Andrew Bonar and Fellowship with Christ
The Source of Spiritual Usefulness
The life of Andrew Bonar shows us that the usefulness of the servants of Christ is intimately related to the holiness of their lives. Certainly it is true that from time to time men of outstanding natural gifts are given to the churches but, even in their case, their gifts are not the key to their usefulness. Bonar certainly had gifts, but they did not include a natural eloquence of speech and an appealing voice. He was not what is commonly called ‘a popular preacher’. That was his own assessment: ‘I am not, and never was, a great or popular preacher’, and it seems to have been the opinion of others. How then did he build and sustain a large congregation through many years? The answer is because what a preacher is as a Christian, is of greater consequence than his natural gifts. In the words of M’Cheyne: ‘It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.’ 1
This being surely true, it must lead to the question, What is holiness in personal life? That is the question which compels consideration in Bonar’s Diary, and the answer there provided is surely the true one: the essence of holiness is communion with God, it is Christ in us – ‘Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ’. This is the thread that runs through Bonar’s life as a Christian:
Aged 33: I see plainly that fellowship with God is not means to an end, but is to be the end itself. I am not to use it as a preparation for study or for Sabbath labour; but as my chief end, the likest thing to heaven.
Aged 34: Close walking with God, daily, if not hourly, taste of the sweetness of Christ ... O to be as Enoch till I die!
Aged 55: Some nearness and enjoyment in spending some hours alone with the Father, Son, and Spirit. It was basking in the beams of grace.
Aged 60: My heart’s desire is to be a temple of the Holy Ghost, full of Christ.
Aged 64: Christ is more than ever precious to me in His atonement, righteousness, merit, heart ... Nothing else satisfies me. I only yearn to know Him better, and preach Him more fully.
Aged 72: I sometimes get moments when I seem to realise myself as face to face with Christ within the veil, walking with him ... Still distressed at the fact that my fellowship with the Lord is so broken, instead of being constant and continuous.
Aged 79: All forenoon spent in special prayer, that my latter days may be days of rapid progress in the knowledge of Christ.
Aged 80: I am struck to the heart often with wonder that I have so little communion with Christ.
Bonar knew the perplexities and uncertainties all Christians face, but on how communion with God is to be maintained he had no doubts whatever. It is by the ministry of the Holy Spirit on God’s part, and by prayer on our own. His Diary shows he regarded prayer as his main work, and among his prayers the most frequent was for the Holy Spirit to make the person and glory of Christ more real to him. He advised believers to follow the pattern of Paul’s fifteen prayers recorded in the New Testament; and it is noteworthy how his own petitions were closely tied to Scripture. Perhaps the prayer that appears most frequently in his Diary is that of Ephesians 3:16-19,
That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length, and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ that passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.
The Consequences of Communion with God
Communion with God brings resemblance to Christ
‘We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory’ (2 Cor. 3:18). The first thing people noted about Bonar was not so much what he said, or did, but what he was. ‘If you were not carried away by the man’s teaching, which was as likely as not, yet were you infallibly carried away by the man himself.’ ‘He had a charm which is difficult to describe.’ ‘He was in touch with God.’ ‘You felt at once that the man was acquainted with Jesus Christ, he had lived in his company.’ The happiness of the man was a feature particularly noted by numbers. Bishop Moule said of him, ‘He was one of the very sunniest Christians I ever met.’ But the leading feature of his character was love, the love of God in him. He not only prayed the words of Ephesians chapter 3, but the prayer was answered. His life became an example of the words, ‘God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him’ (1 John 4:16).
This showed itself in his tender, urgent concern for the unconverted. We read in the Gospels that Christ was so taken up with the needs of the multitude that eating was forgotten, and his friends said, ‘He is beside himself’ (Mark 3:20-21). To live near to Christ has to be to know something of that same compassion and compulsion. A servant girl described M’Cheyne as ‘deein to hae folk converted’. This whole brotherhood of ministers believed that the conversion of men, women, and children ought to be an uppermost concern. Bonar’s entry in his Diary for his 49th birthday, after his coming to Glasgow, reads: ‘Felt in the evening most bitter grief over the apathy of the district. They are perishing, they are perishing, and yet they will not consider. I lay awake thinking over it, and crying to the Lord in broken groans.’ Approaching twenty years later, when his church is now well filled, he is far from content. He writes on December 30, 1876: ‘I fear much I have been sliding into easy-minded contentment with the truth and the work going on without seeing souls added every day. Delight in the Word read and preached is not the same thing as light shining upon the dark world.’
