He’s Surely Right

In his Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Andrew Bonar details how M’Cheyne seasoned every conversation with the salt of eternity. Bonar then gives an aside about gospel ministry. His subject is one I’ve thought about often in recent days—as I so often fall short in this area. Bonar says it more eloquently and convictingly than I ever could:

Whatever be said in the pulpit, men will not much regard, though they may feel it at the time, if the minister does not say the same in private, with equal earnestness, in speaking with his people face to face; and it must be in our moment of most familiar intercourse with them, that we are thus to put the seal to all we say in public. Familiar moments are the times when the things that are most closely twined round the heart are brought out to view; and shall we forbear, by tacit consent, to introduce the Lord that bought us into such happy hours? We must not only speak faithfully to our people in our sermons, but live faithfully for them too. Perhaps it may be found, that the reason why many, who preach the gospel fully and in all earnestness, are not owned of God in the conversion of souls, is to be found in their defective exhibition of grace in these easy moments of life.

“Unsurpassed Even By Spurgeon”

Yesterday, as I tinkered around the New College Library in Edinburgh, I came across a lecture Sinclair Ferguson gave on William Chalmers Burns.

Burns is a notable figure for anyone studying 19th-century evangelicalism, but I wish every Christian knew his story. His life is a burning testimony that the gospel is God’s power for salvation. A humble, fiery Spirit burned within his soul, and there are lessons worth learning if we’d listen.

And Dr. Ferguson’s lecture is a most excellent place to start.

If you’re interested in reading more about Burns, here are two works you might consider:

With Authority and Tenderness

Ambassadorsfor Christ

I count it a supreme blessing to study Robert Murray M’Cheyne. Never does a day go by without finding conviction or comfort in his works.

I read his sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:20–21 this morning, where Paul writes, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In meditating on ministers being ambassadors for Christ, M’Cheyne says,

Learn from this, how we should preach, and how you should hear. We do not come in our own name, but in Christ’s. We are to do as the disciples did when they received the bread from Christ. We are to receive our message from him and give it unto you; so, in one sense, it is immaterial to us whether you receive the truth or not. Observe, we are to speak with authority. Many of you are not pleased at what we say; you say we might have spoken less severely; you quarrel at our words; but ah! if you look into your own heart, you would see, that it is not us you quarrel with, it is with Christ. Observe, still farther, that we are ambassadors; we must speak tenderly. God is love. Christ is love. I am afraid it is here we err, and show that the vessel is earthly. When Christ came into the world, it was a message of love he brought.

On which side might you err? Maybe your zealous proclamations are so loud that no hearer sense your soul is taken in love to Christ. Or perhaps, your graceful preaching is never forceful enough to break through a hardened heart. Oh, let us pray for the fullness of authority and tenderness in preaching!

Chalmers Still Speaks

47896I’ve spent today wading through the voluminous works by or about Thomas Chalmers, trying to understand his influence on Robert Murray M’Cheyne. As David Yeaworth says, “In Chalmers, more than any other person, M’Cheyne found the mold for his ecclesiastical and religious thought, and a worthy pattern for his own ministerial life.”

If evangelicals know anything today about Chalmers, it’s probably his sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” Few may know he was arguably the most famous British preacher at the time, a brilliant mathematician who theorized on everything from astronomy to politics to economics to social reform, and an evangelical who longed to see Christ proclaimed in slums of Scotland and far away nations.

What is remarkable is how he wielded his immense intellect to serve the church. Consider the following encouragement and warning about preaching:

By far the most effective ingredient of good preaching is the personal piety of the preacher himself . . . How little must the presence of God be felt in that place, where the high functions of the pulpit are degraded into a stipulated exchange of entertainment, on the one side, and of admiration, on the other! and surely it were a sight to make angels weep when a weak and vapouring mortal, surrounded by his fellow sinners, and hastening to the grave and the judgment along with them, find it a dearer object to his bosom to regale his hearers by the exhibition of himself, than to do, in plain earnest, the work of his Master.

Put simply: in your preaching, are you exalting yourself or the Savior?

M’Cheyne’s Favorite Book on Pastoral Ministry

9780851510873I’ve said before that Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry is the best book available on pastoral ministry. I believe no other work can compare in substance, depth, and conviction.

