Horatius Bonar



Shall the clay say to Him that fashioneth it, What makest Thou? Or Thy work, He hath no hands” (Isa. 45:9).

Having stated what appears to me to be the origin of the theological opinions that are now trying to make way among us, I would briefly advert to some of the principles out of which they spring. I might at once have gone on to discuss the different points or opinions themselves, but I think it may be useful to notice some of the principles which they involve, or what may be called the general aspect and essence of these opinions. We have already seen the soil in which they flourish, we shall forthwith proceed to advert to the branches and fruit. But, before doing so, it may be well to call attention to the roots of the tree. Speaking generally of the new doctrines and the movement which has taken place in connection with them, we may affirm several things.

Man has too much to do with all this, God too little!

We hear much of what man does and can do and ought to do. But we by no means hear so much of what God is doing and has purposed to do. Man’s agency stands very prominently out to view. God’s arm and power are hidden. It seems almost as if man would thrust God aside, take the reins of government out of His hands and be to himself a god. Man gets much credit for doing and saying great things. God gets little glory. The position of the sinner, as a mere receiver of salvation (and every blessing connected with it in this life or the next), is denied. And man is exalted to be a co-operator with God in the matter of salvation. He begins the work by becoming willing, and God ends it. He does what he can, and God does all the rest. He is represented as helping God to save him. Or, rather we should say that God is represented as helping man save himself. In the old creation, God did it all. But in the new creation, as it is a far more stupendous work, He requires the assistance of man. Nay, He commits at least the most difficult and momentous part of it to man himself. If some of the new theories be true, God is not all in all, but is, on the contrary, considerably indebted to man — and man, in like manner, is not a little indebted to himself. In all this we hear still the whisperings of the old serpent, “Ye shall be as gods,” and we see man, like his first father, aspiring to the Divine prerogative.

Man’s way, not God’s, is taken as the guide of action.

God has a way, a plan, a purpose, well and wisely ordered. This plan which He acts by, He has revealed, and He expects us to take it as our guide in all our schemes. This plan touches and rules things both great and small, nations, communities, churches, with all their movements. Man’s wisdom would be to search out this plan, and to shape all his movements accordingly. In attention to this must not only lead to fruitless efforts and unscriptural schemes, but to much false religion, self-will, formality, excitement and sectarianism. God’s design is to glorify Himself, to show the whole universe what an infinitely glorious Being He is. This is His mighty end in all He does and says, to manifest Himself and show forth His glory. For this, sin is allowed to enter the world. For this, the “Word was made flesh,” for this the Son of God shed His blood and died. For this, He is taking out of this world a people for Himself. To this all things are tending, and in this shall they be consummated before long. Nothing less than this does God propose to Himself in His doings, and nothing less than this should we ever make our aim and end. All things are but means to this one end. Even the incarnation of His own Son is but means toward an end, but not the end itself. The ingathering of His chosen ones is the means, not the end. The salvation of Israel, the conversion of the world, and the restitution of all things in the day of the coming kingdom shall be the means, but not the end. “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things; to whom be glory forever.”

Whenever we overlook this, we go wrong and our efforts are but the beating of the air. When we make an end of anything lower than this, we are sure to fall into error. Because when we fix on ends of our own, we are certain to adopt means of our own. Take the case of the conversion of the soul: we cannot be too much in earnest about the saving even of one lost one. I believe we know almost nothing of that deep compassion and yearning love for a dying world, as saints, we ought ever to feel. Yet still it is quite possible to err in this matter, not in being too earnest, but in being so intent on having men converted that we lose sight of the mighty end for which this is to be sought. So the glory of God is hidden from view. And what is the consequence? We cease to look at conversion in the light in which God regards it, as the way in which He is to be glorified. We think if we can but get men converted, it does not so much matter how. Our whole anxiety is, not how shall we secure the glory of Jehovah, but how shall we multiply conversions? The whole current of our thoughts and anxieties takes this direction. We stop to look at both things together, we think it enough to keep the one of them alone in our eye; and the issue is, that we soon find ourselves pursuing ways of our own. Bent upon compassing a particular object, we run recklessly forward, thinking that since the object is right anything that can contribute towards the securing of it cannot be wrong. We thus come to measure the correctness of our plans simply by their seeming to contribute to our favorite aim. We estimate the soundness of our doctrine, not from its tendency to exalt and glorify Jehovah, but entirely by the apparent facility with which it enables us to get sinners to turn from their ways. The question is not asked concerning any doctrine, Is it in itself a God-honoring truth, but will it afford us facilities for converting souls? Will it make conversion a more easy thing, a thing which a man may accomplish for himself and by himself? Will it make conversion less dependent upon God, more dependent upon man? Will it enable us to meet such a text as, “No man can come unto Me, except the Father ... draw him”; and, “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you”; “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” etc.

