Horatius Bonar



The church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

I do not intend to enter fully upon the subject of Christ’s work. This would require a much fuller discussion than I am able at present to bestow upon it. It would in fact require a volume of itself.

Christ is said in Scripture to have given Himself as a ransom and substitute for His church, and to have done so in a way such as He has not done for any other beings. This seems implied in the very first promise — the promise regarding the woman’s seed. Here we have at the very outset the identifying work of Christ and His people — the setting them before us as entirely one with Him. His destiny and theirs are thus one from the beginning. We recognize here not only the Redeemer, but the chosen people, the people given Him of the Father, with whom He identifies Himself, and in whose behalf He is to die and to suffer — to bruise the serpent’s head and to submit to the bruising of His own heel.

It is not merely Christ who is said to have died. His people are said to die with Him. The Apostle Paul very frequently dwells on this idea, representing the church as crucified with Christ, dying with Him, rising with Him, ascending up with Him and sitting with Him in heavenly places. In Jehovah’s eye His people were with Him all the time, from His coming into the world. He stood in their stead, and they were viewed as one with Him from His cradle to His cross, and from His cross to His throne. They were taken up to the cross with Him. They died there with Him. They went down to the grave with Him. They came again along with Him. They ascended with Him. Now, I confess I cannot understand these expressions unless I believe in a definite number for whom all this was especially done. I cannot see how it is possible for the atonement to be indefinite, so long as I read that in all its parts the church was associated with Christ. This renders definiteness an essential element in the idea of redemption.

But how can there be any truth in all this if Christ has no special object in view in dying, except merely to render salvation possible to all, but certain to none? In that case He could only die as a man for His fellowmen — not as a substitute, not as a representative, not as a surety, not as a shepherd at all. I put it to you, which of these is most in accordance with the Word of God?

It is the view which would present itself to the eye looking from the past eternity into the future, contemplating the glorious issue. And it is the view which we hereafter shall more fully realize when we get into that eternity and begin to look back upon the whole finished scheme. Viewed from either of these points, the far past or the far future, the thing seems striking and vivid. Standing as we do in the present in the very midst of the scenes, with the smoke of the world all around us, seeing but darkly through the glass, we may find it more difficult to realize this. But faith can rise out of these dark elements below. It can transport itself to either of these eternal eminences. And, looking at things as God looks on them, contemplating results as He does, faith will be able to realize God’s purpose regarding the church in all the different stages of its progress now, as if it had actually been represented in visible brightness, and the other parts which confuse us hidden from view. The moment the sculptor is hewing out his statue is not the best time to ascertain what he means. You must look at his designs, or you must wait until he has finished his work.

Here are some of the passages which represent Christ as doing a peculiar work on behalf of His church: “I am the good Shepherd, the good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). “I am the good Shepherd and know My sheep and am known of Mine” (v. 14). “I lay down My life for the sheep” (v. 15). “Ye believe not, because ye are not of My sheep (v. 26). “Thou hast given Him power over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as Thou hast given Him” (John 17:2). “I pray for them. I pray not for the world, but for them which Thou hast given Me” (v. 9). “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it” (Eph. 5:25).

In these passages we hear Christ repeatedly speaking of those whom He calls sheep, and telling us He gave His life for them — for them in a peculiar sense, as He did for no other. It is as a shepherd that He died with a shepherd’s love and a shepherd’s care — for His sheep as such. Again, He prays for His own, for those whom the Father has given Him, not for the world. Can words be plainer? Here is certainly a distinction made, “I pray not for the world.” Here at least is something peculiar to His church alone. And one such peculiarity is enough to answer the objections of adversaries. Is not the way in which He prayed an illustration of the way in which He died? Are not those for whom He prayed the same as those for whom He died?

But over against all this are set those many passages in which the word “all” occurs, as in “Christ died for all.” Now the passages already quoted are more explicit and cannot be overthrown. They are too plain to be mistaken. Yet there are admittedly some difficulties with regard to some of the passages in which the word “all” occurs. But it is better to confess the difficulty and wait for further light than at once to proceed to do violence to the passage itself, or to make its difficulty a reason for doing violence to others.

