Today marks the 400th birthday of Richard Baxter. It’s impossible to measure the influence of this English Puritan over four centuries. His works remain in print and are widely read, which shouldn’t surprise us. J. I. Packer considers him “the most outstanding pastor, evangelist, and writer on practical and devotional themes that Puritanism produced,” listing Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor (1656) as one of the top five books that have influenced him most.
I first read The Reformed Pastor as a high school student aspiring to pastoral ministry. Yet being a young Reformed idealist who thought he had theology figured out, I didn’t grasp the gravity of Baxter’s warning to pastors that they must first be regenerate before offering the gospel to others:
Take heed to yourselves, lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others, and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach . . . and lest you famish yourselves while you prepare food for them.
Of course Reformed pastors are saved, I thought; why else would they be pastors? Now nearly two decades later, with experience in the trenches of local church ministry and with countless seminarians and Christian workers, I’ve come to appreciate Baxter’s sobering admonition as I consider my own soul and the souls of others. I’ve also learned he was using the term “reformed” to mean “renewed” and not, as I assumed, something relating to Calvinist doctrine. And I later discovered Baxter’s theology was more controversial than I imagined. As tall as he stood among the Puritans, he was, as Packer puts it, “big enough to have big faults and make big errors.”
Dying Man to Dying Men
Born on November 12, 1615 (d. 1691), Baxter grew up with a mostly informal education; at the persuasion of schoolmaster and mentor John Owen, he did not attend university. His life and career, like others of his generation, was shaped by the complex events of the times—ecclesiastical, theological, and political conflict rocked Britain. The English Civil War and the ousting of the ancient monarchy in the 1640s, followed by the restoration of the monarchy, had an explosive effect on society and church alike. Baxter navigated these public challenges as well as his own persecutions, imprisonments, and frequent illnesses.
Baxter’s most fruitful ministry was his 17-year pastorate at Kidderminster (broken up by a five-year chaplaincy in Cromwell’s army). At Kidderminster he saw virtually the entire town of 2,000 people converted, most of whom were not previously pursuing the Christian faith. Over time, the number of converts was so overwhelming it was impossible for Baxter to meet with them all. A visitor walking through the streets on a Sunday during this period might hear the singing of psalms and rehearsals of the day’s sermon echoing from countless homes.
Baxter’s method of thorough house-to-house visitation, discipleship, catechizing, and pastoral counseling transformed an unconverted town into a vibrant Christian community. Pastors would do well to follow his example of thoroughness and urgency in proclaiming and applying the gospel. Also a poet, Baxter summarized his ministry this way:
I preach’d, as never sure to preach again,
And as a dying man to dying men!
O how should preachers men’s repenting crave,
Who see how near the church is to the grave?
Shepherd Yourself and Your Flock
We’re all familiar with flight attendants’ instructions to make sure we’ve secured our own oxygen masks before assisting our neighbors in an emergency. Similarly, pastors must shepherd themselves before they can shepherd their flock. Baxter’s directives in The Reformed Pastor are clear and startling in their forthrightness, as evidenced by the paraphrased sampling below. His words reach out and grab a minister by the shoulders, shaking him awake.
Baxter urges five ways a minister ought to keep watch over his own life:
1. Make sure saving grace has regenerated your own soul.
2. Don’t be content just existing in a state of grace. Make sure your graces are vigorously exercised, preaching your sermons to yourself before preaching them to others.
3. Make sure your example doesn’t contradict your doctrine.
4. Make sure you don’t live in those sins that you preach against.
5. Make sure you’re not lacking the qualifications necessary for pastoral work (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1).
Later, he gives seven primary duties of biblical shepherding:
1. Labor for the conversion of the unconverted.
2. Give answers to seekers who are under conviction of sin.
3. Study so you can build up those already in the faith.
4. Exercise careful oversight of families.
5. Be diligent in visiting the sick.
6. Be faithful in correcting and admonishing offenders.
7. Be careful in exercising church discipline.
Baxter’s biblical insights are as relevant in the 21st century church as they were in the 17th. Indeed, The Reformed Pastor remains a must-read for church elders after 360 years.
But Baxter didn’t only write for pastors. Prior to The Reformed Pastor he wrote what became one of the most popular devotional books for generations, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1650). Written during a long, severe illness when death seemed likely, Baxter calls Christians to contemplate our eternal heavenly rest as a way of life. He exhorts us not to seek our promised rest and comfort here on earth, but to keep the new heavens and new earth at the forefront of our minds. In a day when we’re bombarded with competing objects of focus—from e-mail to social media to breaking news—never has there been a greater need to pull away from our navel-gazing and lift our eyes to the eternal hope that awaits us.
Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted (1658) was so widely read across the world it was translated into the native Algonquian language and distributed among the New England Indians by missionary John Eliot (1604–1690). Baxter also published Dying Thoughts and A Christian Directory (1673), an unrivaled and massive (1.25 million words!) treatise on ethics. Most of his works are available online, often in PDF format.
Baxter famously remarked: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” Few have fought harder for Christian unity than he did. Despite his well-intentioned desires for a unified church, however, some of Baxter’s theological positions were unhelpful and divisive. His views on justification and atonement were not in step with the Reformed tradition. (Theologian Paul Helm has found similarities between Baxter and N. T. Wright in their views of justification.) Moreover, in trying to walk a middle path Baxter leaned toward Arminian sentiments in several major areas, though he was Calvinistic in others. This assorted theology annoyed contemporaries in both camps, and it can annoy us too.
Despite our differences, we are blessed by Baxter’s contributions as a godly and tireless pastor, who cared deeply for the lost and for his sheep, and whose practical writings I’ve mentioned here do not deal with the controversial doctrinal positions he held.
So how can you celebrate Richard Baxter’s 400th birthday? A good place to start is by checking out the exciting Richard Baxter Quartercentenary Exhibition at Oxford University. I’d also suggest picking up one of his aforementioned books, digitally or in print, and begin reading deeply.
You won’t regret it. You will be reformed.