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I have to admit that I have always found this a confusing aspect of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Charles Spurgeon expressed his one disagreement with Bunyan in this way: “If he meant to show what usually happens, he was right; but if he meant to show what ought to have happened, he was wrong.”

I am thankful that Jim Orrick, professor of literature and culture at Boyce College (Louisville), was willing to let me post his answer to this question.


Painting by Mike Wimmer

When I ask this question to my students who have just finished reading the book, they nearly always respond with a variety of answers. After batting around several ideas, we narrow the possibilities down to two: Christian was saved either (1) when he entered through the Wicket Gate or he was saved (2) when his burden rolled off his back at the cross.

Most students come to the conclusion that Christian got saved at the cross.

But this is, in fact, the wrong answer. Christian got saved when he entered through the Wicket Gate.

Students get the wrong answer because they misunderstand three critical elements of Bunyan’s allegory: (1) The Wicket Gate, (2)  Christian’s Burden, and (3) the proper object of saving faith.

1. The Wicket Gate

First, a wicket gate is a small or narrow gate, and in the Bible, Jesus identifies himself as the narrow gate, so in Pilgrim’s Progress the Wicket Gate represents Christ. In Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian asks Evangelist “Whither must I fly?” Evangelist directs Christian to the Wicket Gate, or to Christ, and not to the cross. The Wicket Gate represents Christ.

2. Christian’s Burden

A second error results because my students usually misunderstand what the burden on Christian’s back represents. When we meet him, Christian has an enormous burden on his back, and Christian’s burden represents not sin per se, but it represents the shame and doubt that he feels because of his sin. Christian’s sins get forgiven, and he was justified when he received Christ, which is represented by his entering the Wicket Gate. But Christian does not yet understand the basis of his forgiveness, so his conscience continues to bother or burden him. Put in more technical terms (always a welcome means of clarification) the burden represents psychological guilt not forensic guilt. Therefore, what Christian loses at the cross is his shame and doubt caused by sin, because his sins had already been forgiven when he entered the Wicket Gate. Also, at the cross Christian receives a scroll, which he later calls his assurance. When Christian entered the Wicket Gate, he received Christ. When Christian gazed at the cross, he understood substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness, and this gave him assurance that his sins were forgiven.

This understanding of Christian’s salvation in Pilgrim’s Progress parallels Bunyan’s own experience as he describes it in his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. There he informs us that for many months after his conversion he was tormented by deeply unsettling questions about his salvation, but all these questions were put to rest when he came to understand imputed righteousness.

So Christian was saved the moment he entered the Wicket Gate and that was before he came to the cross.

3. The Proper Object of Saving Faith

This paves the way for us to think about the third error my students sometimes make, they are confused about the proper object of saving faith.

“Are you saying that someone can be saved without the cross?” a concerned student asks.

“No,” I answer, “No one can be saved apart from what Jesus accomplished on the cross, but the Bible proclaims that a person gets saved when he receives Christ, and the Bible does not say that a person gets saved through believing that Jesus died for him. Christ himself is the proper object of saving faith, not some part of his work.”

This is a reflective moment for most, because in these days, virtually everyone has been told that if he will believe that Jesus died for him, he will be saved, but I repeat: this is not found in the Bible. A person is saved not when he believes in right doctrine (substitutionary, penal atonement, in this case) but a person is saved when he believes in the right person, namely Christ. So the object of saving faith is not a doctrine but a person. Christ himself is the treasure chest of salvation. Receive him, and you receive all that is in him. The doctrine of substitutionary, penal atonement is an indispensable, essential component of the gospel, but it is not the whole gospel. How many Christians understood this crucial doctrine when they first received Christ? Nearly none! So how could they have been saved? Because, in spite of having underdeveloped or even mistaken ideas about the nature of the atonement, all who receive Christ the risen Lord as Lord and Savior are saved.


If you want some help reading the great classic, Leland Ryken has just published a short guide through Crossway.


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18 thoughts on “At What Point in Pilgrim’s Progress Does Christian Get Saved?”

  1. Chris says:

    Good discussion to have. But can Christ and His work be so neatly divided? When we “receive Christ Jesus the Lord” (Col 2:6) do we not do this in the context of all that he has done for us? Or 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” If it is of ‘first importance’, that must be ‘delivered’ by Paul, then isn’t the penal substitutionary nature of the cross part of that which must be received? And doesn’t Paul’s curse against those who preach anything other than justification by faith alone, declared righteous by the imputed merits of Christ, entail that one *might not* actually receive Christ unless Christ is preached in the fullness of the doctrines of the gospel?

