“All history is subservient to the great work of Redemption” so begins Thomas Chalmers Sabbath Scripture Readings. From October of 1841 to September 20, 1846, Chalmers wrote a series of devotional-expositional thoughts on each chapter of the New Testament, starting with Matthew 1 and going to Revelation 22. It was a time of tremendous ecclesiastical turmoil, and yet in that tumultuous age, the great evangelical pastor-theologian steadily engaged in the classic Scottish Presbyterian practice of preparing comments accompanying Bible Readings for the people of God to nourish there souls on. But these are very different kinds of readings. They are didactic, to be sure, but their devotional and intercessory quality is overwhelming. The source of this difference undoubtedly resides in what the grace of God did in the heart of this man, and how this man sought to fan aflame that grace that God gave.
Chalmers (1780-1847) was one of the leading lights of the Scottish evangelical awakening of the nineteenth century. But he was a man converted to Christ only after his ministry had begun in the church! As a student of mathematics at St. Andrews University, flashes of his considerable intellectual powers became evident, and he showed interest in ethics and politics as well, but he eventually enrolled as a theological student (he had set himself on becoming a minister years earlier). He was licensed to preach the Gospel in the by the Church of Scotland at the age of nineteen, and finally (in 1802) took a charge in his native Fife, in the little village of Kilmany, not too far from the University. At the same time he became assistant to the Professor of Mathematics at St. Andrews – so much for single-minded pursuit of the kingdom!
Chalmers relied on his own native eloquence, rather than hard study, to prepare himself for the preaching ministry in those years. A few hours on Saturday evening were sufficient, he once said to an inquiring parishioner. But he was not preaching the Gospel. In fact, Chalmer’s messages were the standard fare of Scottish moderatism, emphasizing the importance of moral attainments, but utterly lacking the Gospel logic required to truly aid real Christian growth, which springs from God’s gracious work of conversion.
After nine years in which he endured frustrating ministry and serious illness, Chalmers finally came to understand vividly that “Do this and live” is not the Gospel, and that “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” is the saving response to the Gospel of God, and the only real source of life transformation for the believer. Wilberforce’s “Practical View” had a great effect on him. Chalmers’ life and ministry radically changed. Gone were the moralizing sermons (“be good”), and in their place came faithful biblical exposition emphasizing “the utter alienation of the heart in all its desires and affections from God,” and reconciliation to God as the distinct and prominent object of his ministerial labors. Chalmers said: “it was not till I took the scriptural way of laying the method of reconciliation before them” that he saw any real life change in his people.
Chalmers eventually moved to Glasgow to become the minister in the Tron Kirk and later St. John’s. His legendary work among the poor and his strategic deployment of diaconal ministry were features of this decade of his ministry (1815-1823) – but proclamation of the Gospel was always the center. He preached with fire to full congregations. He was a man who knew how to communicate the truth to the common folk, and to the educated elite alike.
After serving as Professor of Moral Philosophy at St. Andrews from 1823-1828, where he was instrumental in launching the renowned “St. Andrews Six” into foreign missions, including the celebrated Alexander Duff of India, Chalmers was called to Edinburgh, as Professor of Divinity at the University. There he would train and inspire the leading lights of the evangelical awakening, from Cunningham to the Bonars to Buchanan and Smeaton.
Chalmers devoted the whole of his powers of eloquence and intellect to bring to bear the Gospel on the hearts of his hearers. And to do this, he first worked hard at bringing the truth of God’s word to bear on his own heart. That kind of soul-work is evident in the Sabbath Scripture Readings. As you read them, you will find Chalmers crying out to God in prayer, inveighing against “a factitious and freezing orthodoxy,”supplying you with a guide to your own heart-work and even with words to lift up in prayer when yours fail you. These readings are not simply a testament to the vibrant evangelical religion of a great man of the past, but a living encouragement to our walk in grace – a model of how to pray the Bible back to God and of how it is to be searchingly applied to our lives.
Read, savor, be humbled and grow.