I have to admit that I have always found this a confusing aspect of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Charles Spurgeon expressed his one disagreement with Bunyan in this way: “If he meant to show what usually happens, he was right; but if he meant to show what ought to have happened, he was wrong.”

I am thankful that Jim Orrick, professor of literature and culture at Boyce College (Louisville), was willing to let me post his answer to this question.

Painting by Mike Wimmer

When I ask this question to my students who have just finished reading the book, they nearly always respond with a variety of answers. After batting around several ideas, we narrow the possibilities down to two: Christian was saved either (1) when he entered through the Wicket Gate or he was saved (2) when his burden rolled off his back at the cross.

Most students come to the conclusion that Christian got saved at the cross.

But this is, in fact, the wrong answer. Christian got saved when he entered through the Wicket Gate.

Students get the wrong answer because they misunderstand three critical elements of Bunyan’s allegory: (1) The Wicket Gate, (2)  Christian’s Burden, and (3) the proper object of saving faith.

1. The Wicket Gate

First, a wicket gate is a small or narrow gate, and in the Bible, Jesus identifies himself as the narrow gate, so in Pilgrim’s Progress the Wicket Gate represents Christ. In Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian asks Evangelist “Whither must I fly?” Evangelist directs Christian to the Wicket Gate, or to Christ, and not to the cross. The Wicket Gate represents Christ.

2. Christian’s Burden

A second error results because my students usually misunderstand what the burden on Christian’s back represents. When we meet him, Christian has an enormous burden on his back, and Christian’s burden represents not sin per se, but it represents the shame and doubt that he feels because of his sin. Christian’s sins get forgiven, and he was justified when he received Christ, which is represented by his entering the Wicket Gate. But Christian does not yet understand the basis of his forgiveness, so his conscience continues to bother or burden him. Put in more technical terms (always a welcome means of clarification) the burden represents psychological guilt not forensic guilt. Therefore, what Christian loses at the cross is his shame and doubt caused by sin, because his sins had already been forgiven when he entered the Wicket Gate. Also, at the cross Christian receives a scroll, which he later calls his assurance. When Christian entered the Wicket Gate, he received Christ. When Christian gazed at the cross, he understood substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness, and this gave him assurance that his sins were forgiven.

This understanding of Christian’s salvation in Pilgrim’s Progress parallels Bunyan’s own experience as he describes it in his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. There he informs us that for many months after his conversion he was tormented by deeply unsettling questions about his salvation, but all these questions were put to rest when he came to understand imputed righteousness.

So Christian was saved the moment he entered the Wicket Gate and that was before he came to the cross.

3. The Proper Object of Saving Faith

This paves the way for us to think about the third error my students sometimes make, they are confused about the proper object of saving faith.

“Are you saying that someone can be saved without the cross?” a concerned student asks.

“No,” I answer, “No one can be saved apart from what Jesus accomplished on the cross, but the Bible proclaims that a person gets saved when he receives Christ, and the Bible does not say that a person gets saved through believing that Jesus died for him. Christ himself is the proper object of saving faith, not some part of his work.”

This is a reflective moment for most, because in these days, virtually everyone has been told that if he will believe that Jesus died for him, he will be saved, but I repeat: this is not found in the Bible. A person is saved not when he believes in right doctrine (substitutionary, penal atonement, in this case) but a person is saved when he believes in the right person, namely Christ. So the object of saving faith is not a doctrine but a person. Christ himself is the treasure chest of salvation. Receive him, and you receive all that is in him. The doctrine of substitutionary, penal atonement is an indispensable, essential component of the gospel, but it is not the whole gospel. How many Christians understood this crucial doctrine when they first received Christ? Nearly none! So how could they have been saved? Because, in spite of having underdeveloped or even mistaken ideas about the nature of the atonement, all who receive Christ the risen Lord as Lord and Savior are saved.

If you want some help reading the great classic, Leland Ryken has just published a short guide through Crossway.