John Bunyan and Pastoral Calling
At the southwest corner of St. Peter’s green in the English town of Bedford, a bronze statue of a man sits close to the street. The man’s eyes are lifted to the sky and a Bible rests in his hands; he bears a grave expression, yet he looks ready to speak a word of truth at any moment, to plead with passersby. This, it seems, is exactly how John Bunyan would want to be remembered.
His depiction of the ideal pastor in his famous allegory Pilgrim’s Progress supplied the inspiration for the statue. With his back to the world and his gaze on the heavens, the man was among the select few authorized to guide others along their way to the Celestial City. Bunyan was typical of the Puritans in his veneration of the pastorate. With such a lofty vision for pastoral ministry, one might wonder, how did the Puritans discern who was called by God to this great work?
THE PURITAN CONCEPT OF CALLING
The Puritan concept of calling was built on Reformation convictions about vocation. As William Perkins put it, one’s calling is a stewardship “ordained and imposed on man by God for the common good.” In the Puritan mind, God appointed each person to a particular vocation for his own sovereign purposes. If God called a man into the pastorate, the Puritans believed his life would display certain characteristics that confirmed this calling. A survey of Puritan writings on the subject reveals that the Puritans did not elevate one aspect of calling above the rest but rather sought a confluence of characteristics that demonstrated God’s wise hand of preparation. When a man established the necessary qualifications—conviction to lead and teach, competency for the work, Christ-like character, and the confirmation of God’s people—then, and only then, could he consider himself called to the ministry.
BUNYAN’S CALL TO MINISTRY
John Bunyan’s journey into the pastorate is a helpful illustration of how these principles worked out in one man’s life. Several years after his conversion, some observant members of his local church began to recognize his potential. As he recorded in his spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, they “did perceive that God had counted me worthy to understand something of his will in his holy and blessed word, and had given me utterance in some measure, to express what I saw to others, for edification.” So, they asked Bunyan to provide a “word of exhortation” at an upcoming meeting, which in turn was well-received. As Bunyan later reported, “I discovered my gift amongst them” as the congregation was “both affected and comforted.” After he was asked to preach several more times, he began to pray and fast for wisdom. When the church appointed him to a more regular preaching role, he confessed, “I did evidently find in my mind a secret pricking forward thereto.” His heart set upon 1 Corinthians 16:15 in particular, which, in the Authorized Version that Bunyan read, spoke of the apostles having “addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints.” Feeling this same desire growing in his own heart and continuing to see fruit from his labors, Bunyan concluded, “These things, therefore, were another argument unto me, that God [had] called me to, and stood by me in this work.”
Bunyan was first recognized for his character and then tested to evaluate his competence. As the church confirmed his gifts, he began to develop the conviction that he longed to serve the Lord in this way. The sum of those elements led Bunyan to conclude that he was, indeed, called to ministry. Bunyan remained confident in this call even as he faced persecution and spent over twelve years in the Bedford jail that his statue faces to this day. He would become one of the most highly-regarded preachers and influential authors of the Puritan era, but only after he was sure he possessed the necessary qualifications.
CALLED AND QUALIFIED
The Puritan perspective on calling is not above critique but the following brief commendations highlight the wisdom their writings offer for pastors today. Each point provides a helpful contrast to the approach of many modern evangelicals.
First, the Puritans viewed the call to ministry in the context of a developed doctrine of vocation. Instead of reverting to the sacred-secular divide of medieval thought, the Puritans recognized that all people are called by God and gifted for particular vocations.
Second, the Puritans emphasized external rather than internal confirmation. They encouraged a man to consider how God had gifted him, what opportunities lay before him, and especially, how others responded to him. This entrusted primary responsibility to the collective wisdom of the church and its leaders rather than the subjective assessment of the individual.
Finally, the Puritan approach was multi-faceted rather than mystical or minimalistic. Instead of over-simplifying the process or elevating one aspect of calling above the rest, the Puritans encouraged young men to approach the question from several angles. The four characteristics outlined in this article—conviction, competence, character, and confirmation—held relatively equal weight in helping someone determine if God had qualified him for vocational ministry. This inclination parallels a practice informed by another collection of C-words that may be familiar to some readers.
In the twentieth century, gemologists identified “Four Cs” that help classify the quality of a diamond—cut, carat, color, and clarity. Each characteristic serves as an indicator of the overall quality of the stone, but no single measurement is sufficient on its own to determine the diamond’s value. A wise jeweler examines a diamond from all angles, fixing trained eyes on potential imperfections or subtle deficiencies. A high mark in one category could skew the evaluation for a novice, but an expert knows to grade the stone across all four categories.
The parallel to the four themes discussed here is instructive. Just as diamonds are evaluated through a particular set of established categories, so we must train young men to evaluate themselves. Rejecting a simplistic lens, they must look at their lives from all angles—and get help from others—to discover if God has truly qualified them for the work of ministry. Bunyan and the Puritans understood the high calling of the pastorate and were eager to protect the office. They offer a wise example for helping young men determine if they are called by God to serve as pastors today.
This article is adapted from the forthcoming book, The Pastor’s Life: Practical Wisdom from the Puritans by Matthew D. Haste and Shane W. Parker (Christian Focus, 2019).
William Perkins, A Treatise of the Vocations or Callings of Men (Cambridge: John Legat, 1603), 2.
John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, in Works of John Bunyan (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 1:36.
The story of Bunyan’s contemporary, the London pastor Frances Bampfield (d. 1683) provides a helpful experience. See Frances Bampfield, A Name, an After-One (London: John Lawrence, 1681).