The man who thinks of nothing but how he may (as he calls it) get sinners converted is continually apt to take these devious courses. Impelled but by one force, in one direction, from one motive, he soon errs and loses himself in mazy thickets which, as he plunges on, thicken into deeper intricacy and darkness. Such texts as these present themselves and cross his path. Intent on but one thing, he either shuns them or treads them down. They are incompatible with his one idea, they seem to impede him in the pursuit of his one end. And therefore they must be done away with. It does not occur to him, Am I looking at objects in a partial light, from too low a position, and with a false bias which unfits me for coming to a right judgment? Were such a question asked and answered, as it ought to be, there would be less of one-sided doctrines, misshapen systems, gotten up to accomplish a favorite and engrossing object. Were the glory of the infinite Jehovah seen in its true light, as the mightiest and most majestic of all objects and ends, not to the exclusion of other matters, but simply to their regulation and subordination, then should we be saved the pain of seeing men rushing headlong over Scriptures and reason, striking out strange by-paths of their own, in their eager pursuit of an object on which they have fixed an exclusive and partial eye.

I do wonder at men who have either lost sight of the glory of Jehovah or have made it a subordinate object, or who think that if they can only get men converted then God will look after His own glory. I do not wonder at their being fretted when such texts as those I have referred to confront them in their scheme for facilitating conversion, their desire to make man the converter of himself. A man with only one object in view, and that not the highest, must be stumbled at such declarations and feel at a loss to reconcile them with others. But the man who has set his heart upon the glory of God and views everything in relation to that feels no such difficulty. He has no need to explain away even one verse or clause of the Book of truth. He enters into the purpose of God. He looks at things in the light in which God looks at them. He tries to see them as they might have appeared in the long past eternity — or as they might yet appear in the eternity to come. And he finds all harmony. There is no conflict, no discord at all.

One class of passages show him the yearnings of God’s heart over sinful men. They show him that God is in earnest in beseeching men to come to Him. They show him that the sinner’s unbelief is the cause of his damnation. They show him that the water of life is free — free to every man, free to every sinner as he stands — and that he is invited to partake, without price or preparation (not only although he is a sinner, but just because he is a sinner). They show him these things and in them he greatly rejoices. He does not wish to abate one jot of the blessed freeness, or cloud the joy of the glad tidings with even one restriction. No, but he takes these passages just as he finds them. He sees how suitable they are to one of the objects on which his heart is set — I mean the conversion of souls. But then he finds another class of passages which follow out another line of truth. They will run him up at once into the purpose and will of Jehovah as the fount and cause of everything great or small. They are quite explicit, just as much so as the other. He can not explain them away. They are so plain and simple that a child may see what they mean. He has no wish to take them in any other than their obvious sense. He sees in them exactly what meets his own feelings and coincides with his view of God’s glory as being the paramount and all-regulating end in all the movements of the universe. He does not see in them a restriction on the gospel, but the simple statement of an infinite truth — a truth not arbitrarily thrown across the sinner’s path as a stumbling block, but a truth necessarily arising from the fact that God is God, the Creator, and that man is man, the creature, the sinner. The truth is just this, that God’s will is the law of the universe, that His glory is the object and end both in creation and in redemption — His everlasting purpose the mighty and all-perfect mold in which all things are cast, and from which they take their shape and fashion from first to last. In such passages he sees God points out to men the true end which they ought to have in view, and by which all their movements are to be regulated. In them he sees God setting a fence and guard around His own majesty, lest men should imagine that their will is everything, their salvation God’s only end, and that in the gospel He has thrown the reins of this fallen earth into the sinner’s hands, telling him that everything depends upon his own will and power, that he has to put forth that will and power in order to save himself and restore a ruined world to its former perfection.

