BY Larry Stout

A friend looked over my list of “10 Books Every Christian Needs to Read” and made the comment that they were all OLD books.  I am guilty as charged.  Looking over a Top Ten List of Christian Books today is an exercise in acquired aggravation.  The top book is by a woman who “listens to Jesus” and writes down “what he says,” which sounds more like New Age Spirituality than Christianity.  It does not get much better going down the list; a diet book, a finance book, an end-times book (no list is complete without one of those), and the heaven-tourism book (“I died and came back and got to write a best-seller about it”).  

I absolutely guarantee that these books will fade over time.  Who still reads or quotes from Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey?  It was the best selling book of the 1970s, with over 28 million copies sold.  The same fate awaits these popular self-help, feel-good, quasi-fiction-passing-as-fact works that sell today like discount beer at a stock car race track.  

To pick up Pilgrim’s Progress is to hold a work of recognized genius for centuries, a treasure that has been a beacon of light for untold millions for generations.   For those ready to take the plunge, however, a word of caution is necessary.  The book was originally written in 1678, and to be honest, those who struggle with reading the King James Bible would probably also have problems reading the original text of Pilgrim’s Progress.  

Fortunately, there are some excellent updated versions, the best of which the one edited by C. J. Lovik, published by Crossway in 2009.  Love’s modernized text and notes are extremely helpful, and what enhances this volume as well are forty astoundingly beautiful illustrations by Mike Wimmer.   

Actually, the story itself is simple — a man with an overwhelming sense of guilt for his sin (symbolized by a burden on his back), and fearing eminent punishment by remaining at his home in the City of Destruction, sadly leaves his wife and children and embarks on a journey for salvation and eternal life in the Celestial City. 

The journey of Christian is a metaphor for the spiritual walk of every Christian.  He meets those who would try to distract him, such as Mr. Worldly-Wise and Mr. Talkative, but also encounters encouraging companions such as Faithful and Hopeful.  He runs into hazards such as the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair, but also wonderful places of rest and encouragement such as the Interpreter’s House and the Delectable Mountains.   

It seems that everyone who has read the book has at least one particular episode that particularly speaks to them.  For me it is when Christian and Hopeful left the right path to go on the easier to follow By-Path Meadow.  But as a result, they were captured by the giant Despair and locked into Doubting Castle.  After terrible suffering from the giant, they are placed in a cell and expect more punishment to come. But then, Christian remembers a key that he had been given —the key of Promise.  It opens their chains and releases them from the castle dungeon.   Obviously, the symbolism is rather easy to figure out.  As I have struggled in my Christian walk, this story has encouraged me more times than I can count.  

There are three reason why Christians today should read a book like this.  First, it is unapologetically focused on the gospel.  Christian cannot remove his burden (sin) on his back by himself, but it falls off when he is at the foot of the cross.  He continually looks to the righteousness of Jesus Christ and not on his own works. 
Second, Pilgrim’s Progress is such an antidote to today’s quick-fix, bless-me faith that fails to realize that the Highway to Heaven is a Highway of Holiness (see Isaiah 35) and that this process of sanctification includes suffering. 

And last, something that is rarely mentioned, but Pilgrim’s Progress also illustrates the vital importance of local church and pastoral encouragement.  Christian is rarely alone on his journey, and his best moments (such as his rest at the Delectable Mountains) are symbols of life in the church.  

Charles Spurgeon, the great Christian preacher who has more works in print than any other Christian writer, first read Pilgrim’s Progress at the age of six and read it over 100 times in his life. It is like a diamond that sparkles from many different angles. It gets more beautiful the more you look at it and it never gets old!