Holiness: the greatest need

Perhaps some of the most famous words ever spoken on the topic of holiness by a pastor came from Robert Murray McCheyne. He said,

The greatest need of my people is my own holiness.

He was not just referring to a minister with moral standards, but one who is walking constantly in communion with Christ, and is being so changed by it to be more like Jesus.

Today, Tuesday 21 May 2013, also marks the 200th anniversary of McCheyne’s birth in Edinburgh, into a family of moderates in the Church of Scotland in 1813. ‘Moderates’ emphasized reason and moral virtue, but downplayed Christ’s atonement, the new birth and the Spirit.

He took classics in the University of Edinburgh from age 14. His father thought his attention turned to poetry and the pleasures of society rather more than was consistent with prudence! He lived, in his own words, “devoid of God”. But that changed in 1831 when he was 18, and his oldest brother, David, who’d suffered depression, died all too young. But in final days, David had found peace with God, through the blood of Christ. And young Robert saw it and everything began to change, confirmed by reading a book The Sum of Saving Knowledge a few months later. McCheyne would mark the anniversary of his brother’s death for the rest of his own short life. Once he wrote,

This day, eleven years ago, I lost my loved and loving brothers, and began to seek a Brother who cannot die.

Four months after David’s death, he enrolled in the Divinity Hall at his university. There he mastered Greek and Hebrew. And he also came under the influence of Thomas Chalmers, whom God had been using to revitalise the Scottish Kirk. Chalmers was a warm-hearted, devotional and evangelistic Calvinist, whose most famous sermon is titled, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”. His heart-felt urgency for holiness also came to mark McCheyne. But Chalmers was concerned that any growth in holiness must be based on assurance of salvation. If you look inward, make sure you look outwards as well!

McCheyne came to teach similarly.

Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. […] Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love. And repose in his almighty arms.

This was his basic strategy in the pursuit of holiness. Ten looks at Christ.

When he graduated in March 1835, McCheyne was still only 21. He became an assistant minister for a year. Then in August 1836, he was called to St Peter’s Dundee where he served as pastor, struggling with tuberculosis, till his death six and half years later, in 1843, aged 29. His illness gave him an urgency, not to waste time, and to speak plainly to his people, with great focus.

But the only reason we remember him at all is because his friend from divinity classes, Andrew Bonar, published Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne. But 200 years after his birth it is still in print, and his very short life continues to inspire Christians.

John Piper* says it’s his extraordinary passion for Christ. As McCheyne wrote to his mother,

Forgiveness of sin and acceptance with God become every day in my view more unspeakably precious.

Some of us know him for his Bible-reading plan (pdf link) still used today, that takes you through the Old Testament in a year and the New Testament and Psalms twice. McCheyne wrote,

I love the Word of God, and find it the sweetest nourishment to my soul.

Today on the 200th anniversary of his life, we thank God for Robert Murray McCheyne.

* This anniversary article leans almost entirely (and unashamedly) on John Piper’s biographical sketch, “He Kissed the Rose and Felt the Thorn”. But you should read or listen to the whole thing. There’s more gold in there, especially for aspiring young pastors or church planters.

I thank God for this series of biographical talks by Piper (now over 20 years worth), which helped re-awaken my love of church history and has inspired many of us in Christian leadership.

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