Horatius Bonar,1808-1889, a popular Scottish pastor and preacher and a prolific hymn writer and author, has been a hero of mine since 1972. When I left home for a two year assignment to East Africa, my father, Don Miller, gave me a copy of Bonar's small book, "Words to Winners of Souls." Recently, I have sensed a call to return to it, and it has been a real blast from the past on several levels.
First of all, I made extensive notes in the book. This is a habit of mine, and it has served me well when I pick up a book and read it again. The notes have revealed to me my earliest steps in the direction of personal and corporate spiritual awakening. On another level, it brings to light the need for a revival on a regular basis in the life of a pastor and his people, no matter what century, country, or community they may serve.
The great tragedy of American Christianity may be an arrogant belief that the Church has outgrown or matured to a point that it no longer needs to heed any call from God to return to a personal, private, consistent companionship with Jesus. Bonar's book, "Words to Winners of Souls," was published in 1877, but it makes reference to the condition of the Scottish church in 1857. It was not a pretty picture. He called his peers to personal repentance and corporate contrition by reminding them of their heritage, and republishing the Church of Scotland's Ministerial Confession of 1651.
This Ministerial Confession of 1651 was prepared and placed before the pastors of the land when their country was locked into a life and death struggle for survival in a war with England. Oliver Cromwell's forces had proven to be a powerful adversary and the Church of Scotland was on the brink of collapse in the midst of the chaos, confusion and conflict raging throughout Scotland. Every Scottish school boy of 1877 knew the chronology and consequences of these great events, but Bonar pointed the pastors of his day to The Confession of 1651 as a reminder to them of their responsibilty to keep their own hearts hot for Jesus, regardless of the tempestuous times in which they lived.
A brief review of The Confession of 1651 reveals a perpetual, and potent danger that stalks the leaders of the Church in every generation. Pastors constantly face the temptation of allowing the system to overshadow their Savior. In doing so, they may be faithful in carrying out their perceived duties within the Church system, but at the same time fail to maintain their personal intimacy with the Savior who gave His life to establish His Church. In 1651, after self-examination, and personal reflection, the pastors of The Church of Scotland confessed they had been guilty of spending more time in the work of The Lord than they had been spending with The Lord of the work. They had taken great pride in their reformed root system that had grown out of the powerful teaching and preaching of John Knox, but in less than a century, they had lost their focus on Jesus.
I believe the dilemma and the response of the pastors of The Church of Scotland in 1651, and Bonar's call to his Scottish peers in 1857 is a guideline to pastors in America and around the world in 2011. Allow me to share some selected quotes from The Confession of 1651 and see if you agree. Perhaps your own heart has grown cold and even if it is hotter than ever, you could benefit from a reformed reminder with a contemporary exhortation that "except for the grace of God, there go I."
Bonar states, "In the year 1651, the Church of Scotland, feeling in regard to her ministers 'how deep their hand was in the transgression, and their ministers had no small accession to the drawing on of the judgments that were upon the land' drew up what they called a humble acknowledgement of the sins of the ministry. This document is a striking and searching one. It is perhaps one the fullest, most faithful and most impartial confessions of ministerial sin ever made. A few extracts from it will suitably introduce this chapter on ministerial confession. It begins with confessing sins before entrance on the ministry."
- "Lightness and profanity in conversation, unsuitable to that holy calling which they did intend, not thoroughly repented of. Not studying to be in Christ before they were in the ministry; nor to have the practical knowledge and the experience of the mystery of the gospel in themselves before they preach to others. Neglecting to fit themselves for the work of the ministry, in not improving prayer and fellowship with God, opportunities of a lively ministry, and other means and not mourning for these neglects. Not studying self-denial, not resolving to take up the cross of Christ. Negligence to entertain a sight and sense of sin and misery, not wrestling against corruption, nor studying mortification and subduedness of spirit."
OK! That's enough for me for now. Trust me, there is more, but this has to be taken in small doses. Too much light in your eyes will blind you! You also have to get your King James Version on to weed through the overgrowth of prose, but the truth is there if you are willing to look for it.
What caught my eye was the phrase hidden in the middle of the opening salvo of The Confession of 1651. I have emboldened the words for you. In every generation, prayer and fellowship with God are opportunities for a lively minstry. They knew then what we need to remember today. The way you come on is the way you go on.
Pastors who pray their way into the ministry need a gentle reminder to pray their way through the ministry. The more we learn, the more we tend to trust our own experience and expertise. With a little bit of success, or a few wins under our belt, the first thing to get kicked to the curb is humility. With the gaining of professional skills comes a confidence in our ability to perform the tasks required of the system. An active, personal prayer life often atrophies due to an apparent lack of need for advice or counsel from God. This is a dangerous way to live, and invites a relentless adversary to hit a pastor when his guard is down.
Before you recoil at this suggestion, let me ask the question, "Have you prayed too much and enjoyed too much fellowship with Jesus today?" Yeah, me neither. So it seems that in every generation, it falls on pastors to lead the way through the darkness of the system and shed more light on their Savior. Good to know, but it hard to do in a storm, when the winds of turbulent times keep knocking out the power lines! Regardless of the political, financial or social upheaval that surrounds you, don't settle for anything less or place your trust in anything other than personal intimacy with Jesus. The chill in your heart will always be removed by the thrill of getting closer to Him. TALK LESS! PRAY MORE!