Whenever we lose sight of God’s great end in all things — His own glory — we fall into a wrong track. We go wrong in judging of doctrine, we go wrong in the formation of our plans, we go wrong in the bent of our efforts. We miscalculate the relative importance of different truths. So our whole tone of feeling, judging and working is lowered and contracted. Zeal for our own ways and opinions takes the place of higher aims. A revival is gotten up to propagate these opinions, or to prop up a sect. Sectarianism and selfish exclusiveness steal in. Egotism, boasting, censoriousness are introduced. Religion becomes an instrument for working out our own views and ends. The most solemn and spiritual things are spoken of with levity and irreverence.

Conversion soon becomes the same as the holding of certain opinions. And the mark of an unconverted man is that he rejects these opinions. Being loosened from their anchorage, men drift without a guide. One doctrine after another is embraced. Change succeeds change, as month follows month. To make conversion easy is the great object. And to accomplish this particular end, favorite passages are dealt with incessantly, doctrine after doctrine smoothed over, and Scripture after Scripture perverted or denied.

And after all this toil and change, what is the issue? Is anything gained? Nothing! Scripture has been perverted, man all but deified, and God all but dethroned — but has any difficulty been cleared off, have contradictions been harmonized? No. One class of difficulties has been substituted for another, that is all. The new system gets rid of the alleged contradictions of the old, only to substitute others of its own of a more serious kind. If, for instance, I deny that Christ is truly God, I certainly get rid of the mystery of the incarnation, but the passages which declare His divinity are numerous and explicit. In like manner, by denying the direct operation of the Holy Spirit upon the soul of the sinner, I get rid of the old difficulties concerning man’s responsibility, but I substitute for these most serious difficulties as to man’s utter depravity, and as to the personal agency and operation of the Spirit. But the old difficulties are to some minds so stale and threadbare as not to be endurable. New difficulties recommend themselves by their freshness and novelty. To get rid of a single old one, some would welcome a hundred new ones.

From such roots many other evils spring, which I cannot enumerate here. There is often manifested a narrow-mindedness, a contraction of the spiritual eye, and limitation of the spiritual horizon, which is apt to end in engrossing selfishness. So we often see greater zeal to proselytize to a sect than to win men to Christ. We see great activity displayed in making known and forcing upon others the points on which the difference exists, and much less concern about propagating those in which all believers are agreed. We hear much talking about doctrines and peculiarities, little about Christ Himself. We find conversation turning too much upon the spiritual state of others, and that often in flippance or censoriousness — this one being pronounced unconverted, that one converted — this one being mentioned as having joined the sect, that one as being inclined to join it, or another as standing aloof. We find discussions arising as to whom this one was awakened under, or whom this other, as if this were a matter of any importance, provided the soul is saved and Jesus glorified. We find people extolling the exploits of their ministers, or the doings of their sect, numbering up the conversions that took place at this or that revival under this or that minister, in this or that village or town.

How much selfishness and sectarianism there is in all this! How little there is of simple zeal for the glory of the name of Jesus! A taste for religious gossip, in which the spiritual state of others is freely canvassed, criticized, and decided on, is a very different thing from that relish for the things of God and Christ which shows itself in the saint by the delight which he takes in spiritual converse on things pertaining to God and His glory, to Jesus and His love.



Cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in Mine hand” (Jer. 18:6).