    I’m not answering my own question. I think this is an intriguing topic, and I’m trying to figure out if the final substantial paragraph above does sufficient justice to all the NT data.

  2. Jim O'Brien says:

    It’s fair to say that regeneration takes place at the wicket gate, but that does not imply that saving faith is actually exercised at that time. Christ does not become the object of Pilgrim’s faith until he stands at the cross. Coming to the cross is not coming to a particular theology of the cross, nor believing that “Jesus died for me.” But no one comes to Christ without believing that he is the only way of acceptance with God and that acceptance with God is through the death of his Son. The Apostle Paul glories in the cross and so does Bunyan. I am not sure that the fine distinction between forensic guilt and psychological guilt should be applied to Christian’s burden. Why not both? It is true that for Puritans assurance or full assurance did not always accompany saving faith, but it is also true that “acting faith on Jesus” did not always occur immediately upon regeneration. Being regenerated at the Gate, Christian proceeds to the Interpreter’s House where he, with a new receptive heart, is instructed in the necessity of faith in Christ, the character of the Christian pilgrimage (Christ sustains pilgrims against the devil, have patience, don’t try to cleanse your heart by your own efforts, etc.) and warned of despair, all of which produces ‘fear’ in him, which is an expression of sincerity. With this instruction he goes to the cross. It is there that his regenerated heart believes in the crucified One. Believing, he is given assurance that Christ did, in fact, die for him. Puritans did not deny an initial assurance, only that such assurance could be clouded with doubts and fears and that one needed to press forward and so find assurance strengthened, but even then, as the Castle of Giant Despair shows, even strong assurance is subject to waning and waxing. To conclude: one is not ‘justified’ at the moment of regeneration. One is justified when he actually exercises faith in Christ. Regeneration must proceed faith and faith precedes justification. They could all happen in an instant. There can be a gap between regeneration and saving faith, though there is no gap between saving faith and justification.

  3. Bart Barber says:

    In the episode at the cross, the “Shining Ones” give Pilgrim a change of clothes. The footnote at the passage directs us to Zechariah 3:4.

    I’m not sure that Zechariah 3:4 necessarily points us to conversion, but it seems to point to a lot more than just psychological guilt, doesn’t it? Pilgrim (like Joshua before him) does not ONLY find himself relieved of a burden; he passes from dirty to clean, and from being a profane man to being a sanctified priest.

  4. Andrew says:

    I would ask Mr. Orrick what he believes one needs to understand about Jesus in order to “receive” him and all his benefits.

    -Do we need to understand that he is the Son of God or have Jehovah’s Witnesses and others “received Jesus” sufficiently to partake of his saving benefits?

    -Do we need to understand at least a minimal amount of truth concerning his saving work in order to “receive Jesus” and partake of all his benefits? If so what is that minimal amount of truth?

    The Reformed churches certainly believed that one needed to have some understanding of Jesus person and work in order to “receive him” biblically. This sounds a bit to me like what NT Wright has been trying to say in order to minimize the distinction between Protestant and Catholic.

  5. Melody says:

    This is a great reminder. I go to a church that is so very serious about doctrine. It’s one of the reasons I love that church, but it can have the effect of clouding what saves us – it isn’t correct theology, however helpful that may be, it’s Christ.

  6. Just a quick question – does Crossway have any plans to publish part 2 of this fine book?

  7. Bill Combs says:

    Point 3 is not just wrong; it is a serious theological error. Just believing in Jesus or Christ is the same unorthodox error of the late Zane Hodges. There is no salvation in just receiving Christ without some knowledge of who this Christ is and what he did.

    1. David Powell says:

      You’re misunderstanding what he is saying. His point is that we are not saved by faith in the Cross; we are saved by faith in the Christ who went to the Cross. A man cannot enter “the Wicket Gate” apart from receiving Christ as the Way to the Father. He’s exactly right that we do not have to understand every miniscule detail with regard to penal substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness or resolve the faith-regeneration ordo salutis. We must, however, understand that Christ laid down His life for us, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God. Yes, we need to know about the Cross. But we do not have to understand every bit of minutiae regarding the doctrine of the Cross to be forgiven.

      1. Bill Combs says:

        “You’re misunderstanding what he is saying.”

        Well this is what he says:

        “Bible proclaims that a person gets saved when he receives Christ, and the Bible does not say that a person gets saved through believing that Jesus died for him. Christ himself is the proper object of saving faith, not some part of his work.”

