Hopeful: Now I have showed you the reasons of their going back, do you show me the manner thereof.
Christian: So I will willingly.
They draw off their thoughts, all that they may, from the remembrance of God, death, and judgment to come.
Then they cast off by degrees private duties, as closet prayer, curbing their lusts, watching, sorrow for sin, and the like.
Then they shun the company of lively and warm Christians.
After that they grow cold to public duty, as hearing, reading, godly conference, and the like.
Then they begin to pick holes, as we say, in the coats of some of the godly; and that devilishly, that they may have a seeming color to throw religion (for the sake of some infirmity they have espied in them) behind their backs.
Then they begin to adhere to, and associate themselves with, carnal, loose, and wanton men.
Then they give way to carnal and wanton discourses in secret; and glad are they if they can see such things in any that are counted honest, that they may the more boldly do it through their example.
After this they begin to play with little sins openly.
And then, being hardened, they show themselves as they are. Thus, being launched again into the gulf of misery, unless a miracle of grace prevent it, they everlastingly perish in their own deceivings.
Temporary’s falling away is tragic, but it didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow process that little by little eroded his faith and dampened his zeal. Earlier in the allegory, Bunyan portrayed the terrible end of apostasy through the encounter with Turn-Away. Now with Temporary he focuses on how it begins. So how does it happen? How can someone full of zeal and joy in the Lord, fall away? Christian outlines the treacherous progression that turned Temporary around and caused him to backslide.
- Backsliding begins by thinking less and less of God and His Word. Temporary knew that Scripture warned against sin and condemned him for his sin, but he found no lasting consolation looking to Christ. He loved sin too much. He lacked the will to resist it. He lacked the power to forsake it. Though he had professed faith in Christ and had convinced all around him that he was turning away from sin, he harbored a delight for sin in his heart. Though he claimed to be a Christian, he discovered that it was simply too hard to live and walk and believe as a Christian in his own strength. Even his outward attempts to do what was right condemned him as a hypocrite and fraud. He was walking toward heaven on his way to hell. He was claiming to know peace, but still felt condemned. Rather than dwell on the unpleasant realities of sin, death, and judgment, rather than ponder his growing guilt and shame, he turned his thoughts away from God and gave his attention to self, living it up, and entertainment.
- Backsliding continues by neglecting “private duties.” Prayer becomes less frequent. The Bible sits on the shelf unread. Temporary gave up any pretense of acting like a Christian in private. When temptations came, he guarded his privacy more than his heart. He willingly gave into sin and refused to feel any grief for wrongs he had done.
- Neglecting private duties soon affects public associations. Temporary no longer wanted to be around vibrant Christians. He didn’t so much mind those who were struggling or indifferent. But those who were joyful in Christ and growing in God’s Word—these he could not tolerate. Their very presence in his life added to his own feelings of unworthiness and guilt.
- Avoiding encounters with growing Christians then chills public duties. Temporary became less concerned with presenting himself as a Christian to others around him, even in public worship. He no longer tried paying attention during the preaching and public reading of Scripture. He was less enthused with participating in corporate prayer and singing. Soon his church attendance fell off altogether.
- The backslider then looks to excuse his non-attendance. Temporary justified his actions by “picking holes” in the testimony of others. His dismissed his own hypocrisy by looking for inconsistencies in the lives of church members and attenders. Their infirmities and struggles became his justification for staying away from church.
- The loss of church fellowship is filled with worldly association. Temporary no longer felt accepted by the church. They were hypocrites anyway. They couldn’t help him. He didn’t really belong. And so he sought friendship and belonging elsewhere. He joined clubs, went to the gym, helped charities, hung out with co-workers—all the while looking for people with whom he could relate, people he could talk to without feeling put down. He surrounded himself with people who weren’t offended by sin, people who didn’t mind having a little fun and holding on to worldly pleasures. He befriended the world and little by little, the world led him further from God, deeper into sin.
- The backslider grows complacent and comfortable with sin in private. Carelessness and prayerlessness opens the way to “carnal and wanton discourses in secret.” Temporary still feared men (what others might think of him), but he no longer feared the Lord. He fell into foolishness and gave into his lusts. He schemed to satisfy his sinful desires and then plotted to keep them hidden.
- Sin that takes root in the darkness does not remain hidden. Emboldened by the fleeting pleasure of secret sin, and craving more, Temporary began to sin more openly. Unrestrained by watchfulness and unchecked by those he called his friends, he drifted little by little into a lifestyle of unconcealed, blatant sin.
- Unrestrained sin calcifies the heart and deceives the mind. Temporary ended up in a worse state than before he professed faith in Christ. Now he was entrenched in sin and burned out in religion. He had discredited and dismissed the only Way to life and peace with God. He was on his way to “everlasting punishment” yet unconcerned about his soul.
How then can we guard against such a terrible outcome? There are four important lessons we should learn from Temporary’s backsliding:
1) We dare not toy with sin and leave off the means of grace. Nothing can be hidden from God.
The eyes of the Lord are in every place,
Keeping watch on the evil and the good.
We must guard our hearts and give no place to sin in our lives (public or private). We must continually remember Christ and keep the gospel alive in our thinking. We must daily lay hold of the means of grace: prayer, reading the Bible, fellowship, worship,… God has graciously given ample provision for the good of our souls.
2) We must keep watch for the sake of others as well as ourselves. Bunyan places this lesson near the end of the enchanted ground. Christian and Hopeful are mature believers. When we toy with sin and become spiritually lazy, we not only place our own souls in jeopardy, we endanger others. Young believers are watching us. They are taking their cues from us. If we give sin a foothold, they will see less of a need to resist. If we are not alarmed with sin in our lives, they will be more prone to let down their guard. If we excuse our sin, we will teach them to do so as well.
3) For those who reject God and return to the world, judgment is swift and immediate. Facing the wrath of God in hell for eternity is a real danger for any who cast off their faith, but it is not the beginning of judgment. Paul warns those who know the truth, yet willingly suppress it to hold onto their sin:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:18–22).
Their hardness of heart is the harbinger of judgment. They become “futile in their thoughts” and can no longer discern right from wrong, good from evil. God gives them up to their sin—to pursue the desires of “their foolish hearts.” They push God from their thinking and sin rushes in to corrupt the mind.
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:28–32).
4) Though backsliding is fearful, it does not have to be fatal. Christian concludes that those who have plunged “again into the gulf of misery” will be condemned for eternity “unless a miracle of grace prevent it.” There is none among the living who is beyond the reach of God’s grace. We must pray for those who are backsliding, whose faith seems fleeting and temporary. Pray that God will pursue them with mercy. Pray that He will awaken them to their danger. Pray that their misery and God’s judgment in their lives will be but warning shots across the bow to turn them around and return them to wisdom and the fear of the Lord.
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 ©2019 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.