Pilgrim's Progress

Aside from Scripture itself, the book most beloved by Christians during the last three hundred years has been John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Bunyan pictures the Christian life as a long, arduous journey through a world of difficulties to the Celestial City beyond the River. The central character is Christian, who represents every believer. In his pilgrimage he meets almost daily trials of his faith. Soon after entering the right road, he climbs the Hill of Difficulty, which is so steep as he approaches the top that he can progress only by falling onto his hands and knees. Then on the other side he descends into the Valley of Humiliation, where Apollyon, the enemy of his soul, engages him in mortal combat. Christian emerges victorious, but immediately his way narrows to an obscure path with a deep ditch on one side and a smothering bog on the other, leading through the dismal Valley of the Shadow of Death. By perseverance he at last overcomes this peril, and as he begins to travel an easier path, he finds a good friend, Faithful. Together they enter Vanity, a town dominated by the frivolity of Vanity Fair. The townspeople find the pilgrims strange and arrest them. Christian gets away, but Faithful is brought to trial and put to death. When Christian resumes his journey in the company of a new friend, Hopeful, it is not long before they meet new danger. They fall captive to Giant Despair. He imprisons them in Doubting Castle, and there they would perish except that Christian finds the key called Promise, which enables them to escape. Finally, after more trials and testings, they reach the River and cross to the other side. As they pass in triumph through the gates of the city, they hear the heavenly hosts welcoming them with songs of praise to God.

The story is an allegory. Every character and incident points to something beyond itself. All the difficulties that Christian meets correspond to real difficulties in the Christian life. We too must endure Vanity Fair, but we call it the world. We too must struggle up the Hill of Difficulty, but we call it the flesh. We too must do battle with Apollyon, but we call him the devil. Believers have long understood that all assaults upon a believer's faith come from these three enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil (similar phraseology appears in James 3:15). Let us explore useful strategies of defense.

The World


The Bible warns us that we should neither love the world (1 John 2:16; 2 Tim. 4:10) nor be conformed to it (Rom. 12:1-2). Rather, we should come out from it and be separate (2 Cor. 6:17), keeping ourselves wholly unspotted by it (James 1:27).

What is the world? As we said in an earlier lesson, the world we must shun is not the world of nature, which glorifies God by showing His handwork (Psa. 19:1-5). Nor is it the world of people. As God loves all men, so must we (John 3:16). Rather, the world threatening us is the world of evil influence—the world of sinners seeking to draw us into sin.

Legitimate interaction

To what extent must we separate from the world? Should we retreat into monasteries or communes? To withdraw altogether from ungodly people is not what God requires (1 Cor. 5:9-10). Scripture permits us to mix with them for a variety of purposes.

  1. We can use the marketplace for buying (1 Cor. 10:25) and selling (Acts 16:14).
  2. We can work in the employ of unsaved men (1 Tim. 6:1-2).
  3. We can locate our dwellings in the midst of people who do not know Christ (Phil. 2:15; 1 Pet. 1:1; we are stretching these texts a bit, but no one seriously argues that early Christians withdrew into their own enclaves).
  4. We can enter into social relations with unbelievers, so long as these relations display rather than compromise our Christianity (1 Cor. 10:27).
  5. We can enter the world to do charitable deeds (Gal. 6:10), to perform civic duties (Luke 20:25), and even to hold public office (Rom. 16:23).
  6. Although some Christians have believed that military service is wrong, John the Baptist merely exhorted soldiers to be honest and humane (Luke 3:14), and Peter, when he took the gospel to the centurion Cornelius, who became the first gentile convert, refrained from condemning his profession (Acts 10).
  7. Besides all these forms of interaction with the world, we must of course enter the world to preach the gospel.

Exactly what forms of interaction with the world are illegitimate? We draw our rule of separation from Psalm 1:1, which offers three vignettes comparing two men, one who receives the blessing of God and another who forfeits His blessing. The difference between them lies in their response to the world. The one who is blessed turns away from it. The other is pliable to it and, by degrees, comes under its complete control. At first, while conducting his own business, he happens to meet the ungodly on the road. Attracted to their company, he travels beside them and listens to their conversation. Later, he seeks them out in public places and lingers in their presence. Finally, he follows them into their homes, sits down, and joins in their scornful way of thinking and speaking. His downfall is the result of engaging the world under circumstances that allow the world to affect his thinking. We conclude that a believer should shun any practice that would make him receptive to worldly influence.

The primary rule

Our rule of separation might be called the influence test. And it may be stated thus. We avoid interacting with the world whenever the result will be exposure to influence of a kind that will damage our innocence or our faith.

The secondary rule

Yet we cannot altogether avoid worldly influence. In the course of earning a living, we may encounter ungodly people who pressure us to compromise our integrity. Work associates may assault our purity with obscene language or foul suggestions. A boss may ask us to lie or cheat. Even in the course of serving God, we may place ourselves in moral danger. While visiting the sick, we may enter a hospital room where we cannot turn off an obscene program on TV. Christian work in the slums or ghetto may involve direct encounter with prostitutes, drug-dealers, and other peddlers of vice.

