Personal Reformation In 2016


It’s customary on this first day of a new year for many Christians to find fresh challenge from Jonathan Edwards’ famous Resolutions. If you’ve never read them before, go ahead and read them now. You may just find your heart strangely warmed.

There is another model of resolve I think pastors, in particular, should attend to on this day of beginnings: Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s Personal Reformation.

Pursuing Him Until The End

In the last year of his life (M’Cheyne died at 29) M’Cheyne, as Bonar says, “wrote down, for his own use, an examination into things that ought to be amended or changed” in his life and ministry. M’Cheyne introduces his document in this way,

It is the duty of ministers in this day to begin the reformation of religion and manners with themselves, families, etc. with confession of past sin, earnest prayer for direction, grace and full purpose of heart.

I am persuaded that I shall obtain the highest amount of present happiness, I shall do most for God’s glory and the good of man, and I shall have the fullest reward in eternity, by maintaining a conscience always washed in Christ’s blood, by being filled with the Holy Spirit at all times, and by attaining the most entire likeness to Christ in mind, will, and heart, that is possible for a redeemed sinner to attain in this world.

The document has two parts: 1) Personal Reformation, and 2) Reformation in Secret Prayer. The whole thing is only nine pages and worth reading often. On the small chance you can’t get to the original whole, I’ve reproduced his main points below along with some delectable nuggets of counsel and conviction.

Personal Reformation

1. To maintain a conscience void of offense. I am persuaded that I ought to confess my sins more. I think I ought to confess sin the moment I see it to be sin; whether I am in company, or in study, or even preaching, the soul ought to cast a glance of abhorrence at the sin. If I go on with the duty, leaving the sin unconfessed, I go on with a burdened conscience, and add sin to sin.

I ought to confess the sins of my confessions—their imperfections, sinful aims, self-righteous tendency, etc.—and to look to Christ as having confessed my sins perfectly over His own sacrifice.

  • I ought to go to Christ for the forgiveness of each sin.
  • I ought never think a sin too small to need immediate application to the blood of Christ.
  • I must not only wash in Christ’s blood, but clothe me in Christ’s obedience.

2. To be filled with the Holy Spirit. I am persuaded that I ought to study more my own weakness. I ought to have a number of Scriptures ready to be meditated on to convince me that I am a helpless worm. I am tempted to think that I am now an established Christian—that I have overcome this or that lust so long—that I have got into the habit of the opposite grace—so that there is no fear; I may venture very near temptation—nearer than other men. This is a lie of Satan. I might as well speak of gunpowder getting by habit a power of resisting fire, so as not to catch the spark.

  • I ought to labor for the deepest sense of my utter weakness and helplessness that ever a sinner was brought to feel.

It is right to tremble, and to make every sin of every professor a lesson of my own helplessness; but it should lead me the more to Christ. . . . If I were more deeply convinced of my utter helplessness, I think I would not be so alarmed when I hear of the falls of other men.

  • I ought to study Christ as a living Savior more.
  • I ought to study Christ as an Intercessor.
  • I ought to study the Comforter more.
  • I ought never to forget that sin grieves the Holy Spirit—vexes and quenches Him. If I would be filled with the Spirit, I feel I must read the Bible more, pray more, and watch more.

3. To gain entire likeness to Christ. I ought to get a high esteem of the happiness of it. I am persuaded that God’s happiness is inseparably linked in with His holiness. Holiness and happiness are like light and heat.

  • I ought not to delay in parting with sins.
  • Whatever I see to be sin, I ought from this hour to set my whole soul against it, using all scriptural methods to mortify it—as the Scriptures, special prayer for the Spirit, fasting, and watching.
  • I ought to mark strictly the occasions when I have fallen, and avoid the occasion as much as the sin itself.
  • I ought to flee all temptation.
  • I ought constantly to pour out my heart to God, praying for entire conformity to Christ.
  • I ought statedly and solemnly to give my heart to God.
  • I ought to meditate often on heaven as a world of holiness.

Reformation in Secret Prayer

I ought not to omit any of the parts of prayer—confession, adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and intercession.

I ought to pray before seeing any one. I feel it is far better to begin with God—to see His face first—to get my soul near Him before it is near another. . . . In general, it is best to have at least on hour alone with God, before engaging in anything else.

I ought daily to intercede for my own family, connections, relatives, and friends.

I ought to daily intercede briefly for the whole town.

I ought to have a scheme of prayer, also the names of missionaries marked on the map.

I ought to intercede at large for the above on Saturday morning and evening from seven to eight.

I ought to pray in everything.

I ought to pray far more for our Church, for our leading ministers by name, and for my own clear guidance in the right way, that I may not be led aside, or driven aside, from following Christ.

I ought to spend the best hours of the day in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment, and is not to be thrust into any corner.

I ought not to give up the good old habit of prayer before going to bed.

