John Bunyan is one of the most famous Baptists in history, though I suspect he’s less well-known today than at any other time in the last 50 to 100 years. Google would seem to agree.
In case the name is unfamiliar to you, Bunyan is famous for writing Pilgrim’s Progress. This is a beloved Christian allegory first published in 1678. It has been translated into over 200 languages. (By comparison, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has been translated into just shy of 90.) I’ve read Pilgrim’s Progress a few times, and it’s widely available in modern and children’s editions that update the language and condense the story. I recommend an unabridged version, which begins with an impressive poem summarizing the story.
Fewer people have read any of his other books. I like The Holy War, another allegory, even better than Pilgrim’s Progress. His autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is very interesting, especially if you’ve had any experience with hyper-Calvinists. Bunyan struggled for a while with whether he was among the elect, something that has not caused much anxiety in most believers today.
Another book, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, is framed as a conversation between two people, Mr. Wiseman and Mr. Attentive, about the late titular character. Readers learn about sin and its hardening effects as Mr. Badman routinely spurns every opportunity to receive God’s grace. The story is meant to remind the reader of the daily mercies God sends our way and warn of the perils of remaining in sin.
I shouldn’t be surprised when I come across something in old books that sounds like it was describing modern society — there’s nothing new under the sun, after all — but it still sticks with me when I do. At one point, when describing Mr. Badman’s hesitance to marry, Wiseman says,
When he was asked why he waited, he would just make a superficial answer, saying things like, “Who would keep a cow of their own when they can have a quart of milk for a penny?” What he meant by this was who would bother having the responsibility of a wife when they can have a prostitute whenever they want?*
I’ve heard the expression “Why buy the cow when the milk is free?” many times in reference to this same subject. I had no clue its use goes back to at least the late 1600s. Although the cost of a quart of milk has gone up considerably since then, it’s gotten cheaper in the expression — from a penny to free. That may be because cohabitation has replaced prostitution, but I’m not convinced Bunyan would see a significant difference between the two.
We like to imagine that our current society is more decadent and fallen than in times past. In some ways it is. In others, it isn’t. Reading older books like The Life and Death of Mr. Badman should remind us that sin is ugly and rears its ugly head in every generation and every human heart. The sins of today don’t look all that dissimilar to those of the past.
Badman also reminds us that the remedy to sin hasn’t changed either — repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Unlike the price of milk, the gospel does not change. May it be evident in our preaching.
*This is a modern English version. The original reads, “… he would make this slighty answer, Who would keep a Cow of their own, that can have a quart of milk for a penny? Meaning, Who would be at the charge to have a Wife, that can have a Whore when he listeth?”