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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…

“Time alone with the Lord Jesus each day is the indispensable condition of growth and power.”

~ Andrew Murray

Devotional by John Piper

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

There is a practical holiness without which we will not see the Lord. Many live as if this were not so.

There are professing Christians who live such unholy lives that they will hear Jesus’s dreadful words, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). Paul says to professing believers, “If you live according to the flesh you will die” (Romans 8:13).

So, there is a holiness without which no one will see the Lord. And learning to fight for holiness by faith in future grace is supremely important.

There is another way to pursue holiness that backfires and leads to death. Paul warns us against serving God any other way than by faith in his enabling grace. God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). Any effort to serve God that does not, in that very act, depend on him as the reward of our hearts and the power of our service, will dishonor him as a needy pagan god.

Peter describes the alternative to such self-reliant service of God, “Whoever serves, [let him do so] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11).

For the rest of the post…

“The greatest wisdom on this earth is holiness.”

~ W.S. Plumer

PLUMER, William S_detail

“A baptism of holiness, a demonstration of godly living is the crying need of our day.”

~ Duncan Campbell

Image result for duncan campbell revivalist

“A baptism of holiness, a demonstration of godly living is the crying need of our day.”
~ Duncan Campbell

“He who has learned to pray has learned the greatest secret of a holy and happy life!”

~ William Law

William Law

“He who has learned to pray has learned the greatest secret of a holy and happy life.”

~ William Law

Keith Green“If your heart takes more pleasure in reading novels, or watching TV, or going to the movies, or talking to friends, rather than just sitting alone with God and embracing Him, sharing His cares and His burdens, weeping and rejoicing with Him, then how are you going to handle forever and ever in His presence…?  You’d be bored to tears in heaven, if you’re not ecstatic about God now!” 

~ Keith Green

“To pray earnestly and live carelessly is to proclaim that a man is not spiritually minded in his prayer.”

~ John Owen

John Owen by John Greenhill.jpg

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