Foundations: No.67 Autumn 2014

Tortuous And Complicated: An Analysis of Conversion in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

Central to the mission of the church is making disciples of all nations, and discipleship begins with conversion. This paper explores the characteristics that should be present in the process of turning to God, by evaluating the account of conversion in Pilgrim's Progress and establishing the extent to which John Bunyan regarded this account as paradigmatic. It then evaluates biblically a number of important theological and pastoral considerations that are pertinent for the contemporary church. Recognising that conversion is tortuous, complicated and varied guards against us being overly prescriptive in our evaluation of conversions and too rigid in our expectation of how conversions are manifest, whilst recognising the place of despondency and perseverance should guard us against easy-believism.

Conversion is the essential beginning of discipleship for all Christians. The apostle Paul is convinced that God has chosen the Thessalonian Christians precisely because of their conversion. They turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess 1:9). As David Wells writes, “Christianity without conversion is no longer Christian, because conversion means turning to God.”[1]

But what are the necessary components that make up a conversion? And what will they look like in a convert? Such questions are important because, for those involved in the pastoral care of new believers, there is both the danger that we require elements within a conversion that are not necessary, and the danger that we disregard elements that are. A recent article in Evangelicals Now bemoans the abandoning of “Crisis Repentance” by those who would adhere to a progressive “journey” into the faith.[2] It is clear that the author is convinced that genuine repentance requires a specific “crisis event”.[3] We must call people to repentance and faith as we preach the gospel, but to what extent can we actually prescribe such a crisis event? And what would be necessary characteristics of such an event?

These questions are not abstract. By way of an example, as the pastor of a local church that has seen a number of conversions over the past few years, and has had the privilege of baptising a number of new believers, it is my responsibility (as far as one is able) neither to give false assurance to those who have not truly converted, nor to deny entrance into the church to those who have. What “counts” as a credible profession of faith is fundamental to whether or not we then offer to baptise them. What elements must their profession of faith contain? What evidences of sanctification we would like to see before they are baptised? Although it is a real danger that we might baptise people prematurely, as conservative evangelicals it is far more likely that we are over cautious, delay baptism, and give the impression that it is on the basis of a sanctified life rather than a profession of faith.

In order to think this through well, it may be helpful to consider the clearly articulated “journey” of a pilgrim depicted in a different age. It is often when we drink deeply from history that we find our own blind spots identified and necessary correctives offered. This paper will attempt to first summarise John Bunyan’s depiction of conversion in Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan’s intention was to write a book that would edify normal believers. His audience was not the literati, but humble, Bedfordshire country folk. As a result, in Pilgrim’s Progress we have a popularist glimpse into puritan thought concerning conversion. For a theological critique to be fair it must establish whether or not Bunyan believed his conversion accounts were paradigmatic so, it shall second attempt to establish whether or not Bunyan intended his depiction to be regarded as normative. Finally, a theological critique will be offered, and evaluated in relation to our context today.

Conversion in Pilgrim’s Progress

Christian’s conversion is central to the narrative. There are eight distinct stages before his burden is removed. The first is Recognition of the Plight.

1. Recognition of the Plight

A burdened man reads a book, weeping and crying out, “What shall I do?”[4] He learns that he inhabits a city destined for destruction, and that he himself is condemned to die and be judged.[5] He recognises his sin. Though he does not speak specifically of sin in his conversation with Evangelist, he recognises that he is not able to stand at judgment.[6] He is burdened by it, and desperate.[7] It might appear that “sin” equals “burden”, but strictly speaking it is “recognition of sin” that equals “burden”. Not everyone carries a burden, but all are sinful. It is only on reading the book that one becomes aware of one’s sinfulness and it becomes a burden.

