As a preacher, I don’t pretend to have some overly novel message with which to dispense to those whom I’ve been called to shepherd. Mine is the same as others long before have trumpeted. Namely, the message of divine grace condescending to sinners in their sin to snatch them out of it and raise them to new life. It’s the tried and true gospel of God’s patient benevolence, which, springing from his own infinitely holy character, enterprises to bring unholy mankind into the fold of his holiness. I am indebted, of course, to the Holy Spirit’s inklings as to how to propagate such a message. Likewise, to many churchman who’ve preceded me, I owe a great deal of gratitude for their staunch defense and declaration of these same self-evident truths.
One such theologian and pastor who deserves an ample weight of my thanks is none other than 19th century Scottish churchman, Horatius Bonar. Horatius Bonar (1808–1889), the elder brother of Andrew Bonar, was a prolific orator, author, and hymn-writer throughout the 1900s. He, along with his brothers, served as integral influencers in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland after the Disruption of 1843. Greatly influenced by the life and ministry Thomas Chalmers, Horatius became a great winner of souls, authoring numerous books, tracts, and poems throughout the course of his ministry career. Among the many theologians with whom I’ve interacted, Bonar stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. It’s almost comical that a 19th century Scottish churchman would resonate so resoundingly with a 21st century Central Pennsylvania pastor — but such is the incandescent wonder of Jesus’s covenant-making gospel, which spans and reverberates the note of grace throughout all of time.
In, perhaps, his best work — The Story of Grace — Bonar discusses the development of history and how, through the course of the man’s sin, the fullness of God’s “story of goodness” was revealed. The following passage suitably answers the inquiry, Why would God allow sin’s intrusion into the world he called “very good”? Namely, as Bonar affirms, because in so doing, God’s infinitely holy nature was further disclosed to the entire world. He writes:
When is it that the mother’s heart comes out in all its fulness? Not in prosperous days of health, when her face beams gladness over each member of the happy circle. It is in the hour of sorrow, when one of her budding roses has been early blighted, and death seems about to rob her of the joy of her heart. Look at that sick-bed over which she bends with such intensity of sadness. Till now she did not herself know what love was in her. Each wan smile of the dying countenance, each contortion of the features, each wistful upturning of the bright eye, seem to open up new fountains of love. But look again. The disease seems passing off. Health is regaining its dominion in that dying one. What a revulsion of joy! joy which can only get vent to itself by unlocking another region of her heart, and letting forth new streams of love upon the recovering child. In the one case, what depths of sorrowing love, and in the other, what heights of rejoicing love, were opened up. The human heart is discovered to be a thing of far wide compass and capacities than could otherwise have been conceived. It is the objects and scenes of a fallen world that are the occasions of this discovery.
Just so has it been with God, and such is the method he has taken for making known to us this same discovery with regard to himself. Nothing but a world of sin and suffering could have afforded such an opportunity. And it is here accordingly that God is opening up the full extent of his love . . . redemption is no mere expedient to remedy a sudden and unlooked-for evil, but the very design of God, whereby from everlasting he meant to glorify himself by the full revelation of his whole character to the universe which he had made.
A world unfilled reveals but half of God. The deep recesses of his character only come out in connection with a world fallen. The heights and depths of his infinite nature were not manifested till that which is opposed to them occurred to bring them forth. To learn what holiness is, and how holy God is, we need not merely to see his feelings toward the holy but towards the unholy. In order to discover the extent of his goodness, we must not merely see its connection with what it loves, but with what it hates. In the sinless world we see how the loving meets with the loving, the blessed with the blessed; but we have still to learn how the loving meets with the unloving, how the blessed meets with the accursed . . .
Thus God overruled man’s interruption of his story of goodness . . . God’s purpose is to make more of himself known to you, a sinner, than was made known to Adam in his sinlessness. He neither shuts himself out from you, nor you from himself. He is willing to be known of you; willing to take you into his hidden chambers and reveal himself to you, as just such a God as a wretched sinner needs.1
A consequence of the gospel is the precise fact that you and I are privy to more God’s boundless, benevolent character than was ever revealed before. We see God in Christ reconciling the world to himself, in order that the entire creation might witness his righteous grace. (2 Cor 5:18–21) The very Savior needed, and the One so unwarranted, is the very Savior provided and proclaimed in the gospel of God. All of God’s goodness is wrapped in flesh and sent to earth that we might look Goodness in the eye as he deigns himself to touch the untouchable, love the unlovable, and make holy those who are unholy. The Face of God comes to reveal that there are “hidden chambers” of the Father’s ineffable character, which flood with unbidden, undeserved grace. Praise God, therefore, that he is able to fashion holiness out of the pitiful materials of our wretched rebellion.
Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857), 46–49.