A dying plea from Horatius Bonar in 1889 was, “Please don’t write a biography of me.” He knew that people would be interested in his life but he always wanted to point men to Christ, not to Bonar. He died on July 31, 1889.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he studied at Edinburgh University and began his formal ministry in 1837. He was close to evangelical leaders Thomas Chalmers, William C. Burns and Robert Murray McCheyne. When evangelicals party the Free Church of Scotland, Bonar was with them heart and soul since he was broken-hearted over the dead religious formalism all around him.
Bonar was a faithful pastor, champion of God’s sovereignty, hymn writer, passionate evangelist, and a student of revival. His short book, Words to Winners of Souls, has blessed and challenged me for 20 years for ministry. It is one of those handful of books I read every year. Below is an excerpt for this classic book and I urge you to read it.
David E. Prince
What use are sermons, sacraments, schools, if souls are left to perish; if living religion be lost sight of; if the Holy Spirit be not sought; if men are left to grow up and die unpitied, unprayed for, unwarned!
It was not so in other days. Our fathers really watched and preached for souls. They asked and they expected a blessing. Nor were they denied it. They were blessed in turning many to righteousness. Their lives record their successful labors. How refreshing the lives of those who lived only for the glory of God and the good of souls! There is something in their history that compels us to feel that they were ministers of Christ—true watchmen.
How cheering to read of Baxter, and his labors at Kidderminster! How solemn to hear of Venn and his preaching, in regard to which it is said that men “fell before him like slaked lime!” And in the much-blest labors of that man of God, the apostolic Whitefield, is there not much to humble us, as well as to stimulate? Of Tanner, who was himself awakened under Whitefield, we read that he “seldom preached one sermon in vain.” Of Berridge and Hicks we are told that, in their missionary tours throughout England they were blessed in one year to awaken four thousand souls. Oh for these days again! Oh for one day of Whitefield again!
Thus one has written—“The language we have been accustomed to adopt is this; we must use the means, and leave the event to God; we can do no more than employ the means: this is our duty, and, having done this, we must leave the rest to Him who is the disposer of all things.” Such language sounds well, for it seems to be an acknowledgment of our own nothingness, and to savor of submission to God’s sovereignty; but it is only sound: it has not really any substance in it, for though there is truth stamped on the face of it, there is falsehood at the root of it.
To talk of submission to God’s sovereignty is one thing; but really to submit to it is another and quite a different thing. Really to submit to God’s sovereign disposal, does always necessarily involve the deep renunciation of our own will in the matter concerned; and such a renunciation of the will can never be effected without a soul being brought through very severe and trying exercises of an inward and most humbling nature. Therefore, if whilst we are quietly satisfied in using the means without obtaining the end, and this costs us no such painful inward exercises and deep humbling as that alluded to, we think that we are leaving the affair to God’s disposal—we deceive ourselves, and the truth in this matter is not in us. No; really to give anything to God, implies that the will, which is emphatically the heart, has been set on that thing; and if the heart has indeed been set on the salvation of sinners, as the end to be answered by the means we use, we cannot possibly give up that end, without, as was before observed, the heart being severely exercised and deeply pained by the renunciation of the will involved in it.
When, therefore, we can be quietly content to use the means for saving souls, without seeing them saved thereby, it is because there is no renunciation of the will; that is, no real giving up to God in the affair. The fact is, the will—that is, the heart—had never really been set upon this end; if it had, it could not possibly give up such an end without being broken by the sacrifice. When we can thus be satisfied to use the means without obtaining the end, and speak of it as though we were submitting to the Lord’s disposal, we use a truth to hide a falsehood, exactly in the same way that those formalists in religion do, who continue in forms and duties without going beyond them, though they know they will not save them, and who, when they are warned of their danger, and earnestly entreated to seek the Lord with all the heart, reply by telling us they know they must repent and believe, but that they cannot do either the one or the other of themselves, and that they must wait till God gives them grace to do so.
Now, this is a truth, absolutely considered; yet most of us can see that they are using it as a falsehood to cover and excuse a great insincerity of heart. We can readily perceive that if their hearts were really set upon salvation, they could not rest satisfied without it. Their contentedness is the result, not of heart-submission to God, but in reality of heart-indifference to the salvation of their own souls. Exactly so it is with us as ministers: when we can rest satisfied with using the means for saving souls without seeing them really saved, or we ourselves being broken-hearted by it, and at the same time quietly talk of leaving the event to God’s disposal, we make use of a truth to cover and excuse a falsehood; for our ability to leave the matter thus is not, as we imagine, the result of heart-submission to God, but of heart-indifference to the salvation of the souls we deal with. No, truly; if the heart is really set on such an end, it must gain that end or break in losing it.”
He that saved our souls has taught us to weep over the unsaved. Lord, let that mind be in us that was in thee! Give us thy tears to weep; for, Lord, our hearts are hard toward our fellows. We can see thousands perish around us, and our sleep never be disturbed; no vision of their awful doom ever scaring us, no cry from their lost souls ever turning our peace into bitterness.
It is told of Archbishop Usher that, at one period of his life, he used on Saturday afternoon to go alone to a river-side, and there sorrowfully recount his sins, and confess and bewail them to the Lord with floods of tears. Is this not fitting to reprove many, many of us? And even where we lament our sins, how many of us go apart oftentimes to weep over lost souls, to cry to the Lord for them, to implore, to beseech, to agonize with him in their behalf? Where is the water-side beside which our eyes have poured out streams in our intense compassion for the perishing?
Do we believe there is an everlasting hell!—an everlasting hell for every Christless soul? And yet we are languid, formal, easy in dealing with and for the multitudes that are near the gate of that tremendous furnace of wrath! Our families, our schools, our congregations, not to speak of our cities at large, our land, our world, might well send us daily to our knees; for the loss of even one soul is terrible beyond conception. Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has entered the heart of man, what a soul in hell must suffer forever. Lord, give us bowels of mercies! “What a mystery? The soul and eternity of one man depends upon the voice of another!”1
- Horatius Bonar, Words to Winners of Souls (Boston: The American Tract Society, 1870). 34-44.