Saturday, 7 February 2015

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan

"In this my relation of the merciful working of God upon my soul, it will not be amiss, if, in the first place, I do, in a few words, give you a hint of my pedigree, and manner or bringing up; that thereby the goodness and bounty of God towards me, may be the more advanced and magnified before the sons of men."

John Bunyan was born in Elstow, a village near Bedford in Bedfordshire, and was baptized on November 28, 1628, the first son of Thomas Bunyan and his second wife.  In 1644, he joined the Parliamentary army as a soldier and was active until 1647.  The year 1655 saw him joining the congregational church at Bedford and the following year he was actively disputing with the Quakers, out of which was born his first book, Some Gospel Truths Opened.  With the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and the restoration of the monarchy, the persecution of Non-Conformists began. Bunyan was given every opportunity to conform by the surprisingly tolerant Royalists, but he was staunchly resistant to a compromise of principles that could weaken the faith of his followers.  Prevented from preaching by various imprisonments, Bunyan turned to writing.  Grace Abounding is a record of his spiritual experiences from his first meaningful encounter with God to his life of preaching.

Bunyan admits to having a lack of religion in his upbringing and it was only later, with some the influence from his wife, that he came to entertain thoughts of spirituality:

"But I observe, though I was such a great sinner before conversion, yet God never much charged the guilt of the sins of my ignorance upon me; only he showed me I was lost if I had not Christ, because I had been a sinner; I saw that I wanted a perfect righteousness to present me without fault before God, and this righteousness was nowhere to be found, but in the person of Jesus Christ."

After hearing a sermon preached from the Song of Songs, Bunyan was struck by the love of God and came to the following conclusions:

That the church and so every saved soul, is:
  1. Christ's love, when loveless
  2. Christ's love without a cause
  3. Christ's love when hated to the world
  4. Christ's love when under temptation, and under desertion
  5. Christ's love from first to last

Birthplace of John Bunyan
source Wikipedia

Though Bunyan had moments of euphoric revelation and joyful epiphanies, his conversion was still fraught with doubts and fears.  Had he abused God too much for forgiveness?  Was forgiveness given to others but not to him?  Like Esau, had he sold his birthright and would never be able to regain it?  His agonies leapt off the page with a startling clarity:

"Yet I saw my sin most barbarous, and a filthy crime, and could not but conclude, and that with great shame and astonishment, that I had horribly abused the holy Son of God; wherefore, I felt my soul greatly to love and pity him, and my bowels to yearn toward him; for I saw he was still my Friend, and did reward me good for evil; yea, the love and affection that then did burn within to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ did work, at this time, such a strong and hot desire for revengement upon myself for the abuse I had done unto him, that, to speak as then I thought, had I a thousand gallons of blood within my veins, I could freely then have split it all at the command and feet of this my Lord and Saviour."

Bunyan eventually is able to reason his way through his doubts and come to peace with his faith.  He realizes that while he prayed fervently when he was in the midst of troubles, he neglected to pray for himself to avoid the pitfalls and temptations.  The sense of being a sinner did not ever leave him completely, but as he grew, so did his understanding of the depth and breadth of the grace of God, and he was finally at peace.

Stained glass of Bunyan in prison
source Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the book, Bunyan explains the cause of his imprisonment, which appears to be directly related to his refusal to use the Book of Common Prayer.  When questioned by the justices, Bunyan stated that he would be pleased to use the Book, if the justices could so kindly point to him in Scripture where the particular book was referenced.  The justices, however, viewed the Book of Common Prayer as second only to the Bible.  Bunyan was stubborn, the justices unyielding, and so began Bunyan's time in the gaol. When released from prison in 1672, on a declaration of indulgence issued by the king under a new wave of religious tolerance, Bunyan returned to preaching, this time legally, and continue as the pastor of the Bedford Meeting, a position he had been given while languishing in prison a year before.  In 1688, while visiting London, he contracted a fever and passed away on August 31st.

The title Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners comes from two Biblical scripture references:

"Moreover the law entered that the offence might abound.  But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord"  Romans 5: 20-21

"This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief."  1 Timothy 1: 15

My absolute favourite part of this book was when Bunyan realized the impact of conversion.  His fellow men and women were suddenly lovely to his eyes and he viewed them "like a people that carried the broad seal of heaven about them."  What a transformative experience!  Instead of being irked, or disdainful, or petty, or indifferent toward our fellow man, if we could see them as beloved children of God, how differently we might treat them!

John Bunyan at the Gates of Heaven
William Blake
source Wikimedia Commons

I must say that while I liked this read, so far I'm finding the biography list rather quirky.  Taken separately, the books have been enjoyable, but when taken together, they don't strike me as a concise, chronological order of biographies that perhaps expand ideas or give insight into changes in societies or thought.  Ruth, I'd love to know what you thought of the novel list as a whole.  The other remaining lists (plays, history and poetry) look much better, but I'm not that impressed with this one.

This book counts towards my Reading England Challenge and since Cat at Tell Me A Story has been doing such a wonderful job with educating us as to the English counties along with her novels, I thought that I should add at least a few photos of Bedfordshire, where the narrative takes place.


