John Bunyan: The Faithful Tinker
February 24, 2017
Young John Bunyan (1628–1688) hardly seemed fit for preaching. He was a coarse person with little education and a mouth full of foul language. He had lost his mother and sister to death and was exposed to the evils of military service before his seventeenth birthday. As a young man, he worked with his hands as a tinker or worker in soft metals. His soul was probably much like his body after carrying his sixty-pound portable anvil: outwardly tough and calloused, though inwardly bruised and burdened. Marriage to a church-going woman brought some moral improvement and produced much self-righteousness, but it was not until Bunyan overheard a few poor women talking about the new birth and the grace of God in Christ for sinners that he realized his greatest need.
The faithful pastor of those women, John Gifford, taught Bunyan about the grace of God. Bunyan read Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians and learned how Jesus Christ made satisfaction to divine justice for our sins by His death. Bunyan was transformed, and others soon called upon him to speak in meetings for evangelism and exhortation. Feeling very unworthy, he nevertheless was able to speak from his experience of the truth: “I preached what I felt, what I smartingly did feel, even that under which my poor soul did groan and tremble to astonishment.” He was not a fire-and-brimstone preacher who looked down on unbelievers, but one who lived with a “fire in mine own conscience.”
After two years, the Lord brought Bunyan to a stronger faith in Christ when He revealed Christ’s righteousness to Bunyan’s soul powerfully one day when walking through a field. Bunyan later wrote of this experience: “Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed, I was loosed from my afflictions and irons, my temptations also fled away. . . . Now I went also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God. . . . I lived, for some time, very sweetly at peace with God through Christ. O I thought Christ! Christ! There was nothing but Christ that was before my eyes.”
Bunyan’s preaching changed substantially. While still attacking self-righteousness, Bunyan dwelt more upon Jesus Christ. Sin and Christ as the Savior of sinners became the major themes of his preaching. Through it all, Bunyan said, “I preached what I saw and felt.” His pastor John Burton (John Gifford had died) commended Bunyan as a man “not chosen out of an earthly, but out of the heavenly university, the church of Christ,” who “has not the learning or wisdom of man, yet, through grace, he has received the teaching of God.” Already the church had recognized Bunyan’s sound doctrine, holy life, and giftedness in preaching.
Bunyan’s preaching soon provoked opposition. He was indicted around 1658 by the authorities for the offense of preaching without a license from church authorities in a village near his hometown of Bedford. A Cambridge scholar publicly attacked him the next year for preaching as a mere tinker and not a university-trained man. This prompted a fellow Baptist to say in Bunyan’s defense, “You seem angry with the tinker because he strives to mend souls as well as kettles and pans,” He pointed out that Bunyan did not preach on his own initiative but at the call of the church in Bedford. Bunyan was the target of rumors that he was a witch, a robber, and had two wives at once. However, Bunyan went on preaching.
When we read Bunyan’s treatises, we can almost hear the tinker’s voice as he preached in the villages of Bedfordshire. We sense his earnest desire that his hearers may be granted spiritual senses to see, hear, and taste invisible spiritual realities. He cried out, “O that they who have heard me speak this day did but see as I do what sin, death, hell, and the curse of God is; and also what the grace, and love, and mercy of God is, through Jesus Christ.”
His preaching drew his listeners into the divine drama of salvation. He addressed people directly, graphically, and simply in common language. He answered their objections, and pressed them to respond. For example, Bunyan depicted the following dialogue on the day of Pentecost:
Peter: Repent, every one of you; be baptized, every one of you, in his name, for the remission of sins, and you shall, every one of you, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.Objector: But I was one of them that plotted to take away his life. May I be saved by him?Peter: Every one of you.Objector: But I was one of them that bare false witness against him. Is there grace for me?Peter: For every one of you….Objector: But I was one of them that cried out, Crucify him, crucify him; and desired that Barabbas, the murderer, might live, rather than him. What will become of me, think you?Peter: I am to preach repentance and remission of sins to every one of you.Objector: But I railed on him, I reviled him, I hated him, I rejoiced to see him mocked at by others. Can there be hope for me?Peter: There is, for every one of you. Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Bunyan passionately urged his listeners to respond with faith in the warning of judgment to come as well the promise of forgiveness and life, by the grace of God: “Poor sinner, awake; eternity is coming. God and his Son, they are both coming to judge the world; awake, art thou yet asleep, poor sinner? Let me set the trumpet to thine ear once again! The heavens will be shortly on a burning flame; the earth, and the works thereof, shall be burned up, and then wicked men shall go into perdition; dost thou hear this, sinner?”
