The history of God’s work in Scotland is profuse and brimming with manifestations of God’s power and grace. In my twenty-five years of ministry here it has been my privilege when time and opportunity afforded to take visiting preachers on ‘the grand tour.’ From the castle at St Andrews in the north-east to the various Covenanting sites in the south-west the tour incorporates a host of vivid and challenging memories set in some of the most magnificent scenery in the whole world.
Often the most poignant place to visit, however, is an empty church in Finnieston, Glasgow. Its imposing structure betrays the generation in which it was built. All the marks of the Victorian age are there. Its height, its solid stonework and the imposing pillars at its entrance, not unlike a miniature version of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, all belong to a perhaps somewhat pretentious day far gone. The smear of the industrial revolution is not its only defacement. Modern graffiti and the menace of desolation have combined to etch the marks of changing times upon a once so grand facility.
The purpose-built edifice was the design of a tender man yet a powerful preacher, the Rev Andrew Bonar. Friend and mentor to saintly Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Andrew Bonar was one of three brothers who were outstanding preachers. Horatius was also renowned as a hymn-writer and is buried at the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, John, the eldest, was confined to a more obscure, yet very fruitful, work at Greenock. All three were founding ministers of the Free Church of Scotland at the Disruption.
The building, raised to Andrew’s specifications, has all the hallmarks of a preaching centre. The slightest whisper from the pulpit could be clearly heard in every part of the auditorium, and that in a day long before our public address systems. The lecture hall, below ground level, was used for mid-week services and its steeply inclined seating was formed entirely to focus attention on the pulpit. The building now lies empty and forlorn. Because of its ‘architectural beauty’ it is listed and cannot be demolished, because of its architectural form it is useless to our day of spiritual decline and would be too expensive to renovate to any other use.
So there it stands [a recording studio?], empty and useless, a poignant reminder of what was. But even more distressing still, poignancy gives way to emblem. As the building is approached from the front a text can be seen, carved above the main door. Interestingly, and even somewhat enigmatically, it is written in Hebrew script. Perhaps it suggests that the man who called for it to be there had a deep interest in the Jewish people (I hardly think that the people of the west end of Glasgow were any more adept in Hebrew than the people of our day). The only clue as to what it means to the unlearned is the useful subscript: Proverbs 11:30. So now we can know what it has to say: “He that winneth souls is wise.” What a tribute to the motivating principle of one man’s ministry. He has been described as ‘.. .a warm, passionately revivalistic preacher…’, and so he was. In his day the church bustled with activity as thousands came under the influence of the proclamation of the cross-work of the only Saviour for sinners, the Lord Jesus Christ. The impassioned vicarious cry went out almost day by day, ‘Be reconciled to God’.
Somewhat controversially, Bonar became entwined with the work of evangelist D L Moody, supporting the American in his campaigns, and visiting his Northfield Conference. His fervent evangelism caused his fidelity to the doctrines of grace to become suspect in the minds of others (now, what else is new?). But whatever the assessments of hindsight might be, there can be no doubting that Bonar’s great desire was the salvation of sinners at home and abroad, and this to the glory of God. And now, there in the west end of Glasgow, his building stands: empty, desolate, and decaying. All the while still carrying a message to the infrequent visitor or passing man or woman who has the interest to follow the clues to a biblical principle, ‘He that winneth souls is wise.’
Emblematic? Without a doubt! There in microcosm, is the spiritual state of Scotland today. Empty in the vanity modern replacements for the eternal approved proclamation of God’s provision in Christ Jesus; desolate in the tragic introversion and embattlement of those who have forgotten the greater call to worldwide commission; decaying as the great doctrines of grace lie muted under pile of secondary-issue rubble.
Emblematic, yes, but hopeless, no. The church in Scotland, or anywhere else, is not a lifeless physical edifice but a living organism. Thankfully there are still many who manifest the evidence of spiritual vitality, and yet to all such the warning Bonar’s church in Finnieston must be too clear. May God in grace preserve unto us the reviving influences of the Holy Spirit, that we in His fullness may recapture; not the meagre re-enactment things as they once were, but all the blessing of things as they should be.
This article is found in the current edition of the ‘Vision of Europe’ the excellent magazine of the European Missionary Fellowship, ‘Guessens’, 6 Codicote Road, Welwyn, Herts., AL6 9NB
The Banner of Truth publishes Andrew Bonar’s Diary and Life, his Life of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, his Life and Labours of Asahel Nettleton, his commentary on Leviticus, and his ‘Heavenly Springs.’ His brother Horatius Bonar’s ‘The Everlasting Righteousness’ is also published.
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