I ought to read three chapters of the Bible in secret every day, at least.

I ought on Sabbath morning to look over all the chapters read through the week, and especially the verses marked.

A Life Being Completed

M’Cheyne apparently didn’t complete his rumination on piety and prayer. I’ve often thought, “How true this is of all God’s people!” Is it not true that our pursuit of communion with God and conformity to His Son is always in progress this side of heaven?

May you grow this year in appreciation of the M’Cheyne School mantra: “It’s not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Christ.”




A Personal Prayer List


M’Cheyne’s personal prayer diary consisted of five lists. The second list offered eight “heads for prayer.” These headings can easily be adapted for modern ministry and would be quite helpful, I’m sure, to many a pastor’s prayer life.

  1. For an abundant gift of the Holy Spirit.
  2. For the purity and unity of the Church of Christ.
  3. For her majesty the Queen and all in authority under her and for a special blessing upon our country.
  4. That God may raise up in great numbers fit persons to serve in the ministry of his church.
  5. That a blessing may accompany the ministrations of the Word of God, in order that it may have free course and be glorified.
  6. For the propagation of the gospel among the heathen.
  7. For the fulfillment of God’s promises to his ancient people.
  8. For a special blessing on all the members of the Assembly and Church.

Praying for Pouring

“We may preach publicly, and from house to house; we may teach the young and warn the old, but all will be in vain. Until the Spirit be poured upon us from on high, briers and thorns shall grow. Our vineyard shall be like the garden of the sluggard. We need that Christ should awake; that He should make bare His arm as in the days of old; that He should shed down the Spirit abundantly.” – Robert Murray M’Cheyne

Stop and Stare

“Ah! there is nothing like a calm look into the eternal world to teach us the emptiness of human praise, the sinfulness of self-seeking, the preciousness of Christ.”- Robert Murray M’Cheyne

What Should a Pastor Be?


No man has influenced my pastoral life and vision more than Robert Murray M’Cheyne. He was a man of ordinary gifting, but of tenacious love for the sufficiency and beauty of Jesus Christ. The more I read him the more I’m convinced few pastors of old are as worthy to hear today as Mr. M’Cheyne (hence why I hope to do my PhD research on him).

26 Traits of a Faithful Pastor

In one morning’s bible reading M’Cheyne meditated on 1 Thessalonians 2 and Paul’s example of ministry to the church at Thessalonica. In a manuscript quarto—think “journal”—M’Cheyne answered the question, “What should a minister be?” from Paul’s instruction. He came up with twenty-six different characteristics of healthy gospel ministry. May these encourage and challenge you:

  1. Bold in our God. Having the courage of one who is near and dear to God, and who has God dwelling in him.
  2. To speak the Gospel. He should be a voice to speak the gospel, an angel of glad tidings.
  3. With much agony. He should wrestle with God, and wrestle with men.
  4. Not of uncleanness. He should be chaste in heart, in eye, in speech.
  5. Not of deceit or guile. He should be open, having only one end in view, the glory of Christ.
  6. Allowed of God to be put in trust. He should feel a steward, entrusted of God.
  7. Not as pleasing men, but God. He should speak what God will approve, who tries the heart.
  8. Neither flattering words. He should never flatter men, even to win them.
  9. Nor a cloke of covetousness. Not seeking money or presents, devoted to his work with a single eye.
  10. Nor of men sought we glory. Not seeking praise.
  11. Gentle even as a nurse.
  12. Affectionately desirous of you. Having an inward affection and desire for the salvation and growth of his people.
  13. Willing to impart our own souls. Willing to suffer loss, even of life, in their cause.
  14. Laboriousness night and day.
  15. To preach without being chargeable, to any of his people.
  16. Holily.
  17. Justly.
  18. Unblameably we behaved among believers.
  19. The daily walk.
  20. Exhorted every one. Individuality of ministry.
  21. As a father. Authority and love.
  22. Thank we God. He should be full of thanksgiving without ceasing.
  23. Should be with his people in heart, when not in presence.
  24. Endeavoured to see you. His people his hope. That which animates him.
  25. And joy. Immediate delight.
  26. And crown of rejoicing. When he looks beyond the grave.

A Faithful Friend


Some years ago I heard John Piper recount recount the genesis for his love affair with Jonathan Edwards. He said, “One of my seminary professors suggested to us back in 1970 that we find one great and godly teacher in the history of the church and make him a lifelong companion. That’s what Edwards has become for me. It’s hard to overestimate what he has meant to me theologically and personally in my vision of God and my love for Christ.”

Upon hearing that advice I immediately set about finding a “lifelong companion” from church history.

