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The 19th-Century Pastor Who Made TGC’s 2020 Reading Plan

Editors’ note: 

This is part of TGC’s 2020 Read the Bible initiative, encouraging Christians and churches to read together through God’s Word in a year. You can download the PDF reading plan (print it out and give away!) and subscribe to our daily newsletter and podcast (Apple | RSS | Stitcher).

God’s Word is everything to God’s people. As God’s very breath (2 Tim. 3:15), it is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12). His truth is “more fully confirmed” in its pages than even in a direct experience of Christ’s transfigured glory on a mountain (2 Pet. 1:19). The Bible is perfect, pure, and potent (Ps. 19:7–9). It is both the daily bread on which we feast (Deut. 8:3) and the engine of spiritual life (Ps. 119:25, 37, 50, 93, 107, 154, 156).

Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s (1813–1843) appetite for God’s Word was insatiable. Peers remarked how his pocket Bible was a constant companion throughout his ministry. The sacred book bore the marks of being opened in all seasons—rain or shine. Those closest to him marveled at M’Cheyne’s passion for Scripture; James Dodd described how the young pastor “searched and fed upon the Word of God with an eagerness which I have never seen equaled.”

M’Cheyne knew God’s children must feed on the green pastures of God’s Word each day. “We must be driven more to our Bibles, and to the mercy seat, if we are to stand in the evil day,” he declared. His lasting strategy for Bible reading is found in his little tract, Daily Bread: Being a Calendar for Reading through the Word of God in a Year.

Plans Afoot

The systematic reading of Scripture had long been M’Cheyne’s pattern. Andrew Bonar recounts how, not long after the death of M’Cheyne’s brother David in 1831, he “began to seek God to his soul, in the diligent reading of the Word.”

M’Cheyne’s college notebooks offer a window into his early diligence in Scripture reading. In one journal, he sketched five “Directions for Reading the Bible”:

Read in more places than one. Thus, a historical piece and a devotional psalm, a piece of a gospel and a piece of an epistle.

Read with parallels. Either 2 or 3 verses. Or the most difficult parts, or the most interesting.

Read whole books. A whole epistle, or little prophet, and trace and overlook the divisions into chapter and verse.

Try to understand. Ask where you do not.

Pray before and after. In devotional parts, turn every verse into prayer.

M’Cheyne read 25 verses in Greek and Hebrew on most days while a student at the Divinity Hall in Edinburgh. But his practice of Bible reading solidified after his ordination to the ministry. On weekdays, he read three chapters and reviewed them during his Lord’s Day devotions. In 1837, he compiled a plan for reading through the entire Bible in one month, which required him to read roughly 50 chapters a day.

Initially written in 1842, Daily Bread was published at the beginning of 1843, months before M’Cheyne died. He admitted to his congregation that it had long been his desire “to prepare a scheme of Scripture reading . . . so that the whole Bible might be read once by you in the year, and all might be feeding in the same portion of the green pasture at the same time.”

M’Cheyne’s Plan for Daily Bread

Daily Bread calls for reading an average of four chapters each day. The pacing means a Christian will annually read through all the Old Testament once, and the Psalms and the New Testament twice.

M’Cheyne divided the plan so that two chapters would be read in private. He counseled his flock to read these at the start of the day: “Let our secret reading prevent the dawning of the day. Let God’s voice be the first we hear in the morning.” He intended the other two chapters for family devotions, as this was a key facet of M’Cheyne’s program for piety. He exhorted fathers to lead well: “Do it in a spiritual, lively manner, go to it as to a well of salvation.”

‘Let God’s voice be the first we hear in the morning.’

One oft-misunderstood feature of Daily Bread is its emphasis on the Psalms. M’Cheyne’s hope was not only that families would read psalms, but that they would sing them over meals. “If three verses be sung at each diet of family worship, the whole Psalms will be sung through in the year,” he encouraged. “Thus every meal will be a sacrament, being sanctified by the Word and prayer.”

Great Advantages

Scheduled and systematic devotion can easily veer into formalism. M’Cheyne knew this. He understood the possible pitfalls of a plan like Daily Bread. The most prominent ones M’Cheyne mentioned include self-righteousness, reading just to get through the day’s demand, and the plan becoming a spiritual burden too heavy to bear. Pastors today still sympathize with M’Cheyne’s warning. Formality in spirituality can be a bane to growth in holiness, not a boon to genuine piety.

Nevertheless, M’Cheyne would still have us believe that the advantages of a reading plan far outweigh the disadvantages. A program like Daily Bread ensures (1) the whole Bible will be read through in an orderly manner each year; (2) Christians don’t waste time choosing which text to read; (3) parents have regular content for family worship; (4) a pastor knows where his flock is feeding; and (5) the Spirit of unity expands. “We shall pray over the same promises, mourn over the same confessions, praise God in the same songs, and be nourished by the same words of eternal life,” M’Cheyne wrote. Through planned reading, a local church can together get “bread out of the eater, and honey out of the lion.”

‘Sanctify Them in the Truth’

The chief benefit of systematic reading, no doubt, is intentional time with Jesus Christ.

M’Cheyne often spoke of daily Scripture reading as a “trysting time” with the Savior. Christ meets his people in each chapter; his voice thunders forth from the sacred page.

A whole Bible gives us the whole Christ, and only a whole Christ can make us whole Christians. “Go then,” M’Cheyne proclaimed, “to Jesus for all you need; learn the means of sanctification—the Word. No holiness without the Bible!”

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