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Early Influences

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Date May 7, 2013

Rev. John Macpherson, former Free Church minister in Dornoch and London, and missionary in Peru, reflects on the influence of Bonar’s Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne on his life and ministry.

I had the inestimable privilege of being brought to faith in Christ while I was young, about 14-15 years of age. Although my conversion took place through the ministry of Scripture Union camps, I have no doubt that the teaching and example of my own minister in Kiltearn played an important part, without my being really aware of it. On my returning home, Rev. John Macdonald and his wife must have recognised that there was a new spiritual awareness in my life, and they warmly opened their home and their hearts to me.

Mr Macdonald saw that I was an avid reader, and he very soon started lending me books from his personal library, which played an important part in shaping my Christian thinking and living. The first one I remember receiving was on the history of the English Bible, to be followed over the years by others, such as The Annals of the Disruption; a history of the Scottish Reformation; the [auto]biography of John G. Paton, missionary to the South Seas; and The Monk who Lived Again, which told the story of a Dominican priest, converted in Bolivia and forced to flee to Peru.

The last book I remember receiving was not a loan but a gift: Robert Haldane’s Commentary on Romans. A year later my wife and I went to Peru as Free Church missionaries, and I still have Haldane on Romans with all the markings I made on it while I used it to accompany my devotional reading during my first missionary year.

How wise and generous were these actions by the minister of a relatively small congregation! Admittedly, I loved reading, and especially all branches of Christian reading, but how much can be accomplished by ministers or any older Christians through recommending, lending and donating good and challenging books to those who are still young in the faith!

One book, however, among all those that were lent me, stands out: it is the Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne by Andrew Bonar. It made a huge impact on me at the time, and I have re-read it, in whole or in part, many times since then. Making all due allowance for the fact that Bonar’s close friendship with M’Cheyne probably leads him to see his subject through rose-tinted spectacles, it remains true that as a man and as a minister M’Cheyne was an outstanding Christian, whose life was a beacon to the world and a challenge to everyone who wants to follow Christ. How did reading about him affect the way I tried to live my new life as a disciple of Christ, aged 16 or 17? From much that could be said, let me highlight the following aspects of M’Cheyne’s life.

1. Personal

M’Cheyne was not much older than I was when he was converted, but he seemed immediately to live out Frances Havergal’s words: ‘Take my life, and let it be / Consecrated, Lord, to thee.’ Perhaps I felt almost relieved that to begin with he was embarrassed to speak out openly to his friends about his new-found faith, since I didn’t really find that an easy thing to do. But very soon he was witnessing openly, reading his Bible regularly, praying specifically for others, and recognising that God was now in charge of all his decision-making. As someone hoping to go soon to university, I was impressed with his desire to glorify God in all his studies and recreations.

Although I had no thoughts then of becoming a minister, M’Cheyne’s attitude to his theological studies and his firm Reformed convictions were unconsciously shaping my own theological stance. Through active involvement in Christian Unions, I was to become exposed to a wide variety of Christian traditions, which was very helpful, though some of my friends tended to be dismissive of ‘arid theology’, of ‘Calvinism that inhibits evangelism’, of ‘ponderous Presbyterianism that takes away the local church’s freedom of action’, or of ‘confessions and creeds taking the place of the Bible and straitjacketing the church’.

When I turned to M’Cheyne, however, what did I see? A young man utterly steeped in and submissive to the Scriptures, a young man who loved Jesus with all his heart, a young man who lived and loved holiness, a young man who longed to preach the good news to all around him and who had a blazing heart for world evangelism. Yet this same man was devoted to the study of Greek and Hebrew, of theology, and of church history, and saw them as wonderful tools for every gospel preacher. He rejoiced in the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith and constantly referred to it. He was a convinced Calvinist, but saw no conflict between proclaiming God’s electing grace and offering salvation full and free to ‘whosoever will’. He deplored the abuses of the Presbyterian system, but gladly worked within it as having a solid biblical warrant and as providing him with all the liberty and support he required for his amazing work as a pastor, evangelist and teacher.

