What is the Scroll/Certificate in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress?

In his Pilgrim’s Progress John Bunyan is not shy of telling us explicitly what each person, place or event represents. Knowing this, there was one item that stirred my interest on a recent reading of Bunyan’s classic.

A short way into Christian’s journey to the Celestial City we come to one of the greatest scenes of the book – the cross of Jesus Christ. Up until this point Christian has been weighed down by a heavy burden on his back. This burden is the conviction and guilt of his sin. Christian then came to a small hill and Bunyan records:

“I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up to the cross his burden came loose from his shoulders, and fell off his back. It began to tumble down hill, and continued rolling till it came to the mouth of the tomb, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 56

There is debate over whether this is where Christian is saved or if his moment of salvation is the Wicket Gate, when he properly enters the road to the Celestial City. I don’t pretend to know all the details of that debate but I do know that some very significant things happen for Christian at the Cross.

As we have seen, Christian loses the burden of his sins at the cross. His guilt is gone. The weight of sin has been lifted and his burden has been buried forever in the tomb of Jesus.

“How glad and lighthearted Christian was! With a happy heart he said, ‘He has given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.’… He found it very surprising that the sight of the cross should ease him of his burden like this.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 56

As glorious as this imagery is, it is what happens next that particularly interests me:

“Now as he stood looking and weeping three Shining Ones approached him. They greeted him with the words, ‘Peace be to you.’ The first said to him, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (Mark 2:5); the second stripped him of his rags, and dressed him in a fresh set of clothes. The third set a mark on his forehead, and gave him a scroll with a seal on it (Zech 3:4, Eph 1:13). He told him to look at this as he ran, and to hand it in at the Celestial Gate.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 56

Here we have three things that happen to Christian shortly after he is relieved of his burden by the sight of the Cross.

Firstly, he is declared to be free by an angel: “Your sins are forgiven”. Bunyan gives us Mark 2:5 as the scripture reference which is where Jesus declared to the paralytic man whose friends lowered him through the roof that “your sins are forgiven”.

Secondly, Christian is stripped of his rags and given a fresh set of clothes. By referencing the clothing of Joshua the high priest in Zechariah 3:4, Bunyan is clearly referring to our sinfulness being taken away and us being clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

Lastly, an angel puts a mark on Christian’s forehead and gives him a scroll with a seal on it. Bunyan references Ephesians 1:13 for this last sign which says: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”

It seems that the mark and the scroll are related to the sealing of the Holy Spirit given to Christians.

But more is told to us about the scroll; Christian is told to look at it as he goes on his journey and to hand it in at the Celestial gate.

So, what is this scroll? What is its significance to the Christian life?

The Scroll as Evidence of Salvation

We next see the scroll just a few pages later when Christian meets Formalist and Hypocrisy who jumped over the wall of the path and did not come in via the wicket gate, he pointed to his scroll as evidence of his true faith:

“Moreover, I’ve a mark on my forehead which you’ve perhaps not noticed. One of my Lord’s closest friends fixed it there the day my burden fell off my shoulders. What’s more, a sealed scroll was given me to comfort me on the way. I was also told to give it in at the Celestial Gate, as a token of my certain entry. I doubt you have any of these things – you missed them because you didn’t enter in at the gate.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 59

Here we find out that the scroll is designed “to comfort [Christian] on the way” and Christian reiterates that he is “to give it in at the Celestial Gate, as a token of my certain entry.”

Christian Uses the Scroll

After Christian moves on from Formalist and Hypocrisy, we see him using the scroll:

“He also often read from the roll that one of the Shining Ones had given him, and this refreshed him.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 59

As Christian continues his journey, he comes to the Hill Difficulty. Very often, after the initial joy of freedom from sin, the believer comes to some difficulty in life that tests their faith. Christian didn’t have to take the road up the Hill Difficulty – he could have chosen one of the two paths that seem to skirt around the bottom of the Hill, Danger and Destruction. Instead, Christian begins the tough trek up the Hill.

Bunyan writes:

“Now about half-way up there was a pleasant arbour, made by the Lord of the hill, where tired travellers could refresh themselves. There Christian sat down to rest. Pulling his scroll from his breast, he read to his great comfort.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 61

When times are tough for Christian and when he is weary from the Difficulties of the Christian life, he turns to the scroll that was given to him. In this scroll he finds words of great comfort.

