Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners
Or a brief relation of the exceeding mercy of God in Christ to him, to His poor servant, John Bunyan
John Bunyan was a non-conformist English pastor who lived from 1628-1688. During his years of ministry, he spent sapproximately 14 years in prison for preaching without a legal license as required by England at the time. Bunyan’s best known work is certainly The Pilgrim’s Progress, a book that I feel every Christian should read. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is Bunyan’s autobiographical account, which he wrote in 1666 while in prison primarily for the benefit of the people under his ministry.
Here is a synopsis of Bunyan’s journey to faith, repentance and godliness, as he describes it:
- As a wicked child he often had bad dreams of hell and devils, and had a distaste for anything religious.
- He escaped several incidents in which he could have died, including a fellow soldier who took his place in battle and was killed, but in spite of these mercies from God’s sparing hand, he says, “I grew more and more rebellious against God, and careless of my own salvation.”
- He married a woman whose father was a godly man, and as a result of reading his books, he began to be more interested in being religious, but without a conviction of his own sinful and lost state. He came to admire anything related to church and the clergy, all the while living an ungodly life. On occasion a sermon would cause him to feel some guilt, but by the end of the day the feeling was gone and he was able to return to his sinful ways.
- One day a woman scolded him for his foul language, telling him he was a bad example to any youngsters that might hear him. At this he felt ashamed and determined to reform his speech. Shortly after this he began associating with a man who caused him to become interested in reading the Bible, which he did. But all of this put him on the path of morality, as he strove to please God and obey His commandments by his own determination, and then being pleased with himself when he did so by his own efforts.
Thus I continued about a year; all which time our neighbours did take me to be a very godly man, a new and religious man, and did marvel much to see such a great and famous alteration in my life and manners…Now therefore they began to praise, to commend, and to speak well of me, both to my face, and behind my back. Now I was, as they said, become godly; now I was become a right honest man. But oh! when I understood these were their words and opinions of me, it pleased me mighty well. For, though as yet I was nothing but a poor painted hypocrite, yet, I loved to be talked of as one that was truly godly. I was proud of my godliness, and indeed, I did all I did, either to be seen of, or to be well spoken of, by men.
- God used various conversations and associations with others to eventually give him a greater desire to read the Bible and to understand its truths. At this time he began to more seriously consider and grapple with his own faith: Did he have genuine faith? How could he tell? What if he wasn’t elect of God? What if the day for him to receive the grace of God was past? As he became more convicted and began to see the wretchedness of his sin, he thought in despair, What if he were too great a sinner for God to choose him? Then the devil planted doubts in his mind regarding the truth of the Christian religion, and tempted him to turn away from God. For years Bunyan struggled with doubts and assurance of his salvation. But the Lord was faithful and continued to use His Word to teach, encourage and convict him as he worked through these matters in his heart.
- The more Bunyan grew in his faith and knowledge of God, the more aware and troubled he became about his sins. This was actually a sign that God was at work in his heart, for surely an unregenerate man is not troubled by sins such as, “my deadness, dulness, and coldness in holy duties; my wanderings of heart, of my wearisomeness in all good things, my want of love to God, His ways and people.” Finally, the solution for all that troubled his soul came to him: “I must go to Jesus.”
If you’re familiar with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, it is interesting to note that many of the incidents that take place in the story reflect Bunyan’s personal life and experiences.
- Like the main character, Christian, for a long time after his initial conversion, Bunyan carried a burden of guilt over his sinfulness.
- By attempting to make himself righteous by following the laws of God, Bunyan found himself on the road Christian briefly traveled to Mr. Legality’s house in the City of Morality.
- Bunyan was often spiritually assaulted by accusations, doubt, guilt and temptations from the Evil One, just as when Christian confronted Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation.
- Bunyan was tempted to question the validity of the Christian faith, as Christian faced when he met Mr. Atheist.
- He went through similar feelings of doubt and despair as Christian did while imprisoned at Doubting Castle.
- He at times forgot the Promises of God, as Christian did in the dungeon of the Giant Despair.
