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Richard BaxterA Corrective for Reformed Preachers


by Edward Donnelly
Puritan Sermons
July/August 1977


Why Baxter? His theology was not entirely sound. His desire to promote church
unity sometimes betrayed him into seeking common cause with those who were far
removed from the biblical faith. Although an able controversialist, he
confesses: 'I am too much inclined to such words in controversial writings which
are too keen, and apt to provoke the person whom I write against.' In 'the
Augustan period of evangelical literature' are there not other and safer
preaching models?

The answer lies in his particular value for our present needs. In the providence
of God we are seeing a renewed interest in reformed truth and a consequent
increase in the number of men who have been raised up to preach the doctrines of
grace. But any new development may run to extremes, and there is always the
danger that a man, in the first flush of enthusiasm for what he has discovered,
may, in his very efforts to be thoroughly reformed, become a caricature of that
which he admires. It is precisely here that Baxter can help us, for, where he is
strong, many today are weak. We shall consider three characteristics of his
preaching which speak to our current situation.

1. Baxter's preaching was characterized by clear, memorable instruction. He
believed that a preacher should reason with his hearers. 'We should be furnished
with all kind of evidence so that we may come as with a torrent upon their
understandings, and with our reasonings and expostulations to pour shame upon
their vain objections, and bear down all before us, that they may be forced to
yield to the power of truth.' Although well aware of the darkness of the
unregenerate mind, he is always concerned to clear up possible
misunderstandings, to give explanations for what he says. His sermons have a
logical structure first the 'opening' of the text, then the explanation of
difficulties, followed by the 'uses' and the appeal. Even in the midst of the
most impassioned pleading he will turn to enlist the aid of reason. After
beseeching with great tenderness and power at the close of 'Making Light of
Christ and Salvation', he ends by enumerating nine false grounds of assurance,
followed by eight tests by which his hearers may prove their own sincerity. A
rhetorician would cringe at such squandering of 'emotional impact', but Baxter
was content to let the truth make its own impact, and he was preaching, not
primarily to move men, but to teach them.

The truths preached were the fundamentals. 'Throughout the whole course of our
ministry, we must insist chiefly upon the greatest, most certain and most
necessary truths, and be more seldom and sparing upon the rest... Many other
things are desirable to be known, but some must be known, or else our people are
undone for ever.' This is, however, very different from that preaching which
traces a superficial path through a few well-trodden passages or, more usually,
verses of Scripture, and despises anything else as 'not the gospel'. Baxter
covered all of Scripture. He dealt deeply and argued closely. He set forth these
fundamentals in all the fulness of their interrelationship and application. But
he believed that preaching should meet people's needs, that it failed if their
greatest needs were not met, and that the 'matters of necessity' should be at
the forefront.

The great fundamentals were taught in simple language, for 'there is no better
way to make a good cause prevail than to make it plain.' Since the purpose of
the preacher was to teach, he must speak so as to be understood. In those days
of sermon-tasters he was criticized for the plainness of his speech and had to
combat the pride of his heart as it urged him to a more ornate style 'God
commandeth us to be as plain as we can, that we may inform the ignorant... but
pride stands by and contradicteth all, and produceth its toys and trifles... It
persuadeth us to paint the window that it may dim the light.'

This surely challenges us, brethren. We aim at giving reasoned expositions of
truth to our people, but do we, in our preparation, seek to answer any possible
difficulties, do we marshal arguments to convince their minds or have we been
made lazy by their uncritical approval? Are we so afraid of being labelled
'fundamentalists' that we spend most of our time in the lesser-known corners of
Scripture? It is possible for a man to win quite a reputation as the manager of
a delicatessen for reformed gourmets, producing theological rarities which are
unobtainable elsewhere while many of his hungry flock look up and are not fed.
It is a tragic mistake so to concentrate on 'what is desirable to be known' that
we neglect 'what must be known'. Do our people really understand the central
truths concerning God's covenants, Christ's person and work, sin, regeneration,
repentance and faith? Until the foundations of their faith are firmly
established, we do well to lay less emphasis upon the superstructure. Do we
preach in simple language? No doubt we try to avoid over-academic expressions,
and it is quite true that many of the mighty words of Scripture must never be
omitted from our vocabulary, but must rather be expounded and then incorporated
into the thinking and speech of our hearers but do we make the enormous
conscious effort needed to avoid the hypnotic, thought-benumbing clich, to
present the truth in a fresh, contemporary garb? Baxter calls us to a preaching
ministry in which the fundamentals of the faith are explained with
attractiveness and clarity.

