This week's "thought" comes from one of my favorite 19th century pastors -- Horatius Bonar -- a Scottish minister, author, and hymn writer. One of his more famous sayings is taped to my computer screen for constant reference: "Upon a life I did not live; Upon a death I did not die; Another's life, Another's death, I stake my whole eternity."
His book "God's Way of Holiness" -- from which today's thought comes -- is, in my humble estimation, the best book ever written on the subject. It's 128 pages drip with Gospel truth at every turn. It is extremely well-written (and illustrated and defended!), shows an immense knowledge of the inner workings of the human soul -- from its captivity to sin, to it's liberation and transformation through regeneration and the grace of the Gospel -- and is, unlike many books on the topic today, based in a biblical anthropology and not secular psychology.
For those truly seeking to be holy (in the Scriptural sense), it is a refreshing goldmine of help! He writes in a way that is understandable to those young in the faith, though deep enough to challenge the mature believer by its profound insights. And I must add that the view of holiness he presents is entirely opposite that of the more "legalistic" brands we often tend to think of. In fact, it was written in 1864 to counter such errant views. And if you could not tell by now, yes, I do HIGHLY recommend picking up a copy and reading it! Enjoy.
Strength Against Sin
"By rules of no gentle kind, by terror, by pain, by visions of death and the grave, by pictures of a fiercely flaming hell, by the denial of all certainty in pardon, people have sought to terrify or force themselves (and others) into goodness. By long prayers, by bitter practices of self-denial, by slow chants at midnight or early morn in dim cathedrals, by frequent sacraments, by deep study of old (church) fathers, by the cold of wintry solitude's, by multiplied deeds of merit and will-worship, they have thought to expel the demon and eradicate the ineradicable taint of sin.
But success has not come in this way. The enterprise was a high but fearful one... but they had quite underrated the might of the enemy, while over-estimating their own... They knew not what the power of the human will is for evil; what is man's hostility to God; what is the vitality of sin; what is the exasperating tendency of naked law, and the elasticity of man's resistance to goodness and the law of goodness; what all these together must be when fostered from beneath, and backed by the resources of hell.
In all this there is not one thought of grace or divine free love. No recognition of forgiveness as the root of holiness. (Man) is slow to learn that all legal deterrents are in their very nature irritants, with no power to produce or enforce anything but constrained externalism. The interposition of forgiving love, in absolute completeness and freeness, is resisted as an encouragement to evil-doing. And, at the most, only a very conditional and restricted form of grace is allowed to come into play... That God should act in any other character than as the rewarder of the deserving and the punisher of the undeserving; that He should go down to the depths of a human heart, and there touch the springs which were reckoned inaccessible or perilous to deal with; that His gospel should throw itself upon something nobler than man's fear of wrath, and begin by proclaiming pardon as the first step to holiness -- this is so incredible to man, that, even with the Bible and the cross before his eyes, he turns away from it as foolishness. (He can't believe that the gospel alone can transform someone). Nevertheless, this is "the more excellent way." No, the true and only way of getting rid of sin.
Forgiveness of sins, in believing God's testimony to the finished propitiation (the wrath-appeasing death of Jesus on the cross), is not simply indispensable to a holy life, in the way of removing terror and liberating the soul from the pressure of guilt, but of imparting an impulse, and a motive, and a power which nothing else could do. Forgiveness at the end, or in the middle (a forgiveness one must earn), or a grudging forgiveness, would be of no avail. It would only tantalize and mock. But a complete forgiveness, presented in such a way as to carry its own certainty along with it to everyone who will take it at the hands of God -- this is a power in the earth, a power against self, a power against sin, a power over the flesh, a power for holiness -- such as no amount of suspense or terror could create...
It is forgiveness that sets a man working for God. He does not work in order to be forgiven, but because he has been forgiven, and the consciousness of his sin being pardoned makes him long more for its entire removal than ever he did before. An unforgiven man cannot work. He has not the will, nor the power, nor the liberty. He is in chains. Israel in Egypt could not serve Jehovah. "Let my people go, that they might serve Me," was God's message to Pharaoh (Exodus 8:1). First liberty (through forgiveness of the binding chains of guilt), then service.
A forgiven man is the true worker and true Law-keeper. He can, he will, he must work for God. He has come into contact with that part of God's character which warms his cold heart. Forgiving love constrains him. He cannot but work for Him who has removed his sins from him as far as the east is from the west. Forgiveness has made him a free man, and given him a new and most loving Master. Forgiveness, received freely from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, acts as a spring, an impulse, a stimulus of divine potency. It is more irresistible than law, or terror, or threat. A half forgiveness, an uncertain justification, a changeable peace, may lead to careless living and more careless working, may slacken the energy and freeze up the springs of action (for it shuts out that aspect of God's character which gladdens and quickens the heart); but a complete and assured pardon can have no such effect. It is assurance of forgiveness that carries with it tendencies toward holiness and consistency of life which are marvelous in their power and certainty...
(Though some would say) men could be made unholy by knowing certainly with what a holy love they have been freely loved, or made holy by being kept in suspense as to their own personal reconciliation with God, a pardon doled out in crumbs or drops (or so cautiously held out, or held back, that a man can hardly ever be sure of having them) cannot make a man more fruitful in good works than a pardon given at once, and given in such a way as to assure even to the chief of sinners that it is great and free and a gift of the boundless generosity of God!"
In the well-known hymn, "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing." Charles Wesley captured this very thought when he wrote: "He breaks the power of canceled sin, He sets the prisoner free." Or if I can paraphrase it, "God breaks the power sin has over us by forgiving it, and pardoning the sinner, which sets him free..." That is, sets him free from the enslaving shackles of sin so that he may now pursue true holiness and not be forever stuck in "a constrained external-ism." Tim Keller picked up on this same principle and calls it the difference between "a legally restrained heart and a grace changed heart." Enforced religious laws do constrain outward behaviors, but they leave the heart chained to the sin, which due to our fallen nature, enslaves it.
Bonar is right. Only free and complete forgiveness, given as a gift and not earned or conditioned on performance, liberates the soul and transforms the life.
Living by the Grace of Jesus, Pastor Jeff