Therefore, our primary rule of separation requires a secondary rule. It is this. We can expect God's protection from worldly influence only if we encounter it while doing something that He regards as legitimate.

To make this protection effective, we must submit to it. That is, we must determine the right thing to do, and then cooperate with God's help in doing it. If we hear dirty jokes in the workplace, we must express quiet disapproval. If our boss urges us to do wrong, we must meekly decline. Likewise in ministry, we must focus on the need we are serving, ignoring any enticements to sin. If a television with corrupt programming hovers in the background, we must look away from it as much as possible. If we watch it, we lose God's protection.

If by the Holy Spirit we resist the temptations that come our way as we are doing right, we can be confident that He will shield us from all corrupting effects. We will forget the dirty jokes we heard at the office. The boss's pressure to be dishonest will not weaken our honesty. When we leave the hospital room, we will forget the program on TV.

The corollary

From the secondary rule, we can derive an important inference. We cannot expect God's protection from worldly influence if we encounter it while seeking our own pleasure or advancement. This corollary shows us that two forms of interaction with the world are especially dangerous. The first is to become a spectator of worldly entertainment. The second is to pursue a worldly education.

Entertainment and education bring a believer under influence of an extremely potent kind. Moreover, the influence is one-way. When I watch TV, it communicates to me exactly what it wants to communicate. But I can say nothing in reply. I cannot speak to any of the people whose images and voices are electronically reproduced before me, nor can I exert any influence upon them. Yet everything they do and say has been designed by shrewd men to manipulate me. And I subject myself to this influence for no good reason except to please myself. I am deluded if I think the Holy Spirit will intervene to protect me from the consequences.

Rules and Standards

Recognizing the dangers in worldly amusement, many Christians and Christian bodies throughout history have adopted standards defining exactly what is not acceptable. During the first part of the twentieth century, until about 1970, there were basically three kinds of Protestant churches: Pentecostal, fundamental, and liberal. Across the wide spectrum of fundamentalism, all the way from Bob Jones University at one end to Wheaton College at the other, there was consensus on all major questions of doctrine and practice. There was no battle over music standards or versions of the Bible. There was no dispute over standards of separation. Virtually all bodies of Bible-believing Christians agreed that Christians should not drink, smoke, dance, go the theater, or play cards for the purpose of gambling. Most of these standards can be traced back to the early centuries of the church. In 1950, Time magazine referred to the separated lifestyle of Christians in an article on another magazine, Christian Life. "The readers of the monthly Christian Life are no friends of show business. Drinking, smoking, dancing, card-playing, and movies they consider the Devil's traps." Today, rules against these practices are regarded with disfavor even by many Christians who claim to accept Biblical standards of conduct. I have often heard people murmur that none of the outlawed practices is actually condemned by Scripture. Such thinking usually leads to the conclusion that to forbid these practices is unscriptural and Pharisaic.

The problem we face is that modern technology has furnished the merchants of sin with new ways of catering to human lust, and modern society has invented new ways of sinning. Thus, in formulating a code of conduct, a Christian must name many illegitimate pastimes and pleasures that did not exist in Bible times. The Old Testament prophets did not shrink from denouncing all the specific forms of loathsome sin in their own time. So, in our time, we must shine the light of divine holiness into every corner where sin lurks. We must identify sins by name, as did the prophets, as did John the Baptist, as all other spokesmen for God have done.


Rules are legalistic. Some years ago a well-known Christian leader accused certain Christian colleges of legalistically focusing on dress codes and rules rather than the Spirit. Such disdain for separated Christians is common among more worldly Christians. But is it fair?

Strictly speaking, the term "legalistic" describes the belief that salvation is earned by good works. It is proper to call Catholics legalistic, for they say that salvation depends on rituals and moral living as well as on faith. It is proper to label the Judaizers in the early church as legalistic, for they taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation. But I have yet to meet a Christian fundamentalist who denies that salvation depends solely on the work of Christ. Therefore, a fundamentalist is not legalistic, in this sense, even though he may advocate certain rules.

The term "legalistic" also has a broader meaning, referring to misuse of the law in any of various ways. Yet in none of these ways is it legalistic to insist on some standards useful for curtailing worldliness.

  1. The multiplication of laws and rules beyond what is necessary would be legalistic. The Pharisees multiplied rules until they were so numerous that any modern attempt to compile them requires many volumes. But the traditional rules against worldly amusement are few in number, and they simplify Christian duty. The man who simply rejects all Hollywood movies saves himself many mistakes, as well as the time and anguish that another man wastes in trying to decide which are acceptable and which are not. Besides, what inevitably happens if you start looking through movies and TV programs in an attempt to find some that are okay? You end up seeing a lot of garbage that God does not want you to see. You know I am speaking the truth.

    Are any Hollywood movies are truly pleasing to God? In recent years I have seen very few, but of the many I saw in my younger days, not one had the purpose of exalting God or giving Him the glory, yet we are to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Not one bolstered faith in the Bible or taught submission to the God of the Bible. It is possible to find in Hollywood’s output a few movies sympathetic to Roman Catholicism, as well as many others that look favorably on Eastern or mystical religions, but Bible religion never appears except as a target of ridicule.

