Bunyan Characters (1st Series)

Author: Alexander Whyte

Simple, Sloth, and Presumption

’Ye did run well, who did hinder you?’—Paul.

It startles us not a little to come suddenly upon three pilgrims fast asleep with fetters on their heels on the upward side of the Interpreter’s House, and even on the upward side of the cross and the sepulchre. We would have looked for those three miserable men somewhere in the City of Destruction or in the Town of Stupidity, or, at best, somewhere still outside of the wicket-gate. But John Bunyan did not lay down his Pilgrim’s Progress on any abstract theory, or on any easy and pleasant presupposition, of the Christian life. He constructed his so lifelike book out of his own experiences as a Christian man, as well as out of all he had learned as a Christian minister. And in nothing is Bunyan’s power of observation, deep insight, and firm hold of fact better seen than just in the way he names and places the various people of the pilgrimage. Long after he had been at the Cross of Christ himself, and had seen with his own eyes all the significant rooms in the Interpreter’s House, Bunyan had often to confess that the fetters of evil habit, unholy affection, and a hard heart were still firmly riveted on his own heels. And his pastoral work had led him to see only too well that he was not alone in the temptations and the dangers and the still-abiding bondage to sin that had so surprised himself after he was so far on in the Christian life. It was the greatest sorrow of his heart, he tells us in a powerful passage in his Grace Abounding, that so many of his spiritual children broke down and came short in the arduous and perilous way in which he had so hopefully started them. ’If any of those who were awakened by my ministry did after that fall back, as sometimes too many did, I can truly say that their loss hath been more to me than if one of my own children, begotten of my body, had been going to its grave. I think, verily, I may speak it without an offence to the Lord, nothing hath gone so near me as that, unless it was the fear of the salvation of my own soul. I have counted as if I had goodly buildings and lordships in those places where my children were born; my heart has been so wrapped up in this excellent work that I counted myself more blessed and honoured of God by this than if He had made me the emperor of the Christian world, or the lord of all the glory of the earth without it.’ And I have no doubt that we have here the three things that above everything else bereft Bunyan of so many of his spiritual children personified and then laid down by the heels in Simple, Sloth, and Presumption.


Let us shake up Simple first and ask him what it was that laid him so soon and in such a plight and in such company in this bottom. It was not that which from his name we might at first think it was. It was not the weakness of his intellects, nor his youth, nor his inexperience. There is danger enough, no doubt, in all these things if they are not carefully attended to, but none of all these things in themselves, nor all of them taken together, will lay any pilgrim by the heels. There must be more than mere and pure simplicity. No blame attaches to a simple mind, much less to an artless and an open heart. We do not blame such a man even when we pity him. We take him, if he will let us, under our care, or we put him under better care, but we do not anticipate any immediate ill to him so long as he remains simple in mind, untainted in heart, and willing to learn. But, then, unless he is better watched over than any young man or young woman can well be in this world, that simplicity and child-likeness and inexperience of his may soon become a fatal snare to him. There is so much that is not simple and sincere in this world; there is so much falsehood and duplicity; there are so many men abroad whose endeavour is to waylay, mislead, entrap, and corrupt the simple-minded and the inexperienced, that it is next to impossible that any youth or maiden shall long remain in this world both simple and safe also. My son, says the Wise Man, keep my words, and lay up my commandments with thee. For at the window of my house I looked through my casement, and beheld among the simple ones, I discerned among the youths, a young man void of understanding;—and so on,— till a dart strike through his liver, and he goeth as an ox to the slaughter. And so, too often in our own land, the maiden in her simplicity also opens her ear to the promises and vows and oaths of the flatterer, till she loses both her simplicity and her soul, and lies buried in that same bottom beside Sloth and Presumption.

