The woman stood still, her hand caught midway grasping for the teapot. The early morning was still and dim, but she could have sworn she had heard something. The windows were closed and misty, and few people were awake so early. There was no wind. It must have been her imagination.
No, there it was again, a breathy moan coming from upstairs. The woman wrapped her knit shawl tighter over her thin shoulders and went softly to the foot of the stairs. “Are you alright, dear?” she called.
Again the moaning answered. Frowning, she gathered the skirt of her nightgown and went up the stairs and onto the empty landing. Her husband’s study door was open a crack and the moaning was coming from inside. Her heart beat faster as the possibilities flashed in her eyes and she quickly crossed the hallway to the door.
“My dear?” She pushed the door open. Her elderly husband was kneeling beside his small desk in his bed robe, hands over his face. His shoulders were shaking. She went and knelt beside him, putting her hands on his arms. “What is it?”
He drew a shaky breath. “The young man, Robert. He left earlier this morning.” He looked up at her. She was surprised to see his face full of joy. She couldn’t help but smile.
“I don’t understand,” she said, shaking her head.
Her husband’s eyes glittered with tears of happiness. “There goes the most Jesus-like man I’ve ever met.”
Robert Murray M’Cheyne was this unusual young man that left such a deep impression on this elderly pastor and his wife. M’Cheyne’s own ministry was marked by a season of God’s special presence and revival among the people of Dundee, Scotland. He only lived to be twenty-nine years old, but in that short amount of time he affected the lives of all he came in contact with for the glory of God. It wasn’t the cleverness of his sermons or his intellect that enabled him to be so effectively used by God. It was that he lived his life close to Christ in prayer, meditation in God’s Word, and in following the footsteps and commandments of his Savior.
M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1813. His parents took great care to raise their children with an understanding of the doctrines of the church, so Robert grew up very religious and virtuous. Everyone who knew him was impressed and thought highly of him. Even his father would later say: “I never found him guilty of a lie or of any mean or unworthy action.” But in spite of all this, Robert was not a Christian. He was content to be good in the eyes of everyone around him, but inside he was as sinfully foul as anyone else. His heart had not been conquered by Christ, but by morality. Christ did not entice him, and he could not honestly say he loved Christ. He was, in his own words, “devoid of God.”
On the other hand, his older brother David walked closely with the Lord and was deeply concerned about Robert’s spiritual state. He would pray often for Robert’s salvation and Robert greatly respected and loved David. David took ill suddenly in 1831, and he showed no signs of recovery. The family knew that David was dying, but David displayed only peace and joy at the prospect of joining his Savior in heaven
After David’s death, Robert began to seriously seek the same peace that his brother had, even in the face of death. His own goodness and virtuous conduct was, for the first time in his life, not enough. Through careful seeking of the Lord in the Word, the Holy Spirit worked in his heart and brought him to salvation. “Jesus,” he wrote, “the Lord, my Righteousness, has become all things to me.” This statement became the defining feature of his life. To be near to Christ was his ultimate longing. “One gem from that ocean of Christ is worth all the pebbles from earthly streams.” He felt a burden to tell others of his Savior and, soon after his conversion, he embarked on the road of ministry.
Under the teaching of a leading theologian, Thomas Chalmers, M’Cheyne grew in the knowledge of the Scriptures. He didn’t merely learn about the Bible, but he took extra care to apply the truths found in the Scriptures to every area of his life. He took obedience to the commands of Christ seriously, not as a nice option, but as necessary to the Christian life. The closer he walked in accordance with the Scriptures, the more of the beauty of Christ he was enabled to see. “A calm hour with God,” he said, “is worth a whole lifetime with man.” He and other students began to minister to the poor of Edinburgh, which opened his eyes to the great spiritual needs of the lost people around him.
He became the assistant minister of a parish that included the industrial town of Larbert and the village of Dunipace. His time there was a preparation for the work ahead of him. In 1836 he was called to minister at St. Peter’s Church in Dundee. After his first sermon there he noted in his journal that he felt “given over to God, as one bought with a price.” Being an industrial town, many of the people were poor and needy. Open sins were common, and the spiritual needs of the town were great. M’Cheyne responded to this by living out Christ daily before the people. Soon he won the love and respect of the town through his care and love for them as well as his blameless conduct. He lived and acted towards the people of Dundee in such a way that even the drunks on the streets would take off their hats when he passed. When asked why they did this, they answered: “There goes the man that loves your soul.” He “spent his nights and days in ceaseless breathings after holiness, and the salvation of sinners.”
M’Cheyne died at the age of twenty-nine, having spent twelve years in service to the Lord. But in this short time, his personal walk with God and his unending pursuit of holiness were rewarded with the saving of hundreds of souls.
Chosen not for good in me,
Wakened up from wrath to flee,
Hidden in the Savior’s side,
By the Spirit sanctified,
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show,
By my love, how much I owe.
M’Cheyne’s hymns are not so well known in the modern hymnbooks as they used to be, but this excerpt from his hymn “When This Passing World Is Done” paints a portrait of what M’Cheyne’s life looked like. It also reveals the inner reasons for his outward actions. Because Christ had saved him, who had not deserved saving, he had no choice but to love and serve Christ in every area of his life. “Our soul,” he said, “must be a mirror of Christ; we should reflect every feature: for every grace in Christ there should be a counterpart in us.” The number one concern in M’Cheyne’s life was holiness. Not only because his life was being watched by those whom he pastored, but also because he found that the more he learned of Christ, the more he wanted to learn. There was nothing self-promoting or “holier-than-thou” in his search for holiness. His own prayers show us the humility and innocence of this longing: “Lord make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be.” M’Cheyne wanted to be holy because he understood that to be holy is to be near Christ spiritually. It was out of love for Christ that this desire for holiness flowed.
A life like Robert M’Cheyne’s is inspiring, but it seems a daunting task to acquire that level of holiness. However, we are commanded by God in the Scriptures to be holy: “… but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy (1 Peter 1:15-16).” Happily, M’Cheyne has shown us that personal holiness is more a matter of surrender than a matter of striving. M’Cheyne did not sanctify himself. He did not clean himself of his sins and become Christ-like because he tried so hard to do so. Rather, he diligently sought God in the Scriptures, followed the commands of Christ and begged the grace and mercy of God through earnest prayer. He was not a man of half-measures in seeking the presence of God in his life. He simply placed his life in the Potter’s hands and trusted the Potter to make of him what He would.
In the same way, the only thing needed for us to have the same kind of life is to be obedient to Christ and to diligently search for Him in the Scriptures and in prayer. If we find that we are slow and lack energy in this, we must ask God to show us how desperately we need Him. When we really understand our need for God, nothing in the world would be able to stop us from running to Him. And in His hands, our lives will be echoes of M’Cheyne’s: holy portraits of the Gospel.