The Life of M‘Cheyne - Rev Innes MacRae
26 Oct 1998
There can surely be few volumes outside of sacred Scripture that have had so powerful an influence for good upon the people of God, as has Andrew Bonar’s classic work, "The Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M‘Cheyne". Many thousands of copies of this unique devotional classic have been sold and they have found their way into countless countries. It is a book still treasured by discerning believers in all branches of the true church. I owe it, myself, an incalculable debt. An old copy that had belonged to my grandmother became my regular Sabbath reading as soon as I became vitally interested in the gospel, while I was still at school. And I believe that there is no book, apart from the Bible, that has been a greater blessing in my own Christian experience. That book remains our principal source of information in any study of M‘Cheyne’s life and ministry. There are other works, such as Dr Alexander Smellie’s biography, published in 1913 on the centenary of M‘Cheyne’s birth. Useful as such works are, they can never replace the "Memoir and Remains".
I propose to give a summary of M‘Cheyne’s life, and then attempt to highlight the principal characteristics of his godly life and ministry.
Robert M‘Cheyne was born on the 21st of May 1813, at 14 Dublin Street on the south side of Edinburgh. His parents had come to the capital from Dumfries-shire. His father, Adam M‘Cheyne, was a lawyer - a writer to the Signet - and he was clearly a man of considerable means. When Robert, who was the youngest of five, was six years old the family moved to 56 Queen Street. Those of you who know that famous Edinburgh thoroughfare will realise right away that his father must have been a man of considerable wealth - the poor did not acquire houses on Queen Street. Although the M‘Cheyne’s themselves appear to have been godly people, they had been attached to more than one Edinburgh church in which the dreadful blight of moderatism was denying to the people the true Evangelical gospel. After he had left home Robert M‘Cheyne frequently urged his parents to seek out a thoroughly Evangelical ministry. Eventually they settled in St Luke’s, where they would have benefited from the faithful ministry of Alexander Moody Stewart. In that congregation Adam M‘Cheyne became an Elder.
Robert Murray M‘Cheyne’s childhood was a happy one. In 1821 he entered the famous High School of Edinburgh where he did well in his studies. He moved on to Edinburgh University in 1827 where, again, he showed himself an able and diligent student. He had many gifts, he wrote poetry, he was a talented artist, he sang well and was a good gymnast. He had always led an outwardly upright life, yet he came to regard those days as days of worldliness and ungodliness. He came to see himself as a modern-day Pharisee, trusting in his own outward morality. He had an older brother, David, who followed in his fathers footsteps and entered the legal profession. David was a devout and deeply exercised Christian who often spoke to his younger brother about his spiritual need. He would commend Christ to him.
And oh! recall the look of faith sincere,
With which that eye would scrutinize the page
That tells us of offended God appeased
By awful sacrifice upon the cross
Of Calvary - that bids us leave a world
Immersed in darkness and in death, and seek
A better country. Ah! how oft that eye
Would turn on me, with pity’s tenderest look,
And, only half-upbraiding, bid me flee
From the vain idols of my boyish heart!
There was a very close relationship between David and Robert M‘Cheyne; but David died in July 1831. Robert was 18 at the time and was deeply distressed. In the sovereign purpose of God, his brother’s death was used to bring him to concern about his own soul. He did not, at once, experience dreadful, harrowing conviction of sin - but from the day of his brother’s death his friends noticed a new seriousness about him. On the 8th of July 1842 he wrote in a letter, "This day eleven years ago, I lost my loved and loving brother, and began to seek a Brother who cannot die."
He believed, himself, that it was "The Sum of Saving Knowledge," which is often bound with the Confession of Faith, that gave him a clear understanding of the way of salvation: "the work which I think first wrought a saving change in me" is how he referred to it some time later.
At the end of 1831 he entered the Divinity Hall in Edinburgh, where Dr Thomas Chalmers was one of his lecturers. Occasionally, however, he would still return to worldly ways. His conscience troubled him about this. On March the 10th 1832 he wrote, "I hope never to play cards again." A month later he wrote, "Absented myself from the dance; upbraidings ill to bear. But I must try to bear the cross." He was learning to repudiate the world’s pleasures in favour of the superior pleasures he was finding in the Lord Jesus Christ.
