These letters are little more than fragments. They do not aim at a complete statement of the truth, or a systematic arrangement of it. It is only a few important points that they touch. To have extended them and embraced a wider range of doctrine would not have suited my design. I wished to warn you against some of the prevailing errors of the time, lest you, being “led away... from your own steadfastness” should follow after the “diverse and strange doctrines” of these last days. So it was necessary to dwell upon those errors which have been most prominently advanced, and to open up those truths which have been most perverted and denied.
My appeal is to the Word of God. “What are the reasonings, or opinions, or inferences of men? What is the chaff to the wheat?” saith the Lord. Let the Bible decide each question. It is for this that I have appended to each letter a selection of passages at length.
The real question of the present day is just this, Is man a totally and thoroughly depraved being by nature? Is he ruined, helpless and blind, dead in trespasses and sins? Many other questions have arisen, but this is the central one. According to the views we entertain regarding this will be our views upon other points. It is upon the truth of this doctrine that the whole Bible proceeds. And so modify or abate or dilute the statements of Scripture on this point.
Man being thoroughly depraved in nature, is it possible, I ask, to save him without a special and direct intervention of the Father, Son and Spirit, in his behalf? In other words, can he be saved in any way which does not involve personal election by the Father, particular redemption by the Son, and direct, immediate, overcoming operation of the Holy Spirit? Or, putting the question in another form, using the language of science — given a totally depraved being, is it possible to save that being by any plan which makes the previous concurrence of his own will an indispensable preliminary, or which makes it necessary that he should take the first step in the matter of return to God? If you place the different errors of the day before you in this light, you will find that they all more or less deny or encroach on the doctrine of man’s original, actual depravity.
You will find, also, that the objections urged against God’s sovereignty and man’s helplessness, are just different manifestations of human pride — the pride into which Satan tempted Adam, “ye shall be as gods,” and into which all his offspring have fallen along with him. Man will not consent to be nothing, that God alone may be all. And it is curious to observe that the objections urged against these truths are not passages of Scripture, but human reasonings — man’s inferences and opinions. Take, as a specimen, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. We have passages broadly declaring this, but not one setting forth the opposite. How, then, do men contrive to deny this truth? They begin to reason and speculate upon it; and by means of certain inferences of their own, they try to make it appear inconsistent with other doctrines to which they attach great importance. They say, “Does not God invite the sinner to come to Christ, does He not tell us that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that he should turn and live? Now how can this be true if He is absolutely sovereign in His proceedings? We cannot reconcile these things together, therefore we must explain away the passages which assert God’s sovereignty and electing will. They cannot be understood in their plain and literal sense; we must devise some other meaning for them which will accord with our ideas of God’s love.” So, pride of intellect, confidence in human reason, eagerness to establish one favorite doctrine and to make everything bend to it, supersede and overturn the Word of God. Scripture is not implicitly relied upon, unless borne out by the systems or the syllogisms of reason and the conclusions of man’s poor fallen intellect.
Cleave, then, to the Word of God. Distrust your own heart, “lean not unto thine own understanding,” but “receive with meekness the engrafted word.” “The world by wisdom knew not God,” and we must stoop to “become fools, so that we may become wise.” The “natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him ... because they are spiritually discerned.”
2. GENERAL PRINCIPLES
“Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines.
You seem bewildered amid the opinions of the day, almost as much as you would be in the midst of a company where each spoke in a different tongue. The difficulty of judging what is truth seems to be increasing, instead of disappearing. You knew not what to think, nor which way to turn; in order to discover who is right, or where certainty is to be found; so many novelties stagger and amaze you. There seem to be good men on both sides, and that perplexes you still more. You long for peace amid the jar of these unruly elements, and for stability amid these shifting sands. Yet rest does not come. There is no end of change. One novelty begets another, and that in turn becomes equally productive. One error requires another to maintain it, this second must have a third or fourth to lean on. One false step leads to twenty, or perhaps to a hundred more. Who knows where all this is to end?