Later on in the story, when Christian is talking to the three ladies of the Palace Beautiful, he explicitly says that the scroll is what helps him get through troubles:

“Can you remember how your troubles are sometimes overcome?” Prudence continued.

“Yes, when I think about what I saw at the cross. That does it. And when I look at my embroidered coat, that will do it. Also, when I look into the scroll that I’m carrying, that helps, too. And when I think longingly about the place I’m travelling to, then that will also do it.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 70

Christian Loses the Scroll

However, back on the Hill of Difficulty, something went terribly wrong for Christian as he sat in the arbour of rest.

“Enjoying himself in this way, he at last fell into a deep sleep, which was to detain him in that place until it was almost night. And as he slept his scroll fell out of his hand.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 61

This sleep seems harmless enough. Christian was tired from his hard slog up Difficulty; surely, he had earned a little sleep!

But Bunyan doesn’t approve of this sort of sleep. This act of sleeping partway through difficulty is called “that foolish act”, “the evil of his sleeping” and “his sinful sleep” (p 62).

And it was due to this foolish, evil and sinful act that Christian lost his scroll! “As he slept his scroll fell out of his hand” (p 61).

Christian Misses the Scroll

When Christian reaches the top of the Hill of Difficulty he is shaken by the testimony of Mistrust and Timorous who claim that there are fearful dangers on the path ahead. After they head back down the Hill to run from the danger they saw up ahead, Christian tries to deal with the fear their stories have provoked in his heart.

“Thinking again of what he had heard from the men, he felt against his breast for his scroll, so that he might read it and be encouraged.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 62

So, we see that the scroll gives Christian encouragement in times of fear just as it gave comfort in times of difficulty.

“But it wasn’t there. Christian was in great distress. He didn’t know what to do. He wanted what used to bring relief to him, and should have been his pass into the Celestial City.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 62

Bunyan reinforces that the scroll brought Christian relief and was to be his pass into the Celestial City. Christian needs this scroll and losing it is a big deal. Not only will it make his future journey fearfully difficult – perhaps impossible – but without it he cannot hope to enter the Celestial City.

As he worries about losing the scroll, Christian remembers that he had slept at the arbour and assumes that he must have lost the scroll there and so “he returned, carefully looking to one side and then the other as he went in the hope that he might find this scroll which had been his comfort so many times on his journey.” (p 62)

Christian Finds the Scroll

When he arrived back at the arbour, he weeps in sorrow for his sinful sleep and then looks “sorrowfully down under the bench.” “There he spotted his scroll!” (p 63)

This episode gives us several clues about the scroll that Christian is given. It can be lost. It is sin and laziness that causes it to be lost. It can also be found. And it is repentance, sorrow over sin and a fervent searching that brings about its rediscovery.

We also know at this point that the scroll brings comfort, relief and encouragement through its words and that it is necessary for entry to the Celestial City.

So, it makes sense that when Christian found his lost scroll he was overjoyed!

“Who can describe how joyful this man was when he had retrieved his roll which assured him of his life and guaranteed acceptance at the desired heaven!”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 63

Here we have more clues about the nature of this scroll – it is related to assurance of life and acceptance in heaven.

Entry to Heaven

The scroll then disappears from Pilgrim’s Progress and isn’t mentioned again until the very last pages of the book. Christian and Hopeful (a man Christian has met on the way) pass through the River of Death together and walk up a hill to the gates of the Celestial City. When they arrive at the gate, they pull out their scrolls:

“And then each pilgrim gave in the certificate which he had received at the beginning. These were carried to the King, who, when he had read them, said, ‘Where are the men?’

He was told, ‘They are standing outside the gate.’

‘Open the gates,’ commanded the King, ‘that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith’ (Is 26:2).”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 183

In order to gain entry to the Celestial City, the King asks the Pilgrim’s no questions at all. The King doesn’t need to see them. He doesn’t need to know their names. He doesn’t need an account of their life. All the King needs to see is the ‘certificate’ or the scroll that they received when they saw the cross and had their burden taken from them.

This is quite startling. This scroll is of great importance!

Ignorance follows Christian and Hopeful up to the gate of the Celestial City. Here he is asked for his certificate:

“Then they asked him for his certificate so that they might go and show it to the King. He fumbled in his clothes for one, and found none.