With his close friend, Alexander Somerville, he regularly attended the North Church where there was a truly Evangelical ministry. He was becoming more and more aware of the corruption of his heart, yet by the 7th of May 1832 he could write, "Much peace. Look back, my soul, and view the mind that belonged to thee but twelve months ago - my soul, thy place is in the dust!" M‘Cheyne spent four years in the Divinity Hall. They were years of spiritual growth; years of diligent study and years of active evangelistic labour. In his diary he wrote on Sabbath February 23rd: "Rose early to seek God, and found him whom my soul loveth. Who would not rise early to meet such company?" He was cultivating those disciplined habits of devotional study of God’s Word, of earnest prayer in secret, of searching self examination and of unceasing pursuit of personal holiness, that were to be so marked a feature of his seven and a half years of his ministry.
He began his ministerial labours in November 1835, when he became assistant to the Rev John Bonar, at Larbert and Dunipace. He spent ten months there. Frequently he preached three times on the Sabbath. He was painstaking in his systematic visitation in industrialised Larbert and in rural Dunipace. There were 710 families, some 6000 souls to be reached, and godly Mr Bonar and his earnest young assistant laboured most diligently. M‘Cheyne was scrupulously careful about the cultivation of his own soul before preaching or visitation. He rose early to sing a psalm, to study the Word and to pray. He had an intense longing to be better acquainted with the Scriptures. His biographer says, "From the first he fed others by what he himself was feeding upon. His teaching was in a manner the development of his soul’s experience. It was a giving out of the inward life. He loved to come up from the pastures wherein the Chief Shepherd had met him - to lead the flock entrusted to his care to the spots where he found nourishment."
M‘Cheyne was ordained and inducted to the charge of St Peter’s, Dundee, on the 24th of November 1836. St Peter’s was a new church, built as part of the Church Extension Scheme. It was to serve a parish of some 4000 working people, very many of whom never crossed the threshold of any church. On his first Sabbath he preached from Isaiah 61:1-31, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me to preach good tidings," etc. That first sermon was blessed to the salvation of several. That was always his text on the anniversary of his ordination. He regarded his calling with an awful seriousness. People were affected by his very appearance before ever he opened his lips. Never was there any lightheartedness in the vestry before he entered the pulpit. He was exceedingly gentle and gracious, yet none could fail to observe his solemn reverence in his public work.
His first few years in Dundee were years of noticeable growth in his own soul. Although he was exceedingly busy, he gave scrupulous attention to the nourishment of his own soul. He was an early riser, and made it his invariable rule to seek God’s face before ever he saw the face of man. He read at least three chapters of God’s word before breakfast. Sometimes he would ride out to the ruined church at Invergowrie for quiet meditation. He was always concerned about his spiritual frame and longed to be enjoying God all the day.
From the start of his ministry he had 1100 hearers at his services. Many came from other parts of the town. His preaching was extremely lucid and direct. He faithfully declared the doctrines of ruin by the fall, redemption by the blood, and regeneration by the Spirit. Always his preaching directed sinners to Christ himself. "It is strange," he wrote, "how sweet and precious it is to preach directly about Christ compared with all other subjects of preaching." There was a peculiar unction upon his preaching. His concern for the salvation of his people was plain for all to see, and many were his affectionate appeals to them to close with Christ. He always encouraged those in concern of soul to visit him, and he dealt very plainly and directly with them. To one woman he said before she left him, "You are a poor vile worm; it is a wonder the earth does not open and swallow you up." His words were used to bring her to deep conviction of sin, which continued for three months until she found peace when God blessed to her one of M‘Cheyne’s own sermons.
Many were converted in those early years, and God’s people were refreshed and led on in the way of holiness. He started a Thursday evening prayer meeting, which sometimes drew as many as 800. He had classes for young people, and for those contemplating admission to the Lord’s Table. He sought to visit every home in the parish. Often after visiting twelve or more homes he would return in the evening and speak to the people in some room in which they gathered, or some piece of common ground outside. He preached in many other parishes, scarcely ever refusing an invitation to preach on a weeknight. He also had to bear much reproach from non-Evangelical ministers, and from the openly ungodly. By the end of 1838 he was quite seriously ill, and eventually reluctantly had to return to Edinburgh for a period of rest.