2. Being Directed to Christ

The second stage is Being Directed to Christ. The burdened man is aimless until Evangelist gives him a parchment roll declaring, “fly from the wrath to come”.[8] Evangelist directs him towards a wicket-gate and a shining light:[9] Christ, the door upon whom one must knock,[10] and the light of the world.[11] The man is to “keep that light in [his] eye”.[12]

3. Turning Away from the World

The third stage is Turning Away from the World. He runs, fleeing the city of destruction.[13] At this point we are told that his name is Christian.[14] He was previously called Graceless.[15] The action of fleeing from the world changes his name. Christian’s turning away from the world is also his turning towards heaven.[16]

4. Despondency

The fourth stage is Despondency. On his way to the wicket-gate Christian falls into the Slough of Despond.[17] He cannot escape because of his burden. As he is helped out he is told that there are steps,[18] by which the slough could have been avoided. This might suggest that the slough is not necessarily normative but occurs when there is conviction of sin, but without sight of God's grace. It is not certain though, because, as Help explains, “as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there arise in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place”. It is a place that “cannot be mended”,[19] suggesting that it is perhaps normal following conviction of sin after all. It is also certainly a test: Christian perseveres; Pliable gives up.

5. Repentance from Morality

The fifth stage is Repentance from Morality. Worldly Wiseman suggests that Morality is an easier way for Christian to relieve his burden.[20] He must take his eyes off “yonder shining light”,[21] and fix them upon “yonder high hill”:[22] off Christ, and onto the Mosaic Law. The walk becomes harder, his burden heavier, with a new threat of burning.[23] As he begins to regret Wiseman’s advice, Evangelist reappears and shows him God’s word again.[24] Christian is ashamed, and repentant, asking if he may still go to the gate.[25] Evangelist comforts him by assuring him that Christ will receive him, but he must be careful en route.[26]

6. Approaching Christ, Confession of Sin, and Entrance to the Narrow Way

The sixth stage is Approaching Christ, Confession of Sin, and Entrance to the Narrow Way. Perseverance is required at the gate, and eventually Goodwill appears.[27] Christian knocks more than once or twice. It is worth noting that even greater perseverance is required when Christian’s wife, Christiana, makes the same journey later on, in the second part of Pilgrim's Progress.[28] Christian confesses his sin, and asks to be delivered from the coming wrath.[29] Goodwill pulls Christian in and tells him “an open door is set before thee, and no man can shut it”.[30] Entrance is by grace alone, with no objections made against any who come, whatever their history.[31] However, Christian is not yet able to remove his burden. Goodwill says, “be content to bear it, until thou comest to the place of deliverance; for there it will fall from thy back of itself”.[32]

7. Instruction by the Spirit

The seventh stage is Instruction by the Spirit. By girding up his loins and going some distance,[33] he arrives at the Interpreter’s house. After much knocking (again) someone eventually answers the door.[34] The master takes time in coming.[35] When he does he teaches Christian much about the Christian life.[36] As the Interpreter, the Spirit teaches Christian “things to make [him] stable” on his journey ahead.[37]

8. Assurance of Salvation at the Cross

The eighth stage is Assurance of Salvation at the Cross. From there, Christian runs up a walled highway called Salvation, “but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back”.[38] He arrives at a cross, where at last his burden slides off into a tomb, never to be seen again.[39] Christian is relieved, declaring, “He hath given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His death.”[40] It is at this point that Christiana will learn the truth about justification by faith through Christ’s death and His gift of righteousness.[41]

Christian stays to gaze on the cross, “even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks”.[42] When his affections have been moved he is told that he is at peace and his sins are forgiven. He is given new clothes, a scroll, and is marked on his forehead.[43] At this Christian continues on his journey singing,

“Blessed cross! Blessed sepulchre! Blessed rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me.”[44]

His journey continues up hill Difficulty,[45] to the Palace Beautiful.[46] This is the church, the place of edification.[47]

As a tentative summary then,for Christian, conversion is a process of:

