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Voices From The Past: Robert M'Cheyne

Timeless lessons from the short life of a Scottish pastor

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Usually it is the people from the past who have the most to say to us and are the most widely ignored. In our political and religious circles of society we routinely plug our ears to the voices from our history that have faced the same difficulties we have. However, no matter what the advances in technology, there’s little evidence that the difficulties that define us as a race have really changed that much over the last century. Therefore we have no right to ignore the very people that fought battles to bring us where we are today.

Recently, I finished reading Memoirs of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, the biography of a once well-known pastor in Scotland who managed to say a lot in his short lifespan. Well-known by his contemporaries for his personal dedication to Christ, M’Cheyne did not write a lot of books or pass any laws, but his voice can still be heard where it needs to be heard most by those who follow the same Master: in our every day decisions and walks of life. In a world where Evangelical Christianity’s confused cries cannot be discerned by the unreached nations because we are so busy shouting at one another, the place where change is most needed is our hearts as individuals. M’Cheyne’s 30-year life can teach us things as believers that will aid us in displaying the Lamb that was slain to a world that desperately needs to see Him.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s walk of faith can be summarized in three simple ideas:

1. M’Cheyne was convinced that his time was precious. Repeatedly within his letters and journal entries, M’Cheyne alludes to a certain conviction that his own ministry would be very short. He had been deeply affected at the time of his conversion by the death of his elder brother, and at this time for M’Cheyne it seems that God had answered the prayer of Psalm 90: “Teach us to number out days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (vs. 12, ESV). M’Cheyne lived for eternity—reading about his life forced me to ask myself the question, “Am I living as one who is bound for another world, and will be judged for the deeds done in the body?” For Christians to live as lights in a dark world, it is essential for us to have a joyful sobriety in the face of the shortness of life.

2. M’Cheyne was devoted to carefulness in personal holiness. M’Cheyne found by experience, “It is best to have at least one hour alone with God before engaging in anything else” (Memoirs pg. 182). He knew the importance of personal consecration in order to be both a pastor and an effective Christian. He saw holiness not only as a means of validating his Gospel witness but the means to maintaining a close walk with God and maximizing his own personal happiness. While well-known as a pastor, and a zealous promoter of missions, those that knew M’Cheyne knew him best for his carefulness in devotion to Christ.

3. M'Cheyne had an admiration of the person of Christ. There are some aspects of the Christian life that are so essential and obvious in scripture that we are too prone to overlook them. The chief of these is the preeminence of the person of Christ in the life of the church and the affections of His people. In the writings and preaching of M’Cheyne, the focus was not so much on doing Christian things as loving a Person. This focus moved beyond the more recent cliche that “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship." Rather, his devotion to Christ was based on scriptural, theological conclusions about who was the most interesting and attractive Being that could be loved. M’Cheyne loved Christ enough to gaze admiringly on His person as it is revealed on the pages of Scripture and allow his life to be affected by what he found there. We can do a little better by learning from his pattern.

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