In 1655, when the matter of his soul was settled, he was asked to exhort the church, and suddenly a great preacher was discovered. He would not be licensed as pastor of the Bedford church until seventeen years later. But his popularity as a powerful lay preacher exploded. The extent of his work grew. “When the country understood that . . . the tinker had turned preacher,” biographer John Brown tells us, “they came to hear the word by hundreds, and that from all parts” (John Bunyan: His Life, Times, and Work, 105).
In 1672, about fifty miles northwest of London in Bedford, John Bunyan was released from twelve years of imprisonment. As with suffering saints before and since, Bunyan found prison to be a painful and fruitful gift. He would have understood the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, three hundred years later, who, like Bunyan, turned his imprisonment into a world-changing work of explosive art. After his imprisonment in the Russian gulag of Joseph Stalin’s “corrective labor camps,” Solzhenitsyn wrote,
I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I . . . have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” (The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, 617)
How can a man pronounce a blessing on imprisonment? Bunyan’s life and labor give one answer.
Beginning of God’s Work
John Bunyan was born in Elstow, about a mile south of Bedford, England, in 1628. Bunyan learned the trade of metalworking, or “tinker,” from his father. He received the ordinary education of the poor to read and write, but nothing more. He had no formal higher education of any kind, which makes his writing and influence all the more astonishing.
Bunyan was not a Christian believer during his growing-up years. He tells us, “I had few equals, especially considering my years . . . for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God. . . . Until I came to the state of marriage, I was the very ringleader of all the youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness” (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, 10–11).
He “came to the state of matrimony” when he was 20 or 21, but we never learn his first wife’s name. What we do learn is that she was poor, but had a godly father who had died and left her two books that she brought to the marriage: The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven and The Practice of Piety. Bunyan said, “In these two books I would sometimes read with her, wherein I also found some things that were somewhat pleasing to me; but all this while I met with no conviction” (Grace Abounding, 13). But God’s work had begun. He was irreversibly drawing the young married Bunyan to himself.
‘Thy Righteousness Is in Heaven’
During the first five years of marriage, Bunyan was profoundly converted to Christ and to the baptistic, nonconformist church life in Bedford. It was a lengthy and agonizing process.
He was poring over the Scriptures but finding no peace or assurance. There were seasons of great doubt about the Scriptures and about his own soul. “A whole flood of blasphemies, both against God, Christ, and the Scriptures were poured upon my spirit, to my great confusion and astonishment. . . . How can you tell but that the Turks had as good scriptures to prove their Mahomet the Savior as we have to prove our Jesus?” (Grace Abounding, 40). “My heart was at times exceeding hard. If I would have given a thousand pounds for a tear, I could not shed one” (Grace Abounding, 43).
Then comes what seemed to be the decisive moment.
One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And methought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he wants [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. (Grace Abounding, 90–91)
So in 1655, when the matter of his soul was settled, he was asked to exhort the church, and suddenly a great preacher was discovered. He would not be licensed as pastor of the Bedford church until seventeen years later. But his popularity as a powerful lay preacher exploded. The extent of his work grew. “When the country understood that . . . the tinker had turned preacher,” biographer John Brown tells us, “they came to hear the word by hundreds, and that from all parts” (John Bunyan: His Life, Times, and Work, 105). In the days of England’s religious toleration, a day’s notice would get a crowd of 1,200 to hear him preach at seven in the morning on a weekday (John Bunyan, 370).