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How The Gospel Shaped The Life And Ministry Of Robert Murray M’Cheyne

By Paul W. Martin 

    Robert Murray M’Cheyne was born May 21, 1813 in Edinburgh (Scotland) and lived as most young men of his age.  He enjoyed dancing, parties and the pleasant company of young women.  He was a top student, not a bad artist, athletic and with a native winsomeness that likely would have led to his success in any endeavor.  Such was the trajectory of his life until his brother, David, passed into eternity in July 1831 at the age of 26.

    This was the start of God’s real work on the 18-year-old Robert.  David had been a faithful evangelist of Robert, praying for his worldly younger brother, witnessing to him about the Gospel of grace and living a transformed life before him.  Robert loved David, but had pleasantly ignored his warnings and appeals to repent from sin and believe on Christ alone.  Watching David die in peace began to break his hard heart.  He began to reform his life and as he did the Gospel came more and more into focus.

    In 1831 M’Cheyne enrolled in the divinity hall of the University of Edinburgh.  It was a good time to be there.  The great Thomas Chalmers was in the prime of his ministry and “exercised the greatest influence on M’Cheyne.”  Chalmers’ sway was in teaching M’Cheyne the simplicity of faith; of resting on the promises of Christ.  No doubt this bore fruit in M’Cheyne’s ministry as he would often instruct those awakened to sin and salvation:  “It is a good thing to be shown much of the deceitfulness and desperate wickedness of your heart, provided it leads you to the Lord Jesus, that He may pardon and subdue it.”  “Now do not look so long and so harassingly at your own heart and feelings.  What will you find there but the bite of the serpent?...  Look to Christ…  Look to Him and live...  Do not take up your time so much with studying your own heart as with studying Christ’s heart.  For one look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”

    M’Cheyne was preaching from his own experience.  At some point in those early days of preparation he had gone from knowing about Jesus to knowing Him personally.

    After successfully completing four years of training, he was licensed to preach in 1835.  Ten months later, he would take up his first and only charge at St. Peter’s, Dundee.  His eight years of faithful service would soon fill the 1,100-seat building with genuinely converted souls.  St. Peter’s was a church marked by authentic humility and quick service among the members.

    M’Cheyne labored tirelessly among his flock and parish, preaching the Gospel of Jesus daily and from house to house.  But so many souls to care for by an increasingly weak pastor led to a long absence from the Dundee pulpit.

    M’Cheyne suffered from heart palpitations and the only known cure at the time was bed rest.  He was ordered by doctors to leave Dundee immediately and seek peace and rest elsewhere.  In God’s providence, he ended up back at the family home in Edinburgh in the winter of 1838-1839 and wrote to an acquaintance at the time:

    “I sometimes think that a great blessing may come to my people in my absence.  Often God does not bless us when we are in the midst of our labors, lest we shall say, ‘My hand and my eloquence have done it.’  He removes us into silence, and then pours ‘down a blessing so that there is not room to receive it;’ so that all that see it cry out, ‘It is the Lord!’”

    His words proved prophetic.  While in Edinburgh, he was approached by church leaders to join a party making inquiry into the spiritual state of those living in Israel.  In a few short weeks – with the blessing of his medical advisors and the elders of St. Peter’s – the young pastor set off with Andrew Bonar and others for the Promised Land.

    Space does not permit a detailed look at that excursion, but he returned to Dundee in better health in November 1839.  And what he came back to was a church that had been visited by God in his absence.  M’Cheyne rejoiced in God’s goodness to his parish. 

    Thus, he took up his work with greater thankfulness than ever before and sought to capitalize on this season of revival.  The rapid heart rate returned at seasons, but by reducing some duties and being careful with his commitments he was able to continue preaching and praying and calling men to Christ for another four years.  In fact, it was while in the act of serving his people in this way that he contracted the typhoid that would transfer him from this life to the next when he was a mere 29 years of age.

    What can we learn from this young man in his short life?  What do his words and actions teach and model to us of connecting the Gospel to our lives and ministries? 

    The Gospel, properly applied, is the only way to deal with our sin.

    “I often pray, ‘Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made.’”

