Good News from a Far Country: Learning the Gospel from a Nineteenth Century Scotsman
When I found that Banner of Truth was slated to reissue nineteenth-century Scottish pastor Horatius Bonar’s exposition of the doctrine of justification The Everlasting Righteousness this year, I was inordinately delighted.
That’s because, outside of Scripture, The Everlasting Righteousness is the most important book I’ve ever read.
More than anyone else I’ve ever read Bonar makes the central truths of the chief article of the gospel piercingly and pastorally clear. And a clear gospel is essential for both the heart and work of a minister, indeed every Christian.
In God’s providential kindness I came across Bonar’s book when I needed it most. Although I was already in my second semester of seminary, for several years I had I struggled deeply with assurance of my salvation. I found myself alternately anxious and ashamed, “laden with guilt and full of fears.”
It was at this point that God provided me with a pastor in Horatius Bonar, who, though writing over a century before I was born, seemed to know me. As I read, it became increasingly apparent to me that I had not only a deficient understanding of assurance, but also of saving faith and the complete sufficiency of the finished work of Christ. In short, I began to see that I had a deficient understanding of the gospel.
Here I highlight merely two of the areas in which Bonar’s work has been especially helpful for me:
The Nature of Justifying Faith
We rightly affirm that justification is by faith alone. But we can forget to explain what this faith is and how it justifies. I experienced the trouble caused by such a lack of understanding as I constantly wondered if I had believed the “right way.”
Reading Bonar, my misunderstanding was quickly corrected:
The question as to the right way of believing is that which puzzles many, and engrosses all their anxiety, to the exclusion of the far greater questions as to the person and work of Him who is the object of their believing…[They] are occupied, not with what Christ has done, but with what they have yet to do, to get themselves connected with His work.
Bonar describes this using an illustration of an Israelite wondering if he had touched the sacrificial lamb aright:
The touching had no virtue in itself…it simply intimated the man’s desire that this sacrifice should be taken instead of himself, as God’s appointed way of pardon; it was simply the indication of his consent to God’s way of saving him, by the substitution of another. The point for him to settle was not, Was my touch right or wrong, light or heavy? but, Was it the touch of the right lamb,—the lamb appointed by God for the taking away of sin?
I had unknowingly been resting my hope not entirely on Christ, but in my faith, as if it was a virtue that somehow gave me a right to salvation––but only in proportion to its sincerity or strength.
Bonar again corrected me: “[F]aith is often magnified into something great; whereas it is really nothing but our consenting to be saved by another….Its preciousness is not its own, but the preciousness of Him to whom it links us.”
I didn’t need to ask “Did I believe the right way” but “Did I believe in God’s appointed substitute?” It is not faith, but Christ who saves. Bonar showed me that I needed to stop looking at my faith and start looking to Christ, whose work is entirely complete and sufficient.
The Nature of Assurance
Assurance features heavily in Bonar’s discussion of justification. In the preface, he comments that Reformation theology had again announced the good news “that man is justified freely, and that God wishes him to know that he is justified.” The work of Christ is thus “God’s way, not only of bringing pardon, but of securing certainty.”
Bonar is in agreement with the Westminster Confession (18.3) when he affirms that assurance is not of the essence of saving faith. Yet while not intrinsic to saving faith itself, assurance is not meant to be something that only the most arduously introspective saints achieve:
Let us know that assurance was meant to be the portion of every believing sinner. It was intended not merely that he should be saved, but that he should know that he is saved, and so delivered from all fear and bondage, and heaviness of heart.
Bonar grounds this in the conviction that the basis of our assurance is not anything in us, but entirely in what Christ has done.
Our justification is the direct result of our believing the gospel; our knowledge of our own justification comes from our believing God’s promise of justification to every one who believes these glad tidings…. There is first, then, a believed gospel, and then there is a believed promise…. The believed gospel saves; but it is the believed promise that assures us of this salvation.
A lack of assurance, then, can be the result of failing to believe the promise of the gospel, even after the gospel itself has been believed.
As I read Bonar’s words, I felt as if someone had flooded a dark room with pure light. I saw that I had been seeking my assurance in the quality or quantity of my own faith, rather than in the promise of God in the gospel, that “whoever believes in him is not condemned” (John 3:18).
Good News from a Far Country
I devoured The Everlasting Righteousness, as chapter by chapter I fed on the comforting and liberating truths of the gospel like never before. In hindsight, it was at this point I could write in the margin of my life: “assurance begun.” I have since returned repeatedly to its pages for spiritual comfort, evangelical clarity, and renewed zeal.
I cannot recommend Bonar’s work highly enough. I trust that those who read it will also find this “good news from a far country” to be “cold water to a thirsty soul.” (Prov 25:25).
It certainly was for me.
John Biegel is a pastor at Riverstone Church (EFCA) in Yardley, PA. He received his MDiv. from Cairn University School of Divinity. He is currently studying for a ThM. at Cairn, writing his thesis on a marvelously obscure 18th century Scottish theologian. John and his wife Michelle live in Levittown, PA with their three young children.
. Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness; Or, How Shall a Man Be Just with God? (1873; repr. Ediburgh; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2020).
 The Everlasting Righteousness, 24, emphasis original.
. The Everlasting Righteousness, 25.
. The Everlasting Righteousness, 109.
. The Everlasting Righteousness, iv¸ emphasis added.
. The Everlasting Righteousness, iv, emphasis added.
. The Everlasting Righteousness, 174.
. The Everlasting Righteousness, 106.
. A phrase borrowed from Horatius’s younger brother Andrew Bonar (Diary and Letters [ed. Marjory Bonar; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1894], 11n1).