The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
John Bunyan’s 15 tips on how to know if you’ve been called to preach.
John Bunyan’s (1628-88) classic ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ is perhaps the best-known book of the Puritan era. Although millions of believers are familiar with the valiant exploits of Christian on his onward march to the Celestial City, few know much about the wonderful man of God behind the book.
Quite surprisingly, Bunyan was not primarily a writer (although he did pen some sixty volumes). He was first and foremost a Christian and a passionate preacher of the Gospel. In his acclaimed autobiography ‘Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners’ (1666) which, in Hugh Martin’s estimation, is worthy to be considered alongside other autobiographical works by the likes of Augustine, Richard Baxter and John Wesley, Bunyan also dedicated an important chapter to his calling to the work of the ministry.1
Although he was only able to preach five years in Bedford (England) before his long imprisonment, Bunyan gives us enough material in a mere seventeen pages to know if one has truly been called of God to preach or not.2 It is to this chapter we turn today in an attempt to apply Bunyan’s convictions to our contemporary scene.
We will sum up Bunyan’s insights in the following fifteen points:
1.- The Church Recognizes the Gift
Bunyan’s first observation regarding his calling to preach is that folk in his church recognized that he had the gift. He writes: “After I had been about five or six years awakened, and helped myself to see both the want and worth of the Lord Jesus Christ our Lord, and also enabled to venture my soul upon Him, some of the most able among the saints with us, I say the most able for judgment and holiness of life, as they conceived did perceive that God had counted me worthy to understand something of His will in His holy and blessed Word, and had given me utterance, in some measure, to express what I saw to others for edification” (p. 120).
Bunyan, then, was no spiritual lone ranger but was fully engrafted within the context of a local congregation wherein his calling was discerned by saints who walked in the fear of the Lord. When God calls a man to preach, the calling will be evident to others in the holy assembly.
2.- He Believed and Understood the Word
Before Bunyan took up preaching he was fully convinced of the content of his preaching, namely, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He did not start preaching the Word before his conversion as some have been prone to do in seeing the ministry as a mere professional career. He was a firm believer in the Word having ventured his soul upon the Lord Jesus. “I preached what I felt” (p. 124).
As Bunyan knew much of the horrors of the Law of God and the sweet consolation of Christ through his own personal experience, he was a master of the soul and enabled to minister unto others what he had first received from the Almighty.
3.- Bunyan Could Speak in Public
Not only was Bunyan a believer in the Word of God, but the Lord had also given him the gift of being able to communicate what was in his heart to others. Some of the most able saints at his church observed how God had given Bunyan “utterance” (p. 120). The Puritans were all convinced that a preacher truly called by God was one who used great plainness and simplicity of speech in order to be understood by the local congregation.
4.- His Preaching Edified Others
One clear sign that Bunyan had a precious gift from on high was that his ministry edified others. Bunyan was astonished to find how some of his early hearers “were both affected and comforted, and gave thanks to the Father of mercies for the grace bestowed on me” (p. 120). Once given to the public ministry of the Word Bunyan relates that, “I had not preached long before some began to be touched by the Word, and to be greatly afflicted in their minds at the apprehension of the greatness of their sin, and of their need of Jesus Christ” (p. 122).
In the same way that God prepares preachers for His people, He simultaneously prepares a people for His preachers. In this manner both are mutually edified in the Scriptures. Bunyan took great delight in surveying how many souls had been “awaked by the Word” (p. 128) through his ministry.
5.- A Low View of Self
Few pilgrims of the Lord have been as self-effacing as the remarkable John Bunyan. He had no desire for worldly fame or glory. Once he began preaching at some private assemblies, he was filled with fear and trembling and was amazed that God would use him to speak to people. The same spirit characterized him once the Lord sent hundreds of hearers his way. “Wherefore, though of myself of all the saints the most unworthy, yet I, but with great fear and trembling at the sight of my own weakness, did set upon the work, and did according to my gift, and the proportion of my faith, preach that blessed Gospel that God had showed me in the holy Word of truth” (p. 122).
Bunyan comments, “But I at first could not believe that God should speak by me to the heart of any man, still counting myself unworthy” (p. 123). Bunyan was acutely aware of the carnal dangers that beset public preachers i.e. pride, desire of vain glory and self-conceit. Without humbleness, the gifted preacher could fall into the condemnation of the devil. So he counsels the public preacher “to walk humbly with God, and be little in his own eyes, and to remember withal that his gifts are not his own, but the church’; and that by them he is made a servant of the church” (p. 133).
