But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.
Alas! can we think that the reformation is wrought, when we cast out a few ceremonies, and changed some vestures, and gestures, and forms! Oh no, sirs! it is the converting and saving of souls that is our business.
“Baxter was dominated by an ideal purpose and subordinated everything else to it,”2 wrote his most extensive biographer, Frederick Powicke. That purpose was warning sinners of impending wrath and preaching the good news, that man’s penalty was borne by Jesus Christ on the cross. Baxter’s expectations of imminent death had given him “a thirsty desire of Mens Conversion and Salvation…”3 which was never quenched throughout his life.
Baxter’s life radiated the gospel, to the point of being contagious. What was so attractive about Baxter’s gospel? How was he able to communicate it to so many thousands of people who were converted as a result of his preaching, teaching, and writing over hundreds of years?
At the center of his very being was the belief, based on the sure Word of God, of a literal heaven and hell:
I confess, with thanks to God, that having these forty years found that all our holiness and comfort depends upon our certain persuasion of the life of retribution following, and that our certainty of this depends upon our certain belief of the Holy Scriptures…4
Yes, Baxter’s gospel of grace and forgiveness included stern warnings and vivid pictures of hell and damnation. He followed the example of the greatest evangelist of all; Jesus of Nazareth:
Therefore just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire: in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.5
Baxter never shrank from declaring the awful fate of the wicked and he delighted in the grace and mercy of God in pardoning sinners. The simple gospel is powerful and effective, believed Baxter, and he would not compromise it or entertain his hearers by dressing it up in trendy expressions:
I like to hear a man dwell much on the same essentials of Christianity. For we have but one God, and one Christ, and one faith to preach; and I will not preach another Gospel to please men with variety, as if our Saviour and our Gospel were grown stale.6
He eschewed emotionalism in his preaching, but his love and feeling for the gospel came through so powerfully that he could “…sway any audience as the wind can sway a field of corn.”7 His vivid descriptions of the horrors of hell, as well as the beautiful scenes of heaven crafted in his words, were potent in spreading the gospel to his generation and those that followed.
Baxter’s resolve to share the gospel with any who would listen met with great success, even in his youth. His years at Kidderminster saw whole families converted until almost the entire town was saved. He knew his flock well and “took special notice of every one that was humbled, reformed or converted…” He continued this practice for a time, until finally “…it pleased God that the Converts were so many, that [he] could not afford time for such particular Observations about every one of them…”8
Then came the years of silence when Baxter was barred from preaching altogether. Baxter became increasingly restless. He even contemplated preaching to the Indians of New England, but knew he wouldn’t survive the hardships of the voyage and life in the wilderness. What was he to do?
The Lord, in His wisdom, turned Baxter to writing. Rather than preaching to hundreds at a time, Baxter’s God-given gift of evangelism spread the healing message to thousands through his books. He would continue to plead and convince “obstinate sinners” for hundreds of years.
His writings, says J.I. Packer, are “brilliant , passionate, eloquent, honest, open-hearted, sharpsighted, and wholly devoted to the glory of God and the good of others…” They display a “flair for unselfconscious, self -revealing intimacy on paper.”9 William Bates noted in Baxter’s writing, “…a vigorous pulse…that keeps the reader awake and attentive.”10
Baxter’s “thirst for souls” caused him to tell his readers plainly what their fate is. In his Call to the Unconverted, Baxter implores the unrepentant:
He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear the gracious and yet dreadful call of God! His eye is all this while upon you. Your sins are registered, and you shall surely hear of them all again. God keepeth the book now; and he will write it all upon your consciences with his terrors; and then you will also keep it yourselves. O sinners, that you knew but what you are doing, and who you are all this while offending! The sun itself is darkness before the glory of that Majesty which you daily abuse and carelessly provoke… How eager are the devils to be doing with thee that have tempted thee, and do but wait for the word from God to take and use thee as their own, and then in a moment thou wilt be in hell!