It was Dr Candlish who first conceived the idea of sending him to Palestine with some other ministers on a mission of enquiry to the Jews. It was hoped such an expedition would be beneficial to his health, and that a great amount of useful information would be accumulated. He was, at any rate, deeply interested in missionary work and particularly concerned about the evangelisation of the Jews. Accordingly, M‘Cheyne and his close friend Andrew Bonar accompanied by two older ministers, Dr Keith and Dr Black, left London for Palestine in March 1839, and returned home in November. The account of the expedition is a fascinating one. It was an extremely useful enquiry and led to a work amongst Jewish people that continues today.
M‘Cheyne was, of course, concerned that the pure gospel be preached to his people while he was abroad and invited William C Burns, the son of the minister of Kilsyth, to occupy the pulpit in his absence. Young William Burns was a deeply devout and most earnest preacher. By temperament, he and M‘Cheyne were very different, but they were alike in their unremitting pursuit of personal holiness and in their passionate longing for the salvation of souls.
In July, Burns was assisting his father at the Communion Season in Kilsyth. Nothing very unusual occurred at the weekend services. Such was the young man’s desire, however, for the salvation of those people amongst whom he had grown up, that he announced that he would preach to them again on the Tuesday morning. That was the 23rd of July, a morning fixed from all eternity in Jehovah’s counsels as an era in the history of redemption. God blessed the young minister’s preaching in a marvellous way that day. Revival came to Kilsyth.
There could be no question of Burns returning that evening to Dundee. In the ensuing days many were brought to great spiritual concern, breaking forth in weeping and wailing as they sought peace with God. Many entered into gospel peace and liberty. It was the beginning of a period of marvellous blessing in many parts of Scotland. Burns returned to Dundee on the 8th of August. At the Thursday evening prayer meeting he told about the marvellous doings of the Lord at Kilsyth and invited those to remain who were anxious about their souls. About 100 remained. I quote, "At the conclusion of a solemn address to their anxious souls, suddenly the power of God seemed to descend, and all were bathed in tears." There was great blessing at a service the following evening, and so the revival continued day after day.
The church became too small for the congregations that gathered and the services had to be held in the open air. Sometimes thirty or forty would come to Burns on the same day asking the way of salvation. Revival had come to the congregation in which M‘Cheyne had so diligently laboured and for which he so constantly pleaded, and when it came he knew nothing about it. He was lying desperately ill with fever at the foot of Mt Lebanon, and indeed, in his subsequent journey to Smyrna, was at death’s door. Does not this demonstrate the sovereign working of the Most High? He himself chooses the instruments through whom He will bestow blessing. His glory He will not share with another. It was not till M‘Cheyne and Bonar reached Hamburg on their homeward journey that they heard the first news of the revival in Scotland.
In November M‘Cheyne was back in Dundee. His heart was full of gratitude to God for the blessing given in his absence. He was singularly free of any feelings of envy or jealousy. "I have no desire but the salvation of my people, by whatever instrument," he said. On the evening of the very day on which he reached Dundee, a most memorable service was held in St Peter’s. He preached to his people from 1 Cor 2:1-41, "The Matter, the Manner, and the Accompaniments of Paul’s Preaching." Every seat was taken. People occupied the passages and the pulpit steps. Many were still under conviction. It was a most memorable service. He wrote to his father, "I never preached to such an audience: so many weeping, so many waiting for the words of eternal life. I never heard such sweet singing anywhere: so tender and affecting, as if the people felt that they were praising a present God. When I first came out the whole of the church road was filled with old and young, and I had to shake hands twenty at a time. A multitude followed to my door, so that I had to speak to them again before sending them away. There is evidently a great change upon the people here, and though it is to be expected that many are merely naturally awakened and excited, yet I see a great many who I feel confident are savingly changed."
The stream of blessing continued to flow as M‘Cheyne preached to his people. The overflowing of the river subsided, but many were still anxious to learn of and to experience God’s salvation. In one of his notebooks he records that at least 400 visited him between 1839 and 1843 in concern of soul. He became very watchful and discriminating in dealing with enquirers. While he was always extremely compassionate, he was very much aware that people could be deceived by their own hearts. He wanted none to have a false peace. And so, Robert Murray M‘Cheyne continued with his incessant labours in Dundee and in many other places until he succumbed to Typhus Fever. On Saturday the 25th of March 1843 he went to be with his beloved in that land that is fairer than day.