Much of the present controversy is concerning the will of God — on this point many questions have arisen. The chief one is that which touches on the connection between the will of God and the will of man. What is the relation between these? What is the order in which they stand to one another? Which is the first? There is no dispute as to the existence of these two separate wills. There is a will in God and there is also a will in man. Both of these are in continual exercise. God wills and man wills. Nothing in the universe takes place without the will of God. This is admitted. But it is asked, Is this will first in everything?

I answer, yes. Nothing that is good can exist which God did not will to be, and nothing that is evil can exist which God did not will to allow. The will of God goes before all other wills; it does not depend on them, but they depend on it. Its movements regulate them. The “I will” of Jehovah is the spring and origin of all that is done throughout the universe, great and small, among things animate and inanimate. It was this “I will” that brought angels into being and still sustains them. It was this “I will” that was the origin of salvation to a lost world. It was this “I will” that provided a Redeemer and accomplished redemption. It was this “I will” that begins, carries on and ends salvation in each soul that is redeemed. It is this “I will” that opens the blind eye and unstops the deaf ear. It was this “I will” that awakens the slumberer and raises the dead. I do not mean that, merely generally speaking, God has declared His will concerning these things, but that each individual conversion (nay, each movement that forms part of it), originates in this supreme “I will.” When Jesus healed the leper, He said, “I will, be thou clean.” So when a soul is converted, there is the same distinct and special forth-putting of the Divine will, “I will, be converted!” Everything that can be called good in man, or in the universe, originates in the “I will” of Jehovah (see James 1:17-18).

I do not deny that in conversion man himself wills. In everything that he does, thinks, feels, he of necessity wills. In believing he wills. In repenting, he wills. In turning from his evil ways, he wills — all this is true. The opposite is both untrue and absurd. But while fully admitting this, there is another question behind it, of great interest and moment: Are these movements of man’s will toward good the effects of the forth-putting of God’s will? Is man willing because he has made himself so; or is he willing because God has made him so? Does he become willing entirely by an act of his own will, or by chance, or by moral suasion, or because acted on by created causes or influences from without?

I answer unhesitatingly that he becomes willing because of another and a superior will — God’s, that has come into contact with his, altering its nature and its bent. This new bent is the result of a change produced upon it by Him who alone, of all beings, has the right, without limitation, to say in regard to all events and changes, “I will!” The man’s will has followed the movement of the Divine will. God has made him willing. God’s will is first, not second, in the movement. Even a holy and perfect will depends for guidance upon the will of God. Even when renewed it still follows, it does not lead. Much more an unholy will, for its bent must be first changed. And how can this be, if God is not to interpose His power?

But is this not making God the author of sin? No! It does not follow that because God’s will originates what is good in man that it must therefore originate that which is evil. The existence of a holy, happy world proved that God had created it with His own hand — the existence of an unholy, unhappy world proves that God allowed it to fall into that state — but it proves no more. We are told that Jesus was delivered by “the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). God’s will was there. God permitted that act of darkness to be done. Nay, it was the result of His determinate counsel. But does that prove that God was the author of the sin of either Judas or Herod? Had it not been for the eternal “I will” of Jehovah, Christ wouldn’t have been delivered up, but does this give proof that God compelled either Judas to betray or Herod to mock, or Pilate to condemn the Lord of glory? Still further, it is added in another place, “For of a truth against Thy holy child Jesus, whom Thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27-28). Is it possible to pervert this passage so as to prove that it has no reference to predestination? Does it make God the author of the deed referred to? Must God be the author of sin because it is said that Israel and the Gentiles were gathered together to do what His counsel had determined? Let our opponents attempt an explanation of such a passage, and tell us how it can be made to harmonize with their theory.

