James I. Packer
'BAXTER, Richard, gentleman; born 12 November 1615, at Rowton, Salop; educated at Donnington Free School, Wroxeter, and privately; ordained deacon by Bishop of Worcester, Advent 1638; head of Richard Foley's School, Dudley, 1639; curate of Bridgnorth, 1639-40; lecturer (curate) of Kidderminster, 1641-42; army chaplain at Coventry, 1642-45, and with Whalley's regiment (New Model Army), 1645-47; vicar of Kidderminster, 1647-61; at Savoy Conference, 1661; lived privately in or near London, 1662-91 (Moorfields, 1662-63, Acton 1663-69, Totteridge 1669-73, Bloomsbury 1673-85, Finsbury 1686-91); married Margaret Charlton (1636-81), 1662; imprisoned for one week at Clerkenwell, 1669, for 21 months at Southwark, 1685-86; died 8 December 1691; author of The Saints' Everlasting Rest (1650), The Reformed Pastor (1656), A Call to the Unconverted (1658), A Christian Directory (1673), and 131 other items printed in his lifetime, also of Reliquiae Baxterianae (autobiography, ed M. Sylvester, 1696), five other posthumous books and many unpublished treatises; special interests, pastoral care, Christian unity; hobbies, medicine, science, history.'
Thus in Who's Who style we present Richard Baxter, the most outstanding pastor, evangelist and writer on practical and devotional themes that Puritanism produced.
Baxter was a big man, big enough to have big faults and make big errors. A brilliant cross-bencher, widely learned, with an astounding capacity for instant analysis, argument and appeal, he could run rings round anyone in debate, yet he could not always use his great gifts in the best way. In theology, for instance, he devised an eclectic middle route between the Reformed, Arminian and Roman doctrines of grace: interpreting the kingdom of God in terms of contemporary political ideas, he explained Christ's death as an act of universal redemption (penal and vicarious, but not substitutionary), in virtue of which God has made a new law offering pardon and amnesty to the penitent. Repentance and faith, being obedience to this law, are the believer's personal saving righteousness. Baxter, a Puritan conservative, saw this quaint legalistic construction as focusing both the essential Puritan and New Testament gospel and also common ground about grace which the warring Trinitarian theologies of his day actually occupied. Others, however, saw that 'Baxterianism' (or 'Neonomianism', as it was called because of the 'new law' idea at its heart) altered the content of the Puritan gospel, while its 'political method', if taken seriously, was objectionably rationalistic. Time proved them right; the fruit of the seeds which Baxter sowed was neonomian Moderatism in Scotland and moralistic Unitarianism in England.
Again, Baxter was a poor performer in public life. Though always respected for his godliness and pastoral prowess, and always seeking doctrinal and ecclesiastical peace, his combative, judgmental, pedagogic way of proceeding with his peers made failure a foregone conclusion every time. Though he was for more than twenty years the nonconformists' chief spokesman, and though the comprehensivist ideal which he championed was statesmanlike Baxter can hardly be called a statesman himself. Granting that his habit of total and immediate outspokenness ('plain dealing') in all matters concerning his ministry was conscientious and not just compensation for an inferiority complex (in fact, it was probably a bit of both), his lifelong inability to see that among equals a triumphalist manner is counter-productive was a strange blind spot. That (for instance) in 1669 he went to the great John Owen to be 'a seeker of peace' between Presbyterians and Independents, though Owen and he had in the past crossed swords theologically and politically, was typical and admirable; that on meeting Owen 'I told him that I must deal freely with him, that when I thought of what he had done formerly, I was much afraid lest one that had been so great a breaker would not be made an instrument of healing', though he was glad to see that in Owen's last book he gave up 'two of the worst of the principles of popularity', was also typical, though perhaps less admirable; that he was afterwards surprised, disappointed and hurt that Owen, while professing good will, took no action is surely remarkable. Whether different behaviour or absence on Baxter's part could have altered the wretched run of events between Restoration (1660) and Toleration (1689) is doubtful, for passion, interest and distrust ran very high; the fact remains, however, that Baxter's interventions regularly deepened division, as when in 1690 he published The Scripture Gospel Defended to stop Crisp's sermons from causing trouble and thereby wrecked the 'Happy Union' between Presbyterians and Independents almost before it had begun.
As a pastor, however, Baxter was incomparable, and it is in this capacity that he concerns us now.