With regard to the meaning of the word “all” in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, a few remarks will be necessary. It occurs there more than twelve hundred times. These twelve hundred texts may be subdivided:

Class One consists of a very large number of passages, several hundreds in which it is undeniable that the word cannot mean “all” literally. To give one or two specimens, we are told that “all the land of Judea... went out to him and were all baptized.” This was certainly not literally the case, for every individual in the whole land did not come, for we are expressly told that “the Pharisees and lawyers were not baptized of him” (Luke 7:30). Again we read, “All men seek for Thee” (Mark 1:37). This was not literally so. Every individual in the human race, or even every individual in Judea, did not seek Him. Again, we have such passages as these, “He told me all things that ever I did” (John 4:29); “All things are lawful unto me”; “All our fathers were under the cloud”; “All they which were in Asia be turned away from me”; and, “Ye know all things.”

Class Two consists of passages in which it is very doubtful whether all is literally universal. It may, or it may not be. There is nothing positively to determine it. “Every nation under heaven”; “All they which dwelt in Asia”; “The care of all the churches”; “All that dwell upon the earth shall worship him” (Acts 2:5; 19:10; 2 Cor. 11:28; Rev. 13:8), etc. These are specimens of a large class of doubtful passages, which, of course, can prove nothing as to the literal meaning of “all.”

Class Three consists of passages which are only determined by the context, not by the expressions themselves. The whole passage taken together fixes the meaning. But were it not for that, the literal meaning would have been doubtful. “All ye are brethren”; “All these things must come to pass”; “They all slumbered”; “When Jesus had finished all these sayings,” etc. In all these passages and in many similar ones, it is not the word “all” itself that points out the strict universality, but it is some other word that occurs along with it, such as “all these things.” In these cases, while in one sense the word has a universal sense, in another it has a limited one — limited by the words with which it is connected. It means all of a certain class, all of a certain number. So that we gather from these that when “all” is to be understood literally, we must learn from the context what the word means — whether it is all of one nation or all of another, whether it is all of one class or all of another. This answers at once the oft-repeated argument which consists merely in vociferating the word “all” as if the loudness or the frequency of the outcry were enough to demonstrate the meaning of the word. That meaning must be determined in each separate case by the other words, or parts of the passage.

Class Four consists of the passages in question, those supposed to imply a universal atonement. On these I cannot enter here. They are the fewest of all the four classes. Our opponents say they must be interpreted literally. Let us see how the proof stands.

Of the Scriptures in which the word “all” occurs, a large number are exceedingly doubtful. Another large number are only proved to mean literally “all” by the context. The fewest in number of these four classes are those which are claimed by our opponents.

The result of this statement is simply this, that the mere occurrence of the word “all” does not determine the question at all. Nothing but a careful examination of the whole passage can settle it. Do not then be deceived by the loud repetitions of the words — all and every — when intended to take the place of more solid proof.

It is impossible to do more here than to notice one passage, being one of the strongest and one that affords an admirable illustration of the need for looking at the context to determine the meaning of the word. It is, “He tasted death for every man” (Heb. 2:9). It is literally “for each,” since there is nothing about men in the original Greek. The question then arises, what does the apostle mean by “each”? The context must settle it. It either carries us back to the “heirs of salvation,” or forward to the “many sons.” For obviously it must refer to some of whom the apostle was speaking. Now, he was only speaking of the angels, and of the many sons, the heirs of salvation, and of no other. It cannot be the angels, therefore it must be the many sons, the heirs of salvation. They are the peculiar theme of the whole chapter, anyone following the apostle’s reasoning would naturally understand this expression to refer to them. It is straining it to refer it to any others. If it does refer to others, it might as well refer to angels (much more naturally so than of the world); for he is speaking of them, not of the world at all. The fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians is an illustration of this. The apostle is treating of the resurrection of the saints, not of the wicked. It is only by keeping this in view that his statements there regarding the “all” can be fully understood. So the “each” here referred to must be the “each” of those he was speaking of. And the singular used here is very striking, not simply the individualizing the saints, but as doing so in connection with the whole work of Christ. All that Christ did, He did for each! — His whole work, His whole propitiation, His whole tasting of death belongs to each, just as much as if only one had been saved. The whole of what Christ did is the property of each saint. His work is not made up of so many parts, or extending to certain dimensions (greater or smaller according to the number of the saved) so that each of them gets a part of Himself and a part of His work. No, His work is such that each gets the whole of it — the whole of His glorious self, the whole of His glorious work. Each gets the benefit of His tasting death, as if endured for himself singly, alone.

