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He Died Early in the Smile of God

Robert Murray McCheyne (1813–1843)

Article by John Piper

Robert Murray McCheyne was a local pastor in Dundee, Scotland, who died in 1843 at the age of 29. No extraordinary events in his life made him likely to be remembered. But he had a very precious friend, Andrew Bonar, a nearby pastor. And within two years Andrew had published Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne. It is still in print, and here we are 176 years after McCheyne’s death, encouraged and inspired by his life.

What was it about McCheyne’s short, and in many ways ordinary, life that gave it the force that created the book (and now books) that preserves his legacy to our day?

The Rose and the Thorn

I suggest that there was a double key to the force of McCheyne’s life: the preciousness of Jesus and the pain of a thorn.

In McCheyne’s description of his teenage years, he said, “I kissed the Rose nor thought about the thorn” — meaning, “I indulged in all the amusing and beautiful pleasures of the world, and didn’t give a thought to sickness and suffering and death.” But after his conversion, he spoke often of Jesus as his Rose of Sharon, and he lived in almost constant awareness of the thorn of his sickness and that his time might be short. He said in one of his sermons,

Set not your heart on the flowers of this world; for they have all a canker in them. Prize the Rose of Sharon . . . more than all; for he changeth not. Live nearer to Christ than to the saints, so that when they are taken from you, you may have him to lean on still. (Sermons of Robert Murray McCheyne)

McCheyne lived only the morning of his life: he died before he was 30. His effectiveness, however, was not frustrated by this fact but empowered by it. Because of his tuberculosis, he lived with the strong sense that he would die early. So the double key to his life is the preciousness of Jesus, the Rose, intensified by the pain of the thorn, the sickness and the shortness of his life.

Pierced Awake

McCheyne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 21, 1813. He grew up in an atmosphere with high moral standards, but was, by his own testimony, “devoid of God.” When he went to the University of Edinburgh at the age of 14, he studied classics. He was kissing the rose of classical learning, and ignoring the thorn of suffering and death.

But all that changed in 1831 when he was 18 years old. David, Robert’s oldest brother, was neither spiritually nor physically well. In the summer of that year, he sank into a deep depression and died on July 8. Suddenly, the thorn of the rose stabbed McCheyne through the heart. All the beauty of the rose he was living for wilted. And by God’s grace, he saw another Rose in what happened to David.

In the days leading up to his death, David found a profound peace through the blood of Jesus. Bonar said that “joy from the face of a fully reconciled Father above lighted up [David’s dying] face” (Memoir). McCheyne saw it, and everything began to change. He had seen a rose other than classical learning. And he saw it as beautiful, not in spite of the thorn, but because of it. The thorn pierced him awake.

A Passion for Holiness and Evangelism

Four months after the death of his brother, McCheyne enrolled in the Divinity Hall of Edinburgh University, November 1831. There he met the man who would have the greatest influence on his life and ministry, Thomas Chalmers.

Chalmers pressed all of his great learning into the service of holiness and evangelism. He warned McCheyne and the other students of “the white devil” and “the black devil” — the black devil leading to “fleshly sins” of the world, and the white devil to “spiritual sins” of self-righteousness. And he made the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners the central power for this holiness.

Chalmers was also deeply burdened about the poverty in the slums of Edinburgh and how little gospel witness there was. He established the Visiting Society and recruited McCheyne and his friends to join. This threw McCheyne into a world he had never seen as an upper-middle-class university student. It awakened in him a sense of urgency for those cut off from the gospel. On March 3, 1834, two and a half years into his divinity studies, he wrote,

Such scenes I never before dreamed of. . . . “No man careth for our souls” is written over every forehead. Awake, my soul! Why should I give the hours and days any longer to the vain world, when there is such a world of misery at the very door? Lord, put thine own strength in me; confirm every good resolution; forgive my past long life of uselessness and folly. (Memoir)

So McCheyne would take away from his time in divinity school a passion for holiness and a passion for evangelism. These would never leave him and would become defining impulses of his life — all of it motivated by the beauty of the Rose, and all of it intensified by the thorn of suffering.

Uneventful, Useful Life

The last day of McCheyne’s divinity lectures was March 29, 1835. He was just shy of being 22 years old. And that fall he was called to be the assistant minister in the double parish of Larbert and Dunipace. He served there as an assistant until the call came from St. Peter’s Church in Dundee in August 1836. There McCheyne served as the pastor until his death six and a half years later.

