A Guide to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress


Notes and Commentary on
The Pilgrim's Progress

by Ken Puls

Formalist and Hypocrisy

33. Formalist and Hypocrisy

And as he was troubled thereabout, he espied two men come tumbling over the wall on the left hand of the narrow way; and they made up apace to him. The name of the one was Formalist, and the name of the other Hypocrisy. So, as I said, they drew up unto him, who thus entered with them into discourse.

Christian: Gentlemen, whence came you, and whither go you?

Formalist and Hypocrisy: We were born in the land of Vain-glory, and are going for praise to Mount Zion.

Christian: Why came you not in at the gate which stands at the beginning of the way? Know you not that it is written, that he that comes not in by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber?

Formalist and Hypocrisy: They said, That to go to the gate for entrance was, by all their countrymen, counted too far about; and that, therefore, their usual way was to make a short cut of it, and to climb over the wall, as they had done.

Christian: But will it not be counted a trespass against the Lord of the city whither we are bound, thus to violate his revealed will?

Formalist and Hypocrisy: They told him, that, as for that, he needed not to trouble his head thereabout; for what they did they had custom for; and could produce, if need were, testimony that would witness it for more than a thousand years.

Christian: But, said Christian, will your practice stand a trial at law?

Formalist and Hypocrisy: They told him, That custom, it being of so long a standing as above a thousand years, would, doubtless, now be admitted as a thing legal by any impartial judge; and besides, said they, if we get into the way, what matter is it which way we get in? If we are in, we are in. You are but in the way, who, as we perceive, came in at the gate; and we are also in the way, that came tumbling over the wall; wherein, now, is your condition better than ours?

Christian: I walk by the rule of my Master; you walk by the rude working of your fancies. You are counted thieves already, by the Lord of the way; therefore, I doubt you will not be found true men at the end of the way. You come in by yourselves, without his direction; and shall go out by yourselves, without his mercy.

To this they made him but little answer; only they bid him look to himself.


Notes and Commentary

Christian, still troubled with the indifference and complacency of Simple, Sloth and Presumption, is now confronted with two more pretenders in the Way. He sees two men tumble over the wall and run quickly to catch up to him. One is Formalist and the other is Hypocrisy. These men did not come through the Gate or take time at the House of the Interpreter. They were not slowed by Burdens or Sloughs. For one reason or another, they thought it desirable to be in the Way and found a short cut. They wished to avoid the costly path of conversion and repentance and so now satisfy themselves with a "form of godliness." As many tried before them, and many continue to try even in this day, they bypassed the Gate, tumbled over the wall and now fancy that they are on a pilgrimage, just as Christian, bound for the Celestial City. But who are Formalist and Hypocrisy? How do we recognize such pretenders to the faith in our day?

Hypocrisy (from the Greek hupokrisis) is one who acts out a part or puts on a mask, as an actor on a stage who dresses up and pretends to be someone he is not. A hypocrite is like one who wears a mask, appearing on the outside to be someone he is not on the inside. His attitudes, vocabulary and conduct vary according to his company. At church on the Lord's Day, he is a Christian among Christians, but at work during the week he fits comfortably into the world. On Sundays he sings God's praise and speaks highly of God's Word; on Mondays the Word is all but forgotten, ignored or even scorned. Bunyan elaborates on the hypocrite in his work The Strait Gate. Speaking of the many types of false professors, he comments:

There is yet another professor; and he is for God and for Baal too. He can be anything for any company. He can throw stones with both hands. His religion alters as fast as his company. He is a frog of Egypt, and can live in the water and out of the water; he can live in religious company, and again as well out. Nothing that is disorderly comes amiss to him. He will hold with the hare, and run with the hound. He carries fire in the one hand, and water in the other. He is a very anything but what he should be. This is also one of the many that "will seek to enter in, and shall not be able."

Bunyan also provides a description of the Formalist:

Neither is the formalist exempted from this number. He is a man that has lost all but the shell of religion. He is hot, indeed, for his form; and no marvel, for that is his all to contend for. But his form being without the power and spirit of godliness, it will leave him in his sins; nay, he stands now in them in the sight of God, and is one of the many that "will seek to enter in, and shall not be able" (2 Timothy 3:5).