I wish now to highlight some of the principal characteristics of this remarkable man’s life and ministry:
First of all, there is his longing for holiness. This, I would say, is the most prominent feature of his Christian life. He was always longing to be made more holy. In letters to intimate friends he would tell how he often prayed, "To be made as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made." Many of his letters reveal his breathings after holiness. Andrew Bonar tells us that he, Bonar, was often reproved on that expedition to the Holy Land by his friend’s unabated attention to personal holiness. Consider these words taken from his own heart and life, made not very long before he died, and entitled, Reformation: "I ought to examine my dreams, my floating thoughts - my predilections - my often recurring actions - my habits of thought, feeling, speech, and action - the slanders of my enemies - and the reproofs, and even banterings, of my friends - to find out traces of my prevailing sin - matter for confession. I ought to have a stated day of confession, with fasting - say, once a month. I ought to have a number of scriptures marked, to bring sin to remembrance. I ought to make use of all bodily affliction, domestic trial, frowns of Providence on myself, house, parish, church, or country, as calls from God to confess sin." When you read such words, can you wonder that his favourite companions were Samuel Rutherford, Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd? He was a kindred spirit. Oh, that we would have such intense longings after conformity to the likeness of the Lord Jesus!
M‘Cheyne had an intense love for the Word of God. He had an unquenchable desire for a greater acquaintance with the written Word. Yet, it was for the good of his soul he so diligently studied it. Never would he study it with a view to sermon preparation until he had nourished his own soul in its rich pasture lands. To Mrs Thaine who, had he lived, might well have been his mother in law, he sent a note thanking her for a Bible she sent him before he left for Palestine. In that letter he wrote, "All my ideas of peace and joy are linked with my Bible, and I would not give the hours of secret converse with it for all the other hours I spend in this world." Anything that would help him understand Scripture better, he valued highly. He took with him on the voyage to the Mediterranean some notes Andrew Bonar had made on Leviticus. Notes, no doubt which formed the basis for Bonar’s commentary on that book. Do you, do I, have such an appetite for Scripture?
Great was M‘Cheyne’s prayerfulness. Every morning began with secret prayer. After breakfast there was family prayer. We read of his taking time after tea for prayer. He prayed in secret and he prayed with his friends. He and a number of his fellow ministers agreed on a concert for prayer. They would spend time in prayer for each other every Saturday evening. When once he was asked if pressure of work ever meant he neglected that season of prayer, he replied he was not aware that it ever did.
The more sanctified a believer becomes, the more aware he becomes of his own sinfulness. The nearer he approaches to the Light, the more that Light shows up his own blackness. In a letter to a soul seeking Jesus M‘Cheyne quotes another who says, "I know not how to express better than what my sins appear to me than heaping infinite upon infinite, and multiplying infinite upon infinite." He confessed his own heart to be an abyss of corruption. His sense of unworthiness but made Jehovah Tsidkenu, The Lord his Righteousness, more precious to him.
One of the saddest features of present day Evangelicalism is its readiness to compromise with the world. Very early in his Christian life, M‘Cheyne realised that there had to be separation from the world. Many of you will recall the lines he wrote in 1832, when he heard of a relation who had determined to keep by the world:
She has chosen the world,
And its paltry crowd, -
She has chosen the world,
And an endless shroud!
She has chosen the world,
With its misnamed pleasures:
She has chosen the world,
Before heaven’s own treasures.
She hath launched her boat
On life’s giddy sea,
And her all is afloat
But Bethlehem’s star
Is not in her view;
And her aim is far
From the harbour true.
When writing to one awakened soul, urging that one to be done with the world he said, "Have you not lived long enough in pleasure? Come and try the pleasures of Christ: forgiveness and a new heart. I have not been at a dance or any worldly amusement for many years, and yet I believe that I have had more pleasure in a single day, than you have had all your life."