That’s the simple sum of his professional life: a student till he was 22, an assistant pastor for a year, and a senior pastor for six years. As I have tried to think through what makes such an uneventful life so useful even 176 years after his death, it isn’t any extraordinary event in his life. Rather, it is his extraordinary passion for Christ — for the Rose — and for holiness and for lost people, all intensified by the shortness of life — the thorn. And all this passion preserved in powerful, picturesque language. He is still influencing us because of the words that came out of his mouth, not the events of his life.

So let’s listen to him concerning the pursuit of holiness and concerning his communion with God through the word and prayer.

Take Ten Looks at Christ

God had given McCheyne the gospel key to pursuing personal holiness. He received it through the teaching of Chalmers. Chalmers was very concerned about excessive introspection in the pursuit of holiness. He knew that a believer cannot make progress in holiness without basing it on the assurance of salvation, and yet the effort to look into our sinful hearts for some evidences of grace usually backfires.

Chalmers said that glimpses into the dark room of the heart alone give no good prospect. Instead, he said we should

take help from the windows. Open the shutters and admit the sun. So if you wish to look well inwardly, look well out. . . . This is the very way to quicken it. Throw widely open the portals of faith and in this, every light will be admitted into the chambers of experience. The true way to facilitate self-examination is to look believingly outwardly. (Introduction to The Christian’s Great Interest, 6)

McCheyne had written that down in a class and underlined the last sentence. So it is not surprising to hear him give his own counsel in similar terms: “Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. . . . Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love. And repose in his almighty arms” (Memoir).

This was the basic strategy in the pursuit of holiness. So when McCheyne spoke what are probably his most famous words, “The greatest need of my people is my own holiness,” he meant not only that they need a pastor who is morally upright, but that they need a pastor who is walking in constant communion with Christ, and being changed into Christ’s likeness by that constant fellowship. Which brings us now finally to the way he cultivated that constant communion with Christ.

For the rest of the post…

I was in the Texas Big Country, an area famous for its annual Rattlesnake Roundup. My one measure of protection was a pair of plastic chaps, hard enough to deflect the fangs of a rattler, worn over my jeans. But the chaps weren’t enough to take me off my guard. Like my childhood hero Indiana Jones, I hated snakes (still do!), and I never knew when a rattler would cross my path. One time I came within about two feet of stepping on one. That experience made me vigilant: I watched where I stepped, listening for any faint hint of a rattle, ready to jump at any sudden movement. Danger felt imminent, and I was watchful.

Spiritual Vigilance

Vigilance is an essential component to the spiritual discipline of watchfulness. To be vigilant is to be on guard. The sentinel of a city is vigilant. He watches for the approach of the enemy. Warriors are vigilant. They’re watchful and wary of their antagonist’s every move. People become vigilant when they realize they’re in jeopardy. As soldiers of the cross, we are surrounded by enemies.

In the words of an old hymn:

Christian, seek not yet repose,
Cast thy dreams of ease away;
Thou art in the midst of foes:
Watch and pray.

Watchfulness, therefore, is as necessary to a healthy spiritual life as meditation and prayer. Jesus tells his disciples to “watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). The letters of Paul, Peter, and John sound the same note, urging us to exercise moral vigilance and watchful prayer (1 Cor. 16:13; Gal. 6:1; Col. 4:2; 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet. 4:7; 2 John 8). And Hebrews commands mutual watchfulness and exhortation while also reminding us to obey those leaders who keep watch over our souls (Heb. 3:12; 13:17).

Yet despite this biblical emphasis, watchfulness is one practice that rarely gets mentioned in contemporary manuals of spiritual disciplines.

That hasn’t always been the case. In fact, the 17th-century Puritans wrote often about watchfulness and its practical outworking in our lives.

Richard Rogers, for example, was an early Puritan who published a substantial book called Seven Treatises in 1602. Divided into seven parts, the 900-page compendium on Christian living explores the full spectrum of religious life and experience. In the third treatise, Rogers discusses “the means whereby a godly life is helped and continued” and divides these helps into two categories: public and private. The private means include things you might expect, like meditation, prayer, and fasting.

But first on Rogers’s list of private helps is watchfulness, “which is worthily set in the first place, seeing it is as an eye to all the rest, to see them well and rightly used.”

The implication is clear: neglect watchfulness and you will hinder other spiritual practices. Watchfulness is the whetstone of the spiritual disciplines, the one practice that keeps the other habits sharp.

Guard Your Heart

The discipline of watchfulness includes both negative and positive aspects. Negatively, we’re to ruthlessly guard our hearts from sin and temptation, making no provision for the flesh (Prov. 4:23; Matt. 26:41; Rom. 13:14).