This same spirit showed itself in his pastoral work among his people. His daughter Marjory writes:
His acts of loving ministry were countless. He would toil up long flights of stairs to take a remedy to someone in pain, or to find lodgings for one who was friendless and homeless. He would carry a bottle of beef tea in his pocket to a sickly woman, or a picture book to while away the hours of a child’s sickness ... No service was too small for him to do for any of Christ’s little ones. ‘Love is the motive for working’, he used to say, joy is the strength for working’.
Communion with God will make a man humble
It was when Isaiah saw Christ’s glory that he cried, ‘Woe is me, for I am undone! because mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ The knowledge of God brings true knowledge of self. Listen to what Bonar wrote about himself in the presence of God:
I am ashamed of my shallowness in knowledge, feeling and desire. Most humbling.
I want some discovery today of my inexpressible worthlessness, impotence, weakness. That God has used me is nothing else than the merest sovereign grace.2
It is this day exactly forty-seven years since I was ordained. My ministry has appeared to me to be wanting in so many ways, that I can only say of it, indescribably inadequate.
Imperfection stamped on everything I ever undertook; omission running through my life. My place is under the shadow of the Righteous One.
Sometimes, as this morning, I get most painful discoveries of my soul’s barrenness and coldness, when I awake and find myself without any real compassion for souls; without any real burning zeal for God’s glory; with very shallow and poor apprehension of the doctrines I preach.
So very much of self has been in my ministry, so very little of Christ’s compassion for souls.
Bonar believed that such self-knowledge was necessary for all Christians, and that one reason why indwelling sin remains is ‘to keep us from leaning on our personal holiness’.
He also reflects in his Diary on his duty to ‘know his place’. Once when he was commended for his work in later life, he replied, ‘I never thought I did more than draw the water and let the flock drink’. From time to time he likened himself to the sons of Merari among the Levites, whose work in the wilderness was to carry such little things as the pins of the Tabernacle. Here is a typical reference from a day in Collace, when he was sitting reading the life of Thomas Chalmers. He has recorded what happened next:
A man came in to ask me to go with him to settle a quarrel between him and his wife. The Lord does not use me, like His servant, Dr Chalmers, for great things, but my way of serving the Lord is walking three or four miles to quiet a family dispute! The Lord shows me that He wishes me to be one of the common Levites who carry the pins.3
Communion with God will save us from losing time on religious futilities
Christ has not promised to make all we do of lasting benefit to ourselves or to others. There is a qualification: ‘He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing’ – that is, nothing of eternal value, nothing glorifying to God. As Bonar faced the work in Glasgow in 1856 he wrote: ‘Unless I go forth among them, filled with the Holy Spirit, I see that all will be vain.’ Again in 1871: ‘More and more do I learn that continual watchfulness unto prayer is essential to right preaching, right visiting, right conversation, right reading of the Word.’ He embodied this principle in his sayings: ‘If we are filled with the Spirit, God will bless everything about us, the tones of our voice, even the putting out of our hand.’ ‘The best part of all Christian work is that part which only God sees.’ 4
The truth is that there is no mechanical benefit in the fulfilment of biblical duties. It is only by Christ working through us that there is any real fruitfulness. Our own busyness can accomplish nothing. The temptation of the devil is to make us think that we have so many duties that we cannot afford the time to stop and wait on God. The opposite is the truth. We waste time when we do not pray. Above the fireplace in Bonar’s study a card read, ‘He who has truly prayed has completed the half of his study.’ Robertson Nicoll has his finger on this truth when he writes: ‘His prayerfulness did not diminish – it greatly increased – Dr Bonar’s activity, which was of the most amazing kind.’ Yet Bonar’s own regret was the conviction he would have done more good had he lived closer to Christ. ‘The Spirit has put a full cup of blessing to my lips; but scarcely ever have I done more than merely take a sip. O what I have lost! O what I have lost!’
Communion with God will directly affect a man’s preaching
The further we get in fellowship with Christ the more prominent he will be in our preaching. There is surely an inevitability about this. In Bonar’s words, ‘Acquaintance with the personal Saviour and constant fellowship with Him imparts fresh life and unction to preaching.’ ‘Saw today’, he notes again, ‘the blessed effects of preaching Christ distinctly, fully, fervently, and that it is praying much that makes preaching felt.’ To preach Christ is much more than quoting him and making reference to him. The preacher is to stand in the place of Christ, and to use such language as this: ‘We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God’ (2 Cor. 5:20). How can this be unless we come from his presence with something of his heart and spirit? How else can we be possessed with great and high thoughts of Christ? It can only be as the Holy Spirit reveals him to us. How can we speak of Christ’s love, and of how he satisfies every need, unless we ourselves have fresh experience of these realities?