The consuming passion of Robert Murray M‘Cheyne’s life was Christ Jesus. Christ was everything to him. Christ was his righteousness; Christ was the source of his holiness. "No true holiness in this world, but it springs from him," he says in a sermon from the Song of Solomon. "A living Christ is the spring of holiness to all His members. As long as we hold Him and do not let Him go our holiness is secure," he said. He was always seeking a deeper acquaintance with Christ, and urging others to a larger acquaintance with Him. Every sermon led to Him. "For every look at yourself," he wrote to a friend in Belfast, "take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely." It was his love for Christ that led him so often to the Song of Solomon. He preached on almost every verse of that lovely book. It was because of his love for Christ that he almost daily turned to the Letters of Samuel Rutherford. He lived always leaning on his beloved. That, surely, is the secret of holy living.
How greatly M‘Cheyne loved the Sabbath Day. He did not believe that anyone could be a true Christian who did not love the Lord’s Day. He kept the day exclusively for the enjoyment of communion with the Lord. He would rise early and stay up late to enjoy a long day with the Lord. Bonar tells of the indignation that fired his countenance when their Arab attendants were insisting on their passing on from the Egyptian village where they were, rather than remaining there under a few palm trees. Nothing would prevail upon him to continue the journey. Sabbath rest is as necessary in the Egyptian wilderness as in busy Dundee. Oh, that Christians today would as strictly and as cheerfully sanctify God’s Holy Day!
Throughout his Christian life M‘Cheyne had a deep interest in missionary work. He kept himself well informed and prayed for the work in other lands. Of particular interest to him was the evangelisation of God’s ancient people, the Jews. It was one of the great passions of his life. He travelled more than once to Ireland to promote interest in this work. He believed that a Church that was bringing the gospel to the Jews would itself enjoy, in great measure, the blessing of the Lord: "They shall prosper, that love thee."
Another constant concern of M‘Cheyne’s was his determination to improve afflictions. He knew many afflictions of various kinds in his own experience. He was of a very delicate constitution and was frequently ill. He saw all his afflictions as coming from a loving Father’s hand, and was always seeking to learn the lessons his God was teaching him in them. His letters urge other afflicted saints to humble submission, that they might gain the utmost benefit from a Heavenly Father’s dealing with them in His providence. He loved Edwards’ Resolution, "Resolved to improve affliction to the uttermost."
Few men can ever have had such a passion for souls, as had Robert Murray M‘Cheyne. He was most scrupulous about using every opportunity to commend the Saviour to his fellow sinners. Never would he leave out of a sermon teaching calculated to show the way of salvation. To W C Burns he wrote, "I feel there are two things it is impossible to desire with sufficient ardour: personal holiness, and the honour of Christ in the salvation of souls." This longing for the salvation of the lost meant that he served Christ with a burning, holy zeal. He was convinced he would not live long, and he therefore made the most of every opportunity.
He preached powerfully the sovereignty of God. To Christian believers he says in one sermon, "Love God forever and ever, because He chose you of His own free will. Adore Jesus, that he passed by millions and died for you. Adore the Holy Ghost, that he came out of free, sovereign mercy and awakened you. It will be a matter of praise throughout eternity."
Yet none emphasised more passionately, the freeness of the gospel. Read sermon five in the Memoir and Remains: Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man (Prov 8:4 "If there were no other texts in the whole Bible," he says, "to encourage sinners to come freely to Christ, this one alone might persuade them. There is no subject more misunderstood by unconverted souls than the freeness of Christ. So little idea have we naturally of free grace, that we cannot believe that God can offer a Saviour to us while we are in a wicked, hell deserving condition."
"Oh," he says, "it is sad to think how men argue against their own happiness, and will not believe the very Word of God."
His compassion and tenderness were very marked. Nevertheless, he warned of hell in the plainest terms. In a sermon on the corruption of the human heart, he says to the unconverted, "Every day has seen you go farther and farther from holiness. Farther from God; nearer to hell. You are treasuring up wrath against the Day of Wrath. Oh, what a treasure! Heaping up fuel to burn you through eternity." His loving concern for sinners made him speak so plainly.
And he did have a loving concern for sinners. He was tender and affectionate in his appeals to them. When Andrew Bonar told him on one occasion he had been preaching on the text, "The wicked shall be cast into hell," he at once asked him, "Were you able to preach it with tenderness?" On another occasion he said, "The man who speaks of hell should do it with tears in his eyes." One of his Elders, William Lamb, wrote, "How beautifully affectionate were M‘Cheyne’s addresses: he draws you to Christ." Another writer said, "His solicitude for the salvation of his hearers made him affectionate, even beyond his natural tenderness." Is not this tenderness a quality we need to reacquire in our preaching today? The great doctrines of Redemption must be proclaimed uncompromisingly. They must also be proclaimed winsomely.
