Porter: Well, I will call out one of the virgins of this place, who will, if she likes your talk, bring you into the rest of the family, according to the rules of the house. So Watchful, the porter, rang a bell, at the sound of which came out at the door of the house, a grave and beautiful damsel, named Discretion, and asked why she was called.
The porter answered, This man is on a journey from the City of Destruction to Mount Zion, but being weary and benighted, he asked me if he might lodge here tonight; so I told him I would call for you, who, after discourse had with him, may do as seems good to you, even according to the law of the house.
Then she asked him where he came from and where he was going to, and he told her. She asked him also how he got into the way; and he told her. Then she asked him what he had seen and met with in the way; and he told, her. And last she asked his name; so he said, It is Christian, and I have so much the more a desire to lodge here tonight, because, by what I perceive, this place was built by the Lord of the hill for the relief and security of pilgrims. So she smiled, but the water stood in her eyes; and after a little pause, she said, I will call forth two or three more of the family. So she ran to the door, and called out Prudence, Piety, and Charity, who, after a little more discourse with him, had him into the family; and many of them, meeting him at the threshold of the house, said, Come in, you blessed of the Lord; this house was built by the Lord of the hill, on purpose to entertain such pilgrims in. Then he bowed his head, and followed them into the house.
In the last post Christian sought entrance into Palace Beautiful, Bunyan’s depiction of the church as seen through the eyes of a new believer. The Porter of the Palace, whose name is Watchful, represents a minister of the gospel who watches and cares for the souls of pilgrims. When Christian arrived at the door, he encouraged Christian and began asking him questions about his faith and testimony. Now Watchful summons Discretion to determine if Christian is to be admitted and received into the Palace.
Discretion is the ability to recognize what is true and distinguish it, so that we can approve what is excellent. It is carefulness and caution in an effort to make good judgments and sound decisions. God’s Word commends discretion:
Discretion will preserve you; understanding will keep you (Proverbs 2:11).
Christian’s conversation with Discretion and the Porter represents the care and questioning involved in admitting new members to the local church. The minister needs discretion to rightly judge the understanding of the gospel and testimony of those seeking membership in the church.
Discretion questions Christian about:
- His journey (where he came from and where he is going): Christian tells some of his life story. He is fleeing the City of Destruction and is on a journey to the Celestial City.
- His salvation (how he got into the way): Christian tells of his encounter with Christ and the gospel. He was pointed to the Gate by Evangelist, came in at the Gate and found relief from his burden at the cross.
- His testimony (what he has seen and met with in the way): Christian tells of the people and places he has encountered along the way. Some have hindered him, like the Slough and Worldly Wiseman; but some have strengthened him, like the House of the Interpreter and Goodwill.
- His identity (what is his name). Christian had told the Porter that his name was once Graceless, but now his name is Christian. His identity is with Christ and his followers.
The cautious and loving step of interviewing prospective members before admitting them to membership in the church was commonly practiced in Baptist churches in Bunyan’s day. Wyman Richardson observes that:
… early Baptists were convinced that all prospective members should give evidence of their conversion. Without this, they forfeited not only their right to be a part of the church, but also the only factor that allows any of us to be members of the church: the new life given by and in Jesus Christ.
In asking for evidence, these Baptists were following a practice that flows logically and naturally from a commitment to regenerate church membership. The need for evidence of conversion in fact makes perfect sense. If the membership of a local church consists only of regenerate, born-again people, then these people should be able to give evidence of the fact that they are, in fact, regenerate as well as some sort of account of the time when they passed from, death into life.
[Wyman Richardson, On Earth as It Is in Heaven (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2011), 24.]
The idea of a membership interview might seem strange to some. Unlike the practice of many churches in our day, Christian was not immediately ushered into the house at his first request for lodging. The Porter, along with Discretion, took time to hear him out and judge if he were a believer or not.
But some might ask: Why would it matter? Shouldn’t the church welcome in unbelievers as well as believers? Shouldn’t we gladly receive all when they come?
The answer is yes and no. Keep in mind here that Bunyan is describing church membership, not church attendance.
Unbelievers will certainly be in attendance in our church gatherings and we should be glad they are present and under the preaching of God’s Word. We should make an effort to be sure the gospel is clearly proclaimed and all are invited to come to Christ. We should pray that God would grant them conviction of sin and desperation that they would be compelled to flee to Christ for relief and peace. But, though unbelievers are among us, the church, as a family and fellowship, is for believers. And we should take care, as best with can, knowing that our judgments are not infallible, to determine that those who come to join the church have a credible profession of faith and give evidence of God’s grace at work in their lives.
Why make church membership such an issue? Why make an effort to discern if the one coming to join has truly laid hold of Christ in the gospel? The need for church discipline indicates that we cannot always discern rightly the state of someone’s soul. We do so precisely because souls are at stake. It would be unloving and deceitful for a church to welcome into its membership one who gave no evidence of a heart turned to Christ and a life changed by the power of His Spirit. We don’t want to give our endorsement to one who is not genuinely seeking to follow Christ. We don’t want membership in a church to become a false blanket of security to one whose heart is still dead in sin and entrenched in the world. We want people to look to Jesus, not to a time when they walked an aisle or prayed a prayer. And that means taking time—time to discern their journey, their salvation, their testimony and their identity. The church needs discernment, especially at the front door, as it interviews candidates for membership.
Christian demonstrates that he indeed has set his heart on following Christ. He gives evidence of a humble and teachable heart. He listened gladly to the Porter’s words of instruction: “This house was built by the Lord of the hill, and he built it for the relief and security of pilgrims.” Now in his reply to Discretion he answers what he has learned: “I have so much the more a desire to lodge here tonight, because, by what I perceive, this place was built by the Lord of the hill for the relief and security of pilgrims.”
Discretion hears Christian’s words with favor and summons more of the family to come and converse with him. She is joined by Prudence, Piety and Charity, who, after more conversation, welcome Christian into the family. The church welcomes him saying: “Come in, you blessed of the Lord; this house was built by the Lord of the hill, on purpose to entertain such pilgrims in.”
Christian enters with reverence and humility. He bows his head and follows them inside. In the next few posts we will consider the conversations that Christian has with Prudence, Piety and Charity, and explore the value of gospel conversations in the house of God.
A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary
The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2014 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.