Horatius Bonar



Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14).
As many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).

You know what a prominent place in Scripture the doctrine of election holds. It meets us everywhere, both in the Old and New Testaments. Whatever may be the meaning of the word, one cannot help feeling that the truth which it expresses must, in God’s sight, be a vitally important one. But how can this be the case if it means no more than God’s choosing those that choose Him? If it means no more than God’s choosing those whom He foresaw would believe of their own accord and by their own power, it is not worthy of the prominent place it holds in Scripture. Nay, it is not worthy of a separate name, least of all such a name as election. If there is any election at all in such a case, it is plainly not God’s election of man, but man’s election of God. So that the question comes to be simply this:, Does election mean God’s choosing man, or man’s choosing God? It cannot mean both. It must be either the one or the other. Which of the two can any reasonable being suppose it to mean?

As the right understanding of this word is of great importance, I think it well to note down a few passages which will help to shed light on the meaning of the word: “The man’s rod whom I shall choose shall blossom” (Num. 17:5). “Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose” (Deut. 17:15). “The place which the Lord thy God hath chosen, to put His name there” (Deut. 12:21). “For them the Lord thy God hath chosen to minister unto Him” (Deut. 21:5). Jerusalem “the city which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel” (1 Kings 11:32). “The Lord God of Israel chose me before all the house of my father to be king over Israel” (1 Chron. 28:4). “For the elect’s sake whom He hath chosen” (Mark 13:20). “He is a chosen vessel unto Me” (Acts 9:15). “I know whom I have chosen” (John 13:18). “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16). “According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation” (2 Thess. 2:13).

These are but a few out of the many passages that might have been selected. But they are quite enough to show the meaning of the word. No one who wishes to take words plainly, as he finds them, can find any difficulty in understanding what choosing or election means, after reading such passages as these.

I would ask, What does the word election mean in common speech? When we speak of the election of a member of Parliament, do we mean that he first chose himself, then the people chose him because he had chosen himself? Or when we speak of the election of a minister, do we mean that he first chose himself, then the people chose him because he had chosen himself? No such theory of election would be listened to for a moment in such matters. Election has but one meaning there. It means the people’s choosing their representative by a distinctive act of their own; or the congregation choosing their representative by a distinct act of their own will. And shall man have his will, but God not have His? Shall man have his choice, but God not have His?

But let us take an instance from the Bible. What does God’s choosing Abraham mean? He is a specimen of a sinner saved by grace, a sinner called out of the world by God. Well, how did his election take place? Did not God think of him long before he ever thought of God? Did not God choose him long before he ever thought of choosing God? Were there not thousands more in Chaldea that God might have chosen and called and saved if He had so pleased? Yet He chose Abraham alone. And what does the Bible call this procedure on the part of God? It calls it election! “Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees” (Neh. 9:7). Does anyone say, Oh, but God chose Abraham because He foresaw that Abraham would choose Him. I answer, the case is precisely the reverse of this. He chose Abraham just because He saw that otherwise Abraham would not choose Him. It was God’s foreseeing that Abraham would not choose Him that made election necessary.

And so it is with us. God chooses us, not because He foresees that we would choose Him, or that we would believe, but for the very opposite reason. He chooses us just because He foresees that we would neither choose Him nor believe at all, of ourselves. Election proceeds not on foreseen faith in us, but on foreseen unbelief?

The truth is, election has no meaning if it is not the expression of God’s will in reference to particular persons and things. He says to each, You shall be thus and thus, not because you choose to be so, but because I the infinite God see fit that you should be so. To one creature He says, You shall be an angel. To another, You shall be a man. To one order of beings, You shall dwell in Heaven; to another, You shall dwell on earth. To one man, You shall be born in Judea, where My name is named and My temple stands. To another, You shall be born in Egypt, or Babylon, where utter darkness reigns. To one He says, You shall be born in Britain and hear the glad tidings. To another, You shall be born in Africa where no gospel has ever come. So He expresses His will, and who can resist it? Who can find fault, or say to Him, What doest Thou? Men may object at being placed thus entirely at the disposal of God, but the apostle’s answer to such is, “Nay, but O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” (Rom. 9:20). Election, then, is the distinct forth-putting of God’s sovereign will, for the purpose of bringing a thing to pass; which, but for the explicit forth-going of that will, would not have come to pass.

