The House of the Interpreter
One of the most epic pictures in John Bunyan’s classic, “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” is seen in the first room at the house of the Interpreter. There we read this conversation:
CHR. Sir, said Christian, I am a man that am come from the City of Destruction, and am going to the Mount Zion; and I was told by the man that stands at the gate, at the head of this way, that if I called here, you would show me excellent things, such as would be a help to me in my journey.
INTER. Then said the Interpreter, Come in; I will show thee that which will be profitable to thee. So He commanded His man to light the candle, and bid Christian follow Him: so He had him into a private room, and bid His man open a door; the which when he had done, Christian saw the picture of a very grave person hang up against the wall; and this was the fashion of it. It had eyes lifted up to Heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon his lips, the world was behind his back. It stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head.
CHR. Then said Christian, What meaneth this?
INTER. The man whose picture this is, is one of a thousand; he can beget children (1 Cor. 4:15), travail in birth with children (Gal. 4:19), and nurse them himself when they are born. And whereas thou seest him with his eves lift up to Heaven, the best of books in his hand, and the law of truth writ on his lips, it is to show thee, that his work is to know and unfold dark things to sinners; even as also thou seest him stand as if he pleaded with men; and whereas thou seest the world as cast behind him, and that a crown hangs over his head, that is to show thee that slighting and despising the things that are present, for the love that he hath to his Master’s service, he is sure in the world that comes next to have glory for his reward. Now, said the Interpreter, I have showed thee this picture first, because the man whose picture this is, is the only man whom the Lord of the place whither thou art going, hath authorized to be thy guide in all difficult places thou mayest meet with in the way; wherefore, take good heed to what I have showed thee, and bear well in thy mind what thou hast seen, lest in thy journey thou meet with some that pretend to lead thee right, but their way goes down to death.
This “very grave” man we see pictured here resembles almost nothing of what we see in modern American Evangelicalism. A.W. Tozer saw this shift in Christian thinking many decades ago when he wrote these profound words on “The Old Cross and the New.”
“All unannounced and mostly undetected there has come in modern times a new cross into popular evangelical circles. It is like the old cross, but different: the likenesses are superficial; the differences, fundamental.
From this new cross has sprung a new philosophy of the Christian life, and from that new philosophy has come a new evangelical technique—a new type of meeting and a new kind of preaching. This new evangelism employs the same language as the old, but its content is not the same and its emphasis not as before.
The old cross would have no association with the world. For Adam’s proud flesh it meant the end of the journey. It carried into effect the sentence imposed by the law of Sinai. The new cross is not opposed to the human race; rather, it is a friendly pal and, if understood aright, it is the source of oceans of good clean fun and innocent enjoyment. It lets Adam live without interference. His life motivation is unchanged; he still lives for his own pleasure, only now he takes delight in singing choruses and watching religious movies instead of singing bawdy songs and drinking hard liquor. The accent is still on enjoyment, though the fun is now on a higher place morally if not intellectually.
The new cross encourages a new entirely different evangelistic approach. The evangelist does not demand abnegation of the old life before a new life can be received. He preaches not contrasts but similarities. He seeks to key into public interest by showing that Christianity makes no unpleasant demands; rather, it offers the same thing the world does, only on a higher level. Whatever the sin-mad world happens to be clamoring after at the moment is cleverly shown to be the very thing the gospel offers, only the religious product is better.
The new cross does not slay the sinner, it redirects him. It gears him into a cleaner and jollier way of living and saves his self-respect. To the self-assertive it says, ‘Come and assert yourself for Christ.’ To the egotist it says, ‘Come and do your boasting in the Lord.’ To the thrill seeker it says, ‘Come and enjoy the thrill of Christian fellowship.’ The Christian message is slanted in the direction of the current vogue in order to make it acceptable to the public.
The philosophy back of this kind of thing may be sincere but its sincerity does not save it from being false. It is false because it is blind. It misses completely the whole meaning of the cross.
The old cross is a symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of a human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said good-bye to his friends. He was not coming back. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing; it slew all of the man, completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. It struck cruel and hard, and when it had finished its work, the man was no more.
The race of Adam is under death sentence. There is no commutation and no escape. God cannot approve any of the fruits of sin, however innocent they may appear or beautiful to the eyes of men. God salvages the individual by liquidating him and then raising him again to newness of life.”
