Notes and Commentary on
The Pilgrim's Progress
by Ken Puls
32. Simple, Sloth and Presumption
I saw then in my dream, that he went on thus, even until he came at a bottom, where he saw, a little out of the way, three men fast asleep, with fetters upon their heels. The name of the one was Simple, another Sloth, and the third Presumption.
Christian then seeing them lie in this case went to them, if peradventure he might awake them, and cried, You are like them that sleep on the top of a mast, for the Dead Sea is under you—a gulf that has no bottom. Awake, therefore, and come away. Be willing also, and I will help you off with your irons. He also told them, If he that goes about like a roaring lion comes by, you will certainly become a prey to his teeth. With that they looked upon him, and began to reply in this sort: Simple said, "I see no danger;" Sloth said, "Yet a little more sleep;" and Presumption said, Every vat must stand upon its own bottom; what is the answer else that I should give you? And so they lay down to sleep again, and Christian went on his way.
Yet was he troubled to think that men in that danger should so little esteem the kindness of him that so freely offered to help them, both by awakening of them, counseling of them, and proffering to help them off with their irons.
Notes and Commentary
Christian does not travel far after his joyful relief at the Cross, until he encounters three men fast asleep and bound with fetters. Their names reveal their errors: Simple, Sloth and Presumption. These men, who had started on the Way as pilgrims, and had even made the journey as far as the cross, now were turned aside in bondage and slumber. That they are fettered shows that they had never really cast off their affections for self, sin and the world. Though they may once have made a show of profession as pilgrims, they remain still in real danger of being brought down into destruction in their irons. That they are sleeping shows that they are unaware or have no abiding interest in their predicament and, in fact, have grown rather comfortable in their complacency.
Bunyan describes the resting place of these men as "at the bottom" and "out of the way." They are no longer walking on the high ground where one can see clearly and keep in the Way. They have wandered down out of sight of the Cross. They have distanced themselves from the Lord and His Word and have found a false refuge in which to escape the hardships and discomforts of the Way.
The three men are but a little "out of the way," and, from Bunyan's description, are in fact, in the vicinity of the cross. Perhaps they even made an emotional profession at the cross and now, believing that their decisions were sufficient, have settled down in vain hope to await the judgment. But despite their nearness to the Gospel, they remain "out of the way" in bondage and in danger of destruction. It is not making a good start in religion, or being coddled by the proximity of religion, but true perseverance in faith and hope in Christ alone that counts in the end.
Upon seeing these would-be pilgrims in such delusion and danger, Christian comes to their aid. He shakes them and attempts to rouse them, comparing their conduct to that of the drunkard described in the Proverbs:
Yes, you will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea,
Or like one who lies at the top of the mast, saying:
"They have struck me, but I was not hurt;
They have beaten me, but I did not feel it.
When shall I awake, that I may seek another drink?" (Proverbs 23:34-35)
He continues to apply the Scriptures, warning them with words from 1 Peter:
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8).
He further offers to help them off with their irons. Doubtless the remembrance of his own Burden that encumbered him in the Way stirred a passion in Christian to help the men. But these men wanted no help. They were, in fact, content to send Christian on his Way and settle back down for more sleep.
These pretenders to the faith are no strangers to the people of God. Simple, Sloth and Presumption can be found in abundance. They are indeed attenders and even members in almost every modern church that professes faith in Christ. As we also may have opportunity to aid and confront those who are bound in the delusion of simple, sloth and presumption, it is worth commenting on each.
The first to reply to Christian's counsel is Simple. He comments in blissful ignorance: "I see no danger." He is blind to his danger because he sees no need for doctrine and understanding. He does not study and make application from God's Word. He may long for the blessings and promises, but misses the duties and warnings. Had Simple taken the time to prayerfully read his Bible and learn who he truly is and who God truly is, he would certainly see his danger as an unrepentant sinner before an all-consuming fire. For him truth is too complicated, doctrine divides, law and wrath were for another age. He wants only to "love Jesus" and put aside all of the hard issues that cause offense and discomfort.
Jesus said, however, of His disciples: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). True knowledge and application of the truth is the only way Simple can break his bonds. The question arises in the Proverbs:
"How long, you simple ones, will you love simplicity?
For scorners delight in their scorning,
And fools hate knowledge" (Proverbs 1:22).
The cry goes out for the simple to seek prudence:
O you simple ones, understand prudence,
And you fools, be of an understanding heart (Proverbs 8:5).
The simple need prudence (Proverbs 1:4). Prudence is the practical application of wisdom that allows us to weigh the consequences of our actions and avoid sin and danger. Prudence expects danger, guards against it, and strives to avoid it. God's Word warns to be on the look out for danger and gives guidance to stay away from danger. Simple can only say, "I see no danger."