To the reader who often struggles with doubt, guilt, unworthiness, despair or temptation, Bunyan would remind you of the many examples Scripture gives us of those who were aware of their low status and sinful condition but humbly sought the mercy and grace from one who could grant it; consider Esther, the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter (Matt. 15:21-29), the woman who appealed to the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), the man who went to borrow bread from his friend at night (Luke 11:5-8), and many others. “Flee to Christ!”
Following his testimony of his conversion and gradually-settled assurance, Bunyan gives an account of how he came to be a minister. At first, he would share his thoughts with acquaintances in small groups, then he was encouraged to speak in meetings, which he felt unworthy but willing to do. He came to acknowledge that God had given him a gift for teaching and preaching, so he must not bury it but must use it for the good of God’s people. He remarks,
I concluded, a little grace, a little love, a little of the true fear of God, is better than all the gifts…Let all men therefore prize a little with the fear of the Lord (gifts indeed are desirable), but yet great grace and small gifts are better than great gifts and no grace.
I found it interesting that what Bunyan was personally going through spiritually often influenced his preaching style and subject matter. He comments, “I preached what I felt, what I smartingly did feel; even that under which my poor soul did groan and tremble to astonishment.” When he was feeling the weight of sin on his conscious and a sense of his own unworthiness, he preached messages on the burden of the law and the seriousness of sin. As he experienced the peace and comfort of Christ within himself, he preached the person, grace and benefits of Christ. Bunyan’s description of being called to the ministry and what he experienced as a preacher provides insight into what many true ministers of God’s Word likely experience, and provide words of encouragement and warning to other pastors, preachers, and teachers of the Word. Here are some of the effects Bunyan personally experienced as a result of preaching:
- He acquired a great burden for lost souls.
- He was convicted by his own preaching.
- He still struggled inwardly with old sin, sometimes even while in the pulpit.
- He was tempted with pride and a desire to gain the approval and praise of men.
- He was opposed, attacked, slandered, and falsely accused by those who disapproved of or were threatened by his messages.
- He was imprisoned for preaching according to his conscience rather than according to the laws of civil government.
These remind us that Bunyan, and all men that serve in the ministry, are mere men, and while they may strive for godliness and are used greatly by God, they are vulnerable and are tempted and tried just as much as, if not more than, the average Christian.
As stated at the beginning, Bunyan wrote his autobiographical account when in prison. In the last part he writes about the circumstances surrounding his imprisonment, the thoughts, feelings, and troubles he faced, and how the Lord upheld, comforted and strengthened him with His promises. I created this timeline of Bunyan’s life and works which may serve as a helpful overview (click on the chart for a clearer view):
I find to this day seven abominations in my heart:
- Inclining to unbelief.
- Suddenly to forget the love and mercy that Christ manifests.
- A leaning to the works of the law.
- Wanderings and coldness in prayer.
- To forget to watch for that I pray for.
- Apt to murmur because I have no more, and yet ready to abuse what I have.
- I can do none of those things which God commands me, but my corruptions will thrust in themselves. When I would do good, evil is present with me.
These things I continually see and feel, and am afflicted and oppressed with, yet the wisdom of God orders them for my good:
- They make me abhor myself.
- They keep me from trusting my heart.
- They convince me of the insufficiency of all inherent righteousness.
- They show me the necessity of flying to Jesus.
- They press me to pray unto God.
- They show me the need I have to watch and be sober.
- They provoke me to pray unto God, through Christ, to help me, and carry me through this world.
A friend of Bunyan’s continued his autobiography where he left off, providing additional information about Bunyan’s last 10 years or so, including the circumstances surrounding his death and a brief description of his personal character. John Bunyan’s works number about 60 in all, many of which are profitable reading and highly recommended. Grace Abounding gives us a glimpse into the life of a man who traveled a long, hard path to faith in Christ, and into the heart of a man whose primary desire was to please God in every aspect of his life.
In him at once did three great worthies shine,
Historian, poet, and a choice divine:
Then let him rest in undisturbed dust,
Until the resurrection of the just.