Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Dangers and Blessings of Reading the Bible in a Year

One of the most popular and most versatile plans to read through the Bible in a year was prepared by the Scottish pastor Robert Murray M'Cheyne in 1842. It consists of four readings a day from different parts of Scripture which bring the reader through the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice over a year. It can also be adapted so that you read through the Bible over the course of two years. You can view the plan online here, or order a copy here.

When M'Cheyne gave the plan to his congregation it came with an introduction which outlined the dangers and advantages of reading through the Bible in a year, and some practical directions for doing so. This is a very helpful introduction and it is well worth taking the time to read through before embarking on a Bible in a year reading plan, or to whet our appetite to undertake such a plan.

I have taken the body of what M'Cheyne wrote to his congregation and have edited it to make it slightly easier to read for a modern audience. What follows is my re-wording of M'Cheyne's introduction. I have tried to keep as close to M'Cheyne's original words as possible, and to retain his imagery. Where the words, phrases or word order have become outdated I have tried to render them in a modern equivalent. So here it is, Robert Murray M'Cheyne's introduction to reading the Bible in a year:


1) Formality – We are such weak creatures that any regular practice easily degenerates into a lifeless form. For some people, the tendency of reading the Bible in a fixed manner can create such skeleton Christianity. A characteristic sin of the last days is that people will have the appearance of godliness but deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5). Guard against this. Let the plan perish instead of letting this rust eat up your souls.

2) Self-righteousness – Some people, when they have devoted their set time to reading the Bible, and finished reading the portion assigned for that day, may be tempted to look at themselves with self-complacency. I am persuaded that there are many who are living without a divine work on their soul (unpardoned and unsanctified, and ready to perish) who diligently spend set times in both personal and family devotions. This is going to hell with a lie in the right hand.

3) Careless reading – There are few who tremble at the word of God. There are few who, in reading Scripture, recognise the voice of God, which is full of majesty. Some, because they have such a large portion to read every day, may be tempted to become weary of it, as Israel did of the daily manna, saying “Our soul loathes this light bread!”, and therefore they read it in a light and careless way. This would be fearfully provoking to God. Beware, take care that this word is not true of you: “You also said, ‘Behold, what a weariness this is!’ and you have snuffed, says the Lord of hosts.”

4) A yoke too heavy to bear – Some people may begin reading with enthusiasm for a time, and then it may later feel like a burden that is heavy to bear. They may find their conscience dragging them through the set task without relishing the heavenly food. If you find this to be the case, throw away the chains, and feed freely in the sweet garden of God. I do not desire to put a snare upon you, but to be a helper of your joy.

If there are so many dangers in such a Bible reading plan, why suggest such a plan at all? In answer to this I say the best things are accompanied with danger, just as the most beautiful flowers are often gathered from the clefts of a dangerous precipice. Therefore, let us also weigh up the advantages.


1) The whole Bible will be read through in an ordered way in the course of a year – The Old Testament will be read through once, and the New Testament and Psalms twice. I fear that many of you have never read the whole Bible; yet all of it is equally divine: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man o God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If we ignore some parts of Scripture we shall be incomplete Christians.

2) Time will not be wasted in choosing what portions to read – Often believers are unable to work out which part of the mountains of spices they should direct their steps towards. This question is solved at once in a very simple manner by this Bible reading plan.

3) Parents will have a regular subject upon which to examine their children – Family devotions ought to be much more instructive than they generally are. Merely reading a chapter of the Bible is often too much like water spilt on the ground. Instead, let the day’s portion of the Bible be read by every member of the family beforehand, and then draw out the meaning and application of the passage by question and answer. This Bible reading plan will be helpful for this.

It also means that when friends meet together, they have something edifying to talk about from the portions of Scripture they have been reading that day. It also means that younger Christians can also ask more mature Christians about the meaning of difficult passages, and the fragrance of simpler passages spread further.

4) The pastor will know in what part of the pasture the flock are feeding – This will enable him to speak more suitably to them on a Sunday, and to drop a word of light and comfort when he visits them from house to house, which will be more readily responded to.

5) The sweet bond of Christian love and unity will be strengthened – We will be often reminded of our dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, both here and elsewhere, who join with us in reading these portions of Scripture. We shall more often be led to agree on earth, about something we shall ask of God. 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.


1) The first two columns contain the passages to be read with the family. The last two columns contain the passages to be read in private. (M’Cheyne’s Bible reading plan contained four columns of readings for each day).

2) The head of the family ought to read the passage for family devotions beforehand and note the key verses, and spend some time upon them with the family asking a few simple questions.

3) Sometimes the passage for family reading might be more suitable for personal reading. If this is the case, the head of the family ought to switch the readings so that the passage for personal reading that day may be read with the family, and the passage for family reading be read in private.

4) The Psalms ought to be worked through with the family at least once in the course of a year. (M’Cheyne here recommends that the family sing through the Psalter in a metrical version of the Psalms, which had been written for such a purpose, and was widely used in the Scottish church at that time).

5) Let the conversation at family meals often be focused upon the passage read or the Psalm. Thus every meal will be edifying, sanctified by the word and prayer.

6) Let our personal Bible reading happen first thing in the morning. Let God’s voice be the first we hear in the morning. Note the key verses and pray through every line and word of them. If you mark your Bible, let it be neatly done, so as to never abuse a copy of the Bible.

7) When you meet other believers in the street or elsewhere, speak about the passages read that day, as often as you have the opportunity. This will be a blessed alternative to those idle words which waste the soul and grieve the Holy Spirit of God. If you are writing letters (or emailing or on the phone etc.) make use of what you have gathered from Scripture that day.

8) Above all, use the word as a lamp to your feet and a light to your path – your guide in perplexity, your armour in temptation, your food in times of faintness. Hear the constant cry of Jesus, the One who Intercedes for us: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17).

[The copy of M'Cheyne's introduction I have worked from can be found in Andrew Bonar's book Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M'Cheyne published by Banner of Truth.]