  1. Becoming aware of sin and judgement with resulting despair
  2. Hearing that Jesus Christ is the way to flee from God’s wrath
  3. Desiring to turn from the world to Christ and His salvation
  4. Experiencing unworthiness and despondency
  5. Recognising the deception of works righteousness
  6. Confessing sin and pleading to Jesus for salvation
  7. Being graciously accepted by Jesus without experiencing assurance of salvation

 

This is then followed by:

  1. Having God’s word illuminated by the Holy Spirit
  2. Understanding justification by faith, and receiving assurance of both sins forgiven and the positive righteousness of Christ
  3. Having affections moved
  4. Entrance into the church

Once we establish the extent to which Christian’s conversion is paradigmatic, the theological and pastoral questions this summary raises will become clear.

Is Christian’s Conversion Paradigmatic?

First, we must consider the extent to which Christian’s conversion is Bunyan’s own conversion experience. Martin suggests, “‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ is ‘Grace Abounding’ dramatised.”[48] “Grace Abounding To The Chief of Sinners” is Bunyan's own account of his conversion. His sub-heading to the title describes it as, “a brief relation of the exceeding mercy of God in Christ, to his poor servant John Bunyan”.Bunyan recounts his burden of sin, his misery and despair.[49] He attempts to reform his life with religious activity. He writes,

I fell to some outward reformation, both in my words and life, and did set the commandments before me for my way to heaven; which commandments I also did strive to keep, and, as I thought, did keep them pretty well sometimes, and then I should have comfort; yet now and then should break one, and so afflict my conscience; but then I should repent, and say I was sorry for it, and promise God to do better next time.[50]

Note particularly the way Christian turned his eyes to Sinai as the way to the celestial city, and the way Bunyan sets the commandments before him for the way to heaven. He is made aware of his mistake through the witness of four poor women, who redirect him to Christ.[51] After going through a period in which he is “tossed between the devil and [his] own ignorance”,[52] he is faced with the way of salvation. The entrance to salvation in Pilgrim’s Progress mirrors Bunyan’s own dream about the way, where with great perseverance, he enters through the narrow door. He describes it by saying,

I saw, as if they were [the poor women] set on the sunny side of some high mountain… I saw a wall that did compass about this mountain… at the last, I saw, as it were, a narrow gap, like a little doorway in the wall, through which I attempted to pass; but the passage being very strait and narrow, I made many efforts to get in, but all in vain, even until I was well-nigh quite beat out, by striving to get in; at last, with great striving, methought I at first did get in my head, and after that, by a sidling striving, my shoulders, and my whole body; then I was exceedingly glad, and went and sat down in the midst of them [the poor women].[53]

This is followed by a long search for assurance. That finally begins to change under the ministry of Mr. Gifford,[54] culminating in Bunyan grasping Christ as his righteousness, whereupon he is finally “loosed from [his] afflictions and irons”.[55]

All ten points of Christian’s conversion can be traced onto Bunyan’s own conversion. Christian’s conversion is clearly an allegory of Bunyan’s. However, though that confirms the descriptive nature of the account, it does not prove an intention of prescription by Bunyan. The case might become clearer if other conversion narratives in Pilgrim’s Progress follow a similar pattern. Let us look briefly at Hopeful, whose conversion is clearly depicted in the book.

Hopeful lives disobediently, without guilt.[56] He is then convicted of sin.[57] When the torment is too great he reforms his life,[58] but his burden remains. He acknowledges the folly of works righteousness.[59] He meets Faithful who directs him to Christ, and explains justification to him.[60] Hopeful thinks that Christ will not be willing to save him.[61] Eventually Hopeful asks God to make Jesus known to him. He perseveres, asking more than six times.[62] In a moment of great despondency, he finally sees Jesus. He is assured of his forgiveness and righteousness in Christ, and his affections are moved.[63]