But does this not lead to the conclusion that sin is the direct result of God’s decree? Does it not teach us that it is God and not man that produces sin? No. God does not foreordain sin, but He decrees to allow man to sin. God is holy and hates sin. He does not lead men into it; neither does He decree to lead men into it. But He decrees that, for infinitely wise ends, the creature should be permitted to fall, and sin to be perpetuated.

1. God forces no man to sin, either by what He decrees or what He does, either by commanding or constraining or alluring.

2. It is absurd to say that if we hold that God is the author of good, then He must be the author of evil — that if He from eternity purposed to create what is good in man, He must therefore have purposed to create that which is evil. It is absurd to say that if I hold that it is God who sets my will right, then I must hold that it is God who set it wrong.

3. God frequently gave predictions of evil long before the time. Of course, then, if evil is predicted regarding either nations or individuals, then it must be fixed and sure. He predicted the curse on Canaan and his descendants. But does that prove that He was delighted in the curse, or that He was the author of it, or that those who were the instruments of inflicting it, and so fulfilling the prophecy, were guiltless?

4. Even our opponents admit that there are some events decreed beforehand, such as the birth and death of Christ, the Judgment Day, etc. If, then, they admit that He has decreed a single event they are in precisely the same difficulty in which they seek to fix us. If one event is decreed, why not all? Who is to draw the line and say, These are decreed, but these are not? God’s will has already fixed one or two, and is man’s will, or chance, to settle the rest?

In further explanation of this point, let me quote a few paragraphs from a tract which I published some years ago:

I know that the sinner must have a will in the matter too. It is absurdity to speak of a sinner loving, believing, etc., against his will, or by compulsion. The sinner must will, beyond doubt. He must will to take the broad way, and he must will to take the narrow way. His will is essential to all these movements of his soul. But in what state do we find his will at present? We find it is wholly set against the truth. Every will since the fall is wholly opposed to God and His Word. Man needs no foreign influence, no external power to make him reject the truth. That he does by nature. He hates it with his whole heart. When a sinner then comes to receive the truth, how is this accomplished? Does he renew himself? Does he change the enmity of his will by the unaided act of his will? Does he of himself bend back his own will into the opposite direction? Does he, by a word of his own power, cause the current that had been flowing downhill to change its course and flow upward? Does his own will originate the change in itself, and carry the change into effect? Impossible! The current would have flowed forever downward had it not been arrested in its course by something stronger than itself. The sinner’s will would have remained forever in depravity and bondage, had not another Will, far mightier than itself, coming into contact with it, and altered both its nature and course, working in the sinner “both to will and to do.” Was the sinner willing before this other Will met his? No! Was he willing after? Yes! Then, is it not plain that it was God’s will meeting and changing the sinner’s will that made the difference? God’s will was first.

It was God’s will that began the work and made the sinner willing. He never would have willed had not God made him willing. “Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power.” It is the power of Jehovah applied to us that makes us willing. Till that is applied, we are unwilling. It is His hand, operating directly upon the soul, that changes its nature and its bent. Were it not for that our unwillingness would never be removed. No outward means or motives would be sufficient to effect the change, for all these means and motives are rejected by the sinner. Nor does he become willing even to allow the approach or application of these means or motives till God makes him willing. To speak of his being changed by that which he rejects as is absurd as to speak of a man’s being healed by a medicine which he persists in refusing. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” (Jer. 13:23).

Then are all willing? Doesn’t the depraved will remain in most, while the new will appears in few? What makes the difference? God’s choice! “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight.” “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor?” (Rom. 9:21). “Except the Lord of Hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah” (Isa. 1:9).

Does God then hinder sinners from believing and willing? No, by no means. He hinders none. They are their own hindrance. “Ye will not come to Me, that ye might have life.” Not one soul would be saved if left to his own will. But, in His infinite mercy, God does not leave them to their own wills. He puts forth His mighty power on some to make them willing. Were it not for this, all would be lost, for all would reject the Savior.

