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‘O death where is thy sting?’

May 2020 | by Andrew Murray

John J Murray at the School in Theology 2017
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Nothing prepares you for the dying moments of a loved one. On Wednesday 1st April 2020 I received a phone call at 12:35pm from a concerned Doctor from Leverndale Hospital in Glasgow. My father, Revd John J. Murray, had been in isolation since 17th March when he tested positive for COVID-19 but his condition was deteriorating rapidly. Despite assurances only a few days earlier that he was stable if not improving, he had taken a turn for the worse with laboured breathing. My mum and I were asked to get to the hospital as rapidly as possible.

The slightly surreal and, up until that point, very quiet world of COVID-19 in our family had now become a crushing reality. Resplendent in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) I was able to read a few verses from Romans 8 and sing a Psalm before my father entered his eternal rest in the early evening at the age of 85. Online funerals and limited mourners at the graveside were difficult but not insurmountable challenges as we said goodbye to Dad this side of eternity.

Born in 1934 in Dornoch, Sutherland, the middle of three boys, Dad grew up on a 70-acre croft. My father was clearly reading good books at an early age and particularly mentions: Thomas Boston’s Fourfold State; John Angell James’ Anxious Inquirer; John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and William Guthrie’s Trial of a Saving Interest in Christ. Dad was impressed very early by Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd, both men known for their profound spirituality.

It appears that concern for his soul intensified around the age of 16. Dad spoke to me around two years ago of being in an empty house on the croft and having an overwhelming sense of Christ crucified in a very personal way. The experience must have been profound as Dad talks in his unfinished Memoirs of it affecting his studies at the time. He also describes a significant night when Prof. John Murray was back from America at his family home in Sutherland and preached at the Council Chambers in Dornoch in 1953 on John 6:37. Dad talks of the Free Church in the village as orthodox but lacking in warmth and power. It was my father’s great desire throughout his life that the church would rediscover ‘experiential Christianity’ as seen in a past generation in the Highlands.

Leaving Dornoch in 1955, my father worked for the Caledonian Insurance Company in Edinburgh before returning home for further study. In the late 1950’s my father started to take an interest in the recovery of old truths. He corresponded with Revd Kenneth MacRae of the Free Church in Stornoway whom he saw as a real champion of biblical Christianity. Dad mentions in one of his diaries that he received two books on 19 September 1958 from the recently established Banner of Truth: A Body of Divinity and Sermons of George Whitefield. Who could have foreseen the lifelong connection that would proceed from that order!

It was during this time that my father began publishing a little magazine called Eternal Truth. The first copy of the magazine was sent to Iain H. Murray and Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and the exchanges of letters between Iain Murray and my father followed. They culminated in a letter dated 24th May 1960 from Iain Murray inviting my father to London to help with the work of the Banner. This was to be a turning point in his life and for the next 60 years he was to be at the forefront of Reformed book publishing.

Picture taken at the 2006 Free Church School in Theology.
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Dad began to attend Friday night lectures at Westminster Chapel, London, and vividly remembers the electric atmosphere as Lloyd-Jones worked through Romans 8. My father joined the Evangelical Library Committee which was chaired by Lloyd-Jones, and Dad talks warmly of visiting the Dr’s home in Ealing for supper and carol singing in the early 1960’s. After meeting my mum in London, they married in 1966 and my sisters Lynda and Anna were born in 1967 and 1968 followed by a cheeky redhead in 1972. While I was still a babe in arms my parents moved with the Banner of Truth to new headquarters in Edinburgh in November 1972.

My father was now being called in a different direction. He was a regular preacher in the London Free Church throughout the 1960s, so it was perhaps no great surprise that he applied and was accepted for the Free Church ministry in September 1973 and started at the Free Church College in 1974 after further study at university. On completion of his ministerial studies, Dad was called to Oban Free (High) Church and was inducted in September 1978.

Our lives were overshadowed shortly after our arrival when my sister, Lynda Joan, took ill. Her illness was mercifully brief but no less distressing. She died on 4th December 1980 in her fourteenth year. Dad did not speak much of my sister’s death during his life and it was hard not to feel that much of his grief remained too painful to express. At the 1989 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference he gave an address on ‘Providence in Personal Life’ which was a path he had painfully walked for over nine years. I often meet men who were there and who describe a profound atmosphere. The next year the conference paper became a little booklet by the Banner of Truth entitled Behind a Frowning Providence. This little booklet has been republished at least six times and is now in numerous languages.

In 1989 my father was called to St Columba’s Free Church in Edinburgh where he ministered for the next 13 years. These were formative years for me as I completed university and started in Edinburgh as a social worker. Mum and Dad were famous for an open manse and dozens of young people look back to this period as significant in their Christian experience. Despite the dark clouds on the horizon for the church, I remember these years as times of warm fellowship and Dad’s preaching through Romans, Acts and the 10 Commandments had a profound effect on many.

During this time there was great controversy in the Free Church over moral and ecclesiastical issues and my father was in the middle of many of these battles. Despite what has been alleged my father was no architect of the events but rather sought to respond to allegations that arose. Despite being accused of many things, he bore the heat of battle with general cheerfulness and lack of spite. Many of these wounds were with him to the very end and he felt the breach in the church in 2000 very keenly. While standing on principle without regret, he was saddened by the many relationships and families that were fractured perhaps never to be healed this side of eternity.

When he retired from the pastoral ministry in 2002 my father was well known as a conference speaker and preacher. He pastored many vacant congregations in the Free Church (Continuing) and was a help and mentor to many other ministers. In retirement he worked on several books: John E. Marshall: Life and Writings (Banner of Truth, 2005), Catch the Vision: The Roots of Reformed Recovery (EP, 2007) and John Knox (EP, 2011). Catch the Vision was dedicated to his children and grandchildren, ‘heirs of a precious heritage’. Dad felt disappointed that the long prayed for revival of church and nation did not come in his lifetime despite the return to expository preaching and the renewed interest in old but biblical truths.

Retirement was overshadowed by the sad death of my sister Anna in October 2019 from pancreatic cancer. Dad took the news of her earlier diagnosis very hard and never really recovered his natural cheerfulness until he died. The loss of two daughters was more than he could bear, and he seemed crushed by grief. It was a reminder to us, if one was needed, that our confidence is not in length of service or reputation but in the finished work of Christ.

My father’s legacy is that he was utterly firm in his convictions yet generous in his estimations of other Christians. One of his friends wrote to my mother of how my dad reminded him of Mr Great-heart in Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress: loyal, valiant in defence of the truth but also a wise guide. Like his great hero Prof. John Murray, he had very little sense of self and was utterly self-effacing. It seemed very fitting that at the end of his life there were three books on Dad’s hospital bedside table: the Bible, C. H. Spurgeon’s Cheque Book of the Bank of Faith, and a book of sermons by Prof. John Murray entitled ‘O Death, Where is Thy Sting?’

Isn’t that so true for the Christian? Death is not the end but the glorious beginning. As a family we are so thankful for the gospel hope. We are so glad that Dad is free from his pain and sorrow and now knows the reality of 1 Corinthians 15:55: ‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’

Andrew Murray, son of John J. Murray (1934–2020)