I was blessed with good health, but M’Cheyne wasn’t. I was astounded to realise how much he accomplished for the Lord when so often he was sick, sometimes for long periods. It led me to pray that if I were ever to experience such sickness, I would be as submissive to the Lord as M’Cheyne and at the same time would continue to serve him as eagerly. I was moved to tears reading of M’Cheyne being desperately ill in far-off Smyrna, aged only 26, so ill in fact that he later wrote to a doctor friend in Dundee: ‘I really believed that my Master had called me home and that I would sleep beneath the dark-green cypresses of Bouja till the Lord shall come, and they that sleep in Jesus shall come with him; and my most earnest prayer was for my dear flock, that God would give them a pastor after his own heart.’ For three years he had faithfully ministered in St Peter’s Church in Dundee, all the time praying for an outpouring of God’s Spirit. He thought that he would never again see his people, but as Bonar says: ‘The cry of his servant in Asia was not forgotten; the eye of the Lord turned towards his people. It was during the time of Mr M’Cheyne’s sore sickness that his flock in Dundee were receiving blessing from the opened windows of heaven.’

The great blessings in Dundee came through another man, W. C. Burns, in spite of M’Cheyne having worked and prayed so tirelessly. I wondered then, and wonder still, if I could ever attain the self-effacing humility of M’Cheyne, who wrote to Burns: ‘You remember it was the prayer of my heart when we parted, that you might be a thousandfold more blessed to my people than ever my ministry had been. How it will gladden my heart, if you can really tell me that it has been so!’ Because of our innate tendency to pride and self-justification, it is often easier to ‘mourn with those who mourn’ than it is to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’. M’Cheyne points us in a better, more blessed direction.

2. Missionary

M’Cheyne never became a ‘foreign missionary’ in the traditional sense. But he was fully a missionary in the biblical understanding of the term. ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you,’ Jesus had said to his first missionaries, and in that spirit and with that commission, M’Cheyne lived his whole life as a missionary. He was ready to go to the ends of the earth, however difficult it might be; indeed, he longed to be able to do so, but his precarious health made it impossible. He never, however, lost any opportunity to tell sinners of the Saviour, in Scotland, Ireland, England and throughout his protracted journey to and from Palestine.

During that trip we find him bemoaning constantly his inability to communicate the gospel in Arabic. Meeting some educated Jews in Eastern Europe, he was delighted to discover they could converse with him in Latin, giving him the opportunity of sharing with them the good news of Jesus as Messiah. Shortly before the Disruption, he was chatting one day with a fellow-minister who, like him, was determined to leave the bondage of the Established Church in order to uphold ‘the crown rights of the Redeemer’. They discussed what they might do and M’Cheyne said: ‘I think of going to the many thousand convicts that are transported beyond the seas, for no man careth for their souls.’ At home or abroad, he was always a true missionary of the Cross.

The environment in which I grew up as a Christian revolved round the Free Church, Scripture Union and IVF (now UCCF). Each of them in my experience was strongly missionary-minded. My own minister had served as a missionary in South Africa, and though his time there was cut short on account of family bereavement, he never lost his heart for mission and was constantly introducing his congregation to Free Church and other missionaries. The minister of our neighbouring parish was the enthusiastic convener of the Foreign Missions Committee, and missionary meetings in our area were generally well attended. In SU and IVF circles there was a strong emphasis on young Christians being ready to respond to God’s call, wherever that might take them. Given the demographic spread of the Christian church in those days, it was not surprising that for many of us, our attention was directed overseas, and I found that M’Cheyne, though not himself able to go, encouraged such a vision. He looked on the fields ‘white unto harvest’, and longed to reap them wherever they were. In the same breath he could say: ‘I am now made willing, if God shall open the way, to go to India. Here am I, send me!’ but also, after mentioning the need for manageable parishes and faithful ministers: ‘Give these – and give the Spirit’s genial shower; Scotland shall be a garden all in flower!’