It may be argued that God works by means in changing the will. It will be said that there is no need for these special and direct forth-puttings of His will and strength. He has ordained the means, He has given His Word, He has proclaimed His gospel, and by these means He effects the change. Well, let us see what amount of truth there may be in this. I suppose no one will say that the gospel can produce the alteration in the will so long as the will rejects it. No medicine, however excellent, can operate unless it is taken. The will of man then rejects the gospel, it is set against the truth of God. How then is it made to receive it? Granting that in receiving it there is a change, yet the question is, How was it so far changed already as to be willing to receive it? The worst feature of the malady is the determination not to touch or taste the medicine. How is this to be overcome? Oh! It will be said, this resistance is to be overcome with arguments. Arguments! Is not the gospel itself the great argument? Yet it is rejected. What arguments can you expect to prevail with a man that refuses the gospel? Admit that there are other arguments, yet the man is set against them all. There is not one argument that can be used which he does not hate. His will resists and rejects every persuasive and motive. How then is this resistance to be overcome, this opposition to be made to give way? How is the bent of the will to be so altered as to receive that which it rejected? Plainly by his will coming into contact with a superior will, a Will that can remove the resistance, a will like the one that said, “Let there be light!” and there was light. The will itself must undergo a change before it can choose that which it rejected. And what can change it but the finger of God?

Were man’s rejection of the gospel occasioned simply by his misunderstanding it, then I can see how resistance could cease upon its being made plain. But I do not believe that such is the case. For what does it amount to but just that the sinner never rejects the truth. It is only error which he rejects, and were his mistake rectified, he would at once embrace the truth. The unrenewed man then, far from having enmity to the truth (according to this view) has the very opposite! So little of depravity is there in his heart, and so little perversity in his will — such instinctive love of truth and abhorrence of error is there in him, that as soon as the truth is made plain to him, he embraces it. All his previous hesitation arose from the errors which had been mingled with the truth presented! One would think that this was anything but depravity. It might be ignorance, but it could not be called enmity to the truth. It is rather enmity to error. It would thus appear that the chief feature of the sinner’s heart and will is not enmity to truth, but hatred to error and love of truth!

Man’s heart is enmity to God — to God as revealed in the gospel, to God as the God of grace. What truth can there be in the assertion that all the sinner’s distrust of God and darkness of spirit do not arise from his not seeing God as the God of grace? I grant that oftentimes this is the case. I know that it is very frequently misapprehension of God’s merciful character, as seen and pledged in the cross of Christ, that is the cause of darkness to the anxious soul, and that a simple sight of the exceeding riches of the grace of God would dispel these clouds. But that is very different from saying that such a sight, apart from the renewing energy of the Spirit upon the soul, would change man’s enmity into confidence and love. For we know that the unrenewed will is set against the gospel. It is enmity to God and His truth (Rom. 8:7). The more closely and clearly truth is set before it, and pressed home upon it, its hatred swells and rises. The presentation of truth, however forcible and clear, even though that truth were the grace of God, will only exasperate the unconverted man. It is the gospel he hates, and the more clearly it is set before him, the more he hates it. It is God that he hates, and the more closely God approaches him, the more vividly that God is set before him, the more his enmity awakens. Surely, then, that which stirs up enmity cannot of itself remove it. Of what avail, then, are the most energetic means by themselves? The will itself must be directly operated upon by the Spirit of God: He who has made it must remake it. Its making was the work of Omnipotence; its remaking must be the same. In no other way can its evil bent be rectified. God’s will must come into contact with man’s will, and then the work is done. Must not God’s will then be first in every such movement? Man’s will follows.

Is this a hard saying? So some in these days would have us believe. Let us ask wherein consists the hardness. Is it hard that God’s will should be the leader and man’s will the follower in all things great and small? Is it hard that we should be obliged to trace the origin of every movement of man towards good to the will of God?

If it is hard, it must be that it strips man of every fragment of what is good, or of the slightest tendency to good. And this we believe to be the secret origin of the complaint against the doctrine. It is a thorough leveler and emptier of man. It makes him not only nothing, but worse than nothing, a sinner all over — nothing but a sinner, with a heart full of enmity to God, set against Him as the God of righteousness, and still more against Him as the God of grace, with a will so bent away from the will of God, and so rebellious against it, as not to have one remaining inclination to what is good and holy and spiritual. This man cannot tolerate. Admit that a man is totally worthless and helpless, and where is the hard saying? Is it hard that God’s blessed and holy will should go before our miserable and unholy wills, to lead them in the way? Is it hard that those who have nothing should be indebted to God for everything? Is it hard, since every movement of my will is downwards, earthwards, that God’s mighty will should come in and lift it omnipotently upwards, heavenwards?