Only a few hints have been thrown out to lead you, to establish you in the faith, to repel the objections of opponents. The real question before us is this, Was the atonement of Christ a definite or an indefinite thing? That is the essence and marrow of the controversy. It is upon this that the case of things hinges. There is a mighty difference between a definite and an indefinite work. Search the Scriptures and see if the language in which they speak does not necessarily imply something definite and certain — something which infallibly secured the object for which the Son of God took flesh and died, (which was, as you know, “to bring many sons to glory”).

“For the transgression of My people was He stricken” (Isa. 53:8). “The church ...which He hath purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).



For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
Being justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1).

Scripture presents faith to us in more aspects than one. It is sometimes called hearing, sometimes knowing, sometimes believing, or receiving, or trusting. Strictly speaking, it is simply the belief of the truth, yet it is referred to throughout Scripture under these different names. These may be said to be its different stages, and it is useful oftentimes to lay hold of it at each of these and contemplate it under each of these views. They are not in reality the same thing, yet they illustrate the same thing, they point to one object. The things we hear, the truth we know, the tidings we believe, the gift we receive, the Being we trust may be different in one sense — yet in another they are the same.

Some adopt one aspect exclusively, some another, so that the object itself is lost sight of. Some particular definition is fastened on and elevated to such prominence as to become little better than a party watchword (furnishing much matter for self-righteous pride and confidence).

One person glories in what he calls his simple views of faith, spurning every other idea of it but what he calls “the bare belief of the bare truth.” Ask such, “Where is your childlike confidence in God, where is the resting of your soul upon Jesus Himself as the resting place? You are making a savior of your faith, an idol of the truth. You are just as self-righteous and proud in your ‘simple views of faith’ as is the mystic whose religion you profess to shun. Your God seems to be a mere bundle of abstract propositions; your savior a mere collection of evangelical phrases, which you use as the shibboleth of a sect.”

Another goes to the opposite extreme overlooking the simplicity of faith. He undervalues the truth. He is wholly occupied with some mystical actions of his own mind, trying to exert himself to put forth some indescribable efforts which he calls “receiving and resting on Christ.” Say to such, “You are on the road to mysticism. You are occupied with your own self, with your own actions and feelings. You are making a savior of them. You certainly need more simple views of true faith. You need to be called down from self-righteous perplexities about your own acts, to the precious word of truth which you are despising, as if it contained no comfort for you unless you are conscious of connecting certain acts of your own to it.”

From this you will see how it is quite possible to admit the full meaning of those words in Scripture which speak of confidence, and trust, and rest, etc.; while, at the same time, we rejoice in those other expressions which represent faith as an “acknowledgment of the truth,” and the salvation of the sinner as the result of his “coming to the knowledge of the truth.” It is quite consistent with Scripture to represent peace as flowing from confidence in God through Christ, and yet as rising from “believing the record which God has given of His Son.”

Without attempting to give a definition of faith, let me say in a few words that any faith which goes no farther than the intellect can neither save nor sanctify. It is no faith at all. It is unbelief. No faith is saving except that which links us to the Person of a loving Savior. Whatever falls short of this is not faith in Christ. So, while salvation is described sometimes in Scripture as a “coming to the knowledge of the truth,” it is more commonly represented as a “coming to Christ Himself.” “Ye will not come to Me that ye might have life”; “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.”

But whatever view of faith we take, one thing is obvious; that it is from first to last “the gift of God.” Make it as simple as you please, still it is the result of the Holy Spirit’s direct, immediate, all-quickening power. Never attempt to make faith simple, with the view of getting rid of the Spirit to produce it. This is one of the most wretched devices of Satan in the present evil day. By all means correct every mistake in regard to faith, by which hindrances are thrown in the sinners way, or darkness thrown around the soul. Show him that it is the object of faith, even with Christ and His cross, that he has to do, not with his own actions of faith; that it is not the virtue of merit that is in his faith that saved him, but the virtue and merit that are in Christ Jesus alone. Tell him to look outward, not inward for his peace. Beat him off from his self-righteous efforts to get up a particular kind of faith or particular acts of faith in order to obtain something for himself — something short of Christ to rest upon. Simplify, explain and illustrate faith to such an one, but never imagine that you are going to make the Spirit’s help less absolutely necessary.