But is this not unjust? Is God dealing fairly with His creatures in making some willing and leaving the rest to their unwillingness? What! Are we to prohibit God from saving any unless He saves all? Are we to accuse Him of injustice because He leaves some to reap the fruits of their unbelief and delivers others from it? Is God unjust in saving whom He will, when all were lost?

Some are given to accusing us of making God guilty of partiality. As if they were singular in their zeal for God’s honor, they exclaim, We cannot bear a partial God. Partiality means, of course, injustice. It means also that the sinner has a right to favor from God. They must show, then, that for God to save some when all were lost is unjust. They must show that all sinners had a right to His favor, for if none had any right, there can be no partiality. But if this theory is true, then God was partial in not providing a Savior for fallen angels. He was partial in choosing Israel, and not choosing Egypt or Babylon, as the nation to whom He made Himself known. He was partial in sending prophets to Israel and not to Tyre and Sidon. He was partial in doing His mighty works in the land of Judea. And Jesus was partial in commanding His disciples not to go to either Gentiles or Samaritans. In short, if sovereignty is partial, then the Bible is full of it. And it would be just as well for these men to say at once what their theory implies — that God is not at liberty to act as He pleases, but can do only what man dictates.

But why does God save some and not all? Because such is “the good pleasure of His will.” He has infinitely wise reasons for this, though we do not understand them. Might we not with equal propriety ask, Why did He keep some angels from falling? And, Why did He allow others to fall? Or, may we not ask, Why did He not think of saving angels, why think of saving men alone? Is Jehovah not at liberty to do what He will with His own? Is He not at liberty to create as many worlds and as many beings as He pleases? And when these are ruined, is He not at liberty to redeem as many or as few as He pleases?

Are all men so depraved that they will not be saved unless God puts forth His mighty power? That is the real question in all this.

If so, then, it is plain that God must put forth His power to save everyone that is saved. And surely He is at liberty to choose whom He is to save. If indeed men are not totally depraved, then there is no need for the interposition of God’s hand either in choosing or in saving. But admit man’s total depravity and ruin, and you must admit the direct forth-putting of the arm of Jehovah. And so it is that many in our day are beginning to deny man’s total depravity of nature. They are smoothing down the expressions which do refer to it in Scripture, and claiming for man as much remaining power and goodness as will enable him in part to save himself, to do it without the interposition of God.

The following remarks of Calvin will show that in his day none but “Papist theologians” held the doctrine that God elects men because He foresaw they would believe. “The Papist theologians have a distinction current among themselves, that God does not elect men according to the works which are in them, but that He chooses those who He foresees will be believers. And therein they contradict what we have already alleged from St. Paul, for he says that we are chosen and elected in Him, ‘that we might be holy and without blame.’ Paul must have spoken otherwise if God elected us having foreseen that we should be holy. But he has not used such language. He says, ‘He has elected us that we might be holy.’ He infers, therefore, that the latter (faith) depends upon the former (election). Those who think otherwise know not what man and human is.” Such is the witness of Calvin against the Papal theologians; since that time many have joined the ranks of these theologians and glory in their heresies.

Oh, but it is said, we do not deny election. We merely maintain that God elected those whom He foresaw would believe. I answer, this is a total denial of election. And it is dishonesty or ignorance to call this by such a name. God elects those who He foresaw would believe, you say? And who were they? None! Absolutely none! He foresaw that none would believe, not one. And because He foresaw this, He elected some to believe. Otherwise not one would have!

With regard to the foreseeing who would believe, I have some difficulties to state: According to the Arminian theory, I may believe today and disbelieve tomorrow, according to my own will. I may thus go on believing and disbelieving alternately until the day of my death. God then one day foresees that I will believe, and He decrees to save me. But the next day He foresees me not believing, and He decrees that I should perish. How, in such a case, is the matter to be finally settled? Is it according to the state in which God foresees the sinner will be at the last moment of life? Or when? Let our opponents solve the difficulty, if they are able.