The correlation between Hopeful and Christian’s conversions suggests that there are characteristics that should be considered paradigmatic. However, one key difference is noted. Assurance, though still linked to justification occurs at the point of conversion. Bunyan did not regarded steps viii-x as necessarily incremental. That they are in some cases, Horner suggests, may represent “a failing, rather than a biblical norm”.[64] Horner goes on to explain,

The experience of Christian in the sequence of the three events, as he passes from the Wicket-gate, first to the Interpreter’s house and then on to the Place of Deliverance, clearly reflects Bunyan’s own early struggles as a believer. It is not intended to be seen as the biblical norm, as his confession cited above readily proves. However, it is evident that upon his entrance into authentic Christian life, Bunyan initially lacked sufficient assurance to produce steadiness in his soul. Only after prolonged struggle and exposure to faithful instruction did he reach a point of stability and confidence in Christ’s substitutionary atonement.[65]

Before finally establishing the extent to which Bunyan’s depiction of conversion was intended as paradigmatic, a brief comparison with wider Puritan thought will be valuable.

First, Bunyan seems to follow William Perkins’ outline of the normative steps of conversion closely. Perkins was an English Puritan who belonged to the previous generation to Bunyan, with many of his widely-read works published after his death.Joel Beeke helpfully works through Perkins’ steps, which can be summarised as follows:

1. Humiliation: actions of grace, preceding the work of grace

  1. Attentiveness to the Word
  2. Awareness of God’s law
  3. Conviction of sin
  4. Despair of salvation

 

2. Faith in Christ: stages of grace separating the elect from the    reprobate

  1. Being caused to seriously consider the promise of salvation in the gospel
  2. The kindling in the heart of faith, a will and desire to believe, and grace to strive
  3. A combat against doubt despair and distrust
  4. A settling of the conscience as it rests in the promise of life

 

This progression can also be considered in relation to receiving Christ, in five steps:

  1. Knowledge of the gospel by the illumination of God’s Spirit
  2. Hope of pardon, where a sinner knows his sins are not pardoned but   believes they can be
  3. Hungering and thirsting after the grace that is offered in Jesus
  4. A humble confession of sin before God and a crying out for pardon
  5. The Spirit’s persuasion that the promise of the gospel has been applied personally. [66]

 

Conviction of sin and despair, the need for perseverance, confession of sin and a crying out for forgiveness, are all central features, as is the end goal of personal assurance.

Secondly, the Puritan prayer “The Great Discovery”,[67] describes conversion as follows:

  • Ignorance in the world
  • The sovereign, gracious call of God
  • Awareness of God’s ability to save
  • Despair at sin
  • Vision of Jesus and his substitutionary atonement
  • Peace and new life
  • Moved affections

Thirdly, The Westminster Confession states: God calls people out of sin and death to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ.[68] He changes their minds, hearts and wills, so that they are effectually drawn to Jesus, and come freely and willingly.[69] Those God calls he justifies, pardoning sin and imputing Christ’s obedience and satisfaction to them,[70] as the Holy Spirit, in due time, applies Christ to them.[71] A justified status cannot be undone. However, in sin, God’s fatherly displeasure may be felt until further repentance and faith occurs.[72]

In conclusion of this section, Bunyan’s depiction of the characteristics of conversion should be viewed as paradigmatic in part. They reflect his own conversion, other conversion narratives, and Puritan theology. However, they are mostly characteristics, not rigid sequential steps.[73] Hill makes the point more generally when he writes,

the events [in Pilgrim’s Progress] are not necessarily sequential, nor is there a steady advance across country. Drawing a map of the pilgrim’s route, as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century illustrators tried to do, is as difficult and elusive as producing a time-chart for Grace Abounding. The pilgrims travel a long way before reaching Vanity Fair, though it turns out to be identical with the City of Destruction from which they had started; but now it is utterly alien to them. The “progress” is psychological, not geographical; the landscape reflects the inner state of the pilgrims.

