Friday, September 30, 2011

The Power of Godliness

Books That Have Shaped Me – Part Four

Bob Rakestraw
September 30, 2011

“The Benediction Project”

The book I am writing about in this posting has been, after the Bible, the most important and influential book in my life and service for God. I bought it on September 25, 1965, for 75 cents, in a bookstore in western Canada. I have read it several times, especially in my early years as a Christian.

7. “The Life of Robert Murray McCheyne,” by Andrew A. Bonar (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960. First published 1844). 192 pp.

Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-1843) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and entered university at the age of 14. He had an early aptitude for the arts, especially music and poetry, and enjoyed sports, especially gymnastics. At 18 he was accepted to study divinity at the University of Edinburgh, where he met his mentor, Thomas Chalmers, Professor of Divinity. Chalmers became the pattern for his thought, life and ministry. Upon completion of his studies he became a Scottish Presbyterian minister. After a short assistantship in one parish, he became the pastor of St. Peter’s, Dundee, at the age of 23. Here he served with excellence until his death seven-and-a half years later.

In addition to Thomas Chalmers, another strong influence on McCheyne was Andrew A. Bonar, the author of the book discussed here and the brother of the hymn-writer Horatius Bonar. When McCheyne died in 1843, it was inevitable that his associates turned to Bonar for a memoir of the one whose brief ministry had “stamped an indelible impress on Scotland.” Bonar was also born in Edinburgh, three years earlier than McCheyne, and from the time they entered the Divinity Hall together in 1831 they were the closest friends.

The two distinguishing features of McCheyne’s brief life were his deep concern for evangelism and missionary work (with a special burden for the conversion of the Jewish people) and his quest for personal holiness. The strong evangelistic/missionary zeal emerged under the influence of Professor Chalmers and his desire for holiness was deepened and cultivated during his years in the Divinity Hall through his close personal friendship with Bonar, one who thirsted for intimacy with God as much as did McCheyne.

According to the superb article on McCheyne by D.A. Robertson (the present pastor of St. Peter’s) in “Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals” (ed. Timothy Larson), St. Peter’s church was situated in a rapidly expanding industrial area of Dundee, and McCheyne’s ministry here was innovative and radical. He saw the prime need of the area as evangelism and acted accordingly. He sought to make the church services as attractive as possible and did his utmost to ensure that the singing was melodious and enthusiastic. He sometimes led the singing itself. His preaching was simple. He sought deliberately to keep his speech plain and to use plenty of word pictures. He preached with authority, diligence and wholesomeness. His sermons varied in length from 20 minutes to one-and-a-half hours.

In addition to the Sunday services there was a Bible study on Thursday evenings. This was a less formal meeting for which the building (able to seat 1,100 people) was often full. “McCheyne’s pastorate in working class Dundee was characterized by evangelistic preaching, local mission, diligent home visitation, and compassion for the sick and poor” (Todd Stratham, in “Dictionary of Christian Spirituality,” ed. Glen G. Scorgie).

More than any pastoral accomplishments, however, McCheyne’s lasting legacy has to do with his pursuit of God. From his life we see the reality of the truth, “it is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Christ.” In their introduction, the publishers write that “it may be doubted whether any Christian can seriously read these pages without having an example of the power of godliness stamped upon his conscience in a manner that will abide with him all his days.” According to Bonar, “holiness in him was manifested, not by efforts to perform duty, but in a way so natural that you recognized therein the easy outflowing of the indwelling Spirit.”

McCheyne had a strong interest in the land and people of Palestine. He devoted one hour every morning to prayer for the Jews, in addition to the hour he spent in other prayer and scripture meditation. In 1839, McCheyne, Andrew Bonar and two other ministers were appointed by the Church of Scotland to travel to Israel and locations in Europe to investigate the condition of the Jewish people, to see how they might be ministered to. They were gone six months. While they were away, revival broke out in St. Peter’s under the interim ministry of William Chalmers Burns. The revival continued until 1843. McCheyne thus returned to a church that was packed nightly and had become the object of national press attention. He estimated (very conservatively) that over 700 people had been “savingly influenced” in St. Peter’s during this period.