It thus smiled when I read a letter from M’Cheyne to Andrew Bonar during preparations for the Church’s “Mission of Inquiry to the Jews.” M’Cheyne starts by urging Bonar to join the team. Eventually M’Cheyne comes to ponder aloud what books he should bring on the trip. He says, “As to books, I am quite at a loss.” But he was certain as to a few essentials:

My Hebrew Bible, Greek Testament, etc., and perhaps Bridge’s (sic) Christian Ministry for general purposes,—I mean, for keeping us in mind of our ministerial work.”

I think he’s exactly right. If you have your Bible and The Christian Ministry always within reach, you’ll find fresh fire for faithful ministry.

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Preparation for Ministry

PREPARING FOR

Most of my time is spent these days working on the life and piety of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. I’m convinced he provides a unique template for gospel ministry.

In the Memoir and Remains, Andrew Bonar strings together a series of diary entries in the years before M’Cheyne licensure for gospel ministry in the Church of Scotland. He’d have us think of these as preparatory years. Upon M’Cheyne’s licensure, Bonar comments:

His soul was prepared for the awful work of the ministry by much prayer, and much study of the word of God; by affliction in his person; by inward trials and sore temptations; by experience of the depth of corruption in his own heart, and by discoveries of the Savior’s fullness of grace.

I tend to think Bonar’s comments a handy summary of M’Cheyne’s program for piety. I also believe it represents a model for us in ministry.

God has called some of you to the ministry. You are only waiting for a place to minister Christ’s gospel. How are you preparing your soul in the meantime? If you’re in seminary, don’t fall into the trap of believing research papers, reading, and exams are sufficient preparation. These tools are vital–they just aren’t sufficient. It’s “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Gospel ministry is no different. Afflictions and temptations aren’t hurdles to future ministry. When used rightly, they are friends to faithful pastoring.

Some of you are currently pastors. You may have interns or members in your midst sensing God’s call. How are you helping them to prepare for shepherding souls? Exhort them to prayer and Bible reading. Assist them in probing the depths of their sin and the unsearchable riches of Christ, so they may declare “the Savior’s fullness of grace.”

Advice on Prayer Meetings

prayer-meeting-webheader

Oh, how I wish more churches had a regular prayer meeting. Could it be that our shortcomings in piety, worship, and witness have a direct correlation to how few congregations spend time in earnest prayer? I tend to think so.

Studying M’Cheyne has reminded me of the prayer meeting’s significance. He understood concerted prayer to not only be a prerequisite to revival, but also an evidence of revival. One fruit the St. Peter’s revival of 1839–1840 was the commitment to prayer. In December 1840, the Presbytery of Aberdeen appointed a committee to inquire about the revivals taking place throughout Scotland. They wrote to M’Cheyne asking him to answer a series of fifteen questions related to the revival in Dundee. His answers were published later as Evidences on Revivals. He said during the revival “thirty-nine prayer meetings [were] held weekly in connection with the congregation, and five of these were conducted and attended entirely by little children.” After twelve months, M’Cheyne wrote, “I believe the number of these meetings is not much diminished,” although many were more private in nature.

Congregational prayer was something M’Cheyne prioritized from the beginning at Dundee. Not long after his installation at St. Peter’s he began a Thursday night prayer meeting that 800 people attended. He apparently earned a reputation for skill in leading congregational prayer, as Mr. J.T. Just wrote to him asking for advice in conducting prayer meetings.

M’Cheyne begins by saying, “No person can be a child of God without living in secret prayer; and no community of Christians can be in a lively condition without unity in prayer.” A true church is a praying church. And every church can always grow in prayer. Here then are some bits of wisdom M’Cheyne offers.

12 Helps For Prayer Meetings

  • “One great rule in holding them (prayer meetings) is, that they really be meetings of disciples.”
  • “The prayer-meeting I like best is where there is only praise and prayer, and the reading of God’s word.”
  • “Meet weekly, at a convenient hour.”
  • “Be regular in attendance. Let nothing keep you away from your meeting.”
  • “Pray in secret before going.”
  • “Let your prayers in the meeting be formed as much as possible upon what you have read in the Bible. You will thus learn variety of petition, and a Scripture style.”
  • “Pray that you may pray to God, and not for the ears of man.”
  • “Pray for the outpouring of the Spirit on the Church of Christ and for the world; for the purity and unity of God’s children; for the raising up of godly ministers, and the blessing of those that are so already.”
  • “Pray for the conversion of your friends, of your neighbours, of the whole town.”
  • “Pride is Satan’s wedge for splitting prayer-meetings to pieces: watch and pray against it.”
  • “Watch against seeking to be greater than one another; watch against lip-religion.”
  • “Above all, abide in Christ, and He will abide in you.”

