THEY also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.
Last week, for the first time, I read John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. If, like me, you’ve never read it, let me give you a brief outline of this allegorical tale. In Part I, Christian the pilgrim left his wife, children, and the rest of his hometown, the ‘City of Destruction’, and began a journey to the Celestial City on Mount Zion. Along the way he undergoes a number of trials and challenges, and he meets a variety of characters, some kind, some obviously adversarial, and some who initially appear to be helpful but turn out to be those who would lead him astray.
The allegory is rather straight forward – he meets Obstinate, a man who refuses to come with him. He joins with Faithful, who when challenged in court to give up his Christianity, true to his name, refuses to do so. (If you find this simplicity of name choices somewhat irritating, then prepare yourself when you read the whole book).
Throughout the book Bunyan’s Protestant theology shines through. There is a degree of antipathy to the Roman Church which, personally I found uncomfortable to read, and disagreed with, but I’m reading it through 21st century eyes. However, in the light of undertaking this series of reflections on the Articles of Faith, I could see just how much the theology of the Prayer Book and the Reformers must have influenced Christians like Bunyan.
One character appears in Christian’s journey which seems to speak straight out of Article XVIII. Early on he meets a man called Worldly Wiseman who tells Christian that there is a much simpler and less dangerous route to salvation than the Narrow Way to which he is headed. A man by the name of Legality lives nearby in a village called Morality, and he can take the burdens from people, and provide them with a pleasant house to live, with honest neighbours. Christian, thrilled at the idea of not having to face unpleasant dangers, heads off to find him. It is meant to be a short walk up a hill, but as he begins his ascent the hill gets steeper and steeper and steeper….
Christian is eventually rescued by a guide, Evangelist, who explains to Christian why he cannot be saved by this other path which corresponds so closely to the “Law or Sect” of which the Article speaks. These, Evangelist says, are the ways of the world and so lead to death, not life. The focus is on the wrong place, as they trust the Law and good deeds, rather than in Jesus Christ. The reason the hill grows ever steeper is because there is no end to the additional requirements that we place upon ourselves when we try to find salvation in this way, always another hoop, another requirement to fulfil.
How much easier would our own journey in faith be if the hurdles were so clearly marked and named? I feel certain that I could avoid the machinations of anyone called Hypocrisy or Lord Hate-Good.
But life is not an allegory, and like Christian the pilgrim, experience tells us that it is easy to wander from the path by the lure and misunderstanding of a smoother path. And without the obvious names and signposts, as Christians we need to think carefully through our choices, and why we choose to follow the rules we do (it is no surprise that the next three Articles focus on the Church and General Council). But within any ordered system, there must be an inbuilt process to ensure that the reason for it is not lost.
For example, as we enter Lent, this is a perfect time to examine our Lenten disciplines.
Do I give up chocolate or alcohol because that is what I always do at Lent? Because I can flaunt my choice, and make sure others see my devotion through my act of self denial, hoping to win points with others and possibly even with God?
Or do I do fast because of love? Knowing that I am already saved through my faith in Jesus, is this self-denial a way to draw closer to Him, by experiencing in some small way the temptations Christ faced in the wilderness? Each hunger pang, each time I open the fridge and then stand there thinking ‘No – I’m doing this to deepen my love, my trust in Jesus’ and then close the door once more, I draw closer to Christ.
One is legality; one is an act of devotion. The trick, as Christian the pilgrim discovered, is working out which is which. The Narrow Way is the one which leads to salvation.
Merciful Lord, we beseech thee to cast thy bright beams of light upon thy Church, that it being enlightened by the doctrine of thy blessed Apostle and Evangelist Saint John may so walk in the light of thy truth, that it may at length attain to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect for the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist, Book of Common Prayer