McCheyne’s yearning for godliness and his high level of scholarship blended together in his personal formation. He pursued diligently the study of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, as well as the Greek Septuagint. He could work with the Hebrew Old Testament as easily as most ministers of his day could work with the Greek New Testament. He met often with friends to study the scriptures closely, but even more often for prayer and serious conversation. They “watched each other’s steps in the narrow way.”

McCheyne was continually on guard for temptation, and knew well the subtleties of sin in his life. While in the Bible lands, for example, he wrote the following to a fellow minister in Scotland. “Use your health while you have it, my dear friend and brother. Do not cast away peculiar opportunities that may never come again. You know not when your last Sabbath with your people may come. Speak for eternity. Above all things, cultivate your own spirit. A word spoken by you when your conscience is clear, and your heart full of God’s Spirit, is worth ten thousand words spoken in unbelief and sin. This was my great fault in the ministry. Remember it is God, and not man, that must have the glory.”

Many of the entries in McCheyne’s diary are striking. “Clear conviction of sin is the only true origin of dependence on another’s righteousness, and, therefore, (strange to say!) of the Christian’s peace of mind and cheerfulness.” He did not experience good health and was particularly subject to attacks of fever. “If nothing else will do to sever me from my sins, Lord send me such sore and trying calamities as shall awaken me from earthly slumbers.” “Bodily weakness, too, depresses me.”

McCheyne suffered much throughout his life, and that not only in the physical realm. Bonar writes that “he had been taught a minister’s heart; he had been tried in the furnace; he had tasted deep personal sorrow, little of which has been recorded….” “His voice, and his very eye, spoke tenderness; for personal affliction had taught him to feel sympathy with the sorrowing.” “From personal experience of deep temptation he could lay open the secrets of the heart….” “It was his own persuasion that few had more to struggle with in the inner man. Who can tell what wars go on within?” McCheyne wrote on one occasion, “Paul’s thorn, 2 Cor. 12, is the experience of the greater part of my life.”

Through it all, however, he prayed, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made.” “Often, often I would like to depart and be with Christ.” “I do not expect to live long. I expect a sudden call some day—perhaps soon—and therefore I speak very plainly.” He had long been persuaded that his course would be brief, and he must have said to himself as he often said to others, “Live so as to be missed.”

His “sudden call” came on March 25, 1843, at the age of 29. While visiting in the Hawkhill area of his parish he contracted typhus. When the fever came, he lay down upon the bed from which he was never to rise. For over two weeks he suffered from high fever, extreme weakness and delirium. The church was full of people every night, praying for his recovery. During this time on his sickbed he was often heard speaking to or praying for his people. On one occasion he was heard praying, “Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me.” As his condition worsened, his medical attendants prohibited visitors.

Andrew Bonar describes the end. “Thus he continued most generally engaged, while the delirium lasted, either in prayer or in preaching to his people, and always apparently in happy frame, till the morning of Saturday the 25th. On that morning, while his kind medical attendant, Dr. Gibson, stood by, he lifted up his hands as if in the attitude of pronouncing the blessing, and then sank down. Not a groan or a sigh, but only a quiver of the lip, and his soul was at rest.”

His people gathered in the church that evening, and “such a scene of sorrow has not often been witnessed in Scotland. It was like the weeping for King Josiah…. Every heart seemed bursting with grief, so that the weeping and the cries could be heard afar off.” Over 6000 people attended his funeral. “The streets and every window, from the house to the grave, were crowded with those who felt that a Prince in Israel had fallen.” His work was finished—to the glory of God. His tomb may be seen today on the pathway at the northwest corner of St. Peter’s burying ground.


Amelia said...

Wow. What an inspiration and challenge! Thanks for this series of posts Bob.

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

Thanks very much for your encouragement, Amelia. God's best to you and yours. Bob