Epitaphs communicate. They tell future generations what’s important about someone. Epitaphs also shape. They form our memory by centering an individual’s cherished truths.
What will they say about you when you die?
Robert Murray M’Cheyne died in 1843, just weeks before his 30th birthday. He ended his earthly pilgrimage as a well-known pastor in Scotland. Unsurprisingly, the days and weeks after his death saw an avalanche of epitaphs published in the form of memorials. Friends, family members, and parishioners sought to capture M’Cheyne’s essence on a page. Many are moving. Some stretch into hagiography.
The one that summarizes M’Cheyne’s piety most eloquently and succinctly comes from James Hamilton, pastor of the Scottish church in Regent’s Square, London. “I never knew one so instant in season and out of season, so impressed with the invisible realities, and so faithful in reproving sin and witnessing for Christ,” Hamilton wrote. “Love to Christ was the great secret of all his devotion and consistency.”
Life of Love
A passion for holiness belongs to the Christian life. It is required if we are to see God (Heb. 12:14; cf. 1 Pet. 1:16).
The Bible offers many motivations for growing in godliness. The best of them, M’Cheyne said, was beholding God’s love in Jesus Christ. “Thrice blessed be God,” M’Cheyne announced, “He hath invented a way more powerful than hell and all its terrors, an argument mightier far than even a sight of those torments. He hath invented a way of drawing us to holiness. By showing us the love of his Son, he calleth forth our love.”
A passion for holiness belongs to the Christian life. It is required if we are to see God.
Believing the Christian life is a communion of love, M’Cheyne emphasized meeting with Christ in the means of grace—the Word, sacraments, and prayer. The Dundee preacher had a peculiar way about God’s gracious channels. He liked to refer to them as “trysts.” In one sermon, he declared,
In the daily reading of the Word, Christ pays daily visits to the soul. In the daily prayer, Christ reveals himself to his own in that other way than he doth to the world. In the house of God Christ comes to his own, and says: ‘Peace be unto you!’ And in the sacrament he makes himself known to them in the breaking of bread, and they cry out: “It is the Lord!” These are all trysting times, when the Savior comes to visit his own.
Consider how this exchange of love ordinarily happens between the Savior and his beloved. Christ comes to us in his Word as it’s preached or read. We respond in prayer, privately and corporately. The Lord’s Supper, too, is a fellowship of love. Our Savior mysteriously, yet truly, draws near and beckons us to his banqueting table. We take our seat and behold the King in his beauty. The Christian life is a life of love from start to finish.
Love to Christ wasn’t the secret only of M’Cheyne’s consistency in the Christian life. It was also the heartbeat of his gospel ministry.
Ministry of Love
“The love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14)—M’Cheyne embodied this apostolic confession. He spent his entire ministry calling souls to know Christ’s love as revealed in the gospel, and to return love to Christ through a devoted life.
Preaching Christ was crucial in such a ministry. For M’Cheyne, a true Christian pulpit had two parts.
First, the pastor must fill his preaching with the free offer of Christ’s love for sinners. While in seminary, M’Cheyne called this free offer “the stamina of good preaching.” He later explained, “A faithful watchman preaches a free Savior to all the world. This was the great object of Christ’s ministry.”
[M’Cheyne] spent his entire ministry calling souls to know Christ’s love as revealed in the gospel, and to return love to Christ through a devoted life.
M’Cheyne said ministerial faithfulness depends on one thing: preach Jesus Christ as Lord—there is no substitute. Yet he did believe how one preached was as vital as what one preached.
Not only must the preacher’s content be full of Christ’s love, M’Cheyne said, but the preacher’s manner must be as well. Redeeming love is both the truth and the tone of proper gospel preaching. This lesson was one M’Cheyne learned through early failure. While still an assistant pastor, he preached to a large crowd one Lord’s Day evening. “Felt very happy after it, though mourning for bitter speaking of the gospel,” he recorded. “Surely it is a gentle message, and should be spoken with angelic tenderness, especially by such a needy sinner.”
Wise pastors recognize that winsomeness and tenderness belong to gospel preaching. Yes, love requires warnings and knows the necessity of rebuke. But the ordinary tone that accords best with gospel preaching, M’Cheyne believed, was tender love. This is why he asked ministry friends after they’d preached on even the hardest subjects, “Were you able to preach with tenderness?”
World of Love
The spiritual spark of love that began at conversion becomes a flame that will burn for all eternity.
Love is the essence of all holiness. It belongs to the choicest of fruits: faith and hope. Yet love is the greatest of all because it never ends (1 Cor. 13:8, 13). The spiritual spark that began at conversion becomes a flame that will burn for all eternity. M’Cheyne reveled in such expectation. He knew heaven “is the world of holy love, where we shall give free, full, unfettered, unwearied expression to our love forever.”
Love to Christ was thus not simply “the great secret of all his devotion.” It was also M’Cheyne’s ordinary way to experience heaven on earth.
May Christ-centered love also be your chief delight, and your life’s defining truth.