A glorious thought for a dismal New Year

Perhaps my favourite of John Bunyan’s works is his little volume titled The Jerusalem Sinner Saved.

It is really an exposition of Luke 24:47, Luke’s expression of the Great Commission, in which the Lord Jesus tells his disciples to preach the gospel ‘beginning at Jerusalem’The people of the city and its leaders had repeatedly rejected, scorned and finally crucified the Saviour. And yet the starting place for the declaration of sins forgiven is to be just there. 

Bunyan takes this as a wonderful indication of the vast grace and love of God, in that mercy is first offered to the biggest sinners. The book goes on to explain why God does this, and his book is guaranteed to benefit any sinner who reads it.

Lamentable situation

It was published in 1688, the last year of his life. By then William of Orange was about to take our country’s throne, but the Restoration years under Charles II and James II had already done much to undermine the morals of the nation and the spiritual condition of the church.

At one point in his book Bunyan reflects on this lamentable situation, just as we might do ourselves as we look out on decadent Britain today with its politically correct defences firmly in place to rebuff any challenge to its corruption. 

‘I have often marveled at our youth’, writes Bunyan, ‘and said in my heart, What should be the reason that they should be so generally debauched as they are at this day? For they are now amazingly profane; and sometimes I have thought one thing and sometimes another; that is why God should suffer it so to be.’1 And we might marvel similarly – especially as God’s judgment in the pandemic has weakened the churches and brought no sign of repentance in the nation (Revelation 16:8-9). 

God’s ways beyond us

Yet with the thought of God offering mercy to those whose sins are of deepest dye, he does not despair – far from it. His thoughts travel in a very different direction. 

Having already noted that God often makes the greatest saints out of the worst sinners, Bunyan says: ‘At last I have thought of this: How if God whose ways are past finding out should suffer it be so now that he might make of some of them the more glorious saints hereafter? I know sin is of the devil, but it cannot work in the world without permission; and if it happens to be as I have thought, it will not be the first time that God the Lord has caught Satan in his own design. For my part, I believe that the time is at hand that we shall see better saints in the world than we have seen in it for many a day. And this vileness that at present does so much swallow up our youth is one cause of me thinking so; for out of them, for from among them, when God puts forth his hand, as of old, you shall see what penitent ones, what trembling ones, and what admirers of grace, will be found to profess the gospel, to the glory of God by Christ.’2

Surrounded by an increasingly godless society, the writer of A Pilgrim’s Progress did not give in to ‘Giant Despair’ but escaped from ‘Doubting Castle’ using the key of faith.

Was Bunyan right?

And there is surely a case that Bunyan’s optimism proved right – maybe not precisely as he imagined or as soon as he would have liked but quite definitely.

Things were bad and the morals of the nation actually got worse subsequent to Bunyan expressing his hopes. In his book The English: A Social History 1066-1945, the historian Christopher Hibbert paints a frightful picture of the gambling and debauchery which was rife in the early 18thCentury. But it is the gin craze which is particularly shocking: gin shops ‘proliferated at an extraordinary rate after 1700, there being, so William Maitland estimated in 1737, no less than 8659 in London alone’.3 Hibbert describes Hogarth’s engraving titled Gin Lane. The scene is a slum of St. Giles. The central figure is a bedraggled woman, sprawling half-naked at the top of a flight of steps, with an expression on her face of drunken, grotesque amusement as a baby falls from her arms unnoticed onto the cobblestones beneath. In a garret a man dangles who has hanged himself. A nearby house is toppling into ruins. Above the gin cellar is the legend:

Drunk for a penny

Dead drunk for two pennies

Clean straw for nothing

Hibbert says: ‘It was scarcely an exaggerated picture: a man set to watch the door of a gin-shop on Holborn Hill between the hours of seven and ten in the evening counted 1411 persons going in and out, excluding children, the children from 7 to 14 years of age as intoxicated as their parents.’ He cites one writer declaring: ‘These accursed spirituous liquors which to the shame of our Government are to be so easily had and in such quantities drunk have changed the very nature of our people, and if continued to be drunk, destroy the very race […] There is not only no safety of living in this town but scarcely any in the country now, robbery and murder have grown so frequent. Our people have become what they never were before; cruel and inhuman’.4

But, our history tells us that into this very situation God sent the great revival of the 18th Century and the gospel prevailed and changed the nation. From among this very post-Bunyan generation – George Whitefield was brought up in a pub – some of the greatest saints and evangelists of this country stepped so tellingly into the public arena.

Grace adored

And surely we must conclude that God could do it again.

Bunyan ends his thought with a self-deprecating flourish: ‘Alas! We are a company of worn-out Christians; our moon is in the wane; we are […] more dark than light; we shine but a little; grace in most of us is decayed. But I say, when these debauched ones that are to be saved shall be brought in – when these that look more like devils than men shall be converted to Christ […] then will Christ be exalted, grace adored, the Word prized, Zion’s path better trodden, and men in pursuit of their own salvation, to the amazement of those that are left behind.’5

So as we contemplate a rather gloomy new year, Bunyan would tell us not to despair but to believe. 

 [1] John Bunyan, The Jerusalem Sinner Saved (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth 2005), page 53

[2] ibid page 53-54

[3] Christopher Hibbert, The English: a social history 1066-1945, (London: Grafton Books 1987), page 377

[4] ibid, page 379

[5] Bunyan, op cit page 54