His achievement at Kidderminster was amazing. England had not before seen a ministry like it. The town contained about 800 homes and 2000 people. They were 'an ignorant, rude and revelling people' when Baxter arrived, but this changed dramatically. 'when I first entered on my labours I took special notice of every one that was humbled, reformed or convened; but when I had laboured long, it pleased God that the converts were so many, that I could not afford time for such particular observations... families and considerable numbers at once... came in and grew up I scarce knew how.' 'The congregation was usually full [the church held up to 1000], so that we were fain to build five galleries.... On the Lord's-days... you might hear an hundred families singing psalms and repeating sermons as you passed through the streets... when I came thither first there was about one family in a street that worshiped God and called on his name, and when I came away there were some streets where there was not past one family in the side of a street that did not so; and that did not by professing serious godliness, give us hope of their sincerity.' Later Baxter could write: 'though I have now been absent from them about six years, and they have been assaulted with pulpit-calumnies, and slanders, with threatenings and imprisonments, with enticing words, and seducing reasonings, They yet stand fast and keep their integrity; many of them are gone to God, and some are removed, and some now in prison, and most still at home; but not one, that I hear of are fallen off, or forsake their uprightness.' When in December 1743, George Whitefield visited Kidderminster he wrote to a friend: 'I was greatly refreshed to find what a sweet savour of good Mr Baxter's doctrine, works and discipline remained to this day.'
A schoolmaster by instinct, Baxter usually called himself his people's teacher, and teaching was to his mind the minister's main task. In his sermons (one each Sunday and Thursday, lasting an hour) he taught basic Christianity. 'The thing which I daily opened to them, and with greatest importunity laboured to imprint upon their minds, was the great fundamental principles of Christianity contained in their baptismal covenant, even a right knowledge, and belief of and subjection and love to, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and love to all men, and concord with the church and one another.... The opening of the true and profitable method of the Creed (or doctrine of faith), the Lord's Prayer (or matter of our desires), and the Ten Commandments (or law of practice), which afford matter to add to the knowledge of most professors of religion, a long time. And when that is done they must be led on... but not so as to leave the weak behind; and so as shall still be truly subservient to the great points of faith, hope and love, holiness and unity, which must be still [i.e., always, constantly) inculcated, as the beginning and end of all.' Such was Baxter's teaching programme in the pulpit. In addition, he held a weekly pastor's forum for discussion and prayer; he distributed Bibles and Christian books (one fifteenth of each edition of his own books came to him free in lieu of royalties for him to give away); and he taught individuals through personal counselling and catechizing. Christians, he urged, should regularly come to their pastor with their problems, and let him check their spiritual health, and ministers should regularly catechize their entire congregations.' To upgrade the practice of personal catechizing from a preliminary discipline for children to a permanent ingredient in pastoral care for all ages was Baxter's main contribution to the development of Puritan ideals for the ministry; and it was his concern for catechizing that brought The Reformed Pastor to birth.
The Relevance of The Reformed Pastor for Today
Has Baxter's book a ministry to ministers today? Three qualities which mark it justify the answer 'yes'.
1. ENERGY. The first is its energy. What has been said of Luther's Bondage of the Will can also be said of The Reformed Pastor: its words have hands and feet. Sylvester says that Baxter had a piercing eye; certainly he had piercing words. He wrote as he spoke, and his words were not emotional, since they came from the head, but passionate, for they came from the heart as well as the head. His book blazes with white-hot zeal, evangelistic fervour, and eagerness to convince. 'Richard Baxter is the most forceful of writers,' said Spurgeon; 'if you want to know the art of pleading, read . . . his Reformed Pastor.' As The Saints' Everlasting Rest is the supreme transcript of Baxter's heart as a Christian, so The Reformed Pastor is the supreme transcript of his heart as a minister. And what comes from Baxter's passionate heart has energy and evocative power, and can still go to the heart across a three-centuries gap.
2. REALITY. Then, second, the book has reality. It is honest and straight. It is often said, quite fairly, that any Christian who seriously thinks that without Christ men are lost, and who seriously loves his neighbour, will not be able to rest for the thought that all around him people are going to hell, but will lay himself out unstintingly to convert others as his prime task in life; and any Christian who fails so to live undermines the credibility of his faith, for if he cannot himself take it seriously as a guide for living, why should anyone else? Nowhere is this inconsistency more forcefully exposed than in The Reformed Pastor: For here we meet a passionate love and a terribly honest, earnest, straightforward Christian, thinking and talking about the lost with perfect realism, insisting that we must be content to accept any degree of discomfort, poverty, overwork, and loss of material good, if only souls might be saved, and setting us a marvelously vivid example in his own person of what this may involve.
