Faith and the Gospel (Part 3)

Horatius Bonar (The prince of Scottish hymn writers)

For ease of reading, I have divided this article into 3 parts. Please see further on this blog Parts 1 and 2. – Grant Swart


“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.

(For Parts 1 and 2 see elsewhere on this blog.)

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