Seven years ago, I was asked to present a biographical paper on the life and ministry of Robert Murray McCheyne to a group of youths drawn from the Reformed churches in the Copperbelt province of Zambia. At that time, the only acquaintance I had had with McCheyne was through a biography written by his contemporary and colleague, Andrew Bonar. Conscious that I could not do full justice to my allotted subject with a single Banner of Truth paperback as my only resource, I quickly contacted several friends whose libraries at that time were not as embarrassingly lean as mine. And sure enough, I was able to come up with more than half a dozen books and articles which became my study-room companions for a couple of weeks. That study turned out to be one of the most intense biographical readings I have done in my short life as a Christian. Since that time, McCheyne’s life has had a profound influence upon my life. Oh, how strangely warmed my heart was to walk with this saint by that study of his life! A man who was always in prayer, and who by his fruitful life, short though that life was, provides an eloquent illustration of the power that comes from long and frequent communion with our God in the secret chamber of prayer. Thanks be to God who has availed to all of us the same resources for such rich communion with him. How I crave more and more of that spirit of devotion and piety!

The one aspect of McCheyne’s brief life which all biographers single out as shining with conspicuous and exceptional luminescence was his godliness. Shortly after McCheyne’s death in 1843, the words from one of his friends reveal the high esteem in which his saintly life was held: “Whilst the possession of such a bright and shining light was the Church of Scotland’s privilege, the rarity of such is the Church of Scotland’s sin.”

                What the writer lamented was by no means unique to the nineteenth century Scottish church. The dearth of piety in the church in general, and also among those who are called to foster it in God’s people, is an undeniable fact in our day. The very mention of the word “piety” conjures up all kinds of thoughts in many people’s minds. Those who associate the term “piety” with pietism immediately cast it into images that are entirely negative or antiquated. They think of religious zealots with a holier-than-thou attitude, or self-righteous individuals exuding an air of religious pomp, or they have in mind those people practising the Christian faith with a legalism akin to that of the Pharisees. But biblical piety simply means godliness. It is the Christian life as it is lived out in the everyday aspects of life. It is that life that flows out of faith and belief in the doctrines which we hold so dear. It is a reverential attitude to God that is rooted in the right knowledge of God. The knowledge of God as a holy and awesome God is the foundation upon which piety is established. By his grace, he has revealed himself to us in his Word, and so piety is that which arises from God’s Word and influences our minds, emotions and actions. So our inner spiritual lives and the external actions which follow are brought into an inseparable union that shapes our whole being before the God who has redeemed us.

The pursuit of piety was something that inspired and captivated the Reformers. For example, John Calvin stated in the preface to the Institutes of the Christian Religion that his whole purpose in writing the Institutes was “solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness [pietas].”

What should be our goal in living a life of piety? It is to glorify the Lord our God. And that, as the first question in the Shorter Catechism reminds us, is the chief end for which we were created. It goes without saying that those whom God has called to the gospel ministry must pre-eminently exhibit this spirit of piety. There are perhaps no weightier words that summon pastors to greater godliness in their lives and ministry than the words of Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28 and to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16.

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, NIV).

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, NIV).

When Paul spoke the former words to the Ephesian elders and penned the latter to young Timothy, he was intimately acquainted with the frailties and weaknesses common to human nature which expose God’s servants in all generations to many perils in the course of carrying out their pastoral ministry. The need for personal piety and a pervasive godliness in ministry is immense. The implications for failure in this area are very telling. This is where we have the dividing line between barrenness and fruitfulness in ministry; between much harm done to the cause of Christ and the good that glorifies his name and makes the gospel exude a savoury and irresistible attractiveness before a scornful world. And such was the kind of life McCheyne lived. It was said of him by those who knew him that “whether viewed as a son, a brother, a friend, or a pastor, he was the most faultless and attractive exhibition of the true Christian they had ever seen embodied in a living form.”