Bonar was certain that the more he was filled with the Holy Spirit the more fully would he preach Christ. And the paradox is that the more a preacher has of the Spirit’s anointing, the more pitifully feeble his sermons appear to him compared with the greatness of the Saviour. As I have already said, high views of Christ are always accompanied by low views of self. Bonar’s daughter wrote of her father: ‘The Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ occupied him at all times.’ But that is not how he saw himself. He lacked sermons ‘full of Christ’. To the very last year of his life his ambition was the same, ‘O that I might preach a hundred times more fully and gladly concerning Christ Himself.’
Does this not lead us to an answer to the question, what is unction in preaching? It is related to the inner and secret life of the preacher; there is a mysterious overflow from the man, and yet it is not of the man; it is from heaven and it brings an awareness to hearers that what is being spoken is from Christ himself.5And the more a preacher has of Christ’s Spirit the less he thinks of himself: ‘Self-forgetting work is heavenly work.’
There is also a practical point here which is particularly relevant to preaching at the present time. It has become customary in many places for preachers to think that the only way to preach is to expound a passage or book of Scripture consecutively from week to week. It is worthy of notice that this was not the view of Bonar or his friends. Their most common method of preaching was to take distinct and separate texts. How is that to be explained? The explanation cannot be that Bonar had a defective view of the need to teach Scripture, or that he was lacking in the skill of an exegete. He produced two commentaries on books of Scripture (Leviticus and Psalms) and never preached on a text, from Old or New Testaments, without examining it in the original languages. Nor was he unfamiliar with the practice of consecutive exposition, which was called a ‘lecture’ in Scotland; indeed he used it himself at times.
There is more than one reason to account for the older practice of taking individual texts; I will only mention the one that is connected with our main theme. M’Cheyne charged a young minister with these words, ‘Get your texts from God.’ Extracts from Bonar’s Diary will make clear what this means:
I see that I should get my texts directly from the Lord, and never preach without having got something that shows me His counsel in the matter.
I have been much impressed with the sin of choosing my text without special direction from the Lord. This is like running without being sent, no message being given me. I ought to feel, ‘This I am sent to tell you, my people.’
This I see, but have been long in learning, that I should be like David seeking counsel, every time I sit down to select a text ... I have often chosen texts, resolved on what I should do, etc., and then asked blessing; when I should have asked the Lord to direct me in the choice.
The modern tendency is to treat this thinking as akin to mysticism. I doubt if Bonar would have understood such an objection. He would have asked, is not God wonderfully interested in our lives and work? Is he not willing to direct us? As we pray, study the needs of our hearers, and consider God’s providential dealing, can he not cause texts to take hold of us and ‘grip us by the hand’? Before we decry Bonar’s practice we need to remember it has the sanction of not a few leading preachers, such as C. H. Spurgeon, whose phrase I have just quoted. They all believed there was a difference between preachers taking a message from the Bible, and taking it from God through the Bible.
Of course, this is not to argue that God does not bless the consecutive method, or that preachers cannot be led of God if they follow that practice. Referring to these two different methods of preaching, Charles Bridges said wisely, ‘It is far better to combine the advantages of both, than to set either plan in opposition to the other, or to adopt either exclusively.’6
All I am arguing is that the single-text method ought to be taken far more seriously than is often done today. And one added reason for that method is that commonly it lends itself better to direct evangelistic preaching. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, but not all Scripture is equally applicable to the conviction and conversion of sinners. There are great, pointed, and searching texts that have been repeatedly used of God and they need to be a staple part of effective preaching.
Communion with God will make a man expectant
Our contentment with little personal growth and few, if any, conversions, is surely to be traced to our small experience of God. It is Paul’s prayer for the conscious indwelling of Christ that leads to the doxology, ‘Now unto him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.’ Bonar notes how the more there is of the Spirit’s work in the church the greater will be the spirit of expectation. Referring to a time of the outpouring of the Spirit in Glasgow, he noted: ‘One marked effect upon ministers here has been the state of expectation in which they now are, looking for real results of their work.’ It was the same in his own life. In the revival times of 1840, instead of being content, he writes to his brother Horace: ‘There have been some interesting cases of conversion. But when is the heaven to become black with clouds and winds, and the rain to fall in a Carmel flood?’ In his first difficult years in Glasgow, a man met him on the street and asked, ‘How are things doing with you? How are you getting on?’ ‘Oh’, Bonar replied, ‘we are looking for great things.’ ‘You must not expect too much’, said his friend. To which Bonar instantly responded, ‘We can never hope for too much.’