Steps 1-6 are different facets of the same reality: turning from the world to Christ. They are not to be viewed as a chronology for every Christian, although it does appear that despondency really is an important first stage. Also it seems that steps viii-x are elements that will be, at times, and perhaps ideally, contained in step vii.

Bunyan’s depiction of conversion raises four questions for theological consideration:

  1. Is despondency a necessary preparatory step in conversion?
  2. Does conversion require an explicit repentance from works righteousness?
  3. Is perseverance required in relation to conversion?
  4. Is an understanding of justification necessary for conversion and how does that relate to assurance?

Theological and Pastoral Considerations of Bunyan’s Depiction of Conversion

1. Is despondency a necessary preparatory step in conversion?

For Bunyan, conversion requires a stage of humility, fear, and despondency. The Bible describes grief over sin as integral to conversion. The prodigal son regards himself as unworthy because of his sin.[74] The tax collector cries out for mercy because of his sin.[75] At Pentecost the hearers are cut to the heart and ask, “what shall we do?”[76] The Philippian jailer, full of fear, asks “what must I do to be saved?”[77] And Paul teaches, “godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation”.[78]

Bunyan may simply be finding a way to narrate that reality. However, there does seem to be a particular stage of humiliation outlined by Bunyan that may be more prescriptive than the biblical data.[79] It happens first, and is extensive.[80] This is, in part, why the Puritans are sometimes charged with “preparationism”.[81] This is the demand that only once one has gone through a long period of heavy contrition is one qualified to come to faith in Jesus.

Wells helpfully defends the Puritans from the charge:

The legalistic “preparationism” that was allegedly taught by the Puritans and others who supposedly stressed the need for deep conviction of sin and laboured to induce it is, in truth, a figment of the critics’ imagination. The Puritans (and their admirers, past and present) actually maintained that only one who has come thoroughly to hate sin can turn wholeheartedly from it to Christ. Contrition is necessitated not by the terms of the gospel, which calls us to Christ directly, but by the state of the fallen human heart.[82]

However, the charge against Bunyan is, at the very least, a lack of clarity about whether despondency is a biblical element in conversion, or a distinct stage. Bavinck concludes that the Bible says nothing “about the depth and duration of [the] grief, nor about the time in which it should appear”.[83] Helm notes that the importance of conviction of sin “does not lie in its being a distinct and separable stage. Rather it is an element in conversion in the sense that it is part of what ‘being converted’ means. No one is converted whose experience does not include conviction of sin.”[84]

As we think about the nature of crisis repentance, it is very important that we see that “decisions for Jesus” are not what counts, but “that there are men and women who, knowing themselves to be rebels and alienated from God, have sought in his Christ forgiveness and acceptance”.[85] At the same time to demand such a crisis as a distinct stage or “event” may be in dangerously close to legalism. It may reassure the evangelist to have measurable visible events, but to make them mandatory demands more than the Bible.

2. Does conversion require an explicit repentance from works righteousness?

For Bunyan, repentance is not only about turning from the world to Christ, but also about turning from works righteousness, to a righteousness that comes by faith alone. Considered systematically, this is incredibly helpful. Augustine defines the fundamental human problem as a distortion of our creation purpose. We have degraded from love of God and others to self-love,[86] and thus the beginning of all sin is pride.[87] Pride is when “our partial standards and relative attainments are explicitly related to the unconditioned good, and claim divine sanction”.[88] As a result, to think of all sin as a form of prideful works righteousness, is sobering.