    Several months after his death, M’Cheyne’s dearest earthly friend, Andrew Bonar, published his first edition of Memoir & Remains.  That biography included M’Cheyne’s private work, Reformation, which recorded a series of personal directives in order to spur on his spiritual growth.  These statements reflect a deep understanding of his own heart, along with a vibrant desire to be like Jesus in everything.

    He begins by stating the why and how he ought to deal with sin in his life:  “I am persuaded that I shall obtain the highest amount of present happiness, I shall do the most for God’s glory and the good of man, and I shall have the fullest reward in eternity, by maintaining a conscience always washed in Christ’s blood....”

    He then notes a certain tendency in his heart to carry a burdened conscience rather than confess a sin, and how this only adds to sin when forgiveness and cleansing are free and available in Jesus.  So he resolves:

    “I feel, when I have sinned, an immediate reluctance to go to Christ.  I am ashamed to go.  I feel as if it would do no good to go – as if it were making Christ a minister of sin, to go straight from the swine-trough to the best robe – and a thousand other excuses; but I am persuaded they are all lies, direct from hell.  John argues the opposite way – ‘If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father’  (1 John 2:1).  ...I am sure there is neither peace nor safety from deeper sin, but in going directly to the Lord Jesus Christ.  This is God’s way of peace and holiness.  It is folly to the world and the beclouded heart, but it is the way.”

    Learn from this young pastor to connect the Gospel to your sin.  There is no other way to progress in this spiritual life than by constantly returning to the Cross for grace and forgiveness.  Perhaps the evident closeness of M’Cheyne to his Savior and the attendant godliness this produced in his own life was caused more than anything else by his “ten looks at Christ.”  In a day when we are urged to ignore sin, we would do well to learn from this pastor the value in identifying it and finding forgiveness for it.   

    The Gospel, properly applied, is a wrecking ball to pride.

    One of the most striking ways the Gospel shaped M’Cheyne was in the development of a deep humility.  Although no Whitefield when it came to crowds and fame, M’Cheyne was revered by a lot of people.  In fact, there are many instances of him scolding others for putting more confidence in him than in God.

    “A minister will make a poor savior in the day of wrath.  It is not knowing a minister or loving one or hearing one...that will save.  You need to have your hand on the head of the Lamb for yourselves.  I fear I will need to be a swift witness against many of my people in the day of the Lord, that they looked to me, and not to Christ, when I preached to them.”

    M’Cheyne’s careful considerations of all that Christ is and had done for him made it profoundly clear who was the Person of real value.  The excellencies and riches of Jesus were his treasure and his meditation, so it was ludicrous to him to think of someone finding life in a mere pastor.

    “He was well aware how easily the flock begin to idolize the shepherd and how prone the shepherd is to feel somewhat pleased with this sinful partiality of his people and to be lifted up by his success.”  So he did all he could to put pride to death.  He looked to the Cross.

    This was nowhere more clearly seen than in the well-attested revival that took place in his church while he was in the Holy Land.  The very event he had labored over in prayer, preached for and longed to see fell upon his people while he lie ill in a foreign land.  When he returned to Dundee, the great harvest had been mostly taken in – all of this under the preaching ministry of the younger and less-experienced W. C. Burns.  Yet, there is no hint of envy in either his public words or private writings.  Bonar comments:  “He had no envy at another instrument having been so honored in the place where he himself had labored with many tears and trials.  In true Christian magnanimity, he rejoiced that the work of the Lord was done, by whatever hand.  [He was] full of praise and wonder....”

    What of you?  Is the Gospel rooting out pride in your life? 

    The Gospel, properly applied, will make God more important than sleep.

    “Do everything in earnest; if it is worth doing, then do it with all your might.  Above all, keep much in the presence of God.  Never see the face of man till you have seen His face who is our life, our all.”

    “February 23, 1834. – Sabbath. – Rose early to seek God and found Him whom my soul loves.  Who would not rise early to meet such company?”

    It does not take much study of history to note that the great men used of God were men of personal devotion and prayer.  The Gospel was so real to M’Cheyne and so central to his daily life that every day was a gift from God to pursue a relationship with Jesus.