In his ageless book, The Reformed Pastor, the great Puritan writer and pastor, Richard Baxter, exhorts God’s ministers to the important duty of watchfulness over their souls (1974:74–86). He gives several motives that ought to compel every pastor to pursue holiness with greater seriousness and vigour:

  1. We have a heaven to win or lose, and a soul that must be happy or miserable forever.
  2. Like all fallen descendants of Adam, we have a depraved nature and sinful inclinations. We live with the inescapable reality of the ever active spiritual conflict between the flesh and the Spirit.
  3. We are more likely to be plied with numerous temptations by the Tempter than other men, for “he beareth the greatest malice to those that are engaged to do him the greatest mischief” (p. 74).
  4. Our lives are lived before many eyes, carefully observing every step we make, and some with ill-intent.
  5. The aggravations of our sins are bound to be more heinous than the sins of others.
  6. So great an undertaking as that of the ministry cannot be accomplished with a heedless and careless course. He who bears the burden and heat of the ministerial office must walk circumspectly.
  7. The burden we bear on our shoulders in the promotion and maintenance of the glory of God’s name; and “of His holy truth and ways,” is far weightier than that of other men (p. 78). “The nearer men stand to God, the greater dishonour hath by their miscarriages” (p. 78).
  8. By our piety, we will be setting a godly example before the flock over which God has made us shepherds.

And the question is: Has the worldliness of mind, heart, and conduct which pervades the world today left pastors unscathed? Has it bounced off our hearts like a mosquito repulsed by an insecticide-treated mosquito net or a skin sprayed with strong repellent? These are soul-searching questions which are not easy to address. There is nothing as uncomfortable as looking deep into your own heart. Self-examination and self-criticism have never been very popular virtues, but these are the things that enhance our piety. It is only when we allow the Spirit of God to reveal those crevices in our hearts that we can, by God’s help, take the time to diligently repair them. One discipline which McCheyne constantly practised was the exanimation of his heart. He called this ‘Personal Reformation.” He stated it thus:

“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 to in this world.”

Is it not our deep conviction that left to ourselves we are as vulnerable as that ordinary man or woman on our church pew? Is it not becoming extremely difficult even for ministers of the gospel to escape the contagious spirit of the age? But this reality should not drive us to despair, instead, it should awaken in us that spiritual watchfulness to our souls; and bring us to a knowledge of our own frailties, and cultivate in us the desire to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12,13). A consideration of this subject in this issue of Reformation Zambia is intended to motivate us to growth in piety—in the love of, and communion with our heavenly Father, trusting and fixing our eyes on our Lord Jesus Christ, and developing a deeper sense of his unutterable preciousness to us. Such constant communion with him will be the bedrock from which our spirituality shall blossom, our devotion mature and our aspirations become more heavenly. And such piety is not for ministers alone, lest the reader distances himself or herself from its demands and thinks that the arrows are targeted only at those who are called to the ministry. No, this is the life to which we have all been called.

It is my prayer that as you turn the pages of this magazine, and dig your teeth into the articles we have featured, this shall prove to be a blessing to your heart and that your soul shall truly be nourished. With John Calvin, may you be able to earnestly say, “I offer Thee my heart, Lord, promptly and sincerely.”

BAXTER, R. 1974. The Reformed Pastor. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.

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“Piety hath a wondrous virtue to change all things into matter of consolation and joy. No condition in effect can be evil or sad to a pious man; his very sorrows are pleasant, his infirmities are wholesome, his wants enrich him, his disgraces adorn him, his burdens ease him; his duties are privileges, his falls are the grounds of his advancement, his very sins (as breeding contrition, humility, circumspection, and vigilance), do better and profit him; whereas impiety doth spoil every condition, doth corrupt and embase all good things, doth embitter all the conveniences and comforts of life” (Isaac Barrows).

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“We have seen many men who lived as private Christians, in good reputation for parts and piety, when they took upon them either the magistracy or military employment, where the work was above their gifts, and temptations did overmatch their strength, they proved scandalous disgraced men. And we have seen some private Christians of good esteem, who, having thought too highly of their parts, and thrust themselves into the ministerial office, have proved weak and empty men, and have become greater burdens to the church than some whom we endeavored to cast out. They might have done God more service in the higher rank of private men, than they do among the lowest of the ministry. If, then, you will venture into the midst of enemies, and bear the burden and heat of the day, take heed to yourselves” (Richard Baxter).