It is not so much his small mind and his weak understanding that is the fatal danger of their possessor, it is his imbecile way of treating his small mind. In our experience of him we cannot get him, all we can do, to read an instructive book. We cannot get him to attend our young men’s class with all the baits and traps we can set for him. Where does he spend his Sabbath-day and week-day evenings? We cannot find out until we hear some distressing thing about him, that, ten to one, he would have escaped had he been a reader of good books, or a student with us, say, of Dante and Bunyan and Rutherford, and a companion of those young men and young women who talk about and follow such intellectual tastes and pursuits. Now, if you are such a young man or young woman as that, or such an old man or old woman, you will not be able to understand what in the world Bunyan can mean by saying that he saw you in his dream fast asleep in a bottom with irons on your heels. No; for to understand the Pilgrim’s Progress, beyond a nursery and five-yearold understanding of it, you must have worked and studied and suffered your way out of your mental and spiritual imbecility. You must have for years attended to what is taught from the pulpit and the desk, and, alongside of that, you must have made a sobering and solemnising application of it all to your own heart. And then you would have seen and felt that the heels of your mind and of your heart are only too firmly fettered with the irons of ignorance and inexperience and self-complacency. But as it is, if you would tell the truth, you would say to us what Simple said to Christian, I see no danger. The next time that John Bunyan passed that bottom, the chains had been taken off the heels of this sleeping fool and had been put round his neck.


Sloth had a far better head than Simple had; but what of that when he made no better use of it? There are many able men who lie all their days in a sad bottom with the irons of indolence and inefficiency on their heels. We often envy them their abilities, and say about them, What might they not have done for themselves and for us had they only worked hard? Just as we are surprised to see other men away above us on the mountain top, not because they have better abilities than we have, but because they tore the fetters of sloth out of their soft flesh and set themselves down doggedly to their work. And the same sloth that starves and fetters the mind at the same time casts the conscience and the heart into a deep sleep. I often wonder as I go on working among you, if you ever attach any meaning or make any application to yourselves of all those commands and counsels of which the Scriptures are full,—to be up and doing, to watch and pray, to watch and be sober, to fight the good fight of faith, to hold the fort, to rise early, and even by night, and to endure unto death, and never for one moment to be found off your guard. Do you attach any real meaning to these examples of the psalmists, to these continual commands and examples of Christ, and to these urgent counsels of his apostles? Do you? Against whom and against what do you thus campaign and fight? For fear of whom or of what do you thus watch? What fort do you hold? What occupies your thoughts in night-watches, and what inspires and compels your early prayers? It is your stupefying life of spiritual sloth that makes it impossible for you to answer these simple and superficial questions. Sloth is not the word for it. Let them give the right word to insanity like that who sleep and soak in sinful sloth no longer.

We have all enemies in our own souls that never sleep, whatever we may do. There are no irons on their heels. They never procrastinate. They never say to their master, A little more slumber. Now, could you name any hateful enemy entrenched in your own heart, of which you have of yourself said far more than that? And, if so, what have you done, what are you at this moment doing, to cast that enemy out? Have you any armour on, any weapons of offence and precision, against that enemy? And what success and what defeat have you had in unearthing and casting out that enemy? What fort do you hold? On what virtue, on what grace are you posted by your Lord to keep for yourself and for Him? And with what cost of meat and drink and sleep and amusement do you lose it or keep it for Him? Alexander used to leave his tent at midnight and go round the camp, and spear to his post the sentinel he found sleeping.

There is nothing we are all so slothful in as secret, particular, importunate prayer. We have an almighty instrument in our hand in secret and exact prayer if we would only importunately and perseveringly employ it. But there is an utterly unaccountable restraint of secret and particularising prayer in all of us. There is a soaking, stupefying sloth, that so fills our hearts that we forget and neglect the immense concession and privilege we have afforded us in secret prayer. Our sloth and stupidity in prayer is surely the last proof of our fall and of the misery of our fallen state. Our sloth with a gold mine open at our feet; a little more sleep on the top of a mast with a gulf under us that hath no bottom,—no language of this life can adequately describe the besottedness of that man who lies with irons on his heels between Simple and Presumption.


