On October 2, 1840, the young Scottish minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote a letter to a missionary friend who was preparing to leave for Germany. The letter is short. It barely registers over three hundred words. Despite its brevity, M’Cheyne’s note is instructive on a number of levels. It illustrates the link between friendship and theology. It showcases the importance of written correspondence for pastoral ministry. And it captures the zeal for missions that gripped many nineteenth century Scottish Presbyterians. But on a more basic level, it speaks to the danger of trading personal holiness for ministerial success.
To help prepare his friend for the challenge of living in a new culture and learning a new language, M’Cheyne offered counsel that will resonate with most hardworking folk: apply yourself. He states, “I know you will apply hard to German; but do not forget the culture of the inner man—I mean the heart. How diligently the cavalry officer keeps his sabre clean and sharp; every stain he rubs off with the greatest care.”
As Christians, we must recognize that the pursuit of holiness is not an excuse for vocational laziness. Whether it’s learning German, parsing Greek verbs, writing a research paper, changing spark plugs, mopping floors, or waiting tables, we must apply ourselves to our work. However, we must also remember that our push for vocational excellence cannot come at the price of neglecting personal holiness. Too often we forget the culture of the inner man in our strivings to produce content, meet deadlines, exceed expectations, expand horizons, win friends, and influence people. Problems abound when we settle for one or the other. Hard work and holiness are best tackled when done together.
The genius of M’Cheyne’s comment is that it pinpoints a common temptation for many in ministry. For most theological students, professors, ministerial candidates, church leaders, pastors, elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth directors, missionaries, and the like, throwing ourselves into the Lord’s service takes little convincing. The problem is that we often neglect what we give to others. As we labor to preach, we forget to apply that sermon first to ourselves. As we pray for others, we fail to cast our own anxieties before God. As we counsel the broken and needy, we overlook the wounds we’ve inflicted on our friends and family. The danger is that we can labor hard for the Lord, do good work for others, succeed in ministry, and disregard the state of our soul through it all.
To help foster holiness amidst the demands of ministry, M’Cheyne reminds his friend of his relationship to God. “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 and perfections of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Christ. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” It’s not our talents that make us useful to the world. It’s our likeness to Christ. We are but vessels through whom others believe.
For M’Cheyne, success in the Christian life is defined by conformity to Christ. As we begin a new academic year at RBC, we would do well to heed his advice. Exegeting biblical texts, probing doctrinal formulations, analyzing historical narratives, and weighing philosophical arguments takes hard work. A lot of it. But what does it profit a theological student if he gains the evangelical world and forfeits his soul? Work hard we must. Apply ourselves we will. But we ultimately do not study theology for grades or credentials or reputation. These things may come. Or they may not. Either way, we study theology to grow in holiness. And as M’Cheyne might say, a holy RBC student is an awful weapon in the hand of God.
Dr. John Tweeddale is academic dean and professor of theology at Reformation Bible College.