One area of missionary concern stands out in M’Cheyne – the spiritual needs of God’s ancient people, the Jews. He believed and acted upon what he saw as clear scriptural teaching, that ‘the gospel is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.’ Some years later I learned that some Christians believe that the phrase, ‘to the Jew first,’ should be interpreted merely chronologically – it’s just a fact of history that the Jews were the first to hear the message of Jesus, and there is therefore no moral imperative. I also discovered that some Christians believe that when Paul tells us in Romans 11 that ‘all Israel shall be saved’, he is referring to the ingathering of all God’s elect, Jews and Gentiles. But by this time I had been too well taught by M’Cheyne, as also by the missionaries of the society of which M’Cheyne was a co-founder – the ponderously named British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews, now CWI – to find such views convincing. I still don’t understand how M’Cheyne could reconcile his pre-millennial views on the Second Advent with his beliefs about God’s ultimate purposes for blessing the Jews, and through them the whole Gentile world before Christ comes again, but no matter. Our call is to love the Jews, to tell them of Jesus the Messiah and his one way of salvation, and to pray for that glorious day when vast numbers of Jews will be saved and will prove to be a source of blessing to the whole world.

3. Ecumenical

In the 1950s, when I was a student in Edinburgh, an overture, ultimately unsuccessful, from my home presbytery made its way to the General Assembly, aiming to forbid the participation of Free Church office-bearers in interdenominational activities where hymns and instrumental music were used, and where it was feared that unsound doctrines might be taught. Particularly in view was the annual Scottish Northern Convention, whose Chairman and Secretary were both highly respected Free Church ministers. This Convention, with preachers from various denominations, was the highlight of the Christian calendar for hundreds of local Christians. I personally had received much blessing through its preaching and fellowship, having been taken for the first time with several other young people from our village by our Sunday School superintendent.

At that time I knew nothing about presbyteries, but I found it confusing that godly men in the Free Church seemed to disapprove of the biblical teaching that believers, whatever their denominational label, were ‘all one in Christ Jesus’. There was no danger of my going down that road, owing my conversion as I did to an interdenominational body, while having been richly blessed through warm-hearted Free Church office-bearers and people, whose vision and practice embraced all the Lord’s people everywhere.

And I had read many times M’Cheyne’s letter to the Dundee Warder on ‘Communion with Brethren of Other Denominations’. During one of his many illnesses, M’Cheyne had invited ministers of what were called Dissenting congregations to preach for him. This drew forth complaints in the press from Christians who seemed to feel that only in their church and among their ministers could truth be found. M’Cheyne’s impassioned reply is one of the noblest expressions anywhere of ‘the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’. ‘The living servant of Christ,’ he says, ‘is dear to my heart, and welcome to address my flock, let him come from whatever quarter of the earth he may. I have sat with delight under the burning words of a faithful Lutheran pastor. I have been fed by the ministrations of American Congregationalists and devoted Episcopalians, and all of my flock who know and love Christ would have loved to hear them too. If dear Martin Boos were alive, pastor of the Church of Rome though he was, he would have been welcome too; and who that knows the value of souls and the value of a living testimony would say it was wrong?’

I must admit I swallowed hard when I read the reference to a Roman Catholic priest, not that I ever doubted that within the Roman communion were true believers in the Lord Jesus, in spite of all the obstacles put in their way. But years later I read the biography of Martin Boos and discovered that he loved the Saviour and cared passionately for the souls of his people, behaviour which led to his ultimate expulsion from the Roman fold. If they had ever met, he and M’Cheyne would have loved each other as brothers.

M’Cheyne died at the early age of 29. If ever I become complacent or parochial or prayerless or loveless in my life as a Christian or in my service as a minister, I turn again to M’Cheyne. Not instead of turning to Jesus, which would have been abhorrent to M’Cheyne, but that through his life and example I might experience afresh what he so often prayed for as he sang Cowper’s words of longing:

Oh for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road,
That leads me to the Lamb!


Taken with permission from The Record, the monthly magazine of the Free Church of Scotland, May 2013.

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