Oh, but some profane objector says, Does God make men to be damned? Let me in a few words answer the miserable atheism of such an objection.... It is somewhat remarkable that this is precisely the argument of Socinians, Universalists and Deists against the existence of such a place as hell. If you speak of hell or everlasting fire to such, their answer is, Did God make men to damn them? And however abominable and unscriptural their notion is, it is at least consistent with their own theory. Making God to be all love and nothing else, they think it inconsistent with His love that He should allow such a place as hell in the universe. They do not believe in a hell, so they ask, Did God make men to damn them?

But let me answer the question, however profane it may be. God did not make men to damn them! He did not make the angels who “kept not their first estate,” to damn them. He did not make Lucifer for the purpose of casting him out of Paradise. He did not make Judas for the purpose of sending him to his own place. God made man — every man and every thing — to glorify Himself. This every creature, man and angel must do, either actively or passively, either willingly or unwillingly; actively and willingly in Heaven, or passively and unwillingly in hell. This is God’s purpose and it shall stand. God may have many other ends in creation, but this is the chief one, the ultimate one — the one which is above all the others, and to which all the rest are subordinate.

In this sense then plainly, God did not make men either to destroy them or to save them. He made them for His own glory. If the question is asked, Did God make the devil and his angels only to damn them, I answer, He made them for His own glory. They are lost forever, but does that prove that He made them to destroy them? He kept their companions from falling, and so they are called the “elect angels,” while He did not keep them. But does this prove that He made them to destroy them? They fell, and in a moment they were consigned to everlasting chains. He made no effort to save them, He sent no redemption to them. But does this prove that He made them only to destroy them? If ever such an accusation could be preferred against God, it must be in the case of the angels, to whom no salvation was sent. It cannot be said of man, to whom a salvation has come.

Whatever is right for God to do, it is right for Him to decree. If God’s casting sinners into hell is not wrong or unjust, then His purposing to do so from all eternity cannot be wrong or unjust. So that you must either deny that there is a hell, or admit God’s right to predestinate who are to dwell there forever. There is no middle way between Calvinism and Universalism.

With these remarks I leave this point, and in doing so I would merely call your attention to one or two passages of Scripture which it would be well for those to ponder who put such a question as that to which I have given an answer:

“The Lord hath made all things for Himself; yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Prov. 16:4).

“As many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).

“For the Scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew My power in thee, and that My name might be declared throughout all the earth.... What if God, willing to shew His wrath, and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction” (Rom. 9:17, 22).

Texts like these are not to be explained away or overlooked. They are part of God’s Holy Word, just as much as “God is love.” And if one class of texts is to be twisted or turned away from, why not another? Let us look both in the face, and let us believe them both, whatever difficulty we may find in reconciling them.

Our first duty is to believe, not to reconcile. There are many things which in this life we shall not be able to reconcile, but there is nothing in the Bible which we need to shrink from believing.

“For vain man would be wise, though man be born like a wild ass’s colt” (Job 11:12).



Being predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh
all things after the counsel of His own will
” (Eph. 1:11).

It is of some importance that we should settle the real nature of these two things, predestination and foreknowledge, to ascertain which of the two is first. The question is, Does God fix a thing simply because He foreknows it, or does He foreknow it because He has fixed it? There are vague ideas in man’s mind at these points. It is well to know the truth with distinctness. I answer, Predestination must be the foundation of foreknowledge. God foreknows everything that takes place because He has fixed it. In proof:

1. The opposite of this is an impossibility. To fix a thing is to make that thing certain to come to pass, which, but for the fixing would not have happened.... God knew all that might possibly have come to pass had He let the world alone to act out its iniquity. In all the infinity of possibilities, He saw that the thing He wanted was not to be found. Seeing the end from the beginning, He saw that the thing He desired would never come to pass unless brought into being by a direct act of His own will. No other will would desire or could effect that which He saw to be best, either in regard to persons or events. The thing He wanted was not to be found among the possibilities, but among the impossibilities, if matters were left to themselves, to the operation of the usual laws. How, then shall that which is impossible be rendered not only possible but certain? Evidently by the direct interference of God! God having thus interfered and arranged everything according to His wisdom, of necessity He must know them to come to pass. In other words, He foreknows everything because He has arranged everything. Everything is certain in His foreknowledge because it is so in His arrangements.