This is what the aim of the propagators of the new theology seems to be. Their object in simplifying faith is to bring it within the reach of the unrenewed man, so that by performing this very simple act he may become a renewed man. In other words, their object is to make man the beginner of his own salvation. He takes the first step, and God does the rest! He believes, and then God comes in and saves him! This is nothing but a flat and bold denial of the Spirit’s work altogether. If at any time more than another the sinner needs the Spirit’s power, it is at the beginning. And he who denies the need of the Spirit at the beginning cannot believe in it at the after stages — nay, cannot believe in the need of the Spirit’s work at all. The mightiest and most insuperable difficulty lies at the beginning. If the sinner can get over that without the Spirit, he will easily get over the rest. If he does not need Him to enable him to believe, he will not need Him to enable him to love. If when a true object is presented to me, I can believe without the Spirit, then when a lovable object is presented I can love without the Spirit. In short, what is there in the whole Christian life which I cannot do of myself, if I can begin this career without help from God? The denial of the Holy Spirit’s direct agency, in faith and conversion, is the denial of His whole work in the soul both of the saint and the sinner.

But is it not said, “Faith cometh by hearing”? Certainly. And who doubts the blessed truth? How can there be faith where there is not something to be believed? “There is an inseparable relation between faith and the Word, and these can no more be torn asunder from each other than rays of light from the sun” (John Calvin). But does this mean that hearing alone is necessary to the production of faith? The words in the original explain this, “Faith arises out of what we hear, and what we hear comes to us through means of the Word of God.” Who then would say anything but what the apostle does here?, viz., that the foundation of the truth is what we hear (literally, a hearing, or a report). But does this exclude the Spirit from His work in preparing the soul for believing what it hears?

Having said this much as to faith itself, let a few words be added as to what it receives, “the glorious gospel of the blessed God.” That which we preach, and which faith believes, “is the glad tidings of great joy.” It is God’s testimony of His own character, His declaration of His gracious mind towards the sinner, the utterance of His manifold yearnings over His lost and long-wandered offspring. That which we make known is the story of Divine love. We tell men that there is such a thing as love in God towards the sinful; that this love has found vent to itself in a righteous way, and that all are welcome to the participation and enjoyment of this love. We show them how God has opened up His heart to let them see what riches of grace are there; and how He has done a work on the earth by which we may measure the infinite dimensions of that gracious heart. This is the good news we bring, the tidings we present to the sinner to be believed, to be rejoiced in with joy unspeakable and full of glory. And this gospel is free, truly, absolutely, unconditionally free. It is without money and without price, making known the exceeding riches of God’s grace. This news shows us how these riches are pouring themselves freely upon all this fallen world. It shows that there is not only grace in God for sinners, but also that that grace has found vent to itself and is flowing down in a righteous channel to unrighteous man. It tells us that the darkness is past, that the true light has arisen upon the world. It tells us that the veil is torn from top to bottom, that every sinner may go freely in; that there is forgiving love in the bosom of the Father; that every sinner, without exception, is invited to avail himself of it. It points each wandering eye to the Cross, that it may read there the Divine compassion towards the rebellious, the unholy. The good news comes to every man, inviting him to partake of all the fullness of God.

“Shall we tell men that unless they are holy they must not believe on Jesus Christ; that they must not venture on Christ for salvation until they are qualified and fit to be received and welcomed by Him? This would be a forbearing to preach the gospel at all, or to forbid all men to come to Christ. He is well qualified to come to us, but a sinner out of Christ has no qualifications for Christ but sin and misery.... Shall we tell people that they should not believe on Christ too soon? It is impossible that they should do it too soon. Can a man obey the command of the gospel too soon or do the work of God too soon?... If he should say, What is it to believe on Jesus Christ? As to this, I find no question in the Word, but that all did some way understand the notion of it. They all, both Christ’s enemies and disciples, knew that faith in Him was believing that the Man, Jesus of Nazareth, was the Son of God, the Messiah and Savior of the world, so as to receive and look for salvation in His name. If he still asks what he is to believe, you tell him that he is not called to believe in Christ, nor that his sins are pardoned, nor that he is a justified man — but he must believe God’s record concerning Christ; and that this record is, that God gives to us eternal life in His Son, Jesus Christ, and that all who with the heart believe this report and rest their souls on these glad tidings shall be saved.

