Friday, November 7, 2008

The opening scenes of Pilgrim's Progress: Conversion and Assurance

As I've delved more deeply into Pilgrim's Progress, I've been fascinated to find that the Puritans had very different views to us about conversion and assurance. This made the opening scenes of Pilgrim's Progress hard for me to understand at first. But the more I read and reflected, the more I realised we have a lot to learn from the Puritans (and they something from us!) at this point. Here's some highlights from my article on conversion and assurance in Pilgrim's Progress today at EQUIP book club:

So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door when his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, Life! life! eternal life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.
If you're anything like me, the opening scenes of Pilgrim’s Progress left you with lots of questions. When exactly does Christian become, well, Christian? What’s the parchment roll he has to carry to gain entry into heaven? The Slough of Despond sounds like something from Harry Potter, but what’s it all about?

We're confused because we often think of conversion as a simple process, a human decision made in response to an alter call or a Two Ways to Live gospel presentation: “You can be 100% sure of going to heaven! Just pray this prayer!” But for the Puritans, conversion was more like a natural birth than an induction, and the pastor the mid-wife overseeing God's sovereign work in the heart. Conversion was generally a slow process, following certain stages, and it was often necessary to humbly wait on God for his gift of assurance. ...

So what can we learn from Pilgrim's Progress about conversion? We learn that conversion is sometimes simple and quick, and sometimes long and drawn-out: we shouldn’t expect every conversion to follow the same pattern. We learn that every conversion includes conviction for sin, and if modern converts don't experience guilt or fear, this may be because we fail to preach God’s holiness and judgement. We learn that it may take time to gain assurance, and that we will gain it by looking to the cross of Christ. We learn that conversion is God's work, and takes place with his timing and in his way: our job is not to pressure people into the kingdom, but to support God's work in their hearts. ...

Now it's over to you. What was your experience of becoming a Christian? Was conversion a simple process for you, or a long and complex one? Do you identify more with Bunyan, Christian and Hopeful, who had to wait for assurance, or with Christiana, who received assurance immediately? Do you think it's common for people today to experience "conviction of sin"? What is your assurance based on? Have you ever lost it, and why?

Read the rest at EQUIP book club today.

1 comment:

mattnbec said...

I identify with both! My early teen-years were definitely assurance-free. I knew that I needed forgiveness and that wasn't good enough for God, but it was a worry that would come and go. Once I was 15 I realised that I was Christian and saved, but it wasn't until I was at uni that I really had assurance. Because it was at uni that lots of my Christian thinking started to fall into place more clearly and Christianity became more my own, apart from my parents, I also identify with Christiana.

As to whether I lose it or not, I think I have some times where I look at myself and my sin more and doubt, and other times when I look at Jesus more and am more assured. It is a bit of a continuum, but thankfully, I think I generally experience assurance. I do think it's sometimes a bit of a personality thing though. And a tiredness, hormonal-ness etc thing too.

I suspect that our society is less conscious of sin and right/wrong than in previous times. We tend to relativise it all. In that sense, I also suspect that people are less convicted of sin. Then again, the Holy Spirit is still at work convicting people of sin, righteouness and judgment. So, on the other hand, people do still experience conviction of sin.