Bunyan pleaded with people to flee from God’s wrath: “The soul that is lost will never be found again, never be recovered again, never be redeemed again. Its banishment from God is everlasting; the fire in which it burns, and by which it must be tormented, is a fire that is everlasting fire, everlasting burning. That is fearful.” He continued, “Now tell [count] the stars, now tell the drops of water, now tell the blades of grass that are spread upon the face of all the earth, if thou canst; and yet sooner mayest thou do this than count the thousands of millions of thousands of years that a damned soul shall lie in hell.”
While Bunyan pleaded with people to see the sinfulness of sin and the torments of hell, he also proclaimed the mercies of God: “Cast but up thine eyes a little higher, and behold, there is the mercy-seat and throne of grace to which thou wouldest come, and by which thou must be saved.” He added, “Coming sinner, what promise thou findest in the word of Christ, strain it whither thou canst, so thou dost not corrupt it, and his blood and merits will answer all.”
Bunyan was particularly focused on moving his hearers to praise the Savior: "O Son of God! Grace was in all thy tears, grace came bubbling out of thy side with thy blood, grace came forth with every word of thy sweet mouth. Grace came out where the whip smote thee, where the thorns pricked thee, where the nails and spear pierced thee. O blessed Son of God! Here is grace indeed! Unsearchable riches of grace! Grace enough to make angels wonder, grace to make sinners happy, grace to astonish devils."
Bunyan’s preaching was not only doctrinal, dealing with the weighty matters of the faith; it was doxological, calling forth from awakened hearts the praise of their Redeemer: “O grace! O amazing grace! To see a prince entreat a beggar to receive an alms would be a strange sight; to see a king entreat a traitor to accept of mercy would be a stranger sight than that; but to see God entreat a sinner, to hear Christ say, ‘I stand at the door and knock,’ with a heart full and a heaven full of grace to bestow upon him that opens, this is such a sight as dazzles the eyes of angels.”
Though sometimes slandered as an antinomian, Bunyan promoted the pursuit of holiness and godly behavior. We are justified by faith in Christ alone, but we demonstrate the reality of that faith by our good works. Bunyan preached that a holy life is “the beauty of Christianity.” He called men and women to turn from sin, “and let your minds and affections be yielded up to the conduct [guidance] of the word and Spirit of God.” He exhorted them to separate themselves from sinful occasions, sinful examples, and all enticements to sin. He warned, “A man cannot love God that loves not holiness; he loves not holiness that loves not God’s word; he loves not God’s word that doth not do it.”
Bunyan suffered for his preaching. In 1660 the authorities arrested Bunyan for non-conformity, failing to attend the services of the parish church, holding conventicles (illegal assemblies for worship), and preaching without a license from the Church of England. Bunyan was offered release if he promised to stop, but he refused, saying, “If I was out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow, with the help of God.”
Though Bunyan remained in prison for years, the jailers occasionally gave Bunyan freedom to leave for short times and preach. George Offer noted, “It is said that many of the Baptist congregations in Bedfordshire owe their origins to his midnight preaching.” He also preached to those with him in prison, though at times he himself was deeply discouraged.
After twelve years, Bunyan was finally released in 1672, when King Charles II issued the Royal Declaration of Indulgence. However, government officials quickly moved to restrict that freedom. Bunyan was imprisoned again from December 1676 until June 1677, when the Puritan theologian John Owen interceded with the Bishop of London for Bunyan’s release. Owen famously told King Charles II that he would gladly trade his vast learning for the tinker’s ability to touch men’s hearts.
Bunyan’s greatest book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, written in that prison, contains poignant examples of his lofty ideals for the ministry of the Word. In the house of Interpreter, the pilgrim sees a portrait on the wall. It is a picture of the kind of minister God authorizes to be a spiritual guide to others, one who “had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon its lips, the world was behind his back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head.” In the Delectable Mountains, the pilgrims meet shepherds of the flock for whom Christ died, teachers whose names are Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere. They showed the pilgrims the horrible consequences of doctrinal error, the dangers of spiritual blindness, the fearful reality of hell, and a glimpse of the glories of heaven. In the second part of The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian’s wife and children receive guidance from “Great-heart,” a valiant warrior well-equipped with sword, helmet, and shield. He teaches them of Christ, fights against a giant that assaults them in the way, and leads them safely past roaring lions—yet not of his own will or for his own glory, but as a servant of the Lord.
Bringing these images together, we see Bunyan’s vision of the godly pastor. He is a heavenly-minded man, scorning the pride and pleasures of this world to live for treasures that last. He is a humble man, enduring trouble and sorrow to care for the lambs of the Lord. He is a holy man, knowing experientially the truths that he declares to others and fighting with all his heart against the powers of darkness. In all things, he is a preacher of the Word of God, a living trumpet that sounds the alarm to sinners and lovingly calls them to God.