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Horatius Bonar (1808-1889): A Ministry of Power

By Flynn Cratty

They Went Before Us…
"Living theology. Flawed and encouraging saints. Stories of grace. Deep inspiration. The best entertainment. Brothers, it is worth your precious hours. Remember Hebrews 11. And read Christian biography."
1With these words, John Piper exhorts pastors to study those faithful men and women who have gone before us. This series of articles will aid you in doing just that; this column is meant to tell the story of a few of the godly men—particularly pastors—whose faithfulness is worthy of emulation and inspiration.

In Words to Winners of Souls, Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) wrote, "I am ashamed of my dull and careless heart, and of my slow and unprofitable course of life" (58). Would that every heart were so "careless" and every life so "unprofitable." Bonar was nearly 80 when he preached his last sermon in Edinburgh. Over the course of his uniquely fruitful life, he helped form the Free Church of Scotland and then served as the Moderator of its General Assembly, helped organize D.L. Moody’s 1887 Edinburgh evangelistic meeting, raised a family, and pastored several churches. He also wrote more than 600 hymns and poems, many of which are still benefiting churches more than 100 years after his death.

Bonar was born in Edinburgh in 1808 to a ministerial family—three of the seven Bonar brothers eventually became pastors. The brothers were privileged to minister at a time when the churches of Scotland were blessed with a number of men of unique piety and ability. Horatius had the good fortune to study under Thomas Chalmers at the University of Edinburgh, and the Bonar brothers were close friends of Robert Murray McCheyne. Horatius’ brother Andrew Bonar compiled McCheyne’s memoirs after his death.

Horatius Bonar is perhaps best known today as a writer of hymns. His compositions were extremely popular in his own day; his collection Hymns of Faith and Love sold more than 140,000 copies in his lifetime. But Bonar’s appeal is equally evident today. His hymns demonstrate not only deep theological understanding, but also a vital, personal knowledge of God—few have managed to unite heart-felt doxology and robust, biblical theology with so much success. His classic hymn ‘Not What My Hands Have Done’ is one particularly moving example. Its opening verse is a poignant and personal reflection on humanity’s depravity and inability to attain salvation apart from Christ:

Not what my hands have done
can save my guilty soul;
not what my toiling flesh has borne
can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do
can give me peace with God;
not all my prayers and sighs and tears
can bear my awful load.

Though Bonar despaired of ever earning salvation by his own merit, he can hardly be called despairing. His spiritual humility was joined by a sincere trust in Christ’s righteousness and God’s love. In the final verse of ‘Not What My Hands Have Done,’ Bonar gives voice to his steadfast confidence in God, a trust that could only have come through personal knowledge of the Savior:

I praise the God of grace;
I trust his truth and might;
he calls me his, I call him mine,
my God, my joy, my light.
‘Tis he who saveth me,
and freely pardon gives;
I love because he loveth me,
I live because he lives.

Bonar first began writing hymns for the children of the parish church at Kelso. He hardly could have known then that his hymns would remain popular with their children and grandchildren. But many congregations are still learning from Bonar as they sing ‘Not What My Hands Have Done,’ and other classics like ‘Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face To Face’ and ‘Go Labor On! Spend And Be Spent.’ Bonar is rightly recognized as one of the great hymn-writers of the English-speaking world.

In addition to his many hymns, Bonar’s labors resulted in a rich body of devotional literature. God’s Way of Peace and God’s Way of Holiness were his two most popular practical books, and can still be read with profit today. Words to Winners of Souls is a pointed challenge to pastors. In it, Bonar exhorts ministers to live holy lives marked by love for God: "Nearness to Him, intimacy with Him, assimilation to His character—these are the elements of a ministry of power" (12). Bonar’s challenge to ministers today would be much the same. He felt that only such a "ministry of power" would result in the conversion of sinners and the edification of the saints.

Bonar was a champion of doctrinal orthodoxy; but he felt himself surrounded by pastors who seemed to know the doctrines of grace without ever having any personal experience of them. He asked, "who can say how much of the overflowing infidelity of the present day is owing not only to the lack of spiritual instructors—not merely to the existence of grossly unfaithful and inconsistent ones—but to the coldness of many who are reputed sound and faithful?" (Words to Winners, 3) That is a question that has lost none of its relevance. After all, "The true minister must be a true Christian … It is but reasonable that a man who is to act as a spiritual guide to others should himself know the way of salvation" (Words to Winners, 9). A minister that is himself unmoved by the gospel can hardly expect to move others by it.

Bonar’s call to personal zeal and heartfelt devotion was accompanied by a call to greater fidelity to the Word. Bonar believed that churches would have to be reformed according to Biblical priorities if they were to know enough to choose pastors that would lead them in true worship. Bonar wrote: "When the church of Christ, in all her denominations, returns to primitive example, and walking in apostolical footsteps seeks to be conformed more closely to inspired models, allowing nothing that pertains to earth to come between her and her living Head, then will she give more careful heed to see that the men to whom she entrusts the care of souls, however learned and able, should be more distinguished by their spirituality, zeal, faith and love" (Words to Winners, 2).

Horatius Bonar hated the false promise of false doctrine and the cerebral coldness of dead orthodoxy alike. He would undoubtedly be saddened to see how much of each streams forth from today’s pulpits, publishing houses, and choir lofts. Pastors today would be wise to emulate Bonar’s zeal for—and delight in—God’s truth. And then perhaps more ministers could sincerely lead their congregations in singing, "Fill ev’ry part of me with praise; let all my being speak of thee and of thy love, O Lord, poor though I be, and weak."2

Recommended Bibliography

Bonar, Horatius. Words to Winners of Souls, P&R Publishing (Phillipsburg, NJ: 1995).
Bonar, Horatius. God’s Way of Holiness, Christian Heritage (Ross-shire, Great Britain: 1999).

1. Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry, p. 96
2. Hymn: ‘Fill Thou My Life, O Lord My God’ (written by Horatius Bonar).

May 2006
Flynn Cratty
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