A spirit of expectancy governed his life. He lived looking for more love, more zeal, more conformity to Christ. The prayer of M’Cheyne was equally his own: ‘I long for love without any coldness, light without dimness, and purity without spot or wrinkle.’ Ultimately these men were expecting a perfection not be gained in this scene of time. They knew that. They were ‘looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ’ (Titus 1:13). Two texts were ever before Bonar, even inscribed on the walls of his study: ‘Behold, I come quickly’, and ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus.’ It is as Christians enjoy something of the heaven of Christ’s presence here that they look for that which is to come. ‘Resurrection is coming soon’ – he would often tell his people – ‘and He who is the Resurrection is coming. O my people, you won’t know your minister on that day. It will be ecstasy to have made this attainment – to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul, and strength and mind.’ No wonder he insisted, ‘The prospect on before is very bright – the sadness is all in looking back.’
I was once at a ministers’ conference in Scotland where silence descended on the meeting when the speaker pressed the question, why, given our numbers, did we not make a deeper impression on the land? The answer is surely with the above theme. Another witness to the same truth is Daniel Lamont a professor at New College, Edinburgh, in the 1930s. In a book of that period, Lamont expressed the conviction that ‘our Church life has largely lost its zest. The Gospel has a mighty potency to move men and we should therefore expect all our churches to be filled with eager worshippers. The Church is not alive enough. Why is this?’ The answer he gave was this:
The secret of the Church’s comparative failure lies in the eclipse of the individual prayer life. It is to be feared that a host of people who still give formal assent to the truth of Christianity do not cultivate an inner life with God ... Prayer is the chief avenue to communion with God. All other avenues lead to, or from, this one.
This testimony is true. Yet despite many other calls to prayer since the 1930s, the decline has not been arrested. Evidently something more is essential, something even more foundational. Prayer will never retain the place it has in Scripture, if the trustworthiness of Scripture itself becomes a matter of doubt. If the author of Scripture is also the author of true prayer, how can his aid remain once ‘all Scripture ... given by inspiration of God’ (2 Tim. 3:16) is questioned? Since the Holy Spirit is given ‘to them that obey him’ (Acts 5:32), how can men be mighty in prayer who do not honour his Word? Prayer and Scripture are twins. ‘Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit,’ belongs with taking ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’? (Eph. 6:17-8; Acts 6:4).
Scotland’s spiritual decay in the twentieth century was the direct result of the failure of many evangelicals a generation earlier to see the danger introduced into the churches in the name of ‘scholarship’. The issue was whether Christ could be surely believed, and the gospel advanced, without commitment to all Scripture. Bonar was among a minority rearguard who believed it could not. He refused to allow a wedge between commitment to Christ and commitment to Scripture. Without such commitment, Jesus had taught him, prayer would die: ‘If ye abide in me and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will’ (John 15:7).
Of course, in Bonar’s day the attack was not on the words of Christ but on the Old Testament, and some supposed that the best defence was a retreat to the New Testament. Bonar saw that such a proposal was contrary to the witness of the New Testament itself. To concede to the claims of rationalism over one part of the Bible would undermine the unity and authority of the whole. ‘Every line in this inspired Bible is wet with the dew of the Spirit’s love.’ ‘My heart has been distracted and worn out by most dangerous error in the Church at large and within the bounds of our own presbytery,’ he wrote in 1877. 7Again, on May 20, 1880: ‘I spoke with God as a blood-washed sinner warranted to come to Him. I spread out the sad facts: no revival; our Church tainted with rationalism.’
Bonar teaches us that the true living of a devotional life means more than being a mild peacemaker. It was not the placid who turned the world upside down in the apostolic age, and that was not Bonar’s spirit in the face of error and unbelief. ‘Old obstinate’, was the nickname some gave to him. ‘If our father’s life was modelled on that of another’, wrote his daughter, ‘it was on the life of the Reformers and Covenanters.’ But while he revered history, the motivation for his life came from a higher source, and his hope lay not in the future, nor the past. His wish was to be found with those of whom it is written: ‘They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death’ (Rev. 12:11). We must go to the Saviour, as Andrew Bonar did, to learn to pray and to dwell in the Word of God.