A Book Review from Books At a Glance
Seven Leaders is a compilation of biographical studies of preachers past and present with lessons to be learned from their respective ministries. Iain Murray aimed for young men called to the ministry as the primary audience but has written in a way that all Christians may benefit, knowing that “Preachers and pastors do not arise apart from churches, and their usefulness is in large measure related to their people’s prayerful understanding and support” (p. xii). As is the case with so many of Murray’s previous works, audiences will be both informed and edified as they read these stories of well- and lesser-known figures, and they will profit from Murray’s helpful points of application.
The first subject is John Elias, a Welsh preacher whom Murray first discovered while browsing the Evangelical Library some sixty years ago. Elias was taught to read by his grandfather, who used the Bible as a primary textbook, and later completed his education as an autodidact. His lack of formal education was despised by those who believed a learned ministry was a requirement for a successful ministry, but Elias demonstrated that true power in preaching rests neither in books nor eloquence. According to Murray, he always preached with unction, often with tears, and never without purpose. Elias experienced several seasons of revival which led to rapid growth but maintained biblical standards of church membership which rightly connected regeneration of heart with holiness of life. More often, however, Elias’s ministry was marked by a consistent faithfulness in the midst of spiritual decline and doctrinal confusion. Murray’s concluding thoughts serve as an encouragement to pastors in similar situations: “Sad although Elias was over the decline which he saw in its early stages, his faith was fed from a higher source than contemporary circumstances. He looked to the one who has all authority in heaven and earth, and in whom the final victory is assured.”
The following two chapters focus on pastors whose connections to more famous men nearly overshadow their own stories. Andrew Bonar’s Diary and Letters was worthy of publication shortly after his death, but it is hardly as well-known as his own work on the Life of M’Cheyne. Bonar’s entrance into ministry came at a time of spiritual decline, as evidenced by his appointment in 1838 to assist a senior minister, of whom it was said “only one person had ever received any benefit from him” during his fifty-year tenure. Murray notes that Bonar’s own ministry in Glasgow began with barely a dozen members in the church but grew to well over a thousand in due course. Murray provides insight into the person of Bonar rather than the methods of church growth, noting that “The life of Andrew Bonar shows us how closely the usefulness of servants of Christ is related to the holiness of their lives” (p. 61). Pastors and church members are then directed to consider Bonar’s life as one of consistent communion with God which produced Christlikeness, humility, intentionality, unction and faith.
Chapter three is rightly titled, “The Rediscovery of Archie Brown,” since what was once a household name due to his association with Charles Spurgeon is considerably less familiar today. Murray offers a simple answer to the question of Brown’s faded memory: “While his sermons were in constant publication for forty years, for the most part they did not appear in fine buckram-bound volumes but in plain paper as ‘penny sermons’ – to be read, passed on, re-read and finally just worn out” (p. 76). Spurgeon’s sermons, of course, continue to be published but few are aware that Brown was one of Spurgeon’s closest friends and that he pastored the Metropolitan Tabernacle from 1907-1910. His connection to Spurgeon notwithstanding, Brown was a significant minister in his own right, experiencing seasons of revival and steady church growth, and defending the truth of the Bible during Down Grade Controversy. Brown also made a mark in his community by committing time and resources to the neediest parts of London where thousands lived far below the poverty line. Murray highlights Brown’s considerable dependence on the Holy Spirit as the means by which his ministry had any success.
Murray’s chapter on Kenneth MacRae begins with the author’s personal reminiscence of his subject, thus marking the first pastor in the book with whom Murray personally interacted. However, it was only after MacRae’s death that Murray became aware of the depth of his devotion to God. Murray received MacRae’s personal diaries spanning nearly half a century, from which he draws several background principles and lessons for pastors today. Among the background principles, Murray notes that MacRae’s being raised in a godly home, his interactions with older pastors, and his ongoing life experiences prepared and continued to prepare him to minister effectively to his church members. A quote from MacRae summarizes his grit and reliance on the Word in ministry: “There is only one thing I know I can do well. I cannot lead, but I can truthfully say that I am able to hang on. It may arise from natural stubbornness, but I know that popular religious movements which, despite their lack of scriptural support, carry away so many good people, leave me entirely unaffected. I believe I can set my teeth and hold on, but that is all I am good for” (p. 111). Murray closes the chapter with lessons learned from MacRae’s dependence on the Holy Spirit in preparing and delivering sermons.
