How Shall Man Be Right with God?

Horatius Bonar

Bonar (1808-1889) was a minister of the Free Church of Scotland. Excerpts from The Everlasting Righteousness (1874).

How may I, a sinner, draw near to God in whom there is no sin, and look upon His face in peace? This is the great question which, at some time or other, every one of us has asked. This is one of the awful problems which man in all ages has been attempting to solve.

That man’s answers to this question should have been altogether wide of the mark, is only what might have been expected; for he does not really understand the import of the question which he, with much earnestness perhaps, is putting, nor discern the malignant character of that evil which he yet feels to be a barrier between him and God. That man’s many elaborate solutions of the problem which has perplexed the race since evil entered should have been unsatisfactory, is not a wonder, seeing his ideas of human guilt are so superficial; his thoughts of himself so high; his views of God so low.

But that, when God has interposed, as an interpreter, to answer the question and to solve the problem, man should be so slow to accept the divine solution as given in the word of God, betrays an amount of unteachableness and self-will which it is difficult to comprehend. The preference which man has always shown for his own theories upon this point is unaccountable, save upon the supposition that he has but a poor discernment of the evil forces with which he professes to battle; a faint knowledge of the spiritual havoc which has been wrought in himself; a very vague perception of what law and righteousness are; a sorrowful ignorance of that Divine Being with whom, as lawgiver and judge, he knows that he has to do; and a low appreciation of eternal holiness and truth.

Man has always treated sin as a misfortune, not a crime; as disease, not as guilt; as a case for the physician, not for the judge. Herein lies the essential faultiness of all mere human religions or theologies. They fail to acknowledge the judicial aspect of the question, as that on which the real answer must hinge; and to recognize the guilt or criminality of the evil-doer as that which must first be dealt with before any real answer, or approximation of an answer, can be given.

God is a Father; but He is no less a Judge. Shall the Judge give way to the Father, or the Father give way to the Judge? God loves the sinner; but He hates the sin. Shall He sink His love to the sinner in His hatred of the sin, or His hatred of the sin in His love to the sinner? God has sworn that He has no pleasure in the death of the sinner (Ezekiel 33:11); yet He has also sworn that the soul that sinneth, it shall die (Ezekiel 18:4). Which of the two oaths shall be kept? Shall the one give way to the other? Can both be kept inviolate? Can a contradiction, apparently so direct, be reconciled? Which is the more unchangeable and irreversible, the vow of pity or the oath of justice? Law and love must be reconciled. The one cannot give way to the other. Both must stand. The reconciliation man has often tried; for he has always had a glimpse of the difficulty. But he has failed; for his endeavors have always been in the direction of making law succumb to love.

The reconciliation God has accomplished; and, in the accomplishment both law and love have triumphed. The one has not given way to the other. Each has kept its ground; nay, each has come from the conflict honored and glorified. Never has there been love like this love of God; so large, so lofty, so intense, so self-sacrificing. Never has law been seen so pure, so broad, so glorious, so inexorable.

There has been no compromise. Law and love have both had their full scope. Not one jot or tittle has been surrendered by either. They have been satisfied to the full; the one in all its severity, the other in all its tenderness. Love has never been more truly love, and law has never been more truly law, than in this conjunction of the two. It has been reconciliation without compromise. God’s honor has been maintained, yet man’s interests have not been sacrificed.

God has done it all; and He has done it effectually and irreversibly. God only could have devised and done it. He has done it by removing the whole case into His own courts of law, that it might be settled there on a righteous basis. Man could not have gone into court with the case, save in the certainty that he would lose it. God comes into court, bringing man and man’s whole case along with Him, that upon righteous principles, and in a legal way, the case may be settled, at once in favor of man and in favor of God. It is this judicial settlement of the case that is God’s one and final answer to man’s long unanswered question, “How shall man be just with God?” “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God?” (Micah 6:6)

Sin is too great an evil for man to meddle with. His attempts to remove it do but increase it, and his endeavors to approach God in spite of it aggravate his guilt. Only God can deal with sin, either as a disease or a crime; as a dishonor to Himself, or as a hinderer of man’s approach to Himself. He deals with it not in some arbitrary or summary way, by a mere exercise of will or power, but by bringing it for adjudication into His own courts of law. As judge, seated on His tribunal, He settles the case, and settles it in favor of the sinner, — of any sinner on the earth that will consent to the basis which He proposes. Into this court each one may freely come, on the footing of a sinner needing the adjustment of the great question between him and God. That adjustment is no matter of uncertainty or difficulty; it will at once be granted to each applicant; and the guilty man with his case, however bad, thus legally settled, retires from court with his burden removed and his fears dispelled, assured that he can never again be summoned to answer for his guilt. It is righteousness that has reconciled God to him, and him to God.

May I then draw near to God, and not die? May I draw near, and live? May I come to Him who hateth sin, and yet find that the sin which He hateth is no barrier to my coming, no reason for my being shut out from His presence as an unclean thing? May I renew my lost fellowship with Him who made me, and made me for Himself? These are the questions with which God has dealt, and dealt with so as to ensure an answer which will satisfy our own troubled consciences as well as the holy law of God.