Sloth replies, "Yet a little more sleep." He sees no need to rush into things. He has time, so he thinks, and so delays pursuing a pilgrimage. Perhaps tomorrow or the next day he will consider his plight, or get serious about God's Word. The Proverbs ask:
How long will you slumber, O sluggard?
When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to sleep—
So shall your poverty come on you like a prowler,
And your need like an armed man (Proverbs 6:9-11).
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes also warns of the dangers of sloth:
Because of much slothfulness the building decays,
And through idleness of hands the house leaks (Ecclesiastes 10:18).
The slothful have need of diligence. Diligence is a steady, constant and intentional application of wisdom that avoids unnecessary delay or inattention. To avoid the fetters of sloth we must "watch over our hearts with all diligence" (Proverbs 4:23). There can be no folding of the hands to sleep in the spiritual battle for the souls of men.
Presumption smugly retorts with a byword: "Every vat must stand upon his own bottom," which is to say: "I can handle my own problems with no help from you!" Those who presume upon the grace of God are often the ones most offended when godly counsel comes their way. Presumption was quite comfortable before Christian came along with his unwanted advice, and he is quite ready to send Christian on his way, so he can slip back deeper into his spiritual coma. Proverbs warns of those who will refuse godly counsel:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,
But fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).
To act presumptuously is to act as a fool. Presumption is a blind and arrogant confidence that is vain and groundless. It assumes peace where there is no peace and safety. The presumptuous need to hear the truth. Their false and vain confidence must be shaken by what is truth and certain. Every vat cannot stand on its own bottom! If "vat" is denoting a human soul, then every "vat" is shattered and broken in sin and can only be made whole again in Jesus Christ. We must be on guard, as Christian, and ever try to knock the false pillars of vain hope and confidence out from under Presumption.
It amazes Christian that men in such danger could refuse his help. He had tried to awaken them, given them godly counsel and even offered to do what he could to remove their irons, yet they spurned his kindness and returned to their sleep. It may amaze us as well that desperately needy sinners would fail to see their need and cast aside the free offer of the Gospel. And it may dumbfound us how one who has stood in view of the cross professing Christ as a pilgrim, could one day turn from the Way and run headlong into sin and danger, refusing to heed godly counsel and instruction. But Bunyan strikes here at the very heart of man's dilemma. Natural man cannot see or understand his danger. Natural man terribly underestimates the bondage of his sin. Though he may profess religion, natural man is all too quick to resort to his own devises and rest in his own abilities, especially when he senses in his own mind that God's way must not be working for him.
Try as he may, Christian is unable to change the minds of the three fettered men. Bunyan notes in the margin: "There is no Persuasion will do if God openeth not the eye." The errors of Simple, Sloth and Presumption proved deadly. Proverbs warns of the end of those who will not listen to wisdom:
Then they will call on me, but I will not answer;
They will seek me diligently, but they will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
And did not choose the fear of the LORD,
They would have none of my counsel
And despised my every rebuke.
Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way,
And be filled to the full with their own fancies.
For the turning away of the simple will slay them,
And the complacency of fools will destroy them (Proverbs 1:28-32).
In Part 2 of The Pilgrim's Progress, when Christiana and her fellow pilgrims come upon this place, the three men are no longer asleep, but are hanged up in their irons:
Now I saw still in my dream, that they went on until they were come to the place, that Simple, Sloth and Presumption lay and slept in, when Christian went by on Pilgrimage. And behold they were hanged up in irons a little way off on the other side.
Then said Mercy to him that was their Guide and conductor, What are those three men? And for what are they hanged there?
Great Heart: These three men were men of very bad qualities. They had no mind to be Pilgrims themselves, and whosoever they could, they hindered. They were for sloth and folly themselves, and whosoever they could persuade with, they made so too, and withal taught them to presume that they should do well at last. They were asleep when Christian went by, and now you go by, they are hanged.
Their folly finally overtook them and brought them down even to Hell, even in the vicinity of the cross. Not only did they destroy themselves with their foolishness, they caused others to be hindered in the Way.
That men can die in their sins in such proximity to the Gospel, with the means of grace and the help of God's people so near, should cause us to be sober-minded, watchful, and prayerful. We must continually guard our hearts against the folly of simple, sloth and presumption. We dare not allow ourselves to be found fettered in these sins. We dare not hinder others with such a foolish example. We must look to the cross and keep in the Way. We must strive to remain wakeful and watchful. And we must pray for one another, that God will open our eyes to the truth and cause us to persevere in the faith until that day when we reach the end of our pilgrimage and find entrance into the Celestial City.
Continue reading 33. Formalist and Hypocrisy
Return to 31. Christian Arrives at the Cross