The following chapter on Martyn Lloyd-Jones raises the question as to what insights Murray might add to his superb two-volume biography on the Doctor. He begins with a quote from Lloyd-Jones that should give the reader considerable pause, given the topic of the book and the association of Lloyd-Jones as one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century. When approached in his latter years by a friend who assumed he missed being able to preach, Lloyd-Jones replied, “Not at all, I did not live for preaching” (p. 133). The importance of his life, or any life for that matter, was to know God better at the end than at the beginning. Thus Murray begins with a section on the significance of theology prior to discussing Lloyd-Jones’s preaching ministry. He then brings both aspects together by highlighting Lloyd-Jones’s intentionality in preaching about God’s holiness and man’s helplessness rather than starting with the offer of salvation in Christ as if hearer’s already understood their plight. Murray notes, “Instead of making conversion more acceptable, he preached that man is in a position from which only God can deliver him” (p. 140). Borrowing from his previous work on Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace, Murray provides six rules for preachers: Be clear about the purpose of preaching; be sure the whole act of worship is in unity with the message to be delivered; the preacher must know himself; the effectiveness of the message is closely related to the form in which it has been planned; gospel preaching is the preeminent calling of every preacher and pastor; and it is the work of the Holy Spirit which makes preaching powerful.
The final two chapters focus on William James Grier and John MacArthur, both serving as examples of faithfulness to God’s word, albeit through different venues. Grier was a student at Princeton Seminary at the height of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy as demonstrated by the publication of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism in the second year of Grier’s studies. His indebtedness to Machen is clear through Grier’s theological outlook; however, Murray adds that Machen himself was affected by Grier, the student. Machen wrote to Grier, on the occasion of his completion of studies at Princeton, “I shall miss you ever so much next year and wish it were possible for you to stay with us. But wherever you are, I shall have a deep personal interest in you, and shall always be appreciative of news about you and your work” (p. 180). Grier’s subsequent career included his role as a founding minister in the Irish Evangelical Church, marking his departure from Presbyterianism due to its “lack of discernment and theological backbone” (p. 184). He also took the lead in overseeing the publication of “defensive and offensive” literature through the Presbyterian Bible League, later known as the Evangelical Book Shop, in Belfast. This role placed Grier in a position to assist in the launch of a new evangelical publishing venture in 1953, the Banner of Truth Trust. It is, of course, this connection through which Murray knew Grier best. Reflecting on their professional relationship, Murray states that Grier “can have had few equals in the range of his knowledge of Christian books. Rarely would he be asked for an opinion on a title formerly published, whether expository, exegetical, or biographical, on which he was not ready to give a definite opinion. . . . [Yet] It was as a pastor that our friend assessed books. His was not the interest of a litterateur, rather he wanted books that would be of lasting worth for readers” (p. 203). Although Murray does not provide a summary list of lessons to be gleaned from Grier’s life, the overall message is clear: faithfulness to God’s word is of paramount importance not only in the church but in the classroom and in books.
The ministry of John MacArthur is also associated with various media, including radio and books, but it is his preaching ministry that fuels all of his other works. Murray’s brief biography of MacArthur (a longer one is provided in a separate publication) focuses on surviving a car accident which led him to give serious attention to his life’s direction and his subsequent refusal to pursue a doctoral degree in theology at Claremont School of Theology due to its liberal theology and humanistic philosophy. His service as pastor of Grace Community Church was nearly sidelined by an uprising within his pastoral staff in 1979, ten years into his ministry, yet he had already begun to establish himself as a nationally known expositor due to the emergence of the now-famous tape ministry. The longevity and steadiness of MacArthur’s pastorate centers largely upon his view of Scripture which, as Murray notes, remains unchanged from the inception of his work: “He believed then, as he does now, that ‘Scripture is an inexhaustible treasure that demands a lifetime just to understand its riches. No one ever outgrows it or exhausts its immeasurable depth’” (p. 221). In practical terms, MacArthur informed the church leadership that he required thirty hours a week alone with God’s word for study and sermon preparation. Murray concludes the chapter with several observations from MacArthur’s ministry in relation to the word of God: it is necessary for a true knowledge of God and sin; it keeps the church from looking to other sources in order to prosper; it enables believers to know and honor doctrine through scriptural preaching; and in times of controversy it unites believers on the side of truth.
Seven Leaders is a helpful resource for pastors and church members alike. The biographical compilations are brief but substantive, and the principles he offers are clear and timeless. Murray’s strength in all of his writings is to combine history with piety such that biographies become examples for others to follow. On more than one occasion he creates a digressive narrative in order to answer a question of his own choosing, such as whether John Elias was a hyper-Calvinist or if Lloyd-Jones was an Amyraldian (which is answered through a book review appended at the end of the chapter). Although such questions may appeal only to the hyper-historian, it can be fascinating to follow Murray as he traces such questions to their origin and proceeds to develop a counter-claim based on more thorough and better-grounded research. Overall, this book captures in miniature what Murray has done countless times in the past – it presents another’s life before a living reader, causing the latter to consider what the sum total of one’s life will say to others when the reader has also passed on.
Anthony Chute is Associate Dean and Professor of Church History, School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University, Riverside, CA.
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SEVEN LEADERS: PREACHERS AND PASTORS, by Iain H. Murray