Around this time M’Cheyne wrote to his great friend Andrew Bonar asking for more advice on prayer meetings. In the letter, M’Cheyne gives some humorous sanity on a pastors’ prayer meeting he just began. May those of us who minister the gospel remember it: “We began today a ministerial prayer-meeting, to be held every Monday at eleven for an hour and a half. This is a great comfort, and may be a great blessing. Of course, we do not invite the colder ministers; that would only damp our meeting. Tell me if you think this right.” I for one think it right, very right indeed.

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I Am Persuaded

M'Cheyne

A few months before his death, Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote his Personal Reformation. He began by saying, “It is the duty of ministers in this day to begin the reformation of religion . . . with confession of past sin, earnest prayer for direction, grace, and full purpose of heart.”

He then gives us simple, but challenging insight into how a pastor must go about loving God and loving others.

How to Glorify God and Do Good

M’Cheyne writes, “I am persuaded that I shall obtain the highest amount of present happiness, I shall do most for God’s glory and the good of man, and I shall have the fullest reward in eternity,” by doing three things:

  1. “By maintaining a conscience always washed in Christ’s blood.”
  2. “By being filled with the Holy Spirit at all times.”
  3. “By attaining the most entire likeness to Christ in mind, will, and heart, that it is possible for a redeemed sinner to attain to in this world.”

5 Truths for Real Revival

Revival Truths

For the last few weeks, I’ve been tinkering away on a paper comparing Jonathan Edwards and Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s defenses of revival. I won’t bore you with the academics of establishing a link between the two men; you’ll just have to trust me on this: no one (outside of Thomas Chalmers) had such discernible influence on M’Cheyne as Edwards.

A Spark and The Sun

On March 20, 1832, M’Cheyne wrote in his diary, “Read part of the life of Jonathan Edwards. How feeble does my spark of Christianity appear beside such a sun! But even his was a borrowed light, and the same source is still open to enlighten me.” This first recorded encounter with the Northampton pastor was powerful enough to cause M’Cheyne to purchase Edwards’ works three months later and begin to read them in earnest. Andrew Bonar, his closest friend, and biographer, remarks, “It was [during his first pastoral charge] . . . that [M’Cheyne] began to study so closely the works of Jonathan Edwards—reckoning them a mine to be wrought, and if wrought, sure to repay the toil.”

M’Cheyne’s toil was repaid in full. I think we can see that in how similar the 1838–1840 revival at St. Peter’s Dundee (described in Evidences on Revival) was to the 1734–1735 awakening in Edwards’ Northampton church (famously defending in A Narrative of the Surprising Work of God). One simple way to trace this is how each man used revival history in his congregation.

In the Faithful Narrative of a Surprising Work of God, Edwards tells his readers, “There is no one thing that I know of which God has made such a means of promoting his work amongst us, as the news of others’ conversion.” M’Cheyne too stoked the fire of awakening by recounting God’s great act in revivals of old during weekday services. I thus ask, “How then might Edwards and M’Cheyne encourage awakening in our own time? How might we pursue similar experiences of revival?” I believe to note and pursue five key commonalities each man emphasized.

5 Truths for Real Revival

Revival is the work of God’s sovereign spirit. Each pastor k he could not manufacture an awakening. There were no “new measures” to be discovered. Instead, a rediscovery of dependence upon God’s Spirit was needed, to see Him move in extraordinary power. Today, particularly in the Western church, temptations to pragmatism lurk in every place. Many ordinary pastors lead stagnated congregations. The bones are dry. But God’s Spirit is no less powerful today than he was in 1734–1735 and 1839–1840. Edwards and M’Cheyne challenge us to be patiently urgent in waiting for the Spirit’s breath to whistle forth a rattling sound through our age’s dry bones.