2. Baxter's preaching was characterized by a passionate evangelistic appeal. The
great reality which moulded his ministry was the fact that we must all appear
before the judgment seat of Christ. Extreme bodily weakness increased his
awareness that there was but a step between him and death, whom he called his
'neighbour'. Every duty was to be carried out, every sermon preached, in the
light of the great day. 'I daily know and think of that approaching hour', he
says. His congregation is described as 'a company of ignorant, carnal, miserable
sinners... who must be changed or damned. Methinks I even see them entering upon
their final woe! Methinks I hear them crying out for help, for speediest help!'
This awareness of eternity made Baxter an emotional preacher. 'If you want to
know the art of pleading' said Spurgeon, 'read Baxter.' Yet his emotion was not
undisciplined, but fuelled by his comprehension of truth, for he had no time for
'an affected fervency.' 'Light first, then heat' was his motto first the
exposition of the truth, then the words of piercing appeal springing from that
truth. At the close of 'A Call to the Unconverted to turn and live' he appeals
to his hearers with such tender earnestness that we can almost see the tears
upon his cheeks. 'My heart is troubled to think how I shall leave you, lest... I
should leave you as I found you, till you awake in hell... I am as hearty a
beggar with you this day, for the saving of your souls, as I would be for my own
supply, if I were forced to come a begging to your doors. And therefore if you
would hear me then, hear me now. If you would pity me then, be entreated now to
pity yourselves... 0 sirs, believe it, death and judgment, heaven and hell, are
other matters when you come near them, than they seem to carnal eyes afar off.
Then you will hear such a message as I bring you with more awakened, regardful
hearts.'

The focus of his preaching was an urgent invitation to receive Christ. Baxter
preached for a verdict, he sought to 'drive sinners to a stand and make them
see... that they must unavoidably be either converted or condemned.' His words
at the close of 'Making Light of Christ and Salvation' are powerful and pointed:
'When God hath shaken those careless souls out of their bodies, and you must
answer for all your sins in your own name; Oh then what would you give for a
saviour!...When you see the world hath left you, and your companions in sin have
deceived themselves and you, and all your merry days are gone; then what would
you give for that Christ and salvation that now you account not worth your
labour!... You that cannot make light of a little sickness, or of want, or of
natural death, no, not of a toothache, but groan as if you were undone; how will
you then make light of the fury of the Lord, which will burn against the
condenmers of His grace? I come now to know your resolution for the time to
come. What say you? Do you mean to set as light by Christ and salvation as
hitherto you have done and to be the same men after all this? I hope not.' The
sharp edge was always present - a choice had to be made, a verdict given, an
offer of mercy accepted or rejected.

Yet this is far removed from shallow decisionism. The Arminian preacher is
afraid of what the mind may say to the heart after the meeting has finished, and
so he tries to compel a decision from the will before the second thoughts of his
hearers can lead them from Christ. Not only was Baxter not afraid of second
thoughts, he was counting on them, hoping that his hearers would reflect deeply
upon what had been preached. So we find him planting time-bombs in the minds of
his people, applications which would continue to speak after his voice had
fallen silent. 'I cannot now follow you to your several habitations to apply
this word to your particular necessities, but 0 that I might make every man's
conscience a preacher to himself, that it might do it, which is ever with you!
That the next time you go prayerless to bed, or about your business, conscience
might cry out, Dost thou set no more by Christ and thy salvation?... That the
next time you are ready to rush upon known sin... conscience might cry out, Is
Christ and salvation no more worth, than to cast them away, or venture them for
thy lusts?... That when you are next spending the Lord's day in idleness or vain
sports, conscience might tell you what you are doing.' He takes each facet of
life and enlists it as a preacher, so that the sinner may be hemmed in by an
environment in which every part declares the claims of God.

Whether fairly or not, reformed preachers have, in many quarters, a reputation
for being restrained and impersonal in their delivery. It may be a reaction
against the excesses of the age, against zeal without knowledge, heat without
light, sound without sense. But has it become overreaction? We, who see God in
all of life, should be most deeply impressed with the reality of eternal things.
Understanding the misery of human depravity and the wonder of sovereign grace,
we should be most deeply moved when such truth grips us. Has the development of
our heads so shrivelled our hearts as to render us suspicious of genuine
emotion? Do we hesitate to press the gospel upon men for fear of being thought
Arminian? The 'five points' can be treated as a theological minefield through
which the preacher tiptoes, so afraid of blowing himself up on the horns of a
careless expression that he ceases to long for the conversion of his hearers.
The life and impact of a sermon bleed away in the death of a thousand
qualifications. But our preaching is a travesty if it lacks an earnest pleading
with men to receive an all-sufficient Christ, freely offered to all who will
come. The truths of Calvinism are not barriers which must be surmounted before
the gospel can be preached, but a platform from which to preach more powerfully.
It is precisely because grace is sovereign and free that we can urge it
passionately because the redemption purchased by Christ is complete and
certain that we can commend it so glowingly because God has chosen some out of
His mere good pleasure that we can preach confidently. If we are to stand in the
line of biblical, reformed preachers, we will take note of this element in
Baxter's preaching.