Yet the tendency of modern thought repels the thought that sin is crime, which God hates with an infinite hate, and which He, in His righteousness, must condemn and avenge. If sin is such a surface thing, such a trifle, as men deem it, what is the significance of this long sad story? Do earth’s ten thousand graveyards, where human love lies buried, tell no darker tale? Do the millions upon millions of broken hearts and heavy eyes say that sin is but a trifle?

The world has grown old in sin, and has now more than ever begun to trifle with it, either as a necessity which cannot be cured, or a partial aberration from good order which will rectify itself ere long. It is this refusal to see sin as God sees it, as the law declares it, and as the story of our race has revealed it, that has in all ages been the root of error. God’s interposition in behalf of man must be a confirmation, not a relaxation of law: for law cannot change, even as God cannot change nor deny Himself.

Provision has been made by means of substitution, or transference of the penalty from him who had incurred it to One who had not. God has affirmed substitution as the principle on which he means to deal with fallen man. From the beginning God recognized this principle in His dealings with man; the Just dying for the unjust; the blessed One becoming a curse that the cursed might be blessed. In person and in work, in life and in death, Christ is the sinner’s substitute. “He who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” (II Corinthians 5:21) At the cross the whole burden pressed upon Him, and the wrath of God took hold of Him. “Justified by His blood,” is the apostolic declaration; and as the result of this, “saved from wrath through Him.” (Romans 5:9) It is at the cross that God justifies the ungodly. “By His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) “Reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10) is another of the many testimonies to the value and efficacy of the cross. The “peace was made by the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:20).

To be entitled to use another’s name, when my own name is worthless; to appear before God in another’s person — the person of the Beloved Son — this is the summit of all blessing. The sin-bearer and I have exchanged names. I am now represented by Him; He now appears in the presence of God for me (Hebrews 9:24). So entirely one am I with the sin-bearer, that God treats me not merely as if I had not done the evil that I have done; but as if I had done all the good which I have not done, but which my substitute has done. In one sense I am still the poor sinner, once under wrath; in another I am altogether righteous, and shall be so forever, because of the Perfect One, in whose perfection I appear before God. It is an exchange which has been provided by the Judge; an exchange of which any sinner upon earth may avail himself and be blest.

The fifty-third chapter of Isaiah is a prophetic vision of the cross, expressing the transference of the sinner’s guilt to the Messiah. Abruptly the prophet breaks forth in his description of Messiah. He rises up in the midst of us, but not to be appreciated and honored; not to be admired or loved. “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him.” (Isaiah 53:2) “He is despised and rejected of men.” “A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3) Whence all this life-long sadness? Why is the holy Son of God, from his childhood, subjected to this contempt, and bowed down beneath this burden? It was our griefs that He was bearing; it was our sorrows that He was carrying. These were the things that made Him the man of sorrows. They that saw Him could not understand the mystery. They said, God has smitten him for his sins, and afflicted him for some hidden transgression that we know not. (Isaiah 53:4) But no; “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) The wounding, the bruising, the chastening, and the scourging had their beginnings before He reached the cross; but it was there that they were all completed by “the obedience unto death.” (Philippians 2:8)

“The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all”; or, hath made to strike upon Him the punishment of us all. (Isaiah 53:6) “It was exacted, and He became answerable, and (therefore) He opened not His mouth. As a lamb to the slaughter He is led; and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7) He was dumb before His judges, because He had made Himself legally responsible for our guilt. After this we are have the cross itself: “He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of my people was He stricken.” (Isaiah 53:8) The sin-bearing of the cross is fully brought out here. There He hung as the substitute, “the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” (I Peter 3:18) “Yet it pleased Jehovah to bruise Him, He hath put Him to grief.” (Isaiah 53:10) There was wrath coming down on Him: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) “Thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin”: or, more exactly, “a trespass offering.” (Isaiah 53:10) Of this trespass offering it is written, “The priest shall make an atonement for him before the Lord, and it shall be forgiven him for anything of all that he hath done in trespassing therein” (Leviticus 6:7). It is the soul that is here said to be the trespass offering. Christ often used language like this regarding His soul: “The Son of Man came . . . to give His soul a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28); “The good Shepherd giveth His soul for the sheep” (John 10:11); “I lay down my soul for the sheep” (John 10:15).

“By His knowledge shall my righteous Servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:11) The Father calls Messiah “my righteous servant.” “Therefore will I divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He hath poured out His soul unto death. And He was numbered with the transgressors; and He bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:12) On that tree of death and shame the work was finished; there He was numbered with the transgressors; there He bare the sin of many. “It is finished” were His words as He died. (John 19:30) He who makes this announcement on the cross is the Son of God; it is He who but the day before had said in the prospect of this consummation, “I have glorified Thee on the earth, I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do.” (John 17:4) The work that justifies is done. It is so finished that a sinner may at once use it for pardon, for rest, for acceptance, for justification. There the divine displeasure against sin has spent itself; there righteousness has been obtained for the unrighteous.

Related Reading


The Bible

Estrangement from God



The Day of Judgment