Revival depends on earnest prayer. Edwards and M’Cheyne each recount how the awakenings came after prolonged periods of prayer. Increased devotion to and delight in prayer became one of the clearest fruits of the Spirit’s work in revival. Pastors today will know an awakening has come—or is on the way—when the weekly prayer meeting is full. Another marker will be when multiple prayer meetings take over the church’s ordinary corporate life. Prayer calls upon the Spirit to begin blowing and keep blowing. M’Cheyne’s convicting conclusion at the end of Evidences on Revival is that only pastors “given to secret prayer” will experience an authentic awakening.

Revival comes through preaching Christ. Preaching is the chariot that brings down Christ to a church’s soul. A heralded Christ is what ignited the revival fires at Northampton and Dundee. Haykin reminds, “The deeply held pneumatological conviction in Edwards (and M’Cheyne’s) Reformed heritage [is] that the Spirit is a Christ-centred and Christ-exalting Spirit.” “Nothing but preaching the pure gospel of the grace of God,” M’Cheyne said, can bring about awakening. Let us then continue to preach Christ—crucified, risen, and ascended—believing it is only when He is lifted up continuously in our sermons that He will draw all men to Himself.

Revival increases the weight of God’s glory. A striking feature of both accounts is how revival brought reverence to the respective congregations. Instances of extreme ecstasy happened, but awful solemnity swallowed them whole. Edwards, with relentless attention, shows how fear and solemnity plowed through sinful hearts to plant salvation’s seed. “There seems to be far more of a solemn awe upon the minds of men than formerly . . . There is far more solemnity in the house of God,” M’Cheyne recounts. Our modern age exalts exuberant authenticity, which surely has a place in Christ’s church. Edwards and M’Cheyne remind us, however, that God also deserves our trembling, reverent worship. When the Spirit falls, He does so with heaviness. God’s glory bears eternal, incomprehensible weight. In awakenings, souls feel its force and respond with reverence.

Revival includes the children. While Edwards and M’Cheyne do tell us how the awakenings touched people from all walks of life, they nevertheless single out one special group: children. God used the youth in each church to raise a cup of gladness and shout a song of praise. Our Savior rebuked those who prevented the children from coming to Him. Let not His rebuke fall on us. In our preaching and pastoring, let us bend the knee and speak with tender hearts. Require not an unreasonable degree of theological or moral assent from your covenant children—they too may find Christ’s blessing.

Imitate Their Faith

In Philippians 3:17 Paul exhorts, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Jonathan Edwards and Robert Murray M’Cheyne are heroes to whom we should look. M’Cheyne thought Edwards to be a mighty sun in history’s spiritual galaxy. May we, like M’Cheyne, find the star of our life reflecting such absorbing trust in the Spirit who blows wherever He wills.

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A Christ to Love

The Love of Christ

After several months spent swimming in the ocean of pastoral ministry and Ph.D. studies, I’ve feel as though I’m resurfacing with a few weeks off before another semester begins. I’m thus eager to haunt this here blog space once again with greater frequency.

A Spirituality of Trysts

One of the seminars I took this spring was “Theological Foundations of Spirituality” with Dr. Stephen Yuille. It was the first seminar I’ve had that allowed me to write a paper on Mr. M’Cheyne. I thus dove into my research with new earnestness, thinking, “Here’s a sanctioned excuse to work on the dissertation!” I first planned to do something on M’Cheyne’s theology of holiness. But the more I researched, the more I realized his idea of holiness is wrapped up in his understanding of Christ. It’s impossible to make sense of his almost-legendary personal holiness apart from his little-known Christology. So extensive is this correlation that what came out was a paper twice as long as it was supposed to be. The girth is good—I think. (It’s my hoped-for-but-yet-to-be-approved dissertation in seed form.)

One of the matters I try to advance in the paper is M’Cheyne’s view of the means of as “trysts”—secret meetings between lovers. It’s a delight to study M’Cheyne because he’s so immediately practical for ministry. To give you a taste of what I’m discovering, and to hopefully serve you as well, here’s a section from my recent work titled, “A Strangely Sweet and Precious Christ: Christological Spirituality in the Preaching of Robert Murray M’Cheyne.”