His view of the Holy Ministry is well expressed in his remark at the time of licensing in 1835. He was licensed, he said, "a preacher of the gospel: an honour to which I cannot name an equal." He had an overwhelming sense of the need for holiness of life in gospel ministers. To a fellow minister he wrote, "It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God." He loved preaching. He had the same constraint upon him as had Philip Henry, the father of the great commentator, Matthew Henry. Philip Henry said he would beg all week if it meant he could preach on the Sabbath Day. M‘Cheyne wrote, "The grand work of the minister, in which he is to lay out his strength of body and mind, is preaching. Weak and foolish as it may appear, this is the grand instrument which God has put into our hands by which sinners are saved..."
Many were brought to a clear understanding of the truth as it is in Jesus. M‘Cheyne says somewhere, "That a mark of the reality of grace in a child is his sense of sin." In a letter he wrote to an awakened sinner, he tells how, when writing that letter, he was interrupted by a very little girl who was weeping her eyes out. She had come to ask, "What must I do to be saved?" Ever since a companion had told her of her being awakened, she had been seeking Christ with all her heart. He wrote a tract for the young people in his congregation entitled, "To the Lambs of the Flock". In it he spoke most plainly, "I could weep when I think how many of you will live lives of sin, and die deaths of horror, and spend an eternity in hell." And again, "Youth is a time to be saved in. You are not too young to die, not too young to be judged, and therefore not too young to be brought to Christ. Do not be contented to hear about Christ from your teachers. Pray He would reveal Himself to you. Children were converted in the revival. At the end of 1839 two under eleven applied for admission to the Lord’s Table, four who were only fourteen, and three who were fifteen or sixteen.
Deeply moving is his account of the spiritual experience of James Laing, entitled "Another Lily Gathered." From time to time this boy showed some concern, but then it passed like the morning cloud and the early dew that goeth away. While at Glams in 1841 (he was thirteen at the time) he was deeply moved under a sermon he heard at a cottage meeting. He would have liked to have gone to hear his own minister, M‘Cheyne, preach - he was in the neighbourhood at the time, but he was too weak to make the journey there. He was very delicate and was at Glams for the good of his health. By October he was very ill and anxious about his soul. "Oh, Jesus save me! Save me!" he would cry. After a visit from M‘Cheyne, who spoke to him very plainly about Jesus having come into the world to save sinners, he spent the rest of his day on his knees, crying out for mercy. That night he found mercy. The words, "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" became particularly precious to him that night. Often M‘Cheyne visited the dying boy, expounding to him some passage of Scripture. He acquired a quite remarkable understanding of the Truth in a very short time. He was in much pain, but as he thought of what the Lord Jesus suffered for him, it took away his pain. "Mine is nothing to what He suffered," he said. He had a great concern for the salvation of others. He spoke to the children of the Sabbath School who went to his cottage to see him shortly before he died. He urged them to come to the Christ who saved him and he warned them about hell. "Mind, He’s willing, and Oh, be earnest. You’ll no’ get it unless ye be in earnest!" He lamented to his minister that though he kept inviting them to Christ, "They’ll no come!" He was constantly urging those who came to see him to seek Christ. On the 11th of June 1842, a few weeks short of his fourteenth birthday, he fell asleep in Jesus. We should seek the salvation of children, and not be afraid to put the Biblical truths plainly before them. No one will ever understand unless the Holy Spirit gives them understanding. He is able to do that for a child, as for an adult.
M‘Cheyne was a man of catholic spirit - catholic, in the true sense of that term. He truly loved the Lord’s people, whatever their denominational label. He was clear in his mind with respect to his own principles. He believed he found them in the Bible, and he clung to them tenaciously. But he delighted to enjoy fellowship with others whom he believed were vitally united to Christ. He had no difficulty about participating in the Lord’s Supper in an upper room in Jerusalem, although it was dispensed in accordance with the practice of the Episcopalians. He quotes with approval, Calvin’s comment to Archbishop Cramner, that he would cross ten seas to sit with him at the Lord’s Table.
