Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Heroes by Iain H. Murray

Heroes, by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 2009, 303pp
Here Iain Murray pays homage to some of his spiritual heroes and seeks to draw lessons from their lives. He offers an unashamedly exemplarist style of biography that is at odds with the more critical writing of some contemporary Evangelical scholars. He takes exception to Harry S. Stout's work, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, charging him with sharing the naturalistic presuppositions of unbelieving historians. For Murray the purpose of Christian biography is not to do a hatchet job on the subject, mercilessly exposing their faults and failings. He knows very well that saints are also sinners and uncritical adulation of great preachers must be avoided. But we still have much to learn from the example of those who have gone before us.
In the opening chapter, the writer returns to the the subject of one of his full length biographies, considering Jonathan Edwards, The Man and the Legacy. Drawing on scholarly work that was not available to him when he wrote the biography, Murray offers a compact and compelling account of Edwards' life. He commends Edwards to his readers as a theologian of revival and Christian experience. Edwards' ministry is an abiding witness to the fact that Calvinistic orthodoxy is not enough on its own. We need the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to make the preaching of sovereign grace effective in advancing the gospel of salvation.
In George Whitefield and Christian Unity, Murray highlights the 18th century evangelist's catholicity of spirit. Whitefield held fast to his theological and ecclesiastical distinctives as a Calvinistic Anglican clergyman. But he had a deep love and regard for all true believers. We have a lot to learn from Whitefield on the importance of keeping the main thing the main thing. A winsome catholicity of spirit will do more good than angry bigotry in commending the doctrines of grace to a wider Evangelical world.
Chapters are devoted to the famous John Newton and the not so well known (outside of Wales) Thomas Charles. Murray gives skillful pen portraits of both men. Lessons from the life and ministry of the two preachers are helpfully applied.
The story is told of Two Men and an Island, the two men being William Hepburn Hewitson and Robert Reid Kalley, and the island being Madeira. God mightily used the sacrificial labours of these two missionary pioneers. Many Madeiran people were converted in the face of intense persecution from the Roman Catholic infuenced authorities.
Controversially, Murray includes a chapter on Charles and Mary Colcok Jones. Charles was an evangelist to slaves in the the American "Old South". The problem is that he was also the owner of a large plantation manned by slave labour. Jones undoubtedly had a deep concern for enslaved people and did all he could to reach them with the gospel. His efforts were blessed and many blacks were converted under his ministry. But his work was compromised by the fact that he was a slave owner preaching to slaves. He believed that slavery should be gradually phased out and distanced himself from the more impatient emancipationists in the North. While we cannot doubt Jones' genuine love for slaves, his ownership of enslaved black people makes him a badly conflicted hero.
Finally, Murray gives a stirring account of Spurgeon as an Evangelist. Such were the exceptional gifts possessed by the preacher, we might think that we have little to learn from his example. But Spurgeon was a model evangelist. He was a man of prayer who depended upon the Holy Spirit as he proclaimed the gospel of salvation in the great Metropolitan Tabernacle. We may not be as eminently gifted as the Victorian pastor, but as M'Cheyne reminds us, "It is not great gifts that God is pleased to bless, but great likeness to Jesus." Spurgeon calls us to be men of God if we would be used by God.
I was a little unwell when I read this book. It was a real tonic and encouragement to me as well as being very challenging. In an age of jaundiced cynicism we could do with some heroes. Murray has succeeded in bringing to life some of the great heroes of the Christian Church, "whose faith follow considering the outcome of their conduct. Jesus Christ is the same yesteday, today and for ever." (Hebrews 13:7 & 8).

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