Take the case of a saved sinner, such as Saul of Tarsus. In looking forward from eternity, God saw that sinner. He saw him in his guilt and sin. He saw him hastening away from Himself, He saw that if left to himself, or to the usual laws of things, Paul would only go deeper into sin and farther from Himself. He saw that in such a case his salvation was impossible — that he never would believe and would never repent and turn. This was all that mere foreknowledge could tell. Foreknowledge alone can do nothing as to salvation. But here predestination comes in. God forms a design to bring man to glory, he is a “chosen vessel.” And having this design regarding him, He resolves to put forth His power, He prearranges all His plans concerning him, He fixes the day and the hour of his conversion, and so He foreknows its certainty — because He has fore-arranged it. Otherwise it could not have been known; nay, it would have been an impossibility.

2. The opposite of this is an absurdity. What can be more absurd than to fix a thing which I already know will come to pass whether I fix it or not? This is truly imputing foolishness to God. It represents Him as giving a solemn decree to fix a thing which is already certain. As if the queen of this realm should decree that the sun should rise tomorrow, because she knows that it will be the case, from the laws of nature. Is it not a mockery of God? It makes Him thus to speak, “I foreordain that a sinner shall be saved, because I foresee that he will be saved.” Unless, then, we impute folly to God, and affirm that there is nothing in the word predestination, we must admit that God must foreordain before He foreknows, and that He knows everything just because He has fore-arranged everything according to His own infinite wisdom.

There are two arguments which appear to me quite conclusive. But let us turn to Scripture. I do not need to again direct your attention to the passages which were quoted previously. But note two previously quoted, “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23). “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).

1. The language is very explicit and plain. It is the strongest that could possibly have been used to denote foreordination. There is nothing about it ambiguous or hard to be understood. To take it in any other sense would be absurd. The doctrine may be inscrutable, but the words are plain. And is the nature of the doctrine a reason for refusing to take the words of God in their natural sense?

2. Admitting our views of foreordination to be true, could they have been expressed in language different from this, or from that employed in the Epistle to the Romans and Ephesians? Had we been left to choose our words for setting forth our views, we could not have desired any other than these. Can our opponents say the same? Are these words the most appropriate for expressing their views?

3. This determinate counsel is said to have fixed certain events in Christ’s history. Now, if some were fixed, we have reason to conclude that all others also were. Yet in the life and death of Christ we see nothing but what seemed outwardly to occur in the natural order of events. It will certainly be conceded that the will of the Son of God was free from first to last. Yet we learn that what He voluntarily did and suffered was also predetermined by God. In His case there was entire free will, yet entire preordination. What, then, becomes of the objection to predestination, arising from its supposed interference with the free will of moral agents? In Christ’s life and death we have a series of preordained events, and at the same time a series of free actions. And this is sufficient answer to the current objection. We may not be able to reconcile these things, yet they stand palpably before us.

4. This determinate counsel is said to have delivered up Christ into the hands of men. Pilate and Herod, etc., are said to have done what God’s hand and counsel had predetermined. Here is something still more striking. The deeds of these wicked men are said to have come to pass according to this counsel, yet these deeds are no less wicked, and those men are no less responsible. Here, again, we have another objection answered, or at least silenced. To reconcile things may be difficult, yet the statement in this passage is plain. What pride and folly, then, are there in the questions and cavils which we so often hear in connection with this doctrine:

If God has arranged everything, man’s will is not free, someone will say. How can the sinner be responsible? How can he be plied with motives and arguments? Of what use is it to do anything toward an end, if all is arranged beforehand by Another? How unjust it is in God to warn and invite sinners when He has fixed everything already! All these cavils have their answer in the passages quoted above. It is vain to think of putting questions such as these until these strong and explicit declarations have been explained away. They teach us plainly that our world’s history is a history of events, preordained by God from eternity, yet at the same time coming to pass by the free agency of man. This preordination is the effect and the expression of God’s will, yet it does not in the least interfere with man’s responsibility. Nor does it suppose any violence done to the will of man.