The greatest theologian of the Roman Catholic Church has made an induction and classification of sins that has often been borrowed by our Protestant and Puritan divines. His classification is made, as will be seen, on an ascending scale of guilt and aggravation. In the world of sin, he says, there are, first, sins of ignorance; next, there are sins of infirmity; and then, at the top, there are sins of presumption. And this, it will be remembered, was the Psalmist’s inventory and estimate of sins also. His last and his most earnest prayer was, that he might be kept back from all presumptuous sin. Now you know quite well, without any explanation, what presumption is. Don’t presume, you say, with rising and scarce controlled anger. Don’t presume too far. Take care, you say, with your heart beating so high that you can scarcely command it, take care lest you go too far. And the word of God feels and speaks about presumptuous sin very much as you do yourself. Now, what gave this third man who lay in fetters a little beyond the cross the name of Presumption was just this, that he had been at the cross with his past sin, and had left the cross to commit the same sin at the first opportunity. Presumption presumed upon his pardon. He presumed upon the abounding grace of God. He presumed upon the blood of Christ. He was so high on the Atonement, that he held that the gospel was not sufficiently preached to him, unless not past sin only and present, but also all future sin was atoned for on the tree before it was committed. There is a reprobate in Dante, who, all the time he was repenting, had his eye on his next opportunity. Now, our Presumption was like that. He presumed on his youth, on his temptations, on his opportunities, and especially on his future reformation and the permanence and the freeness of the gospel offer. When he was in the Interpreter’s House he did not hear what the Interpreter was saying, the blood was roaring so through his veins. His eyes were so full of other images that he did not see the man in the iron cage, nor the spider on the wall, nor the fire fed secretly. He had no more intention of keeping always to the way that was as straight as a rule could make it, than he had of cutting off both his hands and plucking out both his eyes. When the three shining ones stripped him of his rags and clothed him with change of raiment, he had no more intention of keeping his garments clean than he had of flying straight up to heaven on the spot. Now, let each man name to himself what that is in which he intentionally, deliberately, and by foresight and forethought sins. Have you named it? Well, it was for that that this reprobate was laid by the heels on the immediately hither side of the cross and the sepulchre. Not that the iron might not have been taken off his heels again on certain conditions, even after it was on; but, even so, he would never have been the same man again that he was before his presumptuous sin. You will easily know a man who has committed much presumptuous sin,—that is to say, if you have any eye for a sinner. I think I would find him out if I heard him pray once, or preach once, or even select a psalm for public or for family worship; even if I heard him say grace at a dinner-table, or reprove his son, or scold his servant. Presumptuous sin has so much of the venom and essence of sin in it that, forgiven or unforgiven, even a little of it never leaves the sinner as it found him. Even if his fetters are knocked off, there is always a piece of the poisonous iron left in his flesh; there is always a fang of his fetters left in the broken bone. The presumptuous saint will always be detected by the way he halts on his heels all his after days. Keep back Thy servant, O God, from presumptuous sin. Let him be innocent of the great transgression.

Dr. Thomas Goodwin says somewhere that the worm that dieth not only comes to its sharpest sting and to its deadliest venom when it is hatched up under gospel light. The very light of nature itself greatly aggravates some of our sins. The light of our early education greatly aggravates others of our sins. But nothing wounds our conscience and then exasperates the wound like a past experience of the same sin, and, especially, an experience of the grace of God in forgiving that sin. Had we found young Presumption in his irons before his conversion, we would have been afraid enough at the sight. Had we found him laid by the heels after his first uncleanness, it would have made us shudder for ourselves. But we are horrified and speechless as we see him apprehended and laid in irons on the very night of his first communion, and with the wine scarcely dry on his unclean lips. Augustine postponed his baptism till he should have his fill of sin, and till he should no longer return to sin like a dog to his vomit. Now, next Sabbath is our communion day in this congregation. Let us therefore this week examine ourselves. And if we must sin as long as we are in this world, let it henceforth be the sin of ignorance and of infirmity.

So the three reprobates lay down to sleep again, and Christian as he left that bottom went on in the narrow way singing:

’O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be Let that grace, Lord, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee.’


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Chicago: Alexander Whyte, "Simple, Sloth, and Presumption," Bunyan Characters (1st Series), ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 and trans. Stevens, Bertram, 1872 - in Bunyan Characters (1st Series) (Boston: John W. Luce and Company, 1911), Original Sources, accessed June 3, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L3YGUUMMTLX1YSE.

MLA: Whyte, Alexander. "Simple, Sloth, and Presumption." Bunyan Characters (1st Series), edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, and translated by Stevens, Bertram, 1872 -, in Bunyan Characters (1st Series), Boston, John W. Luce and Company, 1911, Original Sources. 3 Jun. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L3YGUUMMTLX1YSE.

Harvard: Whyte, A, 'Simple, Sloth, and Presumption' in Bunyan Characters (1st Series), ed. and trans. . cited in 1911, Bunyan Characters (1st Series), John W. Luce and Company, Boston. Original Sources, retrieved 3 June 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L3YGUUMMTLX1YSE.