This series, “Bite-Size Bunyan,” shares John Bunyan’s writings in summary form. This fifth “bite” concerns Bunyan’s work, Profitable Meditations, Fitted to Man’s Different Condition: In a Conference between Christ and a Sinner (1661), written to help support his family during his imprisonment, which began in November 1660. The book is basically a confession of faith in verse and marks Bunyan’s first formal attempt at poetry.
While not very long and somewhat clumsy poetically, its personal and experiential theology, creative style, and use of dialogue provide a foretaste to several works, including Grace Abounding (1666), A Confession of My Faith (1672), The Pilgrim’s Progress, I and II (1678, 1684), The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680), and The Holy War (1682). As far as poetry goes, this work precedes other “prison” poems soon to come: Prison Meditations (1663), One Thing Is Needful (1665), and Ebal and Gerizzim (1665).
We get a broad taste of Bunyan’s emerging Reformed theology (as already manifested in A Few Sighs from Hell and Law and Grace Unfolded), including such doctrines as sinful depravity, the eternal counsel of redemption, salvation by free grace in Christ from the guilt and power of sin, justification by faith for the forgiveness of sins and imputation of Christ’s righteousness, saints as just and sinful simultaneously, election of sinners to salvation, assurance of grace, perseverance of saints, eternal and irreversible punishment, and the bodily second coming of Christ for consummate salvation and judgment.
That Bunyan sets forth the free offer of the gospel (e.g. “My Mercy’s thine, if thou wilt imbrace”) to all who turn from sin to him (e.g. “from thy evils flie”) does not show the Arminian tendencies of a conflicted Calvinist as some scholars maintain. Bunyan was conviced that God’s sovereign choice exists in Scripture side-by-side (and without contradiction) with the appeal for man to choose. In general, Bunyan also avoids an antinomian demeanor as in: “Christ saves men From Sin, both Guilt and Filth, them to set free, That they in Life and Holiness may dwell.” That being said, he displays the antinomian tendency to stress objective assurance of grace in the promises of Christ at the expense of subjective assurance through the evidences of grace.
After an introduction defending the use of verse as a vehicle for Scriptural truth, Bunyan sets forth nine sections of poetry, five couched in dialogue and all supported by marginal Scripture references. In the process, he treats the topics of man’s sinful nature, Christ’s gracious atonement, the conversion of sinners to saints, Satan’s assault upon Christian assurance, Christ’s deliberation with depraved sinners, Christ’s consolation for doubting saints, death’s conquest over sinners, the Christian’s conquest over death, and the Day of Judgment for both the sinner and saint.
Bunyan sees fallen man as a servant of Satan, blind to his sin, and ignorant of the judgment to come. God beheld the miserable condition of sinners, and lovingly bought them “to Himself with heav’nly price,” namely the death of Christ to whom we “do run apace” for salvation. In the process, Bunyan pastorally presents the passion of Christ, as in “Of the Sufferings of Christ” (Stanza XVII, Section II):
The Wicked Sin’d, the Just did bear the blame
Here is the Myst’ry of the Gospel-love:
That Christ for us should bear the cursed Shame,
And Wrath (that we deserved) from above.
Bunyan then sets forth dialogues between Satan and a struggling Christian, Christ and a presumptuous sinner, and Christ and a doubting soul. The first two serve in part as refutations against a legalistic spirit concerning works and an antinomian spirit concerning grace, respectively, while the third encourages an evangelical spirit concerning grace and works. All three highlight the spiritual turmoil Bunyan he experienced earlier and recorded later in Grace Abounding.
Next, death personified claims a sinner for whom it is too late to make peace with God. In the end, the sinner bemoans failing to turn from sin to Christ, not only losing every worldly thing but also falling eternally into a “dreadful Dungeon.” In contrast, the saint emerges victorious through Christ, who “triumph’d over [death] in fight.” Though Jesus himself died, he rose again and guaranteed that, at his second coming, he will also “Raise up his Dead.”
The last section concerns the Day of Judgment at the return of Christ in glory, when saints “with comfort on him gaze,” while the wicked are “banisht from [his] face.” The ungodly vainly blame their state on others, even “daubing preachers” (likely a dig at Restoration Anglicans) who gloss over sin. The final discourse between a saint in heaven and soul in hell gleans from Bunyan’s exposition of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) in A Few Sighs from Hell. In light of the warnings of judgment and promises of glory to come, Bunyan ends by urging us all to profit from this work and “Lift up thine heart to God” for his grace.