  2. It would be legalistic to suppose that you become a good Christian just by obeying a few rules of personal separation. To spare the flock from this delusion, preachers should hammer away at all sin, not just worldliness, and they should keep denunciation of sin in balance with recommendation of worship and charity. Also, they should impress upon the flock the understanding that our highest duty is to love both God and man (Matt. 22:36-40).

  3. Any moral code without foundation in the law of God would be legalistic. The many rules of the Pharisees were legalistic in this sense. Jesus dismissed some of their ceremonial washings, for instance, as merely "the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9). But in fact the rules against worldly amusement have a solid Biblical basis, in that they help a believer fulfill his duty to keep himself unspotted from the world (James 1:27). They assist him in overcoming the world's evil influence and resisting the world's enslaving pleasures.

    To protect yourself from legalism, you should never impose a rule on yourself just because you hear someone recommend it, even though that person is a pastor or respected Christian leader. You should first be satisfied in your own heart that the rule fits a Biblical world view. But do not be quick to reject one of the time-honored rules as unbiblical. If you let the Spirit guide you in further searching of God’s will, you will discover how wise the rule is. Remember that God will judge you for your choices. Do not think that God will excuse a bad choice just because you saw it as harmless. Your opinion counts for nothing. It will never stand as an excuse if it rests on careless inattention to the real teaching of Scripture.

We live under grace, not under the law. Some who criticize separated Christians imagine that the Bible itself supports their dislike of rules. The texts they often quote include some of the grandest declarations in the Book of Romans (Rom. 3:20; 6:14). These teach that knowledge and practice of the law cannot save a man from his sins. The law can do no more than show him his need of a savior.

Yet it does not follow that the law has no place in the Christian life. Once a man is saved through Christ, God expects him to seek holiness. To please a Holy Father, he must gain victory over sin. But if he could not attain his own righteousness before salvation, how can he attain it afterward? He cannot. Yet, at the moment of salvation he receives the Holy Spirit, who aids him in everything he must do as a Christian. The help of the Holy Spirit is one form of what Christians call "grace."

The Spirit of grace does not operate by discarding the law. Rather, by instructing the believer in the Word of God, which is filled with rules and commands expounding the law, He shows the believer how to live. The law reveals exactly what behavior conforms to the will of God and what does not. Moreover, the Holy Spirit gives the believer a new ability to practice the law in his daily walk (Rom. 8:1-4).

All things are lawful. Another favorite with objectors to rules is 1 Corinthians 6:12. Christians seeking permission for doubtful pleasures seize what they like in this verse and ignore the rest. The defense, "All things are lawful unto me," springs readily to their lips, but they fail to see that Paul adds some emphatic qualifications.

Yes, the Christian life is not a fruitless attempt to justify self through the keeping of laws. Whether a Christian obeys the law does not determine his eternal standing before God. Nor does it determine his provisional standing, as it did in Old Testament times. Rather, his standing depends solely on His relationship to Christ, the perfect law-keeper. So, a Christian is not under law. Indeed, as Paul says, all things for a Christian are lawful. But Paul does not mean that all things are morally right. Murder is not right. Adultery is not right. Worldly pleasures are not right. Rather, what he means is that the law no longer judges a Christian. In Christ he is above judgment.

Worldly pleasures are not right for many reasons, including two stated by Paul. They might be inexpedient, and they might be enslaving (1 Cor. 6:12). The inexpedient things include any distraction from proper attention to Christian service. The enslaving things include any sinful indulgence. Such an indulgence can deplete a believer's stores of time, wealth, reputation, and bodily strength and, at last, destroy his capacity for service. Notice that almost every amusement that a worldly Christian might seek to excuse by an appeal to 1 Corinthians 6:12 belongs to the things which this very verse condemns. What is TV, for instance, if not a time-waster and potential addiction?

Law is for the unrighteous, not for the righteous. Still another text often brought into the debate over rules is 1 Timothy 1:9-10. It is true that moral laws and rules are meant for the unrighteous and not for the righteous. But Christians today cannot claim to be too morally advanced for governance by rules. Within the church, both the young in age and the young in faith are filthy from wallowing in the cesspools of modern cynicism and hedonism. They desperately need not only positional cleansing through Christ but also practical cleansing through the Holy Spirit. Rules are a tool that the Spirit can use to instruct the ignorant in the everyday meaning of righteousness (1 Tim. 1:8). The need for law, the need for rules generally, is in proportion to lawlessness in the world and in the church.

Antinomianism in the Last Days

The Bible clearly predicts that a contempt for rules will reign in the Last Days, the days in which we live (2 Tim. 4:3; 2 Pet. 2:1). Although the church has been plagued with false teachers from the start, never have there been so many who plausibly and insistently peddle liberty as there are today. A host of pseudospiritual objections to rules circulate all about us. Lawlessness under the pretext of higher spirituality is known as antinomianism. Scripture warns us that if we let antinomian teachers lure us away from holy living, we will be like a dog returning to his vomit, or a sow returning to the mire (2 Pet. 2:19-22).