In an article for the Gospel Coalition, I previously challenged those aspiring to a pastoral call to be visibly devoted in order to be pastorally placed. We should also study the lives of great theologians. For example, our understanding and appreciation for the theology of John Murray will grow when we consider the adversity he faced as a young man in World War I. And we will be less surprised when we suffer ourselves (1 Peter 4:12).
Though I never met John Murray in person, it would be difficult for me to explain his influence on my life and ministry. I purchased the first two volumes of Murray’s collected works on September 8, 1992 and I still have the receipt. (If you look at the picture you can see what other books I was buying in those days and how much I was paying!) Murray shaped much of my theological thinking and method. Indeed, corporate solidarity (what I sometimes call the Principle of the Rope) is the subject of my next book (Zondervan, 2013, D.V.). I first became interested in that area of doctrine when I read Murray’s essay on the Adamic Administration in volume 2 of his collected works nearly 20 years ago.
I am one of the least of those influenced by John Murray. Sinclair Ferguson and others speak of the profound ways God used his influence on their lives. Dr. Murray’s commitment to bringing sound exegesis to bear on systematic theology, his contribution to the field of ethics, and his stand for biblical orthodoxy with J. Gresham Machen and others, qualify him as one of the great theological leaders of the twentieth century. His writings include the NICNT Commentary on Romans, Principles of Conduct, and his collected writings.
For God’s glory, Dr. Murray’s accomplishments amaze all the more when one considers what he faced during World War I. Murray grew up in the remote parish of Creich, Sutherland in the Highlands of Scotland. He was the youngest of eight with five older brothers and two sisters. World War I came and his older brothers were first called to service. It was a time of unspeakable grief for families. When his brother, Tommy, left to go to France Murray’s father said, “Goodbye Tommy, I’ll never see you again.” He was right. Tommy died in action in France.
Dr. Murray was called up for service on April 18, 1917. Shortly after he enlisted, he was able to spend time with his brother Donald and talk about spiritual things. Donald was also killed in action. You can read the memorial information about Donald and Thomas Murray online.
Murray himself served in the Royal Highlanders (Black Watch). Towards the end of the war, his unit faced almost constant fighting during the last major German offensive. At one point, Murray shared that he was so exhausted that he fell asleep standing up, leaning against a piece of farm equipment, with his full pack still on.
At last, the tide turned and the Allies began to advance. From the biography in Murray’s collected works (which is the source for all my information in this post):
In later years, John spoke of the new exhilaration at seeing the kilted Scots moving forward, taking position after position. But his participation in the success was short lived. While leading a section men, as a lance corporal, and in the act of firing his rifle he was – - as he believed – - temporarily blinded in his ‘shooting eye’ by dirt thrown up from a bursting shell. The truth was that the sight of his right eye had been irretrievably destroyed by shrapnel.
So by the age of 19, Dr. Murray was left with the nightmarish memories of one of the worst wars in human history. He carried the grief of losing two brothers, and he had lost his right eye. Humanly speaking, the loss of his eye was a great liability for a scholar. Yet, by 1924 the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland determined that Murray’s gifts for ministry were so exceptional that he needed to be sent to Princeton “with a view of taking up the study of certain subjects to equip him as a theological tutor of the Church.” It was the beginning of forty years in the United States.
We can never fully understand why God calls some young people to walk through such fire (Isaiah 43:2). Yet, we can see that God’s good hand of providence was on Dr. Murray in a very special way. Surely those days refined him in ways without which he could not have made such an incredible contribution to the Bride of Christ (1 Peter 1:6-9).
Likewise, today those who are called to ministry should not be surprised at the painful trials we are called to suffer as though something strange were happening to us (1 Peter 4:12-19). Rather, we ought to rejoice that we participate in the sufferings of Christ. We can rest in Providence knowing that God is ordering all things together for His purposes (Romans 8:28).