When one knows one is going to be hanged, said Dr Johnson, it concentrates the mind wonderfully; and when, like Baxter from the time of his majority, one lives with one foot in the grave, it imparts an overwhelming clarity both to one's sense of proportion (what matters, and what does not), and also to one's perception of what is and is not consistent with what one professes to believe. 'O sirs,' cries the vicar of Kidderminster to his ministerial brethren, 'surely if you had all conversed with neighbour Death as oft as l have done, and as often received the sentence in yourselves, you would have an unquiet conscience, if not a reformed life, as to your ministerial diligence and fidelity: and you would have something within you that would frequently ask you such questions as these:
"Is this all thy compassion for lost sinners? Wilt thou do no more to seek and to save them? . . Shall they die and be in hell before thou wilt speak to them one serious word to prevent it? Shall they there curse thee for ever that thou didst no more in time to save them?" Such cries of conscience are daily ringing in my ears, though, the Lord knows, I have too little obeyed them.... How can you choose, when you are laying a corpse in the grave, but think with yourselves, "Here lieth the body; but where is the soul? and what have I done for it, before it departed? It was part of my charge; what account can I give of it?" O sirs, is it a small matter to you to answer such questions as these? It may seem so now, but the hour is coming when it will not seem. ' Nobody can say that Baxter was not real; and who will question our need of such reality today, and in the ministry most of all?
3. RATIONALITY. Third, the book is a model of rationality. Baxter is utterly thorough in working out means to his end. Like Whitefield and Spurgeon, he knew that men are blind, deaf and dead in sin, and only God can convert them; but, again like Whitefield and Spurgeon, he knew too that God works through means, and that rational men must be approached in rational fashion, and that grace enters by the understanding, and that unless all the evangelist does makes for credibility his message is not likely to be used much to convince. So Baxter insisted that ministers must preach of eternal issues as men who feel what they say, and are as earnest as matters of life and death require; that they must practise church discipline, to show they are serious in saying that God will not accept sin; and that they must do 'personal work', and deal with individuals one by one, because preaching alone often fails to bring things home to ordinary people. Baxter was very frank on this. 'Let them that have taken most pains in public, examine their people, and try whether many of them are not nearly as ignorant and careless as if they had never heard the gospel. For my part, I study to speak as plainly and movingly as I can . . . and yet I frequently meet with those that have been my hearers eight or ten years, who know not whether Christ be God or man, and wonder when I tell them the history of his birth and life and death as if they had never heard it before.... But most of them have an ungrounded trust in Christ, hoping that he will pardon, justify and save them, while the world hath their hearts, and they live to the flesh. And this trust they take for justifying faith. I have found by experience, that some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse in half an hour's close discourse, than they did from ten years' public preaching. I know that preaching the gospel publicly is the most excellent means, because we speak to many at once. But it is usually far more effectual to preach it privately to a particular sinner. Therefore personal catechizing and counselling, over and above preaching, is every minister's duty: for this is the most rational course, the best means to the desired end. So it was in Baxter's day. Is it not so now?
The Reformed Pastor faces the modern minister with at least these questions.
(i) Do I believe the gospel Baxter believed (and Whitefield, and Spurgeon, and Paul)?
(ii) Do I then share Baxter's view of the vital necessity of conversion?
(iii) Am I then as real as I should be in letting this view of things shape my life and work?
(iv) Am I as rational as I should be in choosing means to the end I desire, and am charged to seek? Have I set myself, as Baxter set himself, to find the best way of creating situations in which I can talk to my people personally, on a regular basis, about their spiritual lives? How to do this today would have to be worked out in terms of present circumstances, which are very different from those Baxter knew and describes; but Baxter's question to us is, should we not be attempting this, as a practice constantly necessary? If he convinces us that we should, it will not be beyond us to find a method of doing it that suits our situation; where there's a will, there's a way! So now we had better close this introduction, and leave Baxter to speak for himself.
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The following is an Outline of Baxter's Reformed Pastor used in Wales in 1974 and 75 by fraternals of ministers from the island of Anglesey in the north to the capital city of Cardiff in the south. I used it myself with a group of preachers during that time and found it profitable.