This requires the cultivation of self-examination, where we take regular inventory of our personal tendencies towards particular sins, what the Puritan Isaac Ambrose called “Delilah sins.” Delilah sins, like Samson’s Philistine mistress, like to sit on our laps and whisper sweet nothings in our ears, but they will betray us to our foes in a heartbeat and cut off our moral strength. These are the specific sin patterns we’ve cultivated through willful and habitual sin. Like deep ruts that furrow a muddy road, these vices are etched into our lives through daily routines, self-justifying rationalization, and continual repetition.

Having identified these sin patterns, we then need to persistently protect the points of entry to the heart. John Bunyan, in his allegory The Holy War, refers to these entry points as five gates to the city of Mansoul: “Ear-gate, Eye-gate, Mouth-gate, Nose-gate, and Feel-gate.” When we fail to watch, temptation clambers into our hearts through an unwatched gate. This means we can’t tend our hearts without considering the websites we visit, the books we read, the shows and movies we watch, the places we frequent, and the music and messages that fill our ears.

The discipline of watching is like a home security system. An effective surveillance system includes several components, such as security cameras, motion sensors, floodlights, electric locks, and high-decibel alarms. All these components serve one purpose: protecting the home from dangerous intruders. In similar fashion, watchfulness embraces a variety of practices, such as self-examination, prayer, meditation, and accountability, but all governed by the single intention of keeping the heart.

Look to Jesus

But there’s also a positive dimension to watchfulness. We mustn’t only mortify sin and avoid temptation. We must also set our gaze on Jesus. To return to the city metaphor, we mustn’t only guard the gates of our souls from dangerous intruders but also store our hearts with the gospel. Our goal in keeping our hearts isn’t to keep them empty, but to make room for Christ to dwell in our hearts through faith (Eph. 3:17).

For the rest of the post…

by Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813 – 1843)

Robert Murray M’Cheyne was a nineteenth-century Church of Scotland minister revered for the depth of his piety. Upon hearing him preach, a listener once wrote, “I saw in you a beauty in holiness that I never saw before.”1 He served two churches, including St. Peter’s Church in Dundee, before dying at age 29.

Upon M’Cheyne’s death, ministerial colleague Andrew Bonar published a biography that included many of his manuscripts and letters. Taken from that work, this selection illustrates his determination to fight sin through spiritual disciplines. It shows the intensity with which this servant of God craved communion with his Heavenly Father.

I ought to pray before seeing any one. Often when I sleep long, or meet with others early, and then have family prayer, and breakfast, and forenoon callers, often it is eleven or twelve o’clock before I begin secret prayer. This is a wretched system. It is unscriptural. Christ rose before day, and went into a solitary place. David says, ‘Early will I seek Thee; Thou shalt early hear my voice.’ Mary Magdalene came to the sepulchre while it was yet dark. Family prayer loses much of its power and sweetness; and I can do no good to those who come to seek from me. The conscience feels guilty, the soul unfed, the lamp not trimmed. Then, when secret prayer comes, the soul is often out of tune. I feel it is far better to begin with God—to see his face first—to get my soul near him before it is near another. ‘When I awake I am still with Thee.’

If I have slept too long, or am going [on] an early journey, or my time is any way shortened, it is best to dress hurriedly, and have a few minutes alone with God, than to give it up for lost.

For the rest of the post…

“A calm hour with God is worth a whole lifetime with man”

~ Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Nineteenth century Scottish minister)

It is easy to be critical of prayer, particularly the prayers of others. Robert Murray McCheyne’s words are often cited because they remain painfully true: “You wish to humble a man? Ask him about his prayer life.”

~ Dr. Derek W.H. ThomasPrayer in TabletalkApril 2012, 14.

Robert Murray McCheyne.jpgBusy activity for Jesus can be cheap substitute for genuine intimacy with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Robert Murray M’Cheyene put it this way…

“No amount of activity in the King’s service will make up for neglect of the King Himself.”

What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is, and no more!

Robert Murray McCheyne

A great part of my time is spent in getting my heart in tune for prayer. It is the divine link that connects earth with heaven

~ Robert Murray McCheyne

A great part of my time is getting my heart in tune for prayer. It is the divine link that connects earth with heaven

~ Robert Murray M’Cheyne

by RAY ORTLUND

When the Spirit is poured down


“The purest joy in the world is joy in Christ Jesus.  When the Spirit is poured down, his people get very near and clear views of the Lord Jesus.  They eat his flesh and drink his blood.  They come to a personal cleaving to the Lord.  They taste that the Lord is gracious.  His blood and righteousness appear infinitely perfect, full and free to their soul.  They sit under his shadow with great delight. . . . They lean on the Beloved.  They find infinite strength in him for the use of their soul — grace for grace — all they can need in any hour of trial and suffering to the very end.”

Robert Murray M’Cheyne, preaching on Psalm 85:6, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

June 2019
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