This grave man in “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is said to be, “the only man whom the Lord of the place whither thou art going, hath authorized to be thy guide in all difficult places thou mayest meet with in the way.” He might appear grave to our softened eyes, but every other kind of man will lead us astray from true godliness because they know nothing of this old cross.
The Narrow Gate and the Hard Way
In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus said,
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
It is not an easy thing to be a Christian. Although we are justified by grace alone, yet the pathway to heaven is hard as we wander through the barren wilderness of this fallen and cursed world toward our heavenly home. Suffering is promised.
Note that Jesus speaks of two things here: a gate and a path. We know that the narrow gate is the exclusivity of Christ, and the wide gate is the many false religions of the world. Yet, Jesus said that there is also an easy path and a hard path. Some might have professed to enter through that exclusive gate of the gospel, and yet their life lived along the easy path shows that they were never truly Christ’s disciples. Therefore, Jesus goes on to say in verses 21-23,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
In fact it is quite terrifying when you look at Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13:1-9 and his interpretation of it in 13:18-23. There is one good seed of the gospel which is scattered among four types of soil. It appears that only 1 out of the 4 kinds of soil makes absolutely no profession of faith. Amazingly, 3 out of 4 do make some profession of faith in Christ. Yet, 2/3 of them in this parable, that is 66% of them, are false converts. Only the small minority of soils, just 1/3 of them, are those who actually posses a saving faith through the miracle of regeneration. Not that we should interpret this parable literally as though only 33% of professing Christians will be saved, but nevertheless, when Jesus says in Matthew 7 that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” it may potentially be a devastatingly small number of professing Christians indeed who are actually saved.
So, which path are we on? The easy path or the hard path? Are we coddled, or have we been crucified? Again, A.W. Tozer writes,
“The spiritual giants of old would not take their religion the easy way nor offer unto God that which cost them nothing. They sought not comfort but holiness, and the pages of history are still wet with their blood and their tears.
We now live in softer times. Woe unto us, for we have become adept in the art of comforting ourselves without power.”
This is a question worth examining further since our eternal souls hang in the balance. Therefore, we should seek to understand how Jesus himself defines the hard path for us.
Thorns and Thistles
Perhaps the most deeply disturbing of the four soils for us to consider is the thorns. Jesus said of them,
“As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” (Matthew 13:22)
What condemns these poor souls as false converts? What is the evidence that they were walking along the easy path which leads to destruction? It wasn’t any blatant sin or any obvious rebellion against God. It was simply being ensnared by “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.” It was a life of pursuing comfort and ease which showed that they did not supremely value the God of Scripture. “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion!” (Amos 6:1)
Jesus said, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24) James likewise said, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.” (James 5:1) To the man who built bigger barns so that he could store up his wealth and “relax, eat, drink, be merry,” God said, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20) Demas was a disciple who started the Christian race strong, but the apostle Paul’s final condemnation of him is, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” (2 Timothy 4:10) All these are people are condemned as being lost hell-bound sinners, not for murder or sexual immorality, but for loving a life of comfort and ease more than they loved sharing in the sufferings of Christ.
We could easily multiply examples, such as “The Parable of the Great Banquet” in Luke 14:12-24. Those who finally perish in that parable are not those who are guilty of pursuing inherently sinful things like sexual immorality. They eternally perished in the lake of fire because they spent their life pursuing good things like a house, a career, and marriage—the American dream. Every Christian in America should tremble at these words. It is true that we are justified by faith alone, apart from works of the law, but if these are the marks of those who are walking on the wide path which leads to destruction, then most American Evangelicals have great cause to fear for their souls. Their faith may very well be a hypocritical faith which saves no one.
The Good Soil
So what does saving faith look like? According to Jesus, the good soil is,
“the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:23)
Why does the genuine convert bear fruit? Because the fruit is not choked out by “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.” Again, Jesus said in Matthew 6:24,
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
We can’t have both Jesus and the world. We must make a choice. As the prophet Elijah said to the people of Israel on Mount Carmel, so I believe the Lord would say to us today,
“How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
How long shall we go limping between two opinions—The American Dream or Christ? There is a cost to discipleship. It will cost you everything. Jesus said,
“So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33)
God does not accept our half-hearted devotion and divided loyalties, “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” (Deuteronomy 4:24) Why is God a jealous God? Jeremiah 2:12-13 says,
“Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
God is the fountain of living waters from which all of our joy and satisfaction ought to flow. God himself ought to be our greatest delight and our supreme treasure. He is jealous that his people not drink out of broken worldly cisterns because they hold no water and so harm the people, and ultimately because it dishonors God and makes it look as though he is not all-sufficient and all-satisfying. We should be free from the cares of this world because we are satisfied with God.