A Christ to Love

As mentioned above, M’Cheyne’s pursuit of personal holiness has marveled and humbled many a man. It is wrong however to see that pursuit as the centerpiece of his spirituality. Love to Christ was the pulsating power of his piety. In “The Love of Christ,” on 2 Corinthians 5:14, M’Cheyne not only expounds Christ’s love, but also what that love compels in His people’s life. According to M’Cheyne, God knows our desires for sin regularly outweigh our desires for holiness. Therefore, “He hath invented a way of drawing us to holiness. By showing us the love of his Son, he calleth forth our love.”[1] The love of Christ, according to M’Cheyne, “is the secret spring of all the holiness of the saints.” The reason for holiness and spirituality is crystal clear: “We are constrained to holiness by the love of Christ.”[2]

Most studies on M’Cheyne spirituality center on his diligent use of particular means of grace: Bible reading and prayer. What has not yet been pieced together is how M’Cheyne viewed the means of grace chiefly as vehicles of love. It is in and through these means that Christ’s love comes down, and the church’s love goes up. Nothing better illuminates this reality than how M’Cheyne preferred to talk about communion with Christ. For M’Cheyne, the means of grace are “trysts”—meetings between lovers. Consider the following excerpts from various sermons:

  • “In the daily reading of the Word, Christ pays daily visits to the soul. In the daily prayer, Christ reveals himself to his own in that other way that he doth to the world. In the house of God Christ comes to his own, and says: ‘Peace be unto you!’ And in the sacrament he makes himself known to them in the breaking of bread, and they cry out: ‘It is the Lord!’ These are all trysting times, when the Savior comes to visit his own.”[3]
  • “The Sabbath is Christ’s trysting time with his church. If you love him, you will count every moment of it precious. You will rise early and sit up late, to have a long day with Christ.”[4]
  • “The hour of daily devotion is a trysting house with Christ . . . The Lord’s Table is the most famous trysting place with Christ.”[5]
  • “[Gathered worship] is a trysting place with Christ. It is the audience chamber where he comes to commune with us from the mercy-seat.”[6]
  • “We love everything that is Christ’s (word, prayer, sacrament, fellowship) . . . We love his House. It is our trysting-place with Christ, where he meets with us and communes with us from off the mercy-seat.”[7]

The importance of these selections for understanding M’Cheyne’s spirituality is simple: his pursuit of personal holiness was little more than the pursuit of the Christ he loved. Christ’s love was a glorious truth to be preached and enjoyed. Why then did M’Cheyne famously pray, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made?”[8] I would argue he did so because he saw holiness as the maturity of love; it is the highest experience of Christ’s love. “Communion with God; the delighting in Him; loving, adoring, admiring Him;” these are the ordinary desires of a heart redeemed by Christ’s love—these were the ordinary desires of Robert Murray M’Cheyne.[9]

To preach Christ was strangely sweet and precious, M’Cheyne wrote. So sweetly precious was the Savior to this young Scottish preacher that he could not help but let Christ saturate every sermon. He presented Christ’s fullness and freeness in all its glory. Few Christological rocks, if any, did he leave unturned in that theological garden named, “The Person and Work of Christ.” He did, however, sit most comfortably next to those boulders marked, “A Sure Christ,” “A Converting Christ,” “A Captivating Christ, and “A Judging Christ.” His Christology was winsome, romantic, and simple. Here was a Christ of love. Here was a Christ to love.

Alexander Smellie said in his biography of M’Cheyne, “I never knew one so instant in season and out of season, so impressed with the invisible realities, and so faithful in reproving sin and witness for Christ. . . . Love to Christ was the great secret of all his devotion and consistency.”[10] My study of M’Cheyne’s preaching ministry leads me to conclude with a hearty, “Amen.”

[1] M’Cheyne, From the Preacher’s Heart, 52. (emphasis original)

[2] Ibid., 53.

[3] Ibid., 232–33.

[4] M’Cheyne, The Passionate Preacher, 330. Cf. M’Cheyne, Sermons on Hebrews, 32-33.

[5] M’Cheyne, From the Preacher’s Heart, 234. cf., 103.

[6] M’Cheyne, The Passionate Preacher, 28.

[7] Ibid., 33.

[8] Bonar, Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 160.

[9] M’Cheyne, New Testament Sermons, 41.

[10] Alexander Smellie, Robert Murray McCheyne (Fearn: Christian Focus, 1995), 172.