The changes are numerous. Every month produces some new doctrine, or at least some modification of the old. Fickle minds lie in wait for something new. As the edge of one novelty wears down, another must be provided in its place to keep up the unhealthy excitement. This fickleness becomes doubly fickle by being gratified; novelties multiply and the sore evil spreads. Men do not tremble at the thought of falling into error. To change opinions upon some casual impulse, or some shallow catch of argument, is thought but a light thing; as if falling into error were no great matter, instead of being a fearful calamity; or as if the entrance upon a truth were an indifferent occurrence, instead of being the occasion of deep and solemn joy. Many who but lately were high Calvinists are now Arminians of the lowest grace, passing through the different levels with the most singular facility and flippancy, as easily and airily as the musician runs up and down the scale with the finger, or the voice.
How is all this, you will ask. It might be enough to answer that it is written, “In the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud ... led away with divers lusts, ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:1-10). “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
But let us inquire a little further. There seem to be chiefly three reasons for this: first, the souls are not at rest; second, the consciences are not at work; third, there is little “trembling at the Word.” I might refer to others, but these are the most prominent ones.
1. The soul is not at rest.
There is a resting place for the weary — deep and broad, immovable and sure — Jesus, the sin-bearing Lamb of God. But these unstable ones have not reached it. They speak much of it, talk as if they knew everything about it, as if none could state the gospel as freely as they. Yet it is manifest that they have not realized that stable peace which comes from the knowledge of the living Jesus. They are not at rest. And the mind cannot be at rest until the soul is at rest. It will always be making vain fetches after new opinions, in the hope that this or that new doctrine may perchance bring the peace which it has hitherto sought in vain. Be assured of this, that a mind not at rest bespeaks a soul not at rest. And whatever men may affirm to you about their assurance or their peace, if you see them ever on the watch, ever on the wing for some new opinion, you may be sure there is little rest within. In many cases it may be vanity, attachment to a sect, desire for proselyting others, or simply self-will. But in most cases I have no doubt that it is really in quest of peace that these poor souls are stretching out their weary hands, ready to embrace anything that will fill the dreary void, and pour over their souls that settled calm and sunshine to which (in spite of all their profession) they are really strangers. They are not fastened to the anchor cast within the veil, or else they have let go their hold. And so they are drifting from place to place in quest of anchorage, but they are unable to find it. They try, by means of change, to allay the fever and fretfulness of an unsettled spirit, yet all the while they boast of their assurance, and perhaps censure you sorely if you cannot speak their language and assume their tone.
2. The conscience is not at work.
The conscience has far more to do in receiving or rejecting opinions than many suppose. It should stand like a sentinel at the door of the mind, to try all truth before it enters. A tender conscience is cautious and oftentimes very slow in admitting truth, and, on this very account, most tenacious in holding it fast. So, a child of God, with a tender conscience, is often slower in receiving truth than others. For it has to do with conscience in his case. It has to pass into the mind under a watchful eye, which fears to be rash and hasty and trembles at the thought of giving entrance to error. A conscience asleep, or seared, or secure, makes quick work. A specious objection is presented to some old truth, or a plausible argument in favor of some new opinion, and, forthwith, the former is thrust out, the latter taken in, without any resistance or delay, or trembling on the part of the conscience, or any light and guidance from God, sought and obtained upon the matter.
Nothing is more needed in our inquiries after truth than a watchful jealousy of a tender conscience. Yet how little there is of conscience at all in these last days! There is what is called independence of mind, or thinking for one’s self, but there is no conscience. It is not waiting upon God for teaching. It is trusting in our own heart, and taking the guidance of our own eyes. It is not “ceasing from man,” but the mere pretence of it. It is ceasing from one man in order to trust in another, from one age to trust in another, and that other perhaps the most deceitful of all — our own. So there is such running after novelty, such readiness to receive any plausible error, such self-willedness and headstrong precipitance of judgment, such high-mindedness, pride, censoriousness of others. There is so little thought of our own foolishness and fallibility, so slender a sense of the awful responsibility we are under to God, for what we believe for ourselves and propagate among others, as His precious and eternal truth.