That Bunyan speaks so directly of the need to repent of works righteousness is helpful, and is clearly part of his need to define the gospel and true discipleship against the backdrop of the Roman Catholic Church. The Bible shows that unlike the self-righteous Pharisee, only the humble will be justified.[89] Paul shows that Abraham, as the paradigm for what it means to be ungodly, was not justified by his works, but by faith.[90] Paul’s own conversion is one of turning from placing his confidence in works, to placing it in Christ.[91] In fact Paul must count works as rubbish, in order that he may gain Christ.[92]

Keller has spoken and written widely on “three ways to live”. He writes, that in stark contrast to the gospel,

Legalism says that we have to live a holy, good life in order to be saved. Antinomianism says that because we are saved, we don’t have to live a holy, good life. This is the location of the “tip of the spear” of the gospel. A very clear and sharp distinction between legalism, antinomianism, and the gospel is often crucial for the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit to work.[93]

As we call people to repentance and faith it is essential that we call them to a gospel of grace. Actually, the danger of becoming too prescriptive in the demands required for genuine conversion is that instead of an explicit turning from works righteousness, we make it a turning to works righteousness!

3. Is perseverance required in relation to conversion?

For Bunyan, from a human perspective, coming to Christ requires determination and perseverance. Again, this is insightful. At no point does Bunyan undermine God’s promise to persevere us to the end.[94] The biblical data for such assurance is clear: The Father chooses before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), ordains to eternal life (Acts 13:48), election stands (Rom 9:11) and carries with it calling, justification and glorification (Rom 8:30). Christ, in whom all the promises of God are Yes and Amen (2 Cor 1:20), died for those who were given him by the Father (John 17:6, 12) to give them eternal life and not lose a single one (John 6:40; 17:2). No one will snatch them from his hand (John 6:39; 10:28). However, as the Westminster Confession makes clear, God changes minds, hearts and wills, so that though people are effectually drawn, “yet so they come most freely, being made willing by his grace”.[95] Because our will is engaged, conversion has the appearance of hard work and perseverance from the very first moment. That requirement of persistence in conversion is made clear in the parable of the widow who cries day and night for justice.[96]

Hill observes, “Christian is revealed as one of the predestined elect the moment he enters the wicket-gate… nevertheless one feels like Pilgrim is making free choices all the time, deciding for himself… Christian has to do a great deal of knocking at both the wicket-gate and the Interpreter’s house before either is opened”.[97] Again, this reflects the biblical data whereby God’s power and human effort are often paired. Turretin lists the pairing of “running” with “drawing” (Songs 1:4), “yoke and burden” with “easiness and lightness” (Matt 11:30), “being drawn” with “being taught” (John 6:44-45), “persuasion” with “demonstration” (1 Cor 2:4), and “conversion” with “illumination” (Eph 1:8-19).[98]

Bunyan’s emphasis on the hardship and struggle of the Christian life, where even in conversion “there are temptations that threaten to steal away Christian’s joy and divert him from his goal”[99] is a great corrective for our contemporary easy-believism. For those of us with a reformed soteriology, does our doctrine of election interfere with the clear call of the gospel that we might choose Christ, repent, turn and believe, and persevere in that action and not give up? Do we, as those called to evangelise, persevere with people in the act of conversion? It is tempting to want to remove perceived barriers to the Christian faith in order to help people believe. However, the difficulties to believing may be the very things needed in order to draw out the kind of perseverance that make a conversion a genuine spiritual reality.

4. Is an understanding of justification necessary for conversion and how does that relate to assurance?

Bunyan makes a distinction between knowledge of the gospel that is necessary for entrance into the way of salvation, and knowledge of justification bringing assurance.

Caution must be taken here not to read Bunyan anachronistically and import contemporary debates into the 17th Century. However, Tom Wright warns against a perceived historical tendency to use the terms “justification” and “salvation” synonymously.[100] Piper concurs; “it is Jesus who saves, not the doctrine [of justification by faith]. And so our faith rests decisively on Jesus.”[101] However, Piper continues, warning, “the doctrine tells us what sort of Jesus we are resting on and what we are resting on him for. Without this, the word Jesus has no content that could be good news.”[102]

Bunyan distinguishes well between what is necessary for entrance to the way of salvation, that is, a responding to Jesus Christ with repentance and faith, and an understanding of the doctrine of justification that provides assurance of forgiveness and a righteous status. At the same time, Bunyan depicts conversion as a process whereby, because of God’s sovereign call, every Christian should persevere to gain such assurance. In that sense, though a grasp of justification may not be necessary to be called “Christian” neither can it be regarded as optional.