Elstow Stream

Bridge and Promenade

Bedford Bridge


  1. To answer you, I definitely see similarities of the last six we have read on the list. Bauer explains that in these "unbroken line of spiritual biographies from Augustine through Colton, the answer is (to the question: Who wants to hear about my life?): all those who, like me, are sinners."

    "The Godward focus of the Middle Ages begins to blur, and the men of the Enlightenment decide that they are not sinners, but humans. So Montaigne, Descartes, and Rouseau present a "secular conversion toward holiness....toward self-knowledge."

    She says, "Every book on the either spiritual or skeptical, a guide to God or a guide to self-definition. The two types of autobiography remain cousins..."

    Both biographies borrow and lend from each other, she claims, so that the skeptic indulges in a confession, and the spiritual justify the ways of the self.

    Maybe it is Bauer who is trying to tell a story of the world by using this idea and these particular biographies.

    Hope that answers your question.

    Hey, about your copy of Grace Abounding, did you read the last section, too?

    1. Hmmm ..... I'll have to go back and read her explanation. Again, I can certainly compare their experiences but they don't really connect for me, especially without knowing the history around them. To me, it's very little help (or there's very little continuity) going from an emotional Carmelite nun to a puritan-type rigid preacher. Montaigne seemed to employ God when it suited him, and Descartes' Meditations was supposed to be a work to placate the Church after his Discourse of Method, if I can remember correctly. I've enjoyed the reads but each one has been rather startling, rather than giving me a feeling that I am traveling through threads of history. Thanks for the information though as it gives me a better idea as to her purpose.

      If one is going for a spiritual tapestry, the book 25 Books Every Christian Should Read has a much better chronological order. But that's only my opinion and I'm sure there are those who'd disagree with that list.

      In the last section, I read of Bunyan's imprisonment, written in his own words, and also a letter from his friend, giving more information as to his preaching and his last days until his death. Did you have those sections in your edition?

    2. No, I did not read it. I need to.

      I looked at that 25 Books suggestion. That would be great to read, too. (One year I want to do a church history year, and that may be a good source for me to get some ideas.)

    3. The books so far are really excellent and I can see an intertwining in their progression. A church history year sounds like fun! I'd love to hear your ideas!

  2. Love this post and the pics are great. I don't know about educating anyone but I love Britain , I love to google and research and living so far away pictures bring me closer. :-)
    Bedfordshire is on my itinerary but hard to find anything other than Bunyan who I find a bit daunting.

    1. Well, you're educating me at least. And making me want to take a vacation in England! :-)

      My Uncle Silas by H.E. Bates, I believe, is set in Bedfordshire. Have you read that one yet?

  3. Thanks for sharing your summary and impressions of "Grace Abounding" Cleo. It's interesting to observe the different degrees of religious freedom and what is considered tolerant in different eras.I wonder why anyone ever has to persecute anyone else for what they believe? Punish them for what they do if it harms others, but not what they believe. Seems like a disagreement over a text is not a good reason to imprison someone, but like I say, different eras had different degrees of tolerance, and I am certainly no expert on that particular era. A few years ago I read "The Pilgrim's Progress", and though I wasn't overly crazy about the book I'm so glad I read it because you run into references to it everywhere. I liked C.L. Lewis' take on the allegory a little better - "The Pilgrim's Regress".

    1. Cromwell was a Puritan, so he was part of the Non-Conformists which included Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, etc. and under his rule there was religious tolerance, but as soon as the monarchy was restored, so was the power of the Church of England, and that's when Bunyan started to have problems. Why people feel the need to imprison people for having different ideas is beyond me, but it happens throughout history and we don't seem to learn from it. I think even now we subtly "imprison" people for not conforming to what we think they should. It seems to be a very human trait that is best to keep an eye on.

      I LOVED The Pilgrim's Regress. Lewis wrote it in three weeks on a holiday and it's magnificent.

  4. This looks fascinating! I hadn't heard about it until you mentioned it last year, and I must admit I've been waiting for you to read it before I picked it up! :) I'm really looking forward to it now.

    Love the pictures :)

    1. Bunyan is a little rigid in his thinking, however I didn't find his views rigid. Does that make sense? I think his realization of how flawed he was as a human being kept him from religious dogmatism, or at least it didn't come out in this book. It was all about his flaws and the grace he received.

      As much as I've complained about the continuity of these biographies, I've gained much value in reading them. I really have been able to see how very different people were and, with all these differences, how people were simply accepted (outside of the political sphere, of course). I think such different characters made life much more interesting. Nowadays we are so homogenized and while we say we support differences, I think our society is structured to minimize them. It's nice to be able to have a look in at other times to see that it wasn't always so.

  5. Oh, my, what a wonderful blog site! My stumbling has brought me to your doorstep, and I look forward to browsing around your postings. On a day when I needed something special to put some sunshine in my life, Classical Carousel is just what the doctor ordered. Again, bravo!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, R.T.! There are a few of us around who like to concentrate mainly on classics. Have fun investigating and please add any comments you'd like. I'm always learning and any insights are highly appreciated. :-)