3. There is little trembling at the Word.
It is a solemn thing for a man to be spoken to by God, the God of heaven and earth. Each word coming from His lips should be listened to and received with profoundest reverence. “The Lord hath spoken” is enough for us. There is no room for question or cavil where His voice is heard. Each word in the Bible is to be dealt with as a sacred thing, as a vessel of the sanctuary, not to be lightly handled or profanely mutilated, but to be received just as it stands. There may be passages difficult to reconcile, doctrines which apparently conflict with each other. But let us beware of smoothing down, of hammering in pieces, one class of passages in order to bring about a reconciliation. Let us be content to take them as they are. We shall gain nothing by explaining them away. God has spoken them. God has placed them there. They cannot really be at variance with each other. The day is coming when we shall fully understand their harmony. Let us wait till then, and meanwhile tremble at the thought of misinterpreting or distorting so much as one jot or tittle. Most assuredly we shall not bring about the agreement in any such way. We are only widening the breach and opening but new difficulties.
If I am asked, how can you preach a free gospel and yet believe in election, I answer, I believe in both and preach both because I find both in the Bible; I have no authority for preaching an unconditional gospel but what I find in the Bible. And I have the same authority for preaching an unconditional, personal election. God has told me that both are true, and woe is me if I profanely attempt to mutilate either the one or the other. If one man refuses to take the simple meaning of “election,” another may refuse to take the simple meaning of “gospel.” And were I called upon to say which is the worse, the more profane of the two, I should say the former. I should indeed tremble at the thought of denying either election or the gospel, but I confess that I think the denial of the latter a less direct and less daring insult to the sovereign majesty of Jehovah. It would be a shutting out of His grace, a closing up of all the manifestations of His character which have come to us since Adam sinned. And it would be drawing a dark cloud over our eternal prospects — but it would not be taking the reins of government out of His hands; it would not be the usurpation of His throne; it would not be giving the right hand of fellowship to atheism.
But there is no need of any such comparison. Perhaps it was wrong to make it. I have done so, however, in order that you may be led to see that election belongs to the highest and most sacred order of truths — that it is not a doctrine to be concealed and muffled as if we were either ashamed or afraid of it. It is to be firmly held and faithfully preached, whether men will hear or forbear. Mere philosophy might tell men that, If there is a God, He must be absolutely sovereign in all things. Mere philosophy might expose the shallowness and selfishness of those who trample on God’s free will in order to establish man’s free will — even if theology and Scripture were silent on the matter.
Why do I preach a free gospel? Is it because reason has revealed it? Is it because I find it suits me best? No! It is because God has declared it. That is my sole authority. Why do I believe in election? Just because God has made it known! I may find that reason confirms this. I may see that there can be no really free gospel without ejection, but still my ground for believing it is because I find it most plainly revealed.
You can only get rid of election by getting rid of the Bible. And so you will find, among others who deny election and the work of Christ for His church, a great dislike of those passages of Scripture which allude to these topics. They pass them by, they turn away from them, they are angry if another even quotes them, though without a comment. Now I ask, Would they do and feel this way if they believed that these passages really contain the meaning which they put upon them? If these passages are quite in harmony with their views, why do they shrink from quoting them, or hearing them quoted? Is this not the plainest of all proofs that they feel that theirs is not the honest interpretation? Does it not show that they themselves are secretly persuaded that these passages do teach unconditional election and the absolute sovereignty of Jehovah? They feel that they have twisted them from their plain sense and that the mere reading of them is enough to expose their distortions. They feel that they have not dealt fairly with the Word of God and that their one-sided dealings cannot bear the light of day.
