Many of you are familiar with John Bunyan’s classic allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. In this work, Bunyan brings his considerable biblical knowledge and personal experience to bear in telling this grand story that illustrates the Christian life and all of its joys and sorrows, encouragements and difficulties. If you’ve never read it, it should be on your “must read” list.
One of the most interesting parts of the whole book is when Christian visits the house of the Interpreter. During his stay, the Interpreter takes him to various rooms and shows him people and situations that all have a deeper meaning.
Perhaps the most sobering thing Christian sees while at the house of the Interpreter is the man in the iron cage. He’s an old man with a long beard and ragged clothes sitting locked in an iron cage. Christian asks the Interpreter why the man is sitting there, and he tells Christian to go and ask the man himself. The man tells Christian that he used to be a professing believer, zealous for the Lord and eager to learn more about him. He even had joyous hopes of reaching the Celestial City (heaven) one day. But he was such a man no longer. He was now a man held captive by despair (symbolized by the iron cage he was sitting in), claiming that he was unable to get out of the hopeless situation he was in. Christian then asks the man how he came to be in his present condition. Listen to the man’s response:
“I neglected to watch and be sober; I loosed any restraint that had been on my lusts and gave them free reign; I sinned against the light of the Word and the goodness of God; I have grieved the Holy Spirit so that He has departed from me; I have provoked God to anger and He has abandoned me; I have so hardened my heart that I cannot repent.”
Christian tries to persuade the man that Christ is a merciful Savior, but the man won’t listen. Christian says, “But can you not now repent and turn from this wretched condition?” The man responds by saying,
“No, for God has denied me repentance; His Word gives me no encouragement to believe. Yes, He himself has shut me up in this iron cage so that even all the men in the world are unable to obtain my release.”
Let me offer a few applications that have burdened me in recently considering again this sobering illustration.
- Don’t be like the Man in the Iron Cage
This man wasn’t just someone who gave in to sin once. He allowed it to become a pattern in his life. He began to leave a place in his heart for his favorite sins and allowed them to go unchallenged in his life. Because of this, he gradually became numb to spiritual realities until he found himself in an iron cage of despair. Bunyan gives us this illustration because he knows the deceitful power of sin. He would warn us to flee from youthful lusts and to give ourselves to watching and praying, even as Jesus told his disciples. (Mark 14:38)
- The Man in the Iron Cage is making excuses
I have spoken to people like this before who seemed to think they were too bad to be saved and that there was no way that God would save them. Though this might seem to be extremely humble at first glance, it is actually a subtle form of pride. In a sense, they are saying God is not strong enough or merciful enough or willing enough to save them! And not only that, they are engaging in a subtle form of blame-shifting. Notice what the Man in the cage says to Christian: I cannot repent because God won’t let me and his Word gives me no encouragement to believe. If that is true, he thinks, then it is really God’s fault that I’m in this condition!
- The Man in the Iron Cage needs the Gospel
If you were to meet a literal Man in the Iron Cage, a person despairing that God would ever forgive them, what would you say to them? I would remind them of the many examples in the Scriptures of people who sinned greatly and yet still found mercy from the Lord (e.g. Jonah). I would point them to the many Gospel promises of mercy for those who place their faith in Christ and ask them why they are unwilling to take God at his Word. But primarily, I would simply go back to the old, old story of the gospel and explain it to them again and urge them to believe it. It seems like the Man in the Iron Cage had become something of a functional Hypercalvinist. That is, someone who believes that, because God is sovereign, people aren’t really responsible. The man believes that salvation is of the Lord and that God is sovereign over it. But this leads him to believe there is nothing he can do to seek that salvation. If God is the one who saves people, then I can’t do anything about it. I just have to sit here in despair and God has to zap me with faith. Or so he thinks. But he is dead wrong. The Bible never teaches this. Yes, God is the Lord of salvation. Yes, he chooses certain people to be saved. Yes, Jesus died for a particular people. And yes, the Holy Spirit must bring the new birth in order for someone to have faith. But the Bible never presents a gospel in which people must simply wait around for God to zap them with salvation. Rather, we are told to flee from the wrath to come. We are commanded to repent of our sins and place our faith in Christ alone to save us. There will be no one on the last day who will be able to blame God for not saving them. Jesus said, “the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” The real truth about the Man in the Iron Cage is that he would not come to Jesus for salvation. He was in a cage of his own making and he knew the truth that would set him free, but he refused to believe it. Salvation is a free gift to all who will receive it. May we be a people who loudly proclaim this free gift of the gospel.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?… Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Isaiah 55:1-2, 6-7