This is a long overdue follow-up to an earlier post where I questioned whether Robert Murray M’Cheyne ever said the words so often attributed to him: ‘My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness’.
For a start, nowhere in M’Cheyne’s works does he ever use the phrase ‘greatest need’ (or ‘chiefest need’). The closest he comes is an 1836 diary entry where he writes: ‘Saw many wordly people greatly needing a word in season’ (Memoirs and Remains, p. 51)
M’Cheyne did talk a lot about personal holiness:
– ‘I earnestly long for more grace and personal holiness, and more usefulness.’ (p. 150)
– ‘I ought to meditate often on heaven as a world of holiness,— where all are holy, where the joy is holy joy, the work holy work; so that, without personal holiness, I never can be there’ (p. 160)
He urged ministers and others to seek after holiness:
– To W. C. Burns: ‘I feel there are two things it is impossible to desire with sufficient ardour,—personal holiness, and the honour of Christ in the salvation of souls.’ (p. 241)
– To W. C. Burns: ‘Oh, cry for personal holiness, constant nearness to God by the blood of the Lamb! Bask in his beams,—lie back in the arms of love,—be filled with his Spirit; or all success in the ministry will only be to your own everlasting confusion.’ (p. 248)
– ‘Seek advance of personal holiness. It is for this the grace of God has appeared to you.’ (p. 254)
– ‘Seek much personal holiness and likeness to Christ in all the features of his blessed character. Seek to be lamb-like, without which all your efforts to do good to others will be as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.’ (p. 273)
– To Rev. Dan. Edwards: ‘It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.’
– ‘(4.) Lead a holy life.—I believe, brother, that you are born from above, and therefore I have confidence in God touching yon, that you will be kept from the evil. But oh! 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. Remember, ministers are standard-bearers. Satan aims his fiery darts at them. If he can only make you a covetous minister, or a lover of pleasure, or a lover of praise, or a lover of good eating, then he has ruined your ministry for ever. Ah! let him preach on fifty years, he will never do me any harm. Dear brother, cast yourself at the feet of Christ, implore his Spirit to make you a holy man. Take heed to thyself, and to thy doctrine.’ (p. 362)
– ‘Take heed to thyself. Your own soul is your first and greatest care. You know a sound body alone can work with power; much more a healthy soul. Keep a clear conscience through the blood of the Lamb. Keep up close communion with God. Study likeness to Him in all things. Read the Bible for your own growth first, then for your people.’ (p. 180)
The need of his people was also close to his heart:
– “What would my people do if I were not to pray?” (p. 61)
So lots of challenge – but no sign of the elusive quote!
Interestingly, Spurgeon quotes M’Cheyne in Lecture 1: The Minister’s Self-Watch (Lectures to My Students) where it would have been begging for him to use the ‘greatest need’ quote if it existed:
‘M’Cheyne, writing to a ministerial friend, who was travelling with a view to perfecting himself in the German tongue, used language identical with our own:—“…In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”’
Spurgeon’s wife writes in his autobiography: ‘Robert Murray M‘Cheyne used to pray:—“O God, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made!” and, to judge by my husband’s life, a similar petition must have been constantly in his heart if not on his lips.’
So if anyone ever finds it, or finds it cited earlier than Packer in 1992, let me know!