The Ineffectiveness in the Christian Ministry: its causes and cure
A study guide for ministers' fraternals with special reference to Richard Baxter's 'Reformed Pastor.' The page references are from the edition published by the Banner of Truth Trust.
We should like to offer the following points as a guide to the study of the syllabus:
1. The portions of Scripture suggested for each study (except the first) should receive at least as much attention as the relevant section in 'The Reformed Pastor.'
2. It is not our intention to provide exhaustive questions: rather, we have given a 'starter' in each study. The leader of the group can follow up with other questions as necessary.
3. In the case of each study the following questions ought to be considered:
a) What are the primary similarities between the problems Baxter discusses and those which affect the ministry today?
b) What new or different factors, if any, are there in the ministry today which contribute to its ineffectiveness?
MONTH 1 INTRODUCTORY SESSION
a) Pages 7 - 17 : Packer's Introduction.
b) Pages 19 - 22 : Brown's Preface.
c) Pages 29- 40 : Baxter's Dedication.
Are the reasons which Baxter had for writing relevant to us today?
What do we consider to be the principal areas of ineffectiveness in the Christian ministry today?
MONTH 2 THE OVERSIGHT OF OURSELVES - THE NATURE OF THIS OVERSIGHT.
Scripture references : I Timothy 4:16
Matthew 7:15 – 23
1 Corinthians 9:25-27
1 Timothy 3:2,3.
Baxter: Chapter 1, pages 43 – 61
In what ways do our ministerial duties cause us to neglect the oversight of ourselves?
MONTH 3. THE OVERSIGHT OF OURSELVES - THE MOTIVES FOR THIS OVERSIGHT.
Scripture references : I Timothy 4:12-16
I Peter 5:7-11 Baxter: Chapter 1, pages 62-76.
In respect to which of the 'motives' mentioned by Baxter do we fail most often?
MONTH 4. THE OVERSIGHT OF THE FLOCK - THE NATURE OF THIS OVERSIGHT.
Scripture references : Acts 20:17-27, and 31-35
I Peter 5:7-11
Baxter: Chapter 2, pages 77 – 101
Are all the pastoral duties outlined by Baxter obligatory?
If not, how does the pastor decide which should have priority?
MONTH 5. THE OVERSIGHT OF THE FLOCK - THE MANNER OF THIS OVERSIGHT.
Scripture references : I Thessalonians 2:1-12
I Peter 5:1-4 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 Baxter: Chapter 2, pages 101 - 114.
Do we treat Baxter's standard for pastoral work as attainable, or do we regard it as inevitable that we shall fail to attain this standard?
MONTH 6. THE OVERSIGHT OF THE FLOCK - THE MOTIVES FOR THIS OVERSIGHT.
Scripture references : Acts 20:28-30
I Peter 5:2,3.
Baxter: Chapter 2, pages 114-122.
Is there a danger, as we carry out the routine work of the ministry, of our losing sight of, a) our high calling as ministers of the gospel, and, b) the glory of the Church of God to which we are called?
MONTH 7. APPLICATION: THE USE OF HUMILIATION (1)
Scripture references: James 3:1
2 Timothy 2:15
2 Corinthians 5:9-21
2 Corinthians 11:23-28
Baxter Chapter 3, Section 1, paragraphs I and 2, pages 123-140.
What does Baxter mean by 'humiliation'?
In what ways is the pastor particularly susceptible to pride?
MONTH 8. APPLICATION: THE USE OF HUMILIATION (2)
Scripture references : James 4:1-10
2 Timothy 2:4
I Peter 5:5-6
Baxter Chapter 3, Section 1, paragraphs 3, 4, and 5, pages 140-162.
In what particular ways are we prone to worldliness?
Are we, as evangelicals, in danger of undervaluing the unity of the Church? Is there need for a corporate, practical humiliation on the part of pastor and people today?
Does our unwillingness to humble ourselves hinder the Lord's blessing from coming upon us? (cf. I Peter 5:6, and James 4:6 and 10.)
Books for further reading.
Charles Bridges : 'The Christian Ministry' Parts 2 and 3 in particular.
(Banner of Truth)
D.M. Lloyd-Jones : 'Preaching and Preachers.'
J Angell James : 'An Earnest Ministry : the Want of the Times.' (Banner of Truth)
C.H. Spurgeon : An All-Round Ministry. (Banner of Truth)
C.H. Spurgeon : Lectures to my Students.
Al Martin : What's Wrong with Preaching Today? (Small pamphlet published by the Banner of Truth)