This catholicity of spirit showed itself, in his having dissenting ministers occupying his pulpit on occasion, when he was unwell. For this he was taken to task by a correspondent in a Dundee newspaper. In reply he calmly, but vigorously stated what he believed to be the Biblical grounds of free ministerial communion among Christ’s ministers. His principle was, that if a minister was a true servant of Christ, called to the ministry, sound in doctrine, sober in his life, and owned of God in his preaching, he could welcome him to his pulpit although his beliefs and theirs differed concerning non-fundamental issues. He points out that Calvin acknowledge Luther a servant of Christ, even when he was loading him with abuse; and that Samuel Rutherford had Bishop Usher occupy the Anworth pulpit. He detested the 1799 Act of Assembly that prevented godly English ministers, like Charles Simeon of Cambridge, from preaching from Church of Scotland pulpits. That Act, passed at a time when Moderates were in the ascendancy was repealed when the Evangelicals became more influential. M‘Cheyne rejoiced in its repeal. Never would he allow unfaithful preaching in St Peter’s, but he loved to hear the message of the Evangel being proclaimed by faithful men of God from various branches of Christ’s Church.
As a churchman, Murray M‘Cheyne was a loyal member of the Church of Scotland. He was most strongly opposed to the intrusion by lay patrons of unwanted ministers into parish churches. He believed passionately in the Church’s spiritual independence. When, on the 7th of March 1843, the Church’s cause was debated in the House of Commons he wrote, "Eventful night this in the British Parliament! Once more King Jesus stands at an earthly tribunal, and they know Him not!" Had he lived a few weeks longer, he would have left St Peter’s to join 474 other ministers of the Church in separating from the Establishment.
In conclusion, let me refer again to Robert Murray M‘Cheyne’s passion for holiness. He was never satisfied with his own attainment in holy living, and was always seeking greater likeness to his Master. Consequently, he made an impression on believer and unbeliever. A lady in an hotel in Alexandria, Egypt, was loudly complaining that professing Christians are just hypocrites. "Did you never in all your life see one follower of the Lord Jesus, you believed in?" asked someone who heard her tirade. There was a pause. More calmly she then said, "Yes, I saw one; a man, a minister in this hotel. A tall spare man from Scotland. He was a man of God. I watched him and felt that he was a genuine Christian. His very look did me good." His holy life made an impression on a total stranger. Oh, that we today could obtain a passion for holiness like his.
"To such saintliness I could never attain." Is that what you say? Certainly it is important to be humble. Yet, we must remember it was not Robert Murray M‘Cheyne who made himself the holy man he became. The grace of God made him the man he was. In one letter, after bemoaning his own corruption he declared, "I do long to be free from self, from pride, and ungodliness. And I know where to go, for all the promises of God are Yea and Amen in Christ Jesus." That grace, if you and I are children of God, is at work in us. May we long for holiness; yearn for it as did M‘Cheyne.
M‘Cheyne acknowledged his debt to the illustrious Jonathan Edwards. Will you make your resolution that of Edwards? "On the supposition that there never was to be but one individual in the world at any one time, who was properly a complete Christian in all respects of a right stand, having Christianity always shining in its true lustre, and appearing excellent and lovely from whatever part, or under whatever character viewed; resolved, to act just as I would do if I strove with all my might to be that one who should live in my time."
This article was transcribed from a recording of The Life of M'Cheyne - a lecture given by Rev Innes MacRae, at a public meeting of the Inverness Branch of the Scottish Reformation Society, on Monday, 26 October 1998.
Rev Innes MacRae was the minister of Tain Free Church of Scotland. He passed away on 25th March 2000.
SCOTTISH REFORMATION SOCIETY
The Scottish Reformation Society was founded in 1851, following a protest against the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. The original constitution of the Society set out its objectives as being “to resist the aggressions of Popery; to watch the designs and movements of its promoters and abettors; and to diffuse sound Scriptural teaching and information on the distinctive tenets of Protestantism and Popery”.
To these aims, the Society has maintained and promoted a faithful witness to the present time. A quarterly magazine, The Bulwark, is committed to the same principles as the Society and the material is drawn from a wide source of Reformed teachers and writers past and present.
Enquiries can be directed to:
The Scottish Reformation Society
Telephone: 0131 220 1450
Visit the Scottish Reformation Society website.