        He says, “the Bible does not say that a person gets saved through believing that Jesus died for him.” If words mean something then this seems to mean that a person does get saved by not believing that Jesus died for him.” As others have suggested, this language speaks of an erroneous division between Christ and his work. It is wrong to say that “Christ himself is the proper object of saving faith, not some part of his work.” No one is saved by believing in a Christ, a Messiah, who did nothing. No one is saying that one has to have complete and full knowledge of the redemptive work of Christ to be saved, but one cannot have no knowledge. I assume Orrick does not want to go that far, but his language is extremely unfortunate.

  8. Bill says:

    I am with others who wonder what Orrick means when he talks about receiving Christ. Surely he does not mean that we embrace some kind of experience. After all, the word “Jesus” or the word “Christ” are not magic words. Paul even writes of “another Jesus,” “a different spirit,” and “a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11). Look at the speeches in Acts where the gospel is preached and we can see that there is no such thing as a receiving the true Jesus Christ without understanding who he is and what he has done. I am puzzled by Orrick’s comments.

    1. David Powell says:

      “Receive” Jesus in the John 1:11-13 sense. I can hear the Gospel of this man Jesus, God’s Son, laying down His life as payment for my sins and believe the message, trust Christ, repent of my sin on the basis of that proclamation, and be born in again in that moment without understanding the full weight of every aspect of the Cross. We do not trust the Cross; we trust the Christ who went to the Cross. That’s his point.

  9. Noel Bass says:

    This leaves me with more questions than answers…I’ve read through this article multiple times, but I get a strange feeling about it.

    1 Corinthians 15:1-4
    “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…”

    Romans 4:23-25
    “But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

    Questions:
    1. Can someone be saved before then have heard and believed “the good news”?
    2. What exactly in the scriptures and/or gospel did Christian know before he chose the narrow gate?

  10. Mark Kim says:

    Salvation has two aspects: the “already” and “not yet.” When an elect sinner comes to Christ by faith as a result of the Spirit’s effectual calling he or she is forgiven, justified, renewed, adopted, etc. This is the “already” aspect of our salvation. However, there is a “not yet” aspect of our salvation that awaits us at Christ’s return when believers will be glorified and received into God’s eschatological kingdom.

    The distinct aspect of the Reformed/Calvinistic understanding of salvation is that the already and not yet are connected in an unbreakable bond. Meaning that if you are saved in the present time you WILL be saved at the end of time at the final judgment. God will lose none of those who are justified and adopted in history. This is what sets apart the Calvinistic heritage from other theological traditions that argue that genuine believers can lose their salvation and miss out on the glories of heaven.

  11. John Botkin says:

    Fascinating post! Not sure if Dr Orrick will pop in to answer questions or not. But I did have one. I thought Bunyan said Christ was *not* the wicket gate in his little work “The Strait Gate.” There he says something like “the master of the house is not the gate.” Maybe he is using the imagery differently in two works? Would love to have clarification on how the two relate. Blessings!

  12. Timothy Keene says:

    I bumped into someone who has written on Bunyan and Spurgeon and asked him about this. He said that Bunyan belonged in the Puritan tradition and thus the moment of salvation cannot be neatly ascertained, at least for Bunyan. For Bunyan the moment was ambiguous because it was not really a moment but a process. It is only when we move into the following century and the emergence of evangelicalism that the moment of salvation becomes sharply defined.

  13. James T. O'Brien says:

    Timothy, the Puritans believed that regeneration occurred in an instant, but that conversion was a process. As for “the moment of salvation” that would depend on what one meant by ‘salvation.’ If that is equivalent to justification, then that would also be instantaneous upon one’s first sincerely believing in Jesus Christ. However, one might not realize or comprehend that he was justified at that moment. Assurance of justification might be immediate, but it could also be part of a process. They certainly thought that “full assurance” was the result of a process for most people. I’ve found that they were rather careful to state that people’s experiences varied greatly. Even in their most elaborate articulations of Christian experience (say Thomas Hooker on the seven steps of repentance), they were not setting forth the minimum standard for true Christian experience, but rather experience in its perfection. So one could fall far short of a perfect experience of Gospel power, but yet truly and effectually be under its saving influence. The Puritans had a sophisticated understanding of things that happen in a moment and things that take time to work themselves out. I hope this helps.

    1. Timothy Keene says:

      Yes, I must say that my account of my friend’s understanding is merely what I could recall of a conversation over tea immediately after a service and may well be not a proper account. He did draw attention to something of a change between the Puritans and the Evangelicals of the following century. And I would have thought that we followed the Evangelicals more then the Puritans.

  14. John T. Jeffery says:

    In addition to Ryken’s guide linked at the end of your post, I would also highly recommend the resources published by Dr. Barry Horner. See the publications page on his Bunyan Ministries site at http://www.bunyanministries.org/?page_id=34 [accessed 17 APR 2014].

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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