Let us learn to “tremble at the Word.” Let us take it plainly and honestly in its simple sense. Let us not be afraid of its apparent contradictions. Let us not think ourselves capable of reconciling and harmonizing all its declarations. We see here but through a glass darkly. The day of light and harmony is coming. All shall then be plain. God will solve our difficulties. Meanwhile, let us reverence every jot and tittle of His Holy Word. Let us trust our own hearts and reasonings less, God’s Word more. Let us not be so anxiously asking, How can this be? How can we reconcile God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility? How can we harmonize the Spirit’s free agency with man’s free agency? Let us leave difficulties in the hands of God and let us beware of making those difficulties greater by our miserable attempts to reach at things too high for us, or our miserable efforts to pervert and mutilate the Word of God who cannot lie.
I do not mean, by any of these remarks, to imply that there is not the most perfect harmony between all the different doctrines taught us in the Bible. Nor do I mean to say that this harmony is incapable of being discerned here. I believe on the one hand that all is harmony in the truths of God, and that harmony is discernible and demonstrable even now. But still there is an apparent jar. To a certain extent we can reconcile every one of the supposed discordances. Yet there are difficulties connected with them which no theory can solve, and which will remain difficulties till the great day. To attempt to reconcile or remove these by denying the plain and natural sense of Scripture is sinful and pernicious. It accomplishes nothing. It only takes away one difficulty to replace it with a greater one.
There are doubtless other causes of the evil over which we mourn, but these are the three chief roots of bitterness. To these may be traced more of the manifold errors of our day than many may be willing to allow. Till these are removed, I have little hope that the instability of our times will die out or cease to operate for the injury and subversion of the truth. Till the soul gets rest (not the name but the reality), and till the conscience is awake and sensitive — and till the Word of God is reverenced and honestly interpreted, I see little prospect of an end of these changes — if indeed we may venture to hope that such can be until the Lord comes.
Yet be not amazed, Jehovah changes not, neither does His Word. It abides forever, firm as the rocks of the earth, undimmed as the azure of the heavens. Seek to God for light and to His Word for wisdom. Take His Holy Spirit as your teacher. Do not heed the jar of man’s warring opinions. Let God be true and every man a liar. The Bible is the Bible still. If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God. You have an unction from the Holy One, and you know all things.
Do not be alarmed, as if this were some new thing in the earth. Many speak as if the truth had never arisen among men until they arose to it. But the errors of the day are those of former times. They have shot up once and again and have been as often silenced — and put to shame. They are old and worn-out errors; though, perhaps, more daringly set forth now than heretofore. For the time seems at hand in which “the earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard,” and when false teachers and prophets shall deceive, if it were possible, the very elect. Yet do not suppose the attainment of the truth to be a hopeless thing. “The Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know Him that is true.” It was He who taught the multitudes in the days of His flesh. If He teaches, all is true, all is blessed. Light and knowledge are with Him — and how willing He is that all the light and knowledge should be yours. “Learn of Me,” He said, “for I am meek and lowly.” And to what teacher can a foolish, erring soul take himself like this meek and lowly One, who can have compassion on the ignorant, and upon those that are out of the way? He received gifts for men, when He ascended on high, even for the rebellious. And to whom can you go, except to Him who has the Holy Spirit, with all His gifts and graces, so freely to bestow?
Horatius Bonar has been called “the prince of Scottish hymn writers.” After graduating from the University of Edinburgh, he was ordained in 1838, and became pastor of the North Parish, Kelso. He joined the Free Church of Scotland after the “Disruption” of 1843, and for a while edited the church’s The Border Watch. Bonar remained in Kelso for 28 years, after which he moved to the Chalmers Memorial church in Edinburgh, where he served the rest of his life. Bonar wrote more than 600 hymns. At a memorial service following his death, his friend, Rev. E. H. Lundie, said:
These chapters were originally extracted, abridged, and revised from the 286-page edition entitled: Truth and Error; or Letters To A Friend On Some of the Controversies of the Day - W.P. Kennedy, Edinburgh, 1861.
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