A Whimsical Purchase

For quite a while it seemed as though Edwards would be my own historical mentor.  It all began with George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life, a ravishing account that still may be the best biography I’ve ever read. Marsden, for me, was the gateway into further Edwards study—study I found unusually captivating. So many aspects of his life and ministry invigorated my soul: his ruthless devotion to God, warmth in cherishing God’s sweetness and beauty, unmatched theological profundity, and faithful labor in his home. And so it was from 2007-2010 that Edwards was my homeboy.

Yet something happened in the summer of 2010 that shifted my focus from the Northampton man; on a whim I purchased The Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne by Andrew Bonar. My life has, quite literally, never been the same.

They’d Weep Just Looking at Him

I first came across the name of M’Cheyne in 2007 when I read Martyn Lloyd-Jones Preaching and Preachers. The Doctor said,

You remember what was said of the saintly Robert Murray McCheyne of Scotland in the last century. It is said that when he appeared in the pulpit, even before he had uttered a single word, people would begin to weep silently. Why? Because of this very element of seriousness. The very sight of the man gave the impression that he had come from the presence of god and he was to deliver a message from God to them. That is what had such an effect upon people even before he had opened his mouth. We forget this element at our peril, and at great cost to our listeners.

I thought to myself, “Now that’s saintly seriousness worth pursuing.” At Lloyd-Jones’ prompting, later in Preaching and Preachers, I took up M’Cheyne’s Bible reading plan. While I was, in some way, with M’Cheyne every day, I knew little about his story and ministry. These were the years of Edwards fandom and fervor after all. So I picked up Bonar’s work on Mr. M’Cheyne to inform my ignorance and I dare say my “Lifetime Companion/Historical Mentor” instantaneously shifted from Edwards to the young Scotsman.

I think the best way to describe the quick change was M’Cheyne’s ordinaryness. Edwards is called “the greatest American thinker” for a reason—his intellect is otherworldly. Any personal aspirations to be like Edwards could only get so far because there will ever be anyone like Edwards. M’Cheyne, however, had no extraordinary gifts. Yes, he was a fantastic student who ardently loved poetry and the classics, but such characteristics were hardly unique in Scotland at the time. He was in the gospel ministry for only seven years before he died unseasonably young. So what then does M’Cheyne have to offer? Here’s my best answer: M’Cheyne models ordinary ministry set aflame by extraordinary devotion to Christ.

I want to be like that.

Passion Overflowing

To read M’Cheyne is to read the soul of a man inflamed with love for Christ. His twin passions were evangelism and holiness; not unlike our Savior’s heartbeat. He stoked the flame of love for Christ through earnest commitment to the word and prayer. I’ve yet to hear anyone encounter M’Cheyne without sensing a challenge from his white-hot intensity toward and love for Christ.

In his introduction to Owen’s The Mortification of Sin J.I. Packer recounts how Keswick theology had made him frantic in the pursuit of holiness. “And then (thank God),” Packer writes, “[I] was given an old clergyman’s library, and in it was an uncut set of Owen, and I cut the pages of volume VI more or less at random, and read Owen on mortification—and God used what the old Puritan had written three centuries before to sort me out.”

I can sympathize with the need for spiritual sorting. At key occasions in my life and ministry over the last five years God has used M’Cheyne to sort me out. It’s no overstatement to say that on at least two occasions M’Cheyne saved my ministerial soul.

That’s what a lifelong companion does.

Do you have one?

If so, fantastic. Immerse yourself in that person’s life until it’s hard to separate his thoughts from your own. If you don’t have a historical mentor, choose wisely . . . and patiently. It may take you years to find one, but you’ll know it when he or she arrives, for they will likely sort you out with power and ease. That’s what friends are for.

An Awful Weapon

mccheyneAlthough he only lived until the age of 29, Robert Murray M’Cheyne left a timeless collection of writings on which countless Christians have fed for over 150 years.

But his writings cannot compare to the holiness his life preached every week.

Undoubtedly the most pastorally encouraging and challenging book I’ve read in recent memory is David Beaty’s An All Surpassing Fellowship: Learning from Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s Communion with God. In it he offers the following reflection:

M’Cheyne believed that ministers, especially, should pursue and give evidence of holy lives. To Rev. Dan Edwards, he wrote, ‘Remember you are God’s sword, – His instrument, – I trust a chosen vessel unto Him to bear His name. In great measure, according to the purity of perfections of the instrument, will be the success. 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.’ To another pastor, he wrote, ‘Study universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this, for your sermons last but an hour or two, your life preaches all the week.’

Dear pastor, give yourself to this study. Spend His energy (Col. 1:28) striving for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). That is what your people need more than anything else.

We are often for preaching to awaken others; but we should be more concerned with prayer. Prayer is more powerful than preaching. It is prayer that gives preaching all its power. . . . Prayer must be added to preaching, else preaching is in vain. . . . O believing brethren, what an instrument is this which God hath put into your hands! Prayer moves him that moves the universe. – Robert Murray M’Cheyne