This is evident from the different ways the gospel is presented in the New Testament. On some occasions it explicitly includes a doctrine of justification,[103] on other occasions justification is an implication,[104] on others it is hard to see evidence of the doctrine at all, but only the exhortation to repent and believe.[105] It is worth contrasting two definitions of the gospel given by Paul. In Romans 1:3-5 it is the proclamation that Jesus is the risen Lord of the world, and in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 it includes his death for our sins.[106]

Bunyan helpfully depicts a Christ-centred entrance to the way of salvation, on the basis of repentance and faith, which will ultimately come to the place of assurance through an understanding of justification. A cognitive grasp of justification is not fundamental at the point of entrance, but neither is it optional for one’s burden of sin to be relieved. Assurance may not be granted the moment one believes, but it remains an achievable goal in the Christian life.

This balance is again helpful when we think of our contemporary situation. Our presentation of the gospel is not to be simply an explanation of justification by faith alone, but a presentation of Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath (to return to 1 Thessalonians, where we began this paper). However, assurance of faith by understanding all that Christ has done for us should never be seen as a status only acquired by the super-spiritual, but essential for our discipleship and spiritual growth.

Conclusion

Bunyan offers many helpful correctives to a contemporary understanding of conversion. Just grasping that conversion can be messy and drawn-out will help us to be patient as we seek to proclaim Christ to others. Bunyan’s own conversion was “tortuous and complicated”,[107] and his allegorical depiction does not sanitise that.[108]

Bavinck reflects:

Conversion always consists in an internal change of mind that prompts persons to look at their sinful past in the light of God’s face; [and] leads to sorrow, regret, humiliation, and confession of sin… But for all the similarity… there is also much diversity in the circumstances under which, the time and manner in which, and the occasion in terms of which the conversion takes place.[109]

We would do well to heed that warning and avoid requiring stereotypical testimonies. And we must (as previously noted) persevere in our evangelism. In twenty-first century Britain conversions that are “tortuous and complicated” may well be the norm. It is easy to foster an unreasonable expectation that if we run a few guest services and a seven-week course we will see people come to faith. The testimony of many is that they are loved, served, and preached to by patient believers over a sustained period of time as they grapple with the reality of turning to God.

Also, that conversion should be characterised by a measure of despondency and require perseverance is a great corrective to our easy-believism. Perhaps as a result of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revivalism we tend to require the normative pattern of Christian conversion to be instant and mirror Paul’s Damascus road experience. However, it should not surprise us that God may call us through a process, the start date of which we may be unable to recall. Such a conversion is no less God’s powerful work.

Also, we should not be afraid of making clear the need for perseverance and the engagement of the will in the act of conversion. That in human terms the Christian life is a constant struggle does not mean God’s promise to keep us to the end is any less real. Is our downplaying of the cost of believing a lack of faith in God’s ability to call his people to himself?

However, perhaps one criticism may be allowed. It is possible that Bunyan was too rigid in his requirement of a sustained period of despondency as a preparatory step in conversion. Christian’s, Hopeful’s and Bunyan’s own accounts of conversion all emphasise such a phase, and though it should be seen as an important characteristic of repentance, the necessity of a distinct step in conversion, particularly one devoid of any awareness of hope, is too prescriptive.

As we seek to minister faithfully, the question of what constitutes a genuine conversion is an important one. Some of us will have a tendency to neglect elements of conversion that are necessary for true repentance and faith. Others of us will have a tendency to require stages to conversion that go beyond what is biblically-warranted. My hope is that this paper has helped us to be better equipped to navigate that terrain; serving and loving those we are seeking to reach in a way that bears lasting fruit and brings God glory.