A few weeks ago I posted the handout that accompanied my recent talk on John Bunyan. In that talk I focused principally on three of Bunyan’s works- Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Pilgrim’s Progress and his Advice to Sufferers. I didn’t have much time to reflect on his Holy War that I read for the first time whilst researching the talk. Truth be told, it is not as gripping as Pilgrim’s Progress but it does helpfully stress certain truths that may be out of fashion- always the benefit of reading older books.

Like Pilrgrim’s Progress, the Holy War is a story written to illustrate spiritual principles. The story concerns the war between Diabolus and Shaddai for the control of the city of Mansoul- a picture of the struggle for the human heart. There are three main sections to the work. The first part details Diabolus’ attack and capture of the city so that the people regard him as their rightful ruler. In the second section, Emmanuel, the son of Shaddai, comes to re-capture the city and vanquish Diabolus before the final part discusses the ongoing work of fighting off Diabolus’ attempts to re-conquer the city. In so doing Bunyan shows how humans get ensnared with sin, how Christ comes to rescue and then the subsequent battle the Christian experiences in waging war against the sinful nature. Let me note three lessons from the book:

1. Satan’s tactics

You can’t read Pilgrim’s Progress (particularly the struggle with Apollyon) or the Holy War without being reminded that there is a real enemy for our souls. He blinds people before they are converted and then snipes at them once they have been converted. In the Holy War, Diabolus describes his tactics as “unbelief or calling into question the truth of the Word.” He is right- it is the serpent’s tactic as early as Genesis 3:1. Consequently Diabolus sends the message to the city warning them against listening to the Shaddai- ““If he speaks of judgement, care not for it; if he speaks of mercy, care not for it.”  As a result, the city stops listening to Shaddai and listens to Diabolus instead. A cursory look at our society will show the ongoing work of Satan. The vast majority have no desire to listen to the words of the true King of our souls and His words are disbelieved if they are heard. The god of this age has blinded people.

Satan’s work is not limited to the pre-conversion stage. When Emmanuel exiles Diabolus his response is to try to infiltrate the city by sending in his doubters. Typically for Bunyan these doubters have possession of some brilliant names- Mr.Wrong-thoughts-of-Christ for instance. It is these characters who attempt to lead the city away from devotion to Shaddai. In addition, Diabolus uses sinful desires sending in characters like Lust who says, “I was ever of opinion that the happiest life that a man could live on earth was to keep himself from nothing that he desired in the world.”

Christian writers of Bunyan’s era were perhaps stronger than ours in recognising Satan’s work. Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices is well worth a read. This really does matter. If I fail to spot the fact that Satan is at work then I will be tempted to accept the lies that he puts in my mind. I will chew on them and allow them to impact me. Only if I am alert to the fact that I have an enemy will who will sow doubt and temptation will I be able to recognise such thoughts as having a harmful origin that will destroy my soul. The Holy War helps me to remember that I have an enemy.

2. The greatness of Christ’s work

Emmanuel is commissioned by Shaddai to go down to Mansoul and re-capture the city. Bunyan conveys His willingness to do this- “I delight to do Thy will. This is the day that I longed for, and the work that I have waited for all this while…My heart has often been pained within me for the miserable town of Mansoul, but now it is rejoiced, now it is glad.” When Emmanuel comes and battles against Diabolus, the city of Mansoul feels the force of His attack. The city feels “terror and dread”- probably a reference to Bunyan’s own agonies in the period of his conversion. Eventually Emmanuel triumphs. But that leaves a question- what will become of this city that has rebelled against him and submitted to the lies of Diabolus? For a while the future is uncertain as the leaders of the city are imprisoned and put in chains. But then Emmanuel announces His verdict. This section is worth quoting at length:

“I have power and commandment from my Father to forgive the town of Mansoul, and do forgive you accordingly.”

“Then he gave to each…three jewels of gold and precious stones, and took away their ropes, and put chains of gold around their necks and earrings in their ears.”

“The prisoners, when they did hear the gracious words of Prince Emmanuel, and had beheld all that was done unto them, fainted almost quite away; for the grace, the benefit, the pardon was sudden, glorious and so big, that they were not able, without staggering, to stand up under it.”

“They went down to the camp in black, but they came back to the town in white; they went down to the camp in ropes, they came back in chains of gold; they went down to the camp with their feet in fetters, but came back with their steps enlarged under them; they went to the camp looking for death, but they came back from thence with assurance of life; they went down to the camp with heavy hearts, but came back with pipe and tabor playing before them.”

“No man of Mansoul could sleep that night for joy…The bells did ring, and the people sing, and the music go in every house in Mansoul.”

Maybe it is not quite as powerful as Christian’s scene at the cross in Pilgrim’s Progress but there is something glorious about this picture. Wonderfully, this is the story of our souls as we are Christians. The temptation for me is to play down the complete transformation that Christ has brought into my life and I am grateful that the Holy War portrays it as what it is- swapping imprisonment in ropes for celebrating in chains of gold.

3. The Ongoing Fight against Sin

One might expect the Holy War to conclude with the scenes of celebration at Emmanuel’s victory and grace. To be honest, it might be a more readable book had Bunyan concluded there! But one senses that his pastoral purpose wouldn’t let him do so. He wants us to know that Mansoul faces ongoing struggle even after Emmanuel captures it. Mansoul is called to put to death those Diabolonians who refuse to accept Emmanuel’s reign (“Take good heed that you spare not the men that you have a commission to take and crucify”)– a picture of the Christian’s responsibility to kill off indwelling sin. But it is a hard battle. “When the prisoners were brought to the cross to die, you can hardly believe what troublesome work Mansoul had of it to put the Diabolonians to death…the men of Mansoul were forced to cry out for help.” We need God’s help as we seek to kill off sin.

What help does God provide? Well the Secretary is the main source of help- clearly a picture of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly one of the additional provisions for the city is preachers, presumably to counteract the impact of the Diabolonian doubters. Listen to what Emmanuel says- “I have added to all that is past, this mercy, to appoint you preachers.” I find that fascinating. I am not sure I would want to speculate as to how many Christians of this generation would regard preachers as one of God’s great mercies towards us! But I am convinced that Bunyan is right. One of the greatest means that God uses to enables us to fight off doubts and wrong desires is the Word of God preached and proclaimed. Of course, that emphasises the awesome responsibility that preachers have. Each time we preach we are equipping our brothers and sisters to fight a deadly war against Satan and his forces. That is hugely significant and it is worth having that thought in mind as we preach. In addition, Shaddai promises that access to Him is always available in the midst of the battle- “I do give and grant them leave and free access to me in my palace at all seasons.” We are in an ongoing struggle with Satan so it matters that we make the most of the resources that God has provided.

What does this section contribute to us? I am struck by Bunyan’s emphasis on the importance of fighting sin. Listen to Emmanuel’s words- “Nothing can hurt thee but sin; nothing can grieve me but sin; nothing can make thee base before thy foes but sin; take heed of sin, my Mansoul.” Sin is paid for but it is still the thing that threatens a sense of our walking near with the Lord. We would do well to heed the call to be very wary of it.

The book ends with the promise of Emmanuel’s return. “O my Mansoul, how I set my heart, my love upon thee…hold fast till I come.” Here we have the promise of the day when the battle will be completely concluded. We fight and hold on until that day comes.

So I am grateful for the Holy War in that it reminds me of truths that I am tempted to overlook- the reality of the spiritual battle, the joy of Christ’s work and the need continually to put sin to death. Taking those things to heart would be very good news for this soul.