Formalist is one who rests on the outward forms of religion. He is content to believe that if he does the right things and says the right things that God will be satisfied with his efforts. He trades the convicting truth of the Gospel for the comfortable Customs of men.

Spurgeon comments:

Formalists think, "We do not mind being christened, confirmed, taking the sacrament, and going to church or chapel; but this repenting of sin, this believing, this clinging to Christ, this seeking after holiness—ah! 'It is too far about.'" They would rather tumble over the wall. They cry, "Peace, peace; when there is no peace." [Pictures from Pilgrim's Progress, 99]

But God is not so enamored with the outward display of the Formalist. Smooth speech and sweet praises from his lips cannot mask his dark heart from God. Jesus said of such pretenders:

"Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'" (Matthew 15:7-9).

Formalist is indeed a friend and companion of Hypocrisy. Both are from the land of Vain-Glory, home to the city of Deceit. These are men that are boastful of their own accomplishments and overly proud of their own achievements. They are vain in that all their efforts and show of religion are empty and can never merit the favor of God. They glory in that their show of religion has merited their own favor and the praise of others. They are both deceived in thinking that God is equally impressed with the externals.

While Simple, Sloth and Presumption were content to stay in one place, so long as it was in the vicinity of the Way, Formalist and Hypocrisy are intent on "going for praise to Mount Zion." They desire to make a great show of their religion and thrive on the admiration and praise of others. Formalist and Hypocrisy are quite pleased with their efforts to get over the wall. Satisfied that they are now in the Way, the two are offended that Christian would question how or why they got in. After all, they reason, "what matter is it which way we get in? If we are in, we are in." They are as close to the Celestial City as Christian! Surely Christian should praise their zeal and ingenuity to overcome obstacles and find their own way into the Way. But Christian has spent time in God's Word (the Interpreter's House) and immediately sees through their deception. He directs them to the warning of Jesus in Scripture:

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber (John 10:1).

They are the Thief and the Robber that rejected the Door and have found another way over the wall.

Formalist and Hypocrisy further show their vain profession in their answer to Christian's concern. Christian was alarmed at how they had spurned the Gospel in preference to Custom. But the two men did not take kindly to Christian's care for their souls. They told him "not to trouble his head" about their condition. Later "they bid him look to himself." The last thing a formalist or hypocrite desires is to be confronted with the shallowness and baselessness of their profession. Their religion is built upon pomp and pride. The Gospel of Christ humbles man and lays pomp and pride in the dust. They are "going for praise," but those who come in through the Gate seek godly counsel over praise. A true Pilgrim values and cherishes the concern of other Christians for his soul. He is grateful to God when other believers bring reproof and correction from the Scriptures.

We must, like Christian, care about the souls of those who claim to be in the Way. Formalists and Hypocrites are tumbling over the walls in great numbers in our day. Many churches have abandoned the Gospel and are looking to pageantry, liturgy and other forms of religion to bring new life to their congregations and fill the spiritual void in their worship. When asked "whence came you and whither go you," many boast of their decision, baptism or church membership. Still others lean upon traditions and rituals that have survived "for more than a thousand years," trusting that time has born testimony that they are blessed and approved by God. In the midst of such deadly deception, we must never stop pointing people to the Gate, even those who think they are safe in the Way and desire to walk with us as brothers. Acting like a Christian can never make us a Christian. Our works, no matter how great the zeal and devotion, can never save us. There is no salvation apart from faith in Christ and repentance from sin. Jesus is the only Way that we may be made right with God. He is the Gate and we must come through Him. Christian plainly warns the pretenders to the faith: "You come in by yourselves, without his direction; and shall go out by yourselves, without his mercy." Soon in the story we will see the horrible end of those who persist in formalism and hypocrisy.

Continue Reading 34. A Coat for Rags
Return to 32. Simple, Sloth and Presumption


The text for The Pilgrim's Progress
and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©1997 Ken Puls
"A Guide to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress"
was originally published from January 1993 to December 1997
in "The Voice of Heritage," a monthly newsletter
of Heritage Baptist Church in Mansfield, Texas
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from
the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
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