3. Baxter's preaching was followed by systematic pastoral counselling.
He made no division, such as is now common, between preaching and pastoral work,
for he understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that he had
taught them 'publicly and from house to house.' The task is one the same truth
communicated to the same people for the same end the glory of God through
their salvation or condemnation. Perhaps this is where Baxter may prove most
serviceable to the ministers of today in the forging of a strong link between
pulpit and pastorate.

Baxter expected conversions to result from his preaching. He advised his brother
ministers: 'If you long not to see the conversion and edification of your
hearers, and do not preach and study in hope, you are not likely to see much
success.' While depending wholly upon the Lord for success in his preaching, he
attacked with all his might the abhorrent notion that God's sovereignty in
granting or withholding blessing can be used as a cloak for indifference. The
preacher must long for the conversion of his hearers and be filled with grief if
they do not respond. 'I know that a faithful minister may have comfort when he
lacks success... but then, he that longeth not for the success of his labours
can have none of this comfort, because he was not a faithful labourer... What if
God will accept a physician though the patient die? He must, notwithstanding
that, work in compassion, and long for a better issue and be sorry if he miss
it.'

This longing for results drove him to the homes of his people and to the work of
personal catechizing. He wanted to discover how much of the preaching they had
understood, what effect it had had upon them, whether or not they had embraced
the gospel offer of mercy. Did the seed which he had sown need further
cultivation? Were there weeds to be removed from the soil? These questions could
be answered only in personal conversation. At first., he shrank from the work:
'Many of us have a foolish bashfulness, which makes us backward to begin with
them, and to speak plainly to them' but, as he gained experience, this pastoral
counselling became 'the most comfortable work, except public preaching, that
ever I yet did set my. hand to.' It must be stressed that it was his earnestness
as a preacher which made him such a diligent pastor. His home visitation was a
means of expanding and further applying what had been said in the pulpit. He
found indeed that people would not take his preaching seriously unless it was
enforced by close personal dealing. In a classic passage from the 'Reformed
Pastor' he says: 'They will give you leave to preach against their sins, and to
talk as much as you will for godliness in the pulpit, if you will but let them
alone afterwards, and be friendly and merry with them when you have done... For
they take the pulpit to be a stage; a place where preachers must show themselves
and play their parts; where you have liberty for an hour to say what you list;
and what you say they regard not, if you show them not, by saying it personally
to their faces, that you were in good earnest and did indeed mean them.' His
pastoral work not only enforced his past preaching but helped him to preach more
pointedly and relevantly in the future. '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.' He got to know his people their
personalities, problems, temptations, way of life. He sat where they sat and was
thus enabled to preach sermons which were tailored to their peculiar needs. In
order to be a true preacher, a man must be a true pastor. We may recognize the
centrality of preaching, but do we ever use this as an excuse for pastoral
cowardice or indifference? Does the fact of having preached publicly against
men's sins absolve us from the responsibility of confronting them in their homes
concerning those same sins? We are called to be diligent students, to labour in
the Word, to be much in the secret place. But the study may become a convenient
refuge from reality and we may all too easily salve our consciences over an
unpaid visit by reading yet another book. Many of us have discovered, to our
shame. that the courage with which we have preached can evaporate during the
walk to the door of the meeting-house. Having thundered boldly against sin, we
have found ourselves trying to conciliate with an especially warm smile or
handshake those very individuals whose consciences we were seeking to wound, 'to
be friendly and merry with them,' to prefer that God should be angry with them
than that they should be angry with us.

In an attempt to stress the importance of preaching, it is possible to
over-react by minimizing personal work. Personal counselling can be no
substitute for the preached Word, but, as a means of enforcing and applying that
Word to the individual conscience, it fulfils a unique function. It will also
serve to make us better preachers not worse. As we go from house to house, the
mists of the study will be blown away and we will return to prepare sermons
which are rooted in the life and language of the people.

This then is Richard Baxter of Kidderminster. A preacher who laboured to make
plain the truth of God, who spoke from a burning heart as he pleaded with his
people to close with Christ. A pastor who knew his sheep by name, who spoke to
them personally about the great concerns of their souls. He is not merely an
historical curiosity, a fossil to be marvelled at, but a stimulus, a rebuke, an
encouragement. In his 'Dying Thoughts', he lays bare the preacher's heart: 'My
Lord, I have nothing to do in this world, but to seek and serve thee; I have
nothing to do with a heart and its affections but to breathe after thee; I have
nothing to do with my tongue and pen, but to speak to thee, and for thee, and to
publish thy glory and thy will.'




 

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