If I admit that God’s will regulates the great movements of the universe, I must admit that it equally regulates the small. I must do this, for the great depends on the small. The minutest movement of my will is regulated by the will of God. And in this I rejoice. Woe is me if it is not so. If I shrink from so unlimited control and guidance, it is plain that I dislike the idea of being wholly at the disposal of God. And I am wishing to be in part at my own disposal. I am ambitious of regulating the lesser movements of my will, while I give up the greater to His control. And so it comes out that I wish to be a god to myself. I do not like the thought of God having all the disposal of my destiny. If He gets His will, I am afraid that I shall not get mine. It comes out, moreover, that the God about whose love I was so fond of speaking is a God to whom I cannot trust myself implicitly for eternity. Yes, this is the real truth. Man’s dislike of God’s sovereignty arises from his suspicion of God’s heart. And yet the men in our day who deny this absolute sovereignty are the very men who profess to rejoice in the love of God. They are the ones who speak of that love as if there were nothing else in God but love. The more I understand of the character of God, as revealed in Scripture, the more shall I see that He must be sovereign, and the more shall I rejoice from my inmost heart that He is so.

It was God’s sovereign will that fixed the time of my birth. It is the same will that has fixed the day of my death. And was not the day of my conversion fixed as certainly by that same will? Or will any but “the fool” say that God has fixed by His will the day of our birth and death, but leaves us to fix the day of our conversion by our own will. That is, He leaves us to decide whether we shall be converted or not, whether we shall believe or not? If the day of conversion is fixed, then it cannot be left to be determined by our own will. God determined where and when and how we should be born. And so He has determined where and when and how we shall be born again! If so, His will must go before ours in believing. And just because His will goes before ours, we do become willing to believe. Were it not for this, we should never have believed at all!

If man’s will precedes God’s will in everything relating to himself, then I do not see how any of God’s plans can be carried into effect. Man would be left to manage the world in his own way. God must not fix the time of his conversion, for that would be an interference with man’s responsibility. No, He must not at all fix it so that he is converted, for that must be left to a man and his own will. He must not fix how many are to be converted, for that would be making His own invitation a mere mockery, and man’s responsibility a pretence! He may turn a stray star into its course again by a direct forth-putting of power, and will be unchallenged for interference with the laws of nature, but to stretch out His arm and arrest a human will in its devious course, so as to turn it back again to holiness, is an unwarrantable exercise of His power and an encroachment upon man’s liberty. What a world! Where man gets all his own way, where God is not allowed to interfere, except in that way that man calls lawful! What a world! where everything turns upon. man’s will, where the whole current of events in the world or in the church is regulated, shaped, impelled by man’s will alone. God’s will is but a secondary thing. Its part is to watch events and follow in the track of man’s! Man wills — God must say, Amen.

In all this opposition to the absolute will of God, we see the self-will of these last days manifesting itself. Man wanted to be a god at the first, and he continues his struggle to the last. He is resolved that his will shall take the precedence of God’s. In the last Antichrist, this self-will shall be summed up and exhibited. He is the king that is to do according to his will. And in the free-will controversy of the day, we see the same spirit displayed. It is Antichrist that is speaking to us and exhorting us to proud independence. Self-will is the essence of anti-Christian religion. Self-will is the root of bitterness that is springing up in the church — and it is not from above, it is from beneath. It is earthly, sensual and devilish.


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:

His hymns were written in very varied circumstances, sometimes timed by the tinkling brook that babbled near him; sometimes attuned to the ordered tramp of the ocean, whose crested waves broke on the beach by which he wandered; sometimes set to the rude music of the railway train that hurried him to the scene of duty; sometimes measured by the silent rhythm of the midnight stars that shone above him.

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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