Leave it to a nineteenth century Scottish Dissenter to articulate with almost inspired precision the foibles and frustrations of the American church. In this extended excerpt from Dr. Horatius Bonar’s Truth and Error, that’s exactly what you get: a diatribe, of sorts, on the mixed bag of confidence and concern that accompanies the modern church. In Bonar’s context, he’s referring to dilemmas which plagued Christians in the mid-1800s. But, in all honesty, nothing much has changed. The church is still comprised of sinners, and still can’t get out of its own way oftentimes. As Bonar himself confesses, there’s a lot to rejoice about, but still “much to grieve over.” Listen as he writes and consider how deftly this describes North American Christianity:
Our present state is not a healthy nor a natural one. It is doubtful and unsatisfactory. There is much to rejoice in, but much to grieve over. There is bustle, activity zeal, and liberality; yet all these may exist, and still spiritual life may be low. There may be much blossom and little fruit . . .
It bears about it many marks of man’s handiwork. The finger of Jehovah is not visibly impressed upon it, so that one looking at it would be constrained to say, this is the doing of the Lord. There is much that is hollow and superficial. It is too hasty, too easy, too light and frivolous . . .
On the one hand, we have some zealous for orthodoxy — tenacious of old forms and phrases, and making an idol of their ancestral creed. On the other, we have men reckless and headstrong in their innovations; rushing from doctrine to doctrine, in the feverish love of change; rash in judgment, and shallow in intellect, despising creeds, confessions, catechisms, and old divinity of every kind; setting themselves up as those who alone preach or know the gospel, — the people with whom alone wisdom can be supposed to exist, and with whom it is almost certain to die.
On the one hand, we have men preaching the gospel, and, at the same time, hedging it about with terms, conditions, restrictions, prerequisites, as if afraid of the very freeness which they preach; telling men to come to Christ, yet enjoining humiliation, sorrow for sin, prayer, etc. as qualifications, without which they cannot be received, as if disliking the idea of our having to deal with Christ absolutely and simply as sinners, and as nothing else. On the other hand, we have men, in their zeal for a free gospel, reducing it to a mere form of words — a current set of phrases, talking of it with flippancy and irreverence, as if the process of receiving it were a mere mechanical one, like the learning of the alphabet.
On the one hand, there are those who keep the gospel in the background, and swell continually on convictions of sin, and repentance, and certain preparatory graces, the depth, and amount, and kind of which are pointed out; as if afraid that men should come to Christ too soon, and have peace. On the other hand, we have men making light of convictions, as if they were but hindrances, disparaging repentance as if inconsistent with the peace of the gospel.
On the one hand, we have those who think assurance nothing else than presumption, and the inlet to Antinomian licentiousness; who speak of it only as a thing attainable at the close of a saint’s career — as the result of a summing up of evidences; who make doubts a proof of faith, and a mark of humility, and who look suspiciously upon any who are rejoicing in the Lord. On the other, there are men who make a God of their assurance, and a Saviour of their faith, and an idol of their peace; who will hear of no struggle with an evil heart of unbelief; no warfare between the flesh and spirit; no deep self-loathing and mourning over indwelling corruption, as if all these were but the symptoms of the weakness or the non-existence of faith, instead of their being certain indications of its presence and power. For it is where faith is in its strength, that the conflict is often most desperate . . .
I see some even, whom I believe to be at heart Christians, running from doctrine to doctrine, from book to book, from church to church, attracted by every novelty in the man or the message. Having lost the glow of their first love, they are seeking it in change and excitement, or the bold asseveration of their assurance. Miserable exchange, indeed, for the lost of their first love! Vain device to recover the fresh life and glow of other days by having recourse to something else than the living Christ himself!1
There are times when I wish time travel was a real thing and that the DeLorean from Back to the Future was sitting in my garage, because if that were the case, you know I would be kidnapping Bonar and bringing him into the twenty-first century to preach at some folks! If there’s anything that’s needed today, it’s orators like him. If you read yesterday’s post in which I reflected on a certain podcast about a certain North American mega-church’s ignominious fall — or, God bless you, if you listened to every episode — you might be led to believe that the church of God is in trouble. You might still be dealing with the rancid taste in your mouth after you’ve heard of certain pastors’ . . . let’s call them improprieties, which is putting it mildly.
Even still, there’s room for hope and encouragement and confidence. Why? Well, if the “gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church, then neither can the gross misconduct of some of its members (Matt. 16:18). Notwithstanding the foibles and frustrations which plague the church and its constituents, the message of forgiveness is concretized in the blood of Jesus. Even with all the in-fighting and back-stabbing and name-calling and virtue-signaling which is evidenced throughout evangelical circles, the Body of Christ is still marching forward. To parrot what my friend Samuel D. James wrote in one of his recent newsletters: “This is how I want to view the church of Jesus: wicked and compromised, but loved, and purified, and destined for greatness.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from having read a variety of Horatius Bonar’s milieu, it’s that we’re already in possession of a message that transcends time. We have the gospel. We have the glad tidings of God’s undying love made manifest in the death of his only begotten Son on the cross, who willingly submitted to that fate in order that the sins of the world might be undone and his Father’s creation remade (Phil. 2:5–11). To proclaim that message is to utter words which are ever real and true and meaningful now as they were 2,000 years ago, and so will they be for as long as Christ tarries. That’s what the church needs. That’s all it’s ever needed. It’s the message which still makes me rejoice in and for the church of God. And all that’s required to deliver that news is one bold enough to take God at his word and preach his Word as the only one that matters — no DeLorean needed.
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! (Rom. 10:13–15)
Grace and peace, friends.
Horatius Bonar, Truth and Error; or, Letters to a Friend on Some of the Controversies of the Day (Edinburgh: W. P. Kennedy, 1847), 194–98, 203–4.