It was certain that the ten tribes were to revolt, for it was predicted long before. But did it make their revolt less voluntary? It was certain that Christ was to be born at Bethlehem, but did that make the coming of His parents to that town less voluntary? It was certain that Judas was to betray Christ, for it had been predicted by David long before in the Psalms, but did that lessen the sin of Judas or make his act less free? In the same way I might go over every prophecy, and ask the same question. And I wonder greatly what our opponents would answer. How can they reconcile their ideas of free agency with the fact that the sin of Judas was predicted by the Holy Spirit as certain, one thousand years before it came to pass? Was Judas a mere machine? Was God the author of his sin?

But it will be said, Are we not told that this election is according to foreknowledge? (1 Pet. 1:2; Rom. 8:29). In reference to the first passage, I would remark that the word foreknowledge, in the second verse, in the original is the same as that rendered foreordained in the twentieth verse. There can be no doubt that it means preordination, for it refers to Christ as the appointed Lamb. And if so, then, it is impossible to suppose that the word foreknowledge in the second verse refers simply to foreseeing and nothing more. But then we are asked to look at Romans 8:29, “Whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son.” The word foreknow means not simply to know before hand, but to fix the choice upon. The meaning is then evidently, “whom God set His choice upon, them He predestinated to be conformed to the image of His Son.” These saints were the objects of His eternal choice, they were appointed by Him to the honor of being made in the image of His own Son.

I wish to notice some concessions of our adversaries which appear to overthrow their whole system. They admit that in certain things there is a real election. They admit, for instance, that there is a real election of particular nations to particular privileges.

This admission is fatal to their theory. For their main prop was that the election of individuals was just another word for favoritism and injustice. Now, if the election of persons is unjust, that of nations must be more unjust. If the one is inconsistent with man’s responsibility, so must the other be. If the election of men shows an undue partiality, much more must the election of nations. For God to reveal Himself to the Jews and not to the Egyptians is as much favoritism as for Him to convert one soul and not to convert another. He did far more for Israel than He did for any other nation. He brought them near Him. He gave them His Word. He taught them the way of forgiveness through the blood of the sacrifices. He placed them in circumstances of peculiar advantage. He did not do this for Babylon or Nineveh, to Assyria or Egypt. Can it be wrong, then, to choose individuals, yet right to choose nations? Can it be wrong not to choose an individual to salvation, yet right not to choose a nation to those privileges through which alone salvation comes? Can it be right to pass by some nations and yet wrong to pass by some individuals? Nations are composed of individuals, and to choose a nation is to give individuals in that nation a peculiar advantage which issues in the eternal life of thousands. And so if there is any injustice in the matter, there is more injustice in a national election than in a personal one. It will be said, God knew what nations would reject His message, and therefore He did not send it to them. On this I offer this:

1. A nation being composed of individuals, our opponents must maintain that God foresaw that every soul in them would reject the truth. If not, would it not be hard, upon their theory for God to withhold the gospel from the whole nation, if He knew that some in that nation would have believed and been saved?

2. If these nations were denied the gospel, because God foreknew they would reject it, then they are condemned for a thing they never did, but which God merely foresaw they would do. Whole nations are treated as criminals, rejecters of the gospel, when the opportunity was never given them either to receive or reject it. I am not aware of anything in Calvinism so hard or unjust as this. We teach that God punishes men and nations on account of what they actually do, not on account of what He foresees they would have done if He allowed them the means. This theory, on the other hand, teaches that whole nations are condemned to that most fearful of all curses, a deprivation of the gospel, not on account of their actual sins, but because certain things were foreseen which they would have done! Now, if God can justly condemn nations on account of sin not committed, but merely foreseen as likely to be committed, why may He not condemn sinners to eternal death for sins never committed, but only foreseen? Would this be just? Strange that men should maintain the justice of depriving nations of the gospel for sins which they never committed, yet affirm the injustice of God choosing a soul to everlasting life according to His sovereign will. But this is just one of the paradoxes of Arminianism. God chooses some to life, it is said, because He foresees they will believe. So that it is not faith that save us, but God’s foresight of our faith. Nor is it actually unbelief that ruins us, but God’s foresight of it.

