Personal reformation is certainly extensive; it applies to our heart and outward conduct. It relates to all of our lives at all times, in all of our interactions with others. It involves seeking God and His glory in all things (1 Chronicles 22:19; 2 Chronicles 20:3). It is spiritual, a concern for fervent zeal and the real power of godliness in the heart and life, not just a formal outward profession.
Personal reformation was strongly emphasised during the Second Reformation and at the time of the Westminster Assembly. We can learn much from their concern to see the Word of God influencing our lives. The Solemn League and Covenant (1643) was crucial to the Westminster Assembly and the kingdoms of England and Scotland at this time. The climax of this vow to God has much to teach us about some of the key themes of personal reformation. As we will see, to take the Solemn League was not simply to swear an oath but to commit to every day personal reformation and holiness.
The Covenant speaks of “our unfeigned desire to be humbled for our own sins, and for the sins of these kingdoms”. There is a sincere confession of sin in personal reformation (1 John 1:9). When we look into Scripture and compare it with our own lives, it should leave an abiding impression and make us want to change (James 1:21-25). It will bring us to humble ourselves before God (Psalm 38:3-4; Joel 2:12-13). We will be conscious that our deceitful hearts naturally do not want to identify and expose sin (Jeremiah 17:9; Psalm 19:12-13). We will want to be humbled for our own sins in particular not just sin in general.
There will be serious concern in case we are hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). When we discover our sins we will want to turn from them (Ezekiel 18:30-31). The sins of the society around us will not be an excuse to make us say that we are not as bad. Rather we will be humbled for these sins and those of the professing Church. We will mourn over them (Ezekiel 9:4). This is because we cannot separate ourselves from them; we have been involved in them to some extent. It is no comfort to know that the sins of the nation are only worse versions of what is in our own hearts (Ezekiel 6:11).
2. Valuing the Benefit of the Gospel
The Covenant goes on to mention some of these personal and national sins. One of these is not having “valued the inestimable benefit of the Gospel”. We live in a nation and society that despises and neglects the gospel (Matthew 11:16-24). But is the gospel an invaluable benefit to us or do we live as though it is just an add-on extra to a comfortable life along with many other benefits? What does the gospel mean to us on a daily basis? Is it the basis of all our confidence? Do we feel that we have moved on from it to other things or is it like a jewel that sparkles with new beauty every time we look at it? Appreciating the gospel according to its invaluable benefits is obvious if our lives are shaped by it.
Part of valuing it properly is when we labour for its “purity and power”, as the Covenant puts it. In other words we are concerned for its influence on others too. We are especially alarmed when it is distorted or not properly proclaimed. Yet we cannot merely rest in the idea that it is purely declared without seeking that there would be real spiritual power accompanying it.
3. Walking Worthy of Christ
We value the gospel and labour for its purity and power when we not only seek to “receive Christ in our hearts” but also strive “to walk worthy of Him in our lives” (Ephesians 4:1-2; Colossians 1:10). If we do not live out the gospel in our attitudes, actions and words we are effectively denying its power (Philippians 1:27). We are dishonouring Christ as Saviour if we do not strive to walk worthy of Him (Colossians 2:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:12).
When we think that it doesn’t matter how we live because forgiveness is freely available it devalues the gospel and turns the grace of God into an incitement for sin (Jude 1:4). As Edmund Calamy put it, sinning against the gospel is even more serious than sinning against the law. How much do we value the precious promises of God if we are not willing to “cleanse our selves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1)? We need to lay aside every weight, including those predominant sins that so easily beset us (Hebrews 12:1). This is why the covenant says that these things are “the causes of other sins and transgressions so much abounding amongst us”. Christians not living as they should means they are not salt and light and add to rather than restrain the corruption of the world around them.
4. Sincere Desires
Personal reformation involves sincere desires and resolve. The covenant speaks of “our true and unfeigned purpose, desire and endeavour”. Unless we want to reform and plan to reform it will not happen. The danger is of making promises and resolutions but then not following through on them. We need to act on our sincere purpose. There will not be perfection but there ought to be sincere attempts even though these will come short of what we desire. Edmund Calamy says that it is like shooting an arrow, if one does not hit the target, shoot another and then another until you are successful.
5. All of Life
This reformation is “for ourselves and all others under our power and charge”. We are not just to be concerned for ourselves but that others for whom we have responsibility would reform themselves too. Personal reformation doesn’t mean that we think only our individual reformation matters. Personal reformation isn’t just a private matter but it is to be “both in public and in private, in all duties we owe to God and man”. It must affect our job, family life and all our dealings with other people just as much as our duty to God.
6. Changing the Way We Live
Personal reformation means change and transformation. We will want to “amend our lives” as the covenant puts it. There will be things we need to start doing and things we need to stop doing according to the Word of God. If it’s just about reading books and discussing Christian things and we don’t want to go further than this – it isn’t reformation.
7. Reform as Much as Possible
The covenant has a very striking expression that “each one” is “to go before another in the example of a real reformation”. We ought to be an example to each other. We should hold fast to whatever reformation we have attained and seek to go further (Philippians 3:15-16). We should seek to encourage others to go further in this too, and be an example to them (Philippians 3:17). As Herbert Palmer put it, we are not to wait for others “but strive to excel others” almost to outdo them. We are to be “patterns to others, and lights to direct and excite [encourage] others to follow us”.
8. Depend on the Help of the Holy Spirit
We cannot engage in personal reformation on our own or in our own strength. We must humbly beseech “the Lord to strengthen us by His Holy Spirit for this end”. Edmund Calamy warned those who swore to the Solemn League and Covenant:
You must not take it in your own strength but in God’s strength. As it is taken in God’s presence, so it must be taken with Gods assistance, with self-abasement, self-denying, self-humbling hearts; you must take it joyfully and tremblingly; rejoicing in God and in his strength, and yet trembling for fear of your own unworthiness and unsteadfastness in the Covenant.
Besides prayer for such strength we must also seek a blessing on our endeavours for personal reformation. Private prayer and spending time in meditating on the Word is an essential aspect of this. As the Scottish Church put it at the time of the Second Reformation:
It is most necessary, that every one apart and by themselves be given to prayer and meditation, the unspeakable benefit [of this] is best known to them who are exercised [in it].
This is because it is the great special means by which fellowship with God is maintained and advanced. It also prepares us in the right way for all other spiritual duties.
9. Wider Reformation
Those who composed the Covenant believed that if Christians were personally reformed it would have a tremendous influence on the Church of Jesus Christ and the nation as a whole. National and personal reformation, Humphrey Chambers preached, “should always go together”. What indeed would things look like if even a small quantity of Christians lived as they should?
We ought to long that our consciences and conduct would give a clear witness to personal reformation in our own experience. The men of the Second Reformation were so concerned about this that they devoted days to prayer and fasting for God’s help in reformation, including on the personal level. On one of these an ordinary believer named Ralph Josselin wrote in his diary: “Oh Lord, never was there more need of personal reformation than now; stir me up to it”. That spirit is exactly what we need now too.