6.- He Gave All the Glory to God Alone
Bunyan’s lips and pen were always willing to make much of the grandeur of the Most High. When he saw the Lord via his ministry, he did not sit down and muse upon his own worth and value but upon the mercies of the God who would decide to use such a vessel. The Englishman was an utterly God-intoxicated man. He thus rejoiced to perceive how his listeners “gave thanks to the Father of mercies for the grace bestowed on me” (p. 120).
7.- God Opened Doors for Bunyan
Since the Lord had prepared Bunyan for the sacred task of public exposition of Scripture, He also undertook to open doors for Bunyan’s ministry. It was not Bunyan who sought to begin preaching in private assemblies, but others who invited him. The same happened once Bunyan started to minister the Word in other parts of England: “After this, sometimes when some of them did go into the country to teach, they would also that I should go with them” (p. 121).
God’s blessing was so evidently upon the preacher that many “came in to hear the Word by hundreds, and that from all parts, though upon sundry and diverse accounts” (p. 122). In other words, Bunyan did not have to twist arms and form ministerial networks to guarantee a successful preaching ministry; he allowed the Lord to go before him and to prepare the way as the Sovereign One saw fit.
8.- An Overwhelming Desire to Preach
As with any Spirit-gifted preacher, Bunyan ached to preach the Word of the Lord. This comes out time and time again in his calling unto the ministry: “I did evidently find in myself a secret pricking forward thereto” (p. 121). This “secret pricking” is something all ministers of the Lord know well by personal experience. In fact, he went so far as to say that he “could not be content, unless I was found in the exercise of my gift, unto which I was greatly animated” (p. 121).
There was a mighty fire within the bones of Bunyan. He knew the hand of the Lord was strong upon him as it had been upon the prophet Ezekiel. “God carried me on, but surely with a strong hand, for neither guilt nor hell could take me off my work” (p. 124). And again, “I have observed, that where I have had a work to do for God, I have had first, as it were, the going of God upon my spirit to desire I might preach there” (p. 128).
Bunyan, then, had an experiential relationship regarding his call to preach that never left him in peace. Preach he must for the hand of the Lord of hosts urged him forward!
Any reader of Bunyan will immediately encounter a man who lived immersed in Holy Writ. Scripture after Scripture flowed ceaselessly from his quill. As well as basing his whole life upon the Word of God, he sought in his preaching to be dominated by the “three chief points” of the Bible, namely, the Law, deliverance from the Law by Christ and union with the Lord Jesus (pp. 124-125).
Bunyan was not one for inventing his own ideas in the pulpit but a man who was wholly surrendered to the truth of the blessed Word of God. In this sense he was a perfect portrait of the Puritan preacher. As the Puritan giant William Perkins (1558-1602) reminded us, “God’s Spirit does not work except on the foundation of the Word”.3
10.- He Loved His People
Bunyan’s heart reached out to his listeners with the tenderness of a veritable pastor of Christ. One of his main pleasures was to see souls edified in the faith through the Word preached and applied. “I thank God,” he writes, “He gave unto me some measure of bowels and pity for their souls” (p. 122).
It was this intense love for the spiritual welfare of his congregation that led him to confess, “In my preaching, I have really been in pain, and have, as it were, travailed to bring forth children to God; neither could I be satisfied unless some fruits did appear in my work” (pp. 128-129). He longed for souls to embrace the Good News of the Evangel and laboured much in order to win souls for the glory of King Immanuel.
11.- He Suffered for the Word Preached
In view of the fact that Bunyan was a Scripture-soaked man, he knew very well that sooner or later all of God’s preachers would inevitably be scorned and persecuted. Once cast into jail, Bunyan was pleased “to confirm the truth by way of suffering” (p. 125).
It was not just the secular authorities that raged against Bunyan’s ministry but also the religious teachers of his day: “When I went first to preach the Word abroad, the doctor and priests of the country did open wide against me” (p. 126).
However, he always knew who was behind such attacks, viz. the devil himself (p. 133). His enemies called him every name under the sun and accused him of being “a witch, a Jesuit, a highwayman and the like” (p. 134). And that’s not all. “But that which was reported with the boldest confidence, was, that I had my misses, my whores, my bastards, yea, two wives at once, and the like” (p. 134).