3. God speaks of sending His messages to some who would reject, and of not sending it to others who were more likely to have received it, “For thou art not sent to a people of a strange speech and of an hard language, but to the house of Israel — not to many people of a strange speech and of an hard language, whose words thou canst not understand. Surely, had I sent thee to them, they would have hearkened unto thee” (Ezek. 3:5-6). This surely settles the matter — it is not a nation’s foreseen willingness to hear that leads God to send His messengers, nor a nation’s unwillingness foreseen that prevents Him from sending. It is all according to His sovereign will.

It is affirmed that there is a work equally in the hearts of all men alike. It is said that God has done and is doing the very utmost that can be done for every individual of our race; and that to maintain anything else is to charge God with partiality and injustice, as well as to deny the responsibility of man. The proof adduced in support of these statements is a passage in Isaiah 5, “What could have been done more to My vineyard, that I have not done in it?” (v. 4). But it is remarkable that this is one of the strongest proofs that God did a great deal more for Israel than He did for any other nation. He allowed the whole world to remain a wilderness, but He made them His vineyard. He fenced this vineyard. He gathered the stones of it and planted it with the choicest vine. “He did not deal so with any other nation.” Was this partiality or injustice? Or was this doing the same thing for all?

Besides, it is evident that this passage is being perverted. It doesn’t mean that God at that time had done all He could for Israel. For He went on to do much more for them. Not only did He not cease to bless them, but He multiplied His blessings, and increased in strivings with them, long after He had uttered the words here. So that the passage cannot mean that He had done all He could, for He proceeded to do a great deal more, raising up prophet after prophet to give them line upon line. Nay, many of the most gracious words Israel ever heard were spoken after this time. If, then, the verse does really mean that God had actually done His utmost, the inference which is founded upon it falls to pieces.

It is plain, then, that God does more for some nations than for others. He did more for Israel than He did for Egypt or Babylon. He did more for Israel at one time than at another, for one generation than another; for one district of Judea than another; even for one individual than another. What else is the meaning of the words of Jesus, “I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias ... but unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet, and none of them was cleansed saving Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:25-27)? Will any of the deniers of God’s sovereignty furnish a solution of this passage? In accordance with their views, what can the Lord mean?

It is not true, then, that God does as much for one nation or for one individual as another. The opposite is and always has been the fact — a fact frequently referred to in Scripture as proof of God’s right to do according to His will in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth (Dan, 4:35). No reasonings of men can alter the fact, nor can any ingenuity deprive the fact of its deep and solemn meaning. I may perhaps be told that the cause of this inequality is in the church of Christ, which has not done its duty. It is said that if Christians had acted aright, the world would have been converted long before now. As this is a common way of attempting to solve the difficulty, it may be well to answer fully.

1. Who told them that the cause is wholly in the church? Who told them that the world would have been converted before now if Christians had been what they professed to be? Give me one single passage of Scripture that states this. Surely it is a bold and hazardous assertion to make, without one verse of Scripture to support it.

2. It is not true. What! Shall such a mighty and majestic event as the salvation of the world be dependent upon a creature’s will? Is it to depend upon man whether the world is to be converted or not? Has God no purpose to be carried out? Has He nothing at all to say in the matter? Is He to stand by looking on, wondering if it may please His people to put forth their energies to convert the world?

3. It is unscriptural. There are passages of Scripture which explicitly contradict it. What, for instance, does God mean when He gives as the reason why He enjoined Paul to remain and labor in Corinth, “I have much people in this city”? Again, what is meant by that similar passage, “And as many as were ordained unto eternal life believed”? Again, what did our Lord mean when He said (as if explaining the reason why so many rejected Him), “Many are called, but few are chosen”? Or what did He mean when He said, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come”? And lastly, what did the Holy Spirit mean, first by forbidding the apostles to preach the Word in Asia, and then prohibiting Paul from going over to preach in Bithynia?

