Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan

John Bunyan is the author of one of the most famous books of Christian Literature: The Pilgrim’s Progress. This Grace Abounding is a short autobiographical volume about his life.

The full title is Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, an expression borrowed from the Bible. If I’m not mistaken, the Apostle Paul, who was once renowned as the strongest persecutor of the early Christian church, referred to himself as the “chief of sinners” after his conversion, in light of all the harm he had done to the church. Reading Bunyan’s account of his own pre-Christian experience, I can’t help but think the title is inappropriate. He speaks of his sins in only the vaguest terms, and I got a sense that he was a reckless sort of man who swore a lot and enjoyed dancing (which, presumably, was regarded as sin in those days).

Gradually, Bunyan came to have a sense of his own sinfulness, and after wading his way through some badly thought out theology, he eventually became a Christian. Far from being the answer to his problems, it proved to be just the beginning.

Bunyan was tortured mentally with “temptations” (as he puts it). On one occasion he was tempted to “sell Christ” incessantly over a period of days. At the end of his tether, he finally responded, “Let him go, if he will.” This led to Bunyan believing that he had committed the “unpardonable sin”. For years upon years he was tortured with this belief, having only brief moments of respite. He would talk about finding a verse of Scripture which would convince him again that he was truly in the Kingdom of God, but his high spirits would last only a day or two, and the verse would lose its power for him.

This struck me as a strange way of examining Scripture, constantly looking at one’s own emotions in order to determine the truthfulness of a Bible verse. From a Christian point of view, surely the Bible is true regardless of how it makes one feel. If a verse is interpreted correctly, it makes no difference to the truth of it whether one’s heart is warm or cold. Much of the book is taken up with Bunyan’s long and difficult inner pilgrimage towards a joyful Christian experience.

Grace Abounding was first published in 1666, and much as I hate to be critical of a book as old and cherished as this one, I can only be honest. Bunyan’s experience is largely alien to me. Perhaps the book would be of value to someone who suspects they may have committed the “unpardonable sin”, but it became a little tiresome to me. I was much more interested to read about Bunyan’s time in prison, and how he coped, but this was relegated to a very brief account near the close of the book.

I was a little amused to read a few paragraphs where Bunyan digresses to discuss his disapproval of men who kept company with women, not it any immoral sense, merely socially. Different times, I guess, but it seemed a little ridiculous.

On a brighter note, Bunyan’s long emotional distress resulted in an intense appreciation of his salvation, and a intense love for the Lord, which in turn led him to become a preacher. And if you’re wondering what it was that threw him into prison, it was his fearless attitude and uncompromising message in the pulpit. There are few of us like that.

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