    He was so convinced of his own inability that he dared not move forward without his gracious Enabler:  “I must first see the face of God before I take on any duty.”  “We must be drinking the living water from the smitten rock or we cannot speak of its refreshing power.”

    The truths behind John 15:5 oriented his life:  “I am the vine, ye are the branches:  He that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit:  for without Me ye can do nothing.”

    M’Cheyne had learned that “it is not great talents that God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.  A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”

    In a day and age when we are tempted to trust in program over providence, M’Cheyne’s example is a healthy corrective.  What we need is God, and keeping the Gospel at the center of our thinking is the primary means to this.  The Gospel is a daily refresher course on what I deserve, and what I have been given.  It is a regular strike against all hints of self-­reliance and drives a man to look for the face of God.  “But in general it is best to have at least one hour alone with God before engaging in anything else.” 

    The Gospel, properly applied, will make you pray.

    “No person can be a child of God without living in secret prayer; and no community of Christians can be in lively condition without unity in prayer.”

    M’Cheyne and a small group of other pastors had made an agreement to pray for each other every Saturday night.  Along with praying for the work of God in other places, he was a faithful interceder for his own flock at Dundee.  Asked by Bonar in the height of his busyness as a pastor and preacher if he had ever neglected these prayers, M’Cheyne answered in the negative:  “What would my people do if I were not to pray?”

    Most of us find our private prayer and Bible reading wane as our other responsibilities increase.  But M’Cheyne lived unwilling to march into battle without having first stood in the armory of God.

    Gospel men are praying men.  And they are quick to point others in the same direction.  So he would preach and counsel:  “Pray to be taught to pray.  Do not be content with old forms that flow from the lips only.  Most Christians have need to cast their formal prayers away, to be taught to cry, ‘Abba.’”

    Friend, what is your private prayer life really like?  Is the Gospel so central to your life that prayer flows freely throughout the day? 

    The Gospel, properly applied, will cause you to do the work of an evangelist.

    Bonar wrote of M’Cheyne:  “Our object is not to get duty done, but to get souls saved....  Often after visiting from house to house for several hours, he would return to some room in the place in the evening, and preach to the gathered families:  ‘September 26, 1838. – Good visiting day.  Twelve families; many of them go nowhere.  It is a great thing to be well-furnished by meditation and prayer before setting out; it makes you a far more full and faithful witness.  Preached in A. F.’s house on Job, “I know that my Redeemer liveth” (Job 19:25).’ ”

    M’Cheyne had that skill of getting into an unbeliever’s heart.  In witnessing to one that was “awakened, but not yet converted,” he wrote:

    “What has the world done for you, that you love it so much?  Did the world die for you?  Will the world blot out your sins or change your heart?  Will the world carry you to heaven?  No, no!  You may go back to the world if you please, but it can only destroy your poor soul....  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 I have had more pleasure in a single day than you have had all your life.  In what? you will say.  In feeling that God loves me – that Christ has washed me – and feeling that I shall be in heaven when the wicked are cast into hell.  ‘A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand [elsewhere] (Psa. 84:10).  ...If you die without Christ, you cannot come back to be converted and die a believer – you have but once to die.  Oh, pray that you may find Christ before death finds you!”

    M’Cheyne was a busy pastor and in much demand as a preacher of God’s Word, but his ownership of the Gospel made him a fisher of men.  He did not excuse himself from evangelism by spending all of his time studying to preach.  He lived his life expecting God to save sinners.

    What does your evangelism suggest you really believe about the Gospel?  “If our neighbor’s house were on fire, would we not cry aloud and use every exertion....    Oh, shall we be less earnest to save their never-dying souls, than we would be to save their bodies?” 

    M’Cheyne’s life should humble us and call us to repentance for our shallow spirituality and lack of faith in the great things God is able to do.  His life should also prove to us the necessity of connecting the Gospel to everything we are and do.  That in turn, should make us eager students of that Gospel. 

    – Condensed from the July 2010 issue of The Gospel Witness.  Used by permission.  Paul W. Martin is pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Canada.  Quotes in the article are taken from Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne by Andrew Bonar.