“If he still says that believing is hard, ask what it is that makes believing hard for him. Is it unwillingness to be saved? Is it a distrust of the truth of the gospel? This he will not dare admit. Is it a doubt of Christ’s ability or goodwill to save? This is to contradict the testimony of God in the gospel.... If he says that he cannot believe on Christ, and that a Divine power is needed to draw it forth, which he does not find within himself, you tell him that believing on Christ Jesus is not a work, but it is a resting on Jesus Christ; that this pretence is as miserable as if a man who was weary from his journey, who was not able to go one step farther, should begin to argue that he was so tired that he could not even lie down to rest — when in fact, he could neither stand nor go” (Robert Trail, Scottish preacher).

But I may be asked, How is all this freeness consistent with Christ’s substitution for His church alone? I answer that the gospel is not, “Christ died for the elect”; neither is it, “Christ died for all.” But it is, “Christ died for sinners.” It was thus that the apostles preached and that men believed. Any reader of the Acts of the Apostles can see this. They preached the glad tidings in such terms as these: “To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). Or again, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins. And by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (13:38-39).

The passage in 1 Corinthians 15:3 is often appealed to as a proof that the apostles preached everywhere that Christ died for all.... We have a full account of their preaching in this book of Acts, and nothing of the sort is stated there. But, in regard to this passage ... how is it possible to extort such a declaration out of it? The apostle went to Corinth. He stood up in a city of heathen. He cried out, “Christ died for our sins.” He did not say, “Christ died for all and everyone”; no, he did not say, “for your sins”; he simply said, “for our sins.” Now, not wishing to restrict the gospel, nor to make it appear as if it were not literally and actually for all but noting that the words here are plainly restrictive, we might expect to hear some caviling hearer in the way say, like some modern objectors, Oh! He does not preach the gospel. He says that Christ died for our sins, but he should have said that Christ died not only for our sins, but for the sins of all.

The man who lays stress on what he calls the gospel upon all, upon me, or on the other hand, upon the elect or the church plainly does not believe the gospel as the apostles did. And the man who, in believing, is turning his whole thoughts to these words, is going aside from the tidings themselves. He is thinking of nothing but himself and the bearing of the gospel upon himself alone. He is losing sight of the glorious revelation of Himself, which God has made in the gospel; and he is only concerned about that part of it which he thinks includes his own salvation.

But how is this? You will ask. For the obvious reason that it is not with the work of Christ as a work done especially for myself that I have to do with in the first place in believing. But first, I must recognize it as a work which opens up to me the grace of God. It shows me that there is such a thing as grace, or free love to sinners. It is the pledge of its reality and the measure of its extent and dimensions. Whether we suppose it to be work done for many or few, still it is the declaration of God’s free love, and it is that free love that is the sinner’s resting place. The real question that troubles an anxious soul is in substance this: “Is there free love in God, free love reaching even to the vilest? Does He have such a free love that no amount of sin can repel or quench? Is there enough of free love to reach even to me and to remedy a case like mine?” The work of Christ settles all these perplexities, and yet in settling them it does not raise the question, “Was the work done especially for me?” any more than it raises the question, “Am I elected, or not?” It is the meaning of that work to which an inquirer has to look in the first place, not to its ultimate and particular destination. He who understands the character of God as the Lord God who is merciful and gracious will not be disquieted by the subtle suggestion of the evil one to ask, Am I elected? So he who understands the work of Christ, which is the grand exposition and opening up of the character of God, will never think of putting the question, “Was that work especially intended for me?” Apart from such a question, that work contains enough to remove all his fears.


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.

 Discuss this article and other topics in our Discussion Board

  Return to the Main Highway

Table of Contents  

  Calvinism and the Reformed Faith