Cast the World Behind You
Returning to the Interpreter’s house, we remember the picture of the grave man on the wall who is the only man who is authorized to be a guide to his fellow Christians. Why is this grave man “slighting and despising the things that are present” with “the world as cast behind him?” It is “for the love that he hath to his Master’s service.” Therefore, rather than speaking of the things of this world, we see him pleading with men, with his eyes lifted up to Heaven, with the best of books in his hand, and with the law of truth written on his lips.
This grave man is yet full of joy—joy in Christ! He is very grave because he sees multitudes going after this this world which is “stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.” (2 Peter 3:7) He is joyful, because he loves his Lord and Master!
The Pursuit of God
May we be such men and women! May we pursue God with such passion and devotion, not out of some legalism or false pietism, but because of what the apostle John said: “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) May we say with the Psalmist in Psalm 63:1-3,
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.”
May we hunger and thirst after God as the Sons of Korah did in Psalm 42:1 when they said,
“As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.”
May the words of Asaph in Psalm 73:25-26 be forever engraved into our heart,
“Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
I am fully persuaded that all of our personal spiritual ills, as well as the decline of the church as a whole in the western world, is all owing to this one thing: We have failed to forsake this world in the pursuit of God. As a people we have settled into a mindset which is perfectly content to have divided loyalties as we limp between Christ and the world.
The Hard Path is a Lonely Path
I am sure that we all bear some measure of guilt here. Yet, if one does choose to go to Christ outside the camp in order to “bear the reproach he endured,” (Hebrews 13:13) he will most likely find himself to be a very lonely person as he walks along the hard path.
Not many in the church appear to be following hard after God. Most Christians seem caught up in real estate, sports, movies, and other various acceptable culturally Christian activities and hobbies. Paul said, “Bad company ruins good morals.” (1 Corinthians 15:33) This is true even in the church. When worldliness dominates the entire culture of the church, it is hard to live a godly life in Christ Jesus, and those who do live a godly life will probably spend a lot of time alone.
However, we must not wait for some revival in the church before forsaking this world in the pursuit of God. Those of us who still have some fire left in our bones, although it may have grown very dim, must lead the way as that grave man did in order that we may help guide other weary pilgrim’s through the difficult places they will meet with in the way. The Interpreter said that such a man is one of a thousand.
In thinking about how rare such a man is, I am reminded of when Christian overtook Faithful as they each walked along the hard path, most often alone and beset by many temptations. We read,
“Now, as Christian went on his way, he came to a little ascent, which was cast up on purpose, that pilgrims might see before them. Up there, therefore, Christian went; and looking forward, he saw Faithful before him, upon his journey. Then said Christian aloud, ‘Ho! ho! Soho! stay, and I will be your companion.’ At that, Faithful looked behind him; to whom Christian cried again, ‘Stay, stay, till I come up to you.’ But Faithful answered, ‘No, I am upon my life, and the avenger of blood is behind me.’
At this, Christian was somewhat moved, and putting to all his strength, he quickly takes got up with Faithful, and did also overrun him; so the last was first.”
None might understand this except the one who has experienced it. Christian is alone as he walks alone the straight and narrow path, but although he is alone, he doesn’t seek isolation. Therefore, when Christian sees Faithful, he hopes for some fellowship. Faithful’s answer clearly demonstrates that he too had been hard-pressed by many trials and temptations as he walked along the narrow path. Though Faithful refuses to wait on Christian for fear that he is yet another deceiver or pretender who will lead him astray, his answer gives evidence of a true disciple and thus sparks new hope and vigor in Christian.
There was a kind of kinsmanship between Christian and Faithful which was made deeper and more sincere by their mutual sufferings. They had learned what it meant to “share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings.” (2 Corinthians 1:5) Though we may walk alone as we depart from the worldly American Evangelical sub-culture, it will result in more genuine fellowship with the few other faithful Christians we meet along the straight and narrow path, and even more precious than that, it will result in sweeter fellowship with the triune God who alone is our joy and our treasure. Therefore, let us forsake this barren world and pursue God!