“I am a debtor” — On the two-hundredth birthday of Robert Murray M’Cheyne

May 21, 2013

Today would have been the two-hundredth birthday of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843), who was a faithful pastor in a small church in Dundee, Scotland for six years, until his early death at age 29. A life so short, and in many ways very ordinary, yet so powerfully used.

M’Cheyne is perhaps best known today for his widely used Bible reading plan, which goes through the Old Testament once every year, and the Psalms and New Testament twice (see this post for more info and suggestions).  He followed this plan much of his short life, and it was from this deep well that he ministered so powerfully.

M’Cheyne left few writings behind, but he was a memorable poet.  He wrote the following poem, titled “I am a debtor”, around 1837: Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Dostoevsky was the greatest novelist and the greatest Christian storyteller

March 8, 2013

"Portrait of Fedor Dostoyevsky" by Vasily Perov [Public domain image from Wikimedia]i have greatly enjoyed reading the works of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), in particular his books The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment.  They plumb the darkest depths of the human psyche and rise to praise the heights of divine grace in ways few other works of fiction have done.

The well-read theologian J.I. Packer regards Dostoevsky as “the greatest novelist, as such, and the greatest Christian storyteller, in particular, of all time.”  Here is why he makes this bold claim: Read the rest of this entry »


’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home: At the start of 2013

January 1, 2013

Did you know that John Newton‘s best-known, beloved hymn Amazing Grace! was written as an illustration for his sermon preached on 1 January 1773?  Newton wrote it to convey to his congregation at Olney, Buckinghamshire some of the marvellous, enduring truths in his text for that day, which was 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 — the start of one of my favourite prayers in the Bible:

Then King David went in and sat before the Lord and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And this was a small thing in your eyes, O God. You have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have shown me future generations, O Lord God! (ESV)

Speaking of God’s providence and promises to David and of David’s grateful, humble praise to God, Newton said, “I would accommodate them to our own use as a proper subject for our meditations on the entrance of a new year. They lead us to a consideration of past mercies and future hopes and intimate the frame of mind which becomes us when we contemplate what the Lord has done for us.”

Read the rest of this entry »


To get a heart of wisdom: At the close of 2012

December 31, 2012

At the close of 2012, as at the end of many other years, i have been pondering Psalm 90 and how wisdom reckons time.   Joshua Harris, pastor of Covenant Life Church in Maryland, also makes a habit of re-reading Psalm 90 every year on his birthday (which happens to be on 30 December) .  It’s worth listening to the message he preached on Psalm 90 at the close of 2009 and considering what it means to “get a heart of wisdom” (verse 12).

Read the rest of this entry »


Looking at the Cross: Newton’s autobiographical hymn

June 12, 2010

This hymn by John Newton (1725-1807) must be one of the greatest autobiographical hymns ever to be penned, yet sadly it is not well known.  It speaks both subjectively and objectively of the amazing grace Newton found in Christ.

In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.
I saw One hanging on a tree,
In agony and blood,
Who fixed His languid eyes on me,
As near His cross I stood.

Sure never to my latest breath,
Can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with His death,
Though not a word He spoke.

My conscience felt, and owned the guilt,
And plunged me in despair,
I saw my sins His blood had spilt,
And helped to nail Him there.

Alas! I knew not what I did;
But now my tears are vain;
Where shall my trembling soul be hid?
For I the Lord have slain.

A second look He gave, which said,
“I freely all forgive;
This blood is for thy ransom paid;
I died, that thou may’st live.”

Thus, while His death my sin displays
In all its blackest hue,
(Such is the mystery of grace)
It seals my pardon too.

With pleasing grief and mournful joy
My spirit now is filled,
That I should such a life destroy,
Yet live by Him I killed.

(Public domain.  Reproduced from Classic Christian Hymn-writers by Elsie Houghton, 1982.  Fort Washington, Penn.: Christian Literature Crusade)


Tolerance

May 1, 2010

In the past, tolerance meant respecting people and treating them well even when convinced they were wrong. It meant treating people as people, with dignity, even when one disagreed with them. In post-modern society today, “tolerance” means never regarding anyone’s opinions as wrong. Instead of tolerance for people, we have tolerance for ideas. Instead of love for truth and love for people, we have denial of truth and fear of offending people. Post-modern tolerance is cheap.


Lessons from Baruch and “The Prodigal God”

February 21, 2010

Pretending or performing – two of the things that draw Christians away from a God-centred, gospel-saturated life to a self-centred life of impression management. i know i’m guilty of both. It’s so easy to keep up appearances, especially playing up to others’ expectations (“You’re studying at BI? Oh, you must be such a holy Christian…”). At heart i remain deeply competitive and insecure, feeling the need to prove myself to other Christians, if not to God. And with this comes the temptation to feel that the world, or God, owes me something. i need to keep coming back God’s rebuke to Baruch in Jeremiah 45: “And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not…” If i understand Baruch correctly, he was a diligent and faithful secretary to Jeremiah, serving God, pained at the the wickedness and suffering and impending judgement on his people. Yet somehow he seems to have slipped into a dutiful service – a joyless service where his experience of God’s goodness indeed did become very small. Did he think, “I’m not as bad as those people,” or, “I deserve better”?

i see myself reflected in Baruch, in his desire to serve, in his heartache at the evils of the world around him, and at his apparently self-righteous expectation of something better for himself. i consider my motives in serving: usually, i hope, genuinely to help others and to serve the gospel, but often tainted by a desire for recognition and something in return because i “deserve” the favour of others in this world. And, paradoxically, i am aware also of evading service by justifying that my work in some other area is of greater importance, and others should do the more “mundane” work because, again, i “deserve” something better. In all these tendencies i see my sinfulness in the midst of my desire to serve. i inadvertently reduce God and His righteousness; i make service of Him something through which to win the favour of others, even if i’m not trying to win merit with Him. i never actively think of it that way, but when it comes down to the heart of the issue this is really an attempt to add to the righteousness i have in Christ the favour and approval of others. And insofar as i try to add to Christ’s finished work on the Cross, i cheapen the costly grace He has so freely given; i shrink the Cross and minimise my sinfulness and need of the Saviour.

Tim Keller, in his hard-hitting book The Prodigal God (New York: Dutton 2008), talks of the “elder brother” mentality of “[using] his moral record to put God and others in his debt to control them.” He quotes a profound rebuke from a wise teacher, identifying the barrier between Pharisaical righteousness and God as “not their sins, but their damnable good works.”  (See the parable in Luke 15.)

He continues: “To find God we must repent of the things we have done wrong, but if that is all you do, you may remain just an elder brother. To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right. Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, too. We must learn how to repent of the sin under all our other sins and under all our righteousness – the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord.” (pp. 77-78)

Amen.