Saturday, April 14, 2007

Richard Baxter: The Reformed Pastor

Much of Richard Baxter’s book for pastors, entitled The Reformed Pastor, is relevant to the 21st century American church in the areas of confession of sin[1] , admonition to pastoral duty[2], visitation in the community[3], ministry to the congregation[4], unity of association of local churches[5], charity to the poor, [6] and even church discipline.[7]

“The great advantage of ministers having a sincere heart, is this,” says Baxter, “that the glory of God and salvation of souls are their very end; and where that end is truly intended, no labor or suffering will stop them, or turn them back; for a man must have his end, whatever it cost him. Whatever he forgets, he will still retain this lesson: One thing is needful; seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” This sentiment is not just relevant for the 21st century American church. It is relevant beyond all culture and time.

Baxter ends a glorious exhortation to pastoral duty – both the enjoyable and the unavoidable – with a philosophy of ministry drawn from Acts 20.[8] This pastoral ministry credo summarizes his admonition to ministerial integrity and grit.

v OUR GENERAL BUSINESS – Serving the Lord with all humility of mind and with many tears (Acts 20:19).
v OUR SPECIAL WORK – Take heed to yourselves and your flock (Acts 20:28).
v OUR DOCTRINE – Repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21).
v THE MANNER and place of teaching – I have taught you publicly and from house to house (Acts 20:20).
v HIS DILIGENCE, earnestness, and affection – I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears (Acts 20:31). This is that which must win souls, and preserve them.
v HIS FAITHFULNESS – I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, and have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God (Acts 20:20, 27).
v HIS DISINTERESTEDNESS and self-denial for the sake of the gospel – I have coveted no man’s silver or gold or apparel: yea these hands have ministered unto my necessities and to them that were with me remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:33-35). ‘’
v HIS PATIENCE and perseverance -- life dear unto me, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:24).
v HIS PRAYERFULNESS – I commend you to God and to the word of his grace which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified (Acts 20:32)
v HIS PURITY of conscience – Wherefore I take you to record this day that I am pure from the blood of all men (Acts 20:26).

“I think this one speech better deserveth a twelvemonth’s study, than most things that young students spend their time upon. . . . Write all this upon your hearts, and it will do yourselves and the Church more good than twenty years’ study of those lower things.”

Baxter’s two soapboxes are church discipline and personal one-on-one discipleship, subjects he explores in depth and which hold relevance for today. Church discipline was dangerous for pastors in Baxter’s day as it is today. He seems to speak to today’s churches: “The common cry is, ‘Our people are not ready for it; they will not bear it.’ But is not the fact rather, that you will not bear the trouble and hatred which it will occasion?”.
[9]
Baxter cuts a sharp edge on this issue. “If I had my will, that man should be ejected as a negligent pastor, that will not rule his people by discipline, as well as he is ejected as a negligent preacher that will not preach; for ruling I am sure is as essential a part of the pastor’s office as preaching.”

There is little relevance for Baxter’s insistence on meticulous and tedious catechizing of families
[10] today, except perhaps in traditional Presbyterian circles. Lives more busy than holy, broken homes with unhealthy families, a lack of functional literacy, and the antiquarian concept of the catechism mitigate its use today even though Baxter so practically and simply advises its use.

Though the 17th century catechism process probably would not fly in our information age, its principles are remarkably relevant, not just in Presbyterian circles, but in general evangelical life. Ministers would do well to take Baxter’s principles of family catechism and apply them to Biblical one-on-one disciple-making, visiting church families in their homes, counseling individuals for salvation, inner healing, and personal holiness, instructing in family devotions, leading small groups, and thus cultivating leadership for the next generation of the church and witness to the world.

Baxter writes: “For as the physician’s work is half done when he understands the disease, so, when you are well acquainted with your people’s case, you will know what to preach on; and it will furnish you with useful matter for your sermons, to talk an hour with an ignorant or obstinate sinner, as much as an hour’s study will do, for you will learn what you have need to insist on, and what objections of theirs to repel”.[11]

Should pastors take advantage of these disciple-making principles, they would find a church full of maturing, evangelizing, healed, discipled individuals pouring forth leadership for the 21st century.

[1] Dedication, 1.1.4; 1.2.2-5, 8; 3.1
[2] 2.2; 3.2.1.3, et. al.
[3] Dedication, 2.1.5
[4] 2.1.1-2; 3.2.1.2
[5] Dedication; 3.1.2.3
[6] 3.1.3.3
[7] Dedication, 2.1.6-7
[8] Objection 9
[9] Dedication
[10] 3.2.4.3
[11] Objection 9