The Diversity of Christian Experience

As a pastor I have been blessed to hear many testimonies of conversion. The stories from individuals of their personal experience are always the same and yet always different.

How are they always the same? Blessedly, the saving grace of God always brings them to a repentant faith. This saving faith always enables the person to see their own moral bankruptcy and understand that they rightly deserve God’s wrath. And that faith always directs the person to hope in the good news of the person and atoning work of Jesus Christ alone for salvation.

How are they always different? Just as no two people are exactly alike and no two life experiences are exactly alike, so also no two conversion stories are exactly alike. This diversity in people’s accounts of their own conversion to Christ is an awesome testimony to the power and grace of the Lord Jesus. God’s grace is not limited by personality or intellect or ethnic group or any other thing. God grace comes to both young and old, rich and poor and it does so in an amazing variety of ways. This supremely shows God’s glory.

John Bunyan has written an allegorical account of the Christian experience in an all time best-seller, The Pilgrim’s Progress. I have read this book several times now, both by myself and in a children’s version with my family. My children are already asking if we can begin reading it again.

With this in mind, let me offer two suggestions for reading The Pilgrim’s Progress.

First. One of the keys to benefiting from this book is to understand the biblical theology of Christian experience. Bunyan was a Calvinistic Baptist and the subtleties of his allegory will only be rightly understood in that light. The more you grow in your understanding of the biblical doctrines of the gospel, of conversion and of the Christian life, the more blessed you will be by reading Bunyan. Many people in our church culture of easy-believism, anemic grace and carnal Christianity will not fully understand Bunyan’s message expressed in allegory. So study the doctrines of your faith.

Second. Another important thing to recognize is that the book is written in two parts. This observation about structure helps us to see the author’s purpose. These two parts are two different stories of conversion. The first focuses on “Christian” and the second on “Christiana.” In my first time reading through the whole book I can remember thinking that the second part was a bit slower, fewer enemies, less action, etc. I realize now that I missed an important purpose of Bunyan in writing this.  Joel Beeke describes it this way:

“Bunyan may have been motivated to write the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress in which Christiana and other female characters, as well as children, play prominent roles to depict a more subdued way in which the Holy Spirit often works conversion in typical church members. Hence Christiana and her children do not fall into the Slough of Despond nor have such a dramatic experience at the cross as Christian did. Christian and Christiana traverse much of the same ground, which shows the universality of believers’ spiritual experiences, but the section on Christian is more autobiographical while the section on Christiana is more corporate and normative, showing a more typical morphology of conversion.” Meet The Puritans, p. 109-110.

There is a great variety of Christian experience on the road to the Celestial City, and the gospel truly triumphs in it all. Hopefully, this will help and encourage you in your own reading of this great and classic Christian work. And most importantly, I hope that the glory of God’s grace will be more greatly appreciated as we see the power of Christ’s gospel being worked out in a variety of life situations.

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