A summary of John Piper’s sketch of the life of John Bunyan from the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors
John Bunyan is best known for his work, A Pilgrim’s Progress, one depicting the Christian life of trials, tribulation, and sanctification in allegory. However, over a decade prior Bunyan penned his spiritual autobiography which leaves us a picture of the suffering and service in his life. It is this spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which forms the background for John Piper’s study on the life of this man, and teaches us what it is to live upon God that is invisible.
Piper’s sketch of the life of John Bunyan focuses on his sufferings and particularly how he responded. It is a topic that is of significance in light of today’s persecution of the church, missionaries, and Christians around the world; not unlike Bunyan’s day. Piper points out that, through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of heaven (Acts 14:22), but that nothing glorifies God more than when we maintain our stability and even our joy having lost everything but God (Hab 3:17-18).
Tribulations mark Bunyan’s life. Piper gives us a quick biographical sketch highlighting many of these moments in his life. His sufferings started young, being born of a poor metal working family, seeing is mother and sister die within a month of each other as a teen, serving in the military and facing the possibility of death, having his first child being born blind, his first wife dying, being arrested for preaching, and his second wife losing a child through miscarriage in the process, and many more. It seems tribulation hallmarked John Bunyan’s life.
Observations of John Bunyan’s Suffering
So what can we learn from such a man? John Piper gives us five observations for us to learn and apply to our walk with Christ. The first of these observations is that his suffering confirmed his calling. This calling was his writings for the suffering church. Bunyan wrote around fifty-eight books that cover many genres from poems to allegorical literature. His suffering marked his works and saturated them, giving them a richness that can still be dredged today by 21st century Christians.
Another observation is that his suffering deepened his love for his church. Even with the popularity of his books, Bunyan remained faithful to his small parish. He had is flock in mind in his writings; he wrote for them, to encourage them, just as a pastor should. He saw his situations as a privilege to serve and love his people: suffering developed this. It gave him a perspective that was foundational to his ability to serve his people’s needs during traumatic times.
Difficulty of the Christian Life
This brings us to a related observation, that the Christian life is hard and Bunyan knew this intimately. Bunyan said, “following me is not like following other masters. The wind is always on my face…” This clarified the conversion process for Bunyan, one that is difficult and full of sorrow and is a wounding work, to use his words.
The sovereignty of God in suffering became an emphasis of Bunyan’s. This is seen in his work called, Seasonable Counsels: Advice to Sufferers. Piper shows us how Bunyan knew that our sufferings are appointed by God, for His purposes, for His reasons.
Confidence in God’s Sovereignty in Suffering
Finally, Piper observes that Bunyan suffering affected his confidence in God’s word, and affected his desire to proclaim it. Bunyan said that the key to enduring suffering was to lay hold of the word of God which will bring us deeper in Christ. This answers the title of Piper’s essay; to live upon God that is invisible. That to live this way is to live upon God and His word. If you want to have a deeper understanding of a biblical view of suffering, taught by one who faithfully lived a life of sorrows, then I encourage you to read John Piper’s lessons from the life of John Bunyan.
Read the full transcript of Piper’s message here.