4. It is profane. It is saying that the wickedness of the world cannot be remedied by God, but only by the church; that God has no power to convert the world; that it is the church which has all the power; and that unless she pleases to put forth her might and zeal, God can do nothing for the world. Poor world! This is sad news indeed. Your destiny hangs on the power and love of your fellow sinners! The strength and love of your God are nothing and can do nothing for you. Miserable comfort and miserable comforters indeed! Yet these are the men who speak so much of the love of God!

Yet I am far from saying that Christians are not much to blame. How little do the most zealous among us do for souls! How much more might we do by prayer, by labor and by holy living. Still, I deny that the inactivity or unbelief of saints will account for the darkness that overspreads the nations. Failure in duty on the part of the people of God may account for many things, but not for all. Did the prophets of old fail in their duty, and was their failure the reason why Nineveh, or Tyre or Sidon were not converted? Was it their fault that they were not sent to these cities and received no message for them?

Why were there so many prophets raised up within that small territory and not one commissioned to bear tidings to a dark and dying world? Could none be spared? Could no more be raised up? Did they refuse to go? Had God no message of grace to give them for the dark millions of Europe or Asia or Ethiopia?

Did the Son of God fail in His duty, in that He did not preach the gospel to any but the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Why did He make this distinction? Why did He never travel beyond the narrow Judean circle? Why did He command His disciples at first to make the same difference, prohibiting them from preaching the gospel in the cities of either the Gentiles or the Samaritans? Might not the Samaritans have said, You tell us that the utmost has been done for us that can be done, and that all are equally dealt with. Why then are we passed by? And why are the messengers of peace prohibited from entering our territory? What answer could be given except that such was the will and purpose of the only wise God?

Did the apostles afterwards fail in their duty when, after Pentecost, they went abroad to proclaim the everlasting gospel? Was their failure the reason why the world was not then converted? Are we not plainly taught that such was not the case? Why was it that when Paul wished to go to Bithynia to preach the gospel there, the Spirit would not allow him to go? Was this doing the utmost for Bithynia that God could do? Nay, it was not even the utmost that Paul could have done and wanted to do. If the Spirit works at all, then it is plain that the reason why He succeeded in some and fails in others must either be one of the following reasons:

1. It might be because some have naturally better hearts than others, more inclined towards what is good, made of less rebellious and more believing materials. This better class of sinners, less stout-hearted than others, then could be said to yield and obey, and so are saved. The rest being more stubborn and ungodly, hold out and are lost! What hope does this give to the chief of sinners? Where in all this is there the plucking of brands from the burning?

2. Or, because the Spirit has attempted a work beyond His power He fails in His efforts. The sinner has overpowered Him and proved stronger than He. The sinner is able to overcome the Spirit, but the Spirit is not able to overcome the sinner. The Spirit has done His utmost and has failed.

But, finally, to say that the Spirit is doing all He can possibly do for the sinner is either a mere quibble, a play upon words, or else it is a most melancholy profanity. If it means that literally and truly Omnipotence has been tasked to the utmost and has failed in the attempt to convert a sinner, it is profanity. For it is saying that a creature is mightier than the Creator, able to withstand, nay, able to overcome Omnipotence. If, however, this is not said to be so, then what else can be the meaning but that God is doing all He sees fit to do for each individual? He is putting forth in each the utmost degree of power that His infinite wisdom sees fit. And if this is all that is intended, then there is harmony between us. For what is this but merely another way of stating Jehovah’s absolute and all-wise sovereignty in giving or withholding blessing?

“What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For He saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. For the Scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew My power in thee, and that My name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto Me, Why doth He yet find fault? For who hath resisted His will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, Why hast Thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor? What if God, willing to shew His wrath, and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had afore prepared unto glory — even us, whom He hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?” (Rom. 9:14-24).


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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