When we look at the sermons of Andrew Bonar that have been handed down in books and other ways, we will see several prominent features. Here are four that I observe.
A leading feature of his preaching was that it was imaginative. Many of his sermons display this characteristic, but as an example I refer to his address on angel workers in which Bonar imagines a gathering of angels in which they relate various visits they made to earth on behalf of God (eleven of them, plus an introduction and a conclusion, which of course ignores the notion of three headings each sermon). All the missions are recorded in the Bible, such as the angelic missions at the Passover in Egypt or in the life of Christ. This method has the benefit of using a string of word pictures with a basic theme, yet each being different. If the listener knows the Bible, then this type of sermon has a gripping effect because the listener is curious to discover which incident will be described next. If the listener does not know the Bible, he still finds the presentation intriguing. Of course, what seems to be the main feature (angelic visits) actually is the background – the main feature turns out to be God’s message to Bonar’s church in Finnieston, with a wide range of applications covering Christian workers (most of the angels are nameless), the unconverted (the angels involved in acts of divine judgement spoke of its awfulness), the wonder of speaking about Jesus, the wonder of serving Jesus, and so on. I suspect that all who heard him got the message, and also that few forgot the message.
A second feature of his sermons was simplicity. Bonar prepared for his sermons by reading the original languages and studying appropriate commentaries and other helps. Yet what is so striking about each of his sermons and addresses is their straightforwardness. None of them are difficult to understand. Of course, making a speech complex is not the mark of an effective communicator. The best way to convey important information is not to simplify it, but to clarify it. I have heard low-level sermons that actually had nothing to say; and I have heard complex sermons that confused me although I realised that I understood the doctrines being discussed. How pleasant it is to listen to a straightforward sermon on profound doctrines delivered in a manner and choice of words that are easily grasped. Listeners did not leave Bonar’s sermons scratching their heads, although many left with pierced hearts.
A third feature of many of his sermons was a focus on crucial aspects of Christian living. Bonar was deeply concerned with holiness of life. It was one of the priorities in his own life. He was sensitive to the presence of indwelling sin in himself and in others, and realised that its outworkings had to be dealt with in his preaching. For Bonar, living the Christian life was a serious matter and he never trivialised it by inappropriate comments from the pulpit. I suspect that this concern about living the Christian life explains the large number of sermons that he preached on Bible characters. In them the ups and downs of the Christian life are seen, and remembered. Dealing with such enabled Bonar to warn his listeners about dangers and to encourage them with examples of growth and development.
A fourth feature of his preaching was his enrapture with the Saviour. This was a lesson he learned early, during his time in Jedburgh. In his entry for Sunday 29, 1836, he records, ‘Especially blessed be God for bringing me to Jedburgh, where my views of truth have been greatly quickened, and the necessity of preaching Christ in every sermon impressed upon me by example and by experience. If already God has so wrought, I sometimes cherish the hope that, when He has ordained me, and actually put me into the ministry, I shall be a thousand-fold more useful. Since last year at this time my times of strong sorrow and vexation have been few; I find that the constant service of Christ is the true remedy.’ There are several matters that could be highlighted from this comment by a trainee pastor: the spiritual benefits for preacher and hearers of preaching Christ in every sermon; Bonar’s logic that initial blessings were indications of future ones from God; and his realisation that engaging in service for Jesus was an effective way of getting rid of negative feelings and fears.
What was the reason for Bonar’s success? His daughter, in her Reminiscences, provides the reason: ‘The congregation that gathered round Dr. Bonar in Finnieston Church was attracted, not by the eloquence of the preaching, but by its simplicity, and the fresh light the preacher threw upon the Scriptures, making them appear to many like a new book.’ She continues: ’The most ignorant among his hearers could understand his simple unfolding of truth, while many a striking saying fell from his lips as he leaned in his characteristic way over the pulpit, and talked quietly to those before him. The most fearful felt their faith strengthened by his joyous confidence in the things of which he spoke. Eternal things came very near, and unseen things became real, as they listened to one who spoke as if already among them.