose image. Christian, himself, was distressed at the sight. That’s why Interpreter showed him this sad figure, to get his attention. Christian, you might imagine somewhat timidly, asks him who he is, why he is in that iron cage. The man replies that he was once possessed of an impressive profession of faith, both in his own eyes and the eyes of others. He cannot get out of the cage. He is full of gnawing despair and hopelessness. Christian attempts to minister words of gospel truth to him about a merciful Savior “full of pity,” and invites him to fresh repentance. But, the prisoner of doubt, remains unmoved (pp. 53-55). Interpreter’s aim is that Christian would be warned.
Now, I would imagine there are a number of thoughts, questions, maybe even worries as to what exactly is going on, here. What are we to make of this poor, miserable figure? What is his condition and what does this mean in the larger context of the story of Pilgrim’s Progress? More importantly, what is this supposed to teach us about our own journey? Where are the biblical moorings to tether ourselves to, as we try to make sense of this picture?
Bunyan is giving us an allegory. As such, we have to realize that not every picture is going to have an absolute and only tight and tidy meaning that leaves no room for discussion or debate. With that said, neither is Bunyan’s classic like a piece of modern art hanging in a gallery, indistinguishably void of any authorial intent, merely waiting to be infused with any number of readers’ subjective interpretations.
Now, some reading this blog may be thinking, “David, just cut to the chase and tell me in twenty-five words or less what the image means. That’ll be good enough for me.” Others, may be more interested in how this man in the iron cage has been interpreted in the history of Bunyan scholarship. Still, some may be wrestling with this at a more visceral level. For the first person, I’ll say that the core of this image is that the man in the cage has made an idol of his sin, which has led to him making an idol of his unrepentance, unbelief, and doubt. There, I think that is twenty-five words. More eloquently, yet more loquaciously, the editor’s notes in the back of your book describe the iron-caged man thusly:
“The iron cage is a warning to all who would make light of God’s promises. This man has made an idol of remorse, despair, and bitterness, never truly crying out to the Lord for mercy because he has decided that God will not hear him or respond to him favorably. He worships his sorrow and has elevated his unbelief above the promises of God. He cannot truly repent because God withholds His mercy from those make an idol out of unbelief” (E.N. 15.6, 228).
Secondly, most Bunyan interpreters (no pun intended) see this as a clear allusion to Heb 6:1-6, which is a warning passage about those who appear to be true believers, but through persistent sin and unrepentance, finally prove they were never believers to begin with (cf., 1Jn 2:19). That this is reasonable is seen in the fact that some of the dialog between Christian and the man in the iron cage is taken from the very words of that Hebrews passage.
I want to spend some time pressing in over the next few days with the more visceral, personal place, where we are trying to figure out how Pilgrim’s Progress helps us understand and live the Christian life. You see, this whole scene in Pilgrim’s Progress raises a number of questions, such as doubting our salvation, assurance of our salvation, perseverance and preservation, easy-believism, hardness of heart, the nature of true repentance, conviction of sin, and the like. Can a person appear to be a believer, yet turn out not to be? And, what do we do in those times when we feel like an iron cage is clenching its cold clutches around us? Can a true believer struggle with doubt? More than that, can we even at times fall into making an idol of our doubts and fears, to the point that it becomes life-dominating and brings us to places of despair and great distress about our own spiritual condition? Is there comfort for us if this happens?
While I don’t intend on blogging a dissertation on these subjects over the next few days, I must, nonetheless, give it proper service by drilling down with some clarity and depth in some of these issues four three or four blog posts. I say this because the doctrine of salvation is so pastorally pertinent. Personally, I have found this to be one of the, if not the most frequent need the sheep have, in terms of teaching, reminding, and comfort. So, we are going to take a biblical excursus from Pilgrim’s Progress by looking at the “three-legged stool” of assurance over the next few days.
Finally, I want to thank and commend y’all for jumping in so readily. Thank you to the congregation for expressing such appreciation for the effort everyone involved has made to bring this small group ministry to fruition. Thank you to the leaders, hosts, and participants! J. Gresham Machen described Bunyan’s classic, as “that tenderest and most theological of books.” Yet, I want to thank all of you for reading a book that, admittedly, is of a sometimes demanding written style. Old, classic books make us stretch and feel the burn at times (but, see my previous post on Old Books). So, as Bunyan might have said so seventeenth centurily, “Hangeth in there, good readers.”