by Alvin Reid
(Editor’s note: This is the 6th post in a series on Heroes of the Christian Faith.)
How long does it take to make an eternal impact? For Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-1843), not long. He died just before a life of three decades; he served as a pastor only six years. We remember him for his holy life, and for his church which experienced a powerful movement of revival that began during a journey to the Holy Land but which continued through his leadership upon his return.
Multitudes came to Christ during that season. McCheyne’s life exhibits a heart for God, the experience of spiritual awakening, and a passion for the lost. What caused this young Presbyterian pastor in Dundee, Scotland, to be so possessed with a burden for the souls of men and women?
First, his burden for the lost grew out of his passion for the Word of God and a holy life. In an ordination sermon he challenged a young man with words he demonstrated in his own life: “Study universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this. Your sermon on Sabbath lasts but an hour or two, your life preaches all the week. . . . If he can only make you a covetous pastor, or a lover of pleasure, or a lover of praise, or a lover of good eating, then he has ruined your ministry forever. Give yourself to prayer, and get your texts, your thoughts, your words from God.”
Second, McCheyne’s view of the lost changed while in divinity school. He began to go into the city to minister. Being around lostness in his own community changed him. “Why am I such a stranger to the poor of my native town?” he asked, adding, “I have passed their doors thousands of times; I have admired the huge black piles of building, with their lofty chimneys breaking the sun’s rays—why have I never ventured within? How dwelleth the love of God in me?”
Those most burdened for the lost are those most intimate with their lives, and McCheyne epitomized this. His love for people, including those far from Christ, led many people to seek him out for spiritual conversations during his pastorate. During the revival, he recorded over 400 spiritual conversations with individuals, many concerning their salvation.
Third, McCheyne had a conviction not only to preach the gospel but also to compel sinners to respond to it. He encouraged other pastors to call people to salvation with the “vehemence appeals of Richard Baxter.”
Fourth, McCheyne’s life displayed a soul given over to prayer. Each morning, he spent an hour with God in prayer before anything else. He often spent hours in prayer uninterrupted during the week.
McCheyne’s life is represented in this anecdote: A young minister visited Dundee and McCheyne’s church years after his death. This young minister was disturbed about the spiritual dullness in his own church. He asked an elderly man at the church to tell the secret to McCheyne’s power as a preacher. The older man took the young preacher to the vestry.
“Sit down there,” he instructed. “Now, put your elbows on the table.” He did so. “Now put your face in your hands.” The young man obeyed. “Now let the tears flow. That is the way McCheyne used to do!” he said.
Alvin L. Reid (@alvinreid) is professor of evangelism and student ministry and Bailey Smith chair of evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is author of As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students. He loves encouraging the younger generation to live for Jesus. Learn more: www.alvinreid.com