Monday, October 1, 2012

Book Review: The Biography of Robert Murray M'Cheyne. By Andrew A. Bonar.

Every once in a while, I finish a book that, the very act of finishing the last page, makes me feel that I have just lost a dear friend. This is especially true for me in biographies wherein the protagonist dies an early and untimely death.

Such was the case of the biography of Robert Murray M'Cheyne (1813-1843) by his contemporary Andrew A. Bonar. At the end of the book, at M'Cheyne's early death at age 30, I found my own soul crying out to God in grief for a lost friend.

M'Cheyne a young Presbyterian pastor in the town of Dundee, Scotland seems to have been one of those rare souls who continually lived in the conscious, joyful presence of God. His own kindred spirit, Andrew Bonar, does an admirable job of capturing the essence of a young pastor who seemed to have had two passions above all things: a zeal for personal holiness and devotion, and an unquenchable desire to save souls.

Clearly the author (Bonar) wrote this work as a eulogy for the life of a close friend. In that sense, it is far from objective. Picking up this work for the first time, the reader must realize that these pages were written to memorialize a man dearly loved by the author. It was not meant to be an evenhanded critique of M'Cheyne's successes and failures as a minister. The author, therefore, is not concerned to set out in public view the many shortcomings that M'Cheyne saw resident within his own soul.

Having said that, the biography itself is a stirring first-hand recollection of one of nineteenth century Scotland's most fire-baptized preachers. As M'Cheyne's closest mortal friend, Bonar was privileged to have access to many of his personal affects. Within this book, the reader finds an equal mixture of quotations from M'Cheyne's extant letters, poetry, journal entries, sermon manuscripts, and no short supply of his more lively verbal quotations.

Bonar stirringly traces the life of his protagonist from his birth, to his immense grief at his brother's death as a young man, to his ordination in the church of Scotland, to his charge in the Dundee church, to his evangelistic mission to Israel to preach the gospel to the Jews, to his participation in the revival fires of Scotland, and finally to the stirring account of his death.

The reader is constantly refreshed in his own walk with the Lord as we hear M'Cheyne preach passionately to his own people both from the pulpit and by house-to-house interviews. One gripping event was moving to this reviewer (himself a pastor): when M'Cheyne and Bonar returned from their life's great mission-adventure to Israel, M'Cheyne found that the interim pastor had been used of God to spark a revival in the church he himself loved so dearly. Rather than fight a deadly jealousy within his own soul that God had so used another man, M'Cheyne praised God knowing that the salvation of his people's souls is infinitely more valuable than his own reputation as a preacher. 

Throughout, M'Cheyne is imminently quotable, and many of his gems are so striking to the reader so that he is forced to put the book down and engage in prayer himself:
  • "I fear the love of applause...May God keep me from preaching myself instead of Christ crucified." 
  • "Rose early to seek God and found Him whom my soul loveth. Who would not rise early to meet such great company!...They that sow in tears shall reap in joy."
  • "Never see the face of man till you have seen His face who is our life, our all." 
  • "It has always been my aim, and it is my prayer, to have no plans with regard to myself, well assured that I am, that the place where the Savior sees fit to place me must ever be the best place for me." 
  • "I see a man cannot be a faithful minister until he preaches Christ for Christ's sake--until he gives up striving to attract people to himself, and seeks only to attract them to Christ. Lord give me this!"
M'Cheyne was a man whose doctrine was solidly rooted in the Confession of his Presbyterian tradition. He openly confesses his love for the Westminster Confession of Faith and its doctrine while at the same time cherishing the very presence of Christ alone in the "secret" places of his study. As a divine, M'Cheyne preached with full vigor both the electing grace of predestination, and the responsibility of man to repent and believe the Gospel. His doctrine of election, therefore, did not quench his zeal for evangelism. (It never should, of course).

Two things will be of lasting worth to me having read this biography.

First of all, in the waning pages of his biography, Bonar includes an unfinished manuscript of M'Cheyne's own pen called "Reformation." Here, the young pastor wrote out his own guidelines for seeking personal holiness, especially through the God-ordained means of confession of sin. These short pages are a masterpiece of self-reflection, mortification of the flesh, renunciation of the world, and the grace of repentance. He begins, "I am persuaded that I shall obtain the highest amount of personal happiness, I shall do most for God's glory and the good of maintaining a conscience always washed in Christ's blood." Anyone who seriously pursues holiness would do well to put into practice the recommendations with which M'Cheyne charges himself.

 Secondly, among his poems, "Jehovah Tzidkenu" must surely be his greatest. Here, he writes of the obstinacy of the human heart, the free grace of God in Christ, and the treasure of salvation. He writes,

I once was a stranger to grace and to God,
I knew not my danger, and felt not my load;
Though friends spoke in rapture of Christ on the tree,
Jehovah Tsidkenu was nothing to me.

I oft read with pleasure, to sooth or engage,

Isaiah´s wild measure and John´s simple page;
But e´en when they pictured the blood sprinkled tree
Jehovah Tsidkenu seemed nothing to me.

Like tears from the daughters of Zion that roll,

I wept when the waters went over His soul;
Yet thought not that my sins had nailed to the tree
Jehovah Tsidkenu"”´twas nothing to me.

When free grace awoke me, by light from on high,

Then legal fears shook me, I trembled to die;
No refuge, no safety in self could I see"”
Jehovah Tsidkenu my Saviour must be.

My terrors all vanished before the sweet name;

My guilty fears banished, with boldness I came
To drink at the fountain, life giving and free"”
Jehovah Tsidkenu is all things to me.

Jehovah Tsidkenu! my treasure and boast,

Jehovah Tsidkenu! I ne´er can be lost;
In thee I shall conquer by flood and by field,
My cable, my anchor, my breast-plate and shield!

Even treading the valley, the shadow of death,

This "watchword" shall rally my faltering breath;
For while from life´s fever my God sets me free,
Jehovah Tsidkenu, my death song shall be.

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. Follow on Twitter @matt_everhard.

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