Then said they, ‘Haven’t you got one?’ But the man was silent. So, they told the King, but he wouldn’t come down to see him.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 184

Ignorance is denied entry on the same basis that Christian and Hopeful gained entry. Again, the King didn’t want to know his name or his life history. The King was not interested in Ignorance’ theology. All the King wanted to see was the certificate or scroll which Ignorance could not produce. Because he didn’t have the scroll, the King would not let him in, and in fact has him thrown into Hell:

“They took [Ignorance] up, and carried him through the air to a door in the side of the hill, and put him there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell even from the gates of heaven.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 184

I think it is important to consider the emphasis of each entry. As Christian and Hopeful approach the gate, they are not asked who they are and what they want. The crowd already knows them. But the emphasis of the discussion is on their love for the King:

“These pilgrims have come from the city of Destruction, because of their love for the King of this place.”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 183

So, their love for the King drives Christian and Hopeful. And their hope to enter the Celestial City lies in the scroll that they were given which they now give back to the King.

In sharp contrast, when Ignorance approaches the gate, he is asked:

“’Where are you from and what do you want?’

He answered, ‘I’ve eaten and drunk in the presence of the King, and he has taught in our streets.’”

Pilgrim’s Progress, p 184

Ignorance placed his hope in his knowing something of the King. He is a churched man. He has heard the Kings teaching. But this is not enough to gain entry to the Celestial City. He needed the scroll.

What is the Scroll?

Now we come to the crucial point. We know all about this scroll. Now we just have to work out what it is.

What does a Christian receive when he sees the cross for the first time? What does a Christian read that gives relief, comfort and encouragement in times of difficulty, fear and trouble? What can a Christian lose sight of when he sins? What can be reclaimed through repentance? What gives a Christian assurance of life? What is a Christian’s claim when she gets to the gate of heaven?

I think that all the data that Bunyan has provided point to the scroll being the promises of God applied to the Christian.

The scroll is not the Bible as an abstract book – Christian had that book when he was in the City of Destruction. Ignorance claims that he knew the commands of God and the will of God and yet did not have this scroll.

Instead, the scroll is the promises of God read personally. It is to read Jesus words “This is the will of my Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40, CSB) and know that those words are spoken to you. Whenever God makes a promise in the scriptures, the Christian must read it as spoken to and applied to himself. This is what the scroll signifies.

When a Christian sees that the promises of God are theirs, they go to those promises in times of fear, trouble and difficulty. They read those promises in the scriptures and they are encouraged, comforted and relieved of their distress. Like the Psalmist they will be able to say “remember your word to your servant; you have given me hope through it” (Ps 119:49, CSB).

At times, because of sin and laziness, the Christian can lose sight of the promises of God. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, the righteousness of Christ still clothes them and the secret seal of the Spirit is still on their forehead – sins like this do not lose a Christian’s salvation – but their assurance is shaken because they can not see the promises of God. The backslidden Christian does not read them and see them applied to himself.

However, through repentance and fervent seeking after God in His Word, this great sense of assurance that comes through the promises of God can return and once again comfort the Christian on his way.

And lastly, on that great day when you come before the gates of heaven and ask to be let in, on what basis will you claim entry? What visa will you present to the King of the Celestial City?

Why Should God Let You Into Heaven?

This is the most crucial question to answer for each of us: Why should God let you into heaven?

I think Bunyan got it absolutely right when he made the scroll that key to heavens doors. It is only through the promises of God that are made possible through the work of Christ and are applied to Christians through the work of the Spirit that anyone can claim entry to the Celestial City.

Alistair Begg captured this idea in a sermon about the cross in 2019. During this sermon Begg imagines the thief on the cross coming to the gates of heaven. An Angel asks him: On what basis are you here? And he said “the man on the middle cross said I could come” (emphasis mine).

That is what the scroll is all about. When you come to see the cross of Jesus Christ for what it is, when you are freed from the guilt of your sins, when you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, you are also given all the promises of Scripture to claim as your own.

“Come unto me all you weary and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28) – that promise is yours.

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31) – that promise is yours.

One man by the name of Everet Storms counted up all the promises he found in the Bible. It took him a year an a half but he found over 7000 promises that God makes to men. All of God’s promises are yours if you are in Christ Jesus.

And when you come to the gates of the Celestial City, you should only have one claim to hand in. God won’t need to know your name or your life history or anything else. The only thing you can give to God to gain safe entry to that eternal home are the promises that God has given to you.

“You said I could come.”

Note: Page numbers are for an edition of Pilgrim’s Progress found inside “Christian Classics: The Confessions of Saint Augustine, The Imitation of Christ, and Pilgrim’s Progress”, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1997.

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