What kept Bunyan standing in spite of so much suffering and cruel mockery was that he had a clear conscience before the Lord. He even rejoiced upon knowing that such insults ultimately proved that he was truly a child of God. “I bind these lies and slanders to me as an ornament, it belongs to my Christian profession to be vilified, slandered, reproached and reviled; and since all this is nothing else, as my God and conscience do bear me witness, I rejoice in reproaches for Christ’s sake” (p. 135).
12.- Gospel-Focused and Jesus-centred
It was only natural that Bunyan’s Scripture-soaked life would end up producing a Gospel-centred pulpit. His chief pulpit theme was Christ and Him crucified. “It pleased me much to contend with great earnestness for the word of faith and the remission of sins by the death and sufferings of Jesus” (p. 126).
Bunyan’s was a Gospel-rooted, Gospel-focused and Gospel-glorifying ministry. His whole aim was to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ and to make much of Him, His worth and His saving benefits. As Puritan experts Joel Beeke and Mark Jones point out: “Bunyan’s first love was to exalt Christ through preaching Him doctrinally with passion and theological grandeur”.4
13.- Brutally Honest
It is not often that leading spiritual guides own up to their own up to their shortcomings and temptations to sin. Bunyan, nevertheless, was of a different breed. He was not afraid of reporting ministerial ‘failures’. Just read this sentence in the light of contemporary Christendom: “If any of those who were awakened by my ministry did after that fall back, as sometimes too many did, I can truly say their loss has been more to me than if one of my own children, begotten of my body, had been going to its grave” (p. 127).
Even more bewildering than his love for his hearers was that he made clear that many –“too many”- fell back after sitting under his ministry. In an age where many public Christian spokesmen only want to give the impression of untarnished success and report how many were ‘converted’ during the last evangelistic crusade, Bunyan made much of his disappointments. He was certainly a counter-cultural preacher.
Furthermore, he also reveals his struggles to preach the Word at certain point where he knew he himself had fallen (p. 130) and his great temptation to pride and self-aggrandizement (p. 131). Again, these inner fights and shortcomings are not often confessed by today’s polished pulpit-politicians. Bunyan’s brutal honesty about himself and his own ministry are a welcome tonic for a success-crazed generation.
14.- No Mincing the Word
Bunyan adamantly refused to water down the Word of God. At this point it is perhaps best to quote the man of God himself:
“Again, when as sometimes I have been about to preach upon some smart and scorching portion of the Word, I have found the tempter suggest, What, ill you preach this? This condemns yourself; of this your own soul is guilty; wherefore preach not of it at all; or if you do, yet so mince it as to make way for your own escape; lest instead of awakening others, you lay that guilt upon your soul as you will never get from under.
“But, I thank the Lord, I have been kept from consenting to these so horrid suggestions, and have rather, as Samson, bowed myself with all my might, to condemn sin and transgression wherever I found it, yea, though therein also I did bring guilt upon my own conscience! ‘Let me die,’ thought I, ‘with the Philistines’ (Judges 16:29, 30), rather than deal corruptly with the blessed Word of God. ‘Thou that teachest another, teachest not thou thyself?’ it is far better that you do judge yourself, even by preaching plainly to others, than that you, to save yourself, imprison the truth in unrighteousness; blessed be God for His help also in this” (p. 130).
15.- Not a Womanizer
A huge curse associated with current ministries in the limelight has been the theme of womanizing. Over the past few years, how many big-name public preachers have been removed from their pulpits due to chronic womanizing and affairs?
Bunyan had a clear-cut ethic with regards to the fairer sex. In addition to his shyness towards women and his unwillingness to even shake their hands, he also chided those of his own congregation who greeted only the beautiful dames and left the “ill-favoured” ones alone (p. 136). He was very careful with respect to his dealings with women so as to give his enemies no ammunition to attack his integrity as a faithful Christian husband and a minster of the Gospel.
John Bunyan was a wonderful example of the run of the mill Puritan preacher. It is our hope that his autobiographic calling to the ministry may serve as an example to all of those who are currently asking themselves whether or not they have been called to the high calling of being a mouthpiece of Christ.
So, have you been called to preach? Before you answer, ask yourself these following fifteen questions.
1 MARTIN, Hugh in BUNYAN, John, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (SCM: London, 1955), p. 8.
2 BUNYAN, John, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (SCM: London, 1955), pp. 120-137.
3 PERKINS, William, The Art of Prophesying (The Banner of Truth: Edinburgh, 2002), p. 90
4 BEEKE, Joel and JONES, Mark, A Puritan Theology (Reformed Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, 2012), p. 722.