He was no less impassioned in comforting those who have turned from their sin:
Christian, believe this, and think on it: thou shalt be externally embraced in the arms of that love which was from everlasting, and will extend to everlasting – of that love which brought the Son of God’s love from heaven to earth, from earth to the cross, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to glory – that love which was weary, hungry, tempted, scorned, scourged, buffeted, spit upon, crucified, pierced – which did fast, pray, teach, heal, weep, sweat, bleed, die; that love will eternally embrace thee… Know this, believer, to thy everlasting comfort, if those arms have once embraced thee, neither sin nor hell can get thee thence forever.11
And, to those pastors who have been lulled into evangelistic slumber, then and now, he stirs with a fervent call to action:
Look upon your neighbors around you, and think how many of them need your help in no less a case than the apparent danger of damnation… Oh how can you walk, and talk, and be merry with such people, when you know their case? Methinks, when you look them in the face, and think how they must suffer everlasting misery, you should break forth into tears… and then fall on with the most importunate exhortations… Oh, then, for the Lord’s sake, and for the sake of poor souls, have pity on them, and bestir yourselves, and spare no pains that may conduce to their salvation.12
His books had a far reaching effect as they were translated into other languages and published around the world. Baxter’s correspondence with John Eliot (b. 1604 – d. 1690), the apostle to the American Indians, resulted in the translation of A Call to the Unconverted into the Algonquin language. It was the second book to be published in that language, following Mr. Eliot’s work on the Bible. Baxter recorded:
I published this little book; which God hath blessed with unexpected Success beyond all the rest that I have written (except The Saints rest)… I have had Information of almost whole Households converted by this small Book, which I set so light by… God (since I was silenced) hath sent it… to many beyond the Seas…13
Reports of conviction, conversion, and comfort from Baxter’s works are abundant. “…my second birth, if yet born again, I owe to you, you are my father, your Saints Rest, I mean, which I read three times over in the year 51,” wrote Thomas Gouldstone, Rector of Finchley.14 The request of one young boy before his death at the age of twelve is recorded: “I pray, let me have Mr. Baxter’s book, that I may read a little more of eternity before I go into it.”15 The later years of the renowned pastor and Bible commentator, Matthew Henry, were spent in reading and prayer; “the Bible and Mr. Baxter’s Saint’s Everlasting Rest used to lie daily before him on the table in his parlor…”16
As his health declined and his energy flagged, Baxter’s evangelistic zeal turned to prayer for the lost and an expansion of his vision:
My Soul is much more afflicted with the thoughts of the miserable World, and more drawn out in desire of their Conversion than heretofore: I was wont to look but little further than England in my Prayers, as not considering the state of the rest of the World… But now as I better understand the Case of the World, and the method of the Lord’s Prayer, so there is nothing in the World that lyeth so heavy upon my heart, as the thought of the miserable Nations of the Earth… I cannot be affected so much with the Calamities of my own Relations, or the Land of my Nativity, as with the Case of the Heathen, Mahometan and other Infidels! No part of my Prayers are so deeply serious, as that for the Conversion of the Infidel and Ungodly World, that God’s Name may be sanctified, and his Kingdom come, and his Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven… There be no employment so desirable in my eyes, as to labour for the winning of such miserable Souls: which maketh me greatly honour Mr John Eliot, the Apostle of the Indians in New England, and whoever else have laboured in such work.
When King Charles II was restored to power in 1662, he moved to dissolve the New England Company and their interests in America. The corporation, founded under Cromwell’s rule, was conceived, at least in part, to “…maintain the Preachers that went among them and pay Schoolmasters to teach their children, and…for the furthering of the Works among the Indians.”17 Baxter was a strong supporter and he played the primary role in convincing the king that the company and the evangelistic work in America must continue. In appreciation, Mr. Eliot presented Charles with a copy of the Agonquin New Testament, followed by the entire Bible when it was completed.
Baxter’s love of the gospel has been a source of blessing for thousands around the world, spanning three centuries. Preaching his funeral sermon, William Bates memorialized Baxter the evangelist and, perhaps unwittingly, prophesied of the fruit of Baxter’s gospel :
He was animated with the Holy Spirit, and breathed celestial fire, to inspire heat and life into dead sinners, and to melt the obdurate in their frozen tombs… His books… have been effectual for more numerous conversions of sinners to God than any printed in our time; and while the church remains on earth will be of continual efficacy to recover lost souls.18
Baxter’s life was guided by a determination to deliver the good news. What is the “ideal purpose” which animates us? What are our motives and what do we hope to accomplish? When we look at our efforts to tell others the good news, do we see any purpose or direction at all? If not, Baxter has a word or two for us:
I have observed that God seldom blesseth any man’s work so much as his, whose heart is set upon the success of it….let all who preach for Christ and men’s salvation, be unsatisfied till they have the thing they preach for.19
And when we consider the gospel we preach, we must ask ourselves, “does our gospel message bring conviction, then comfort?” Or, are we only pleasant and entertaining in our preaching and teaching, hoping not to offend the sensibilities of the intelligent and self-righteous in the audience? Do we take God at His Word, believing that those who will not repent and be saved, face eternity in Hell? Finally, are we “thirsty for souls,” as Baxter was? Do we have a longing to see those under our care borne safely to heaven? If not, then we must mend our ways.
I have not hidden Thy righteousness within my heart; I have spoken of Thy faithfulness and Thy salvation; I have not concealed Thy lovingkindness and Thy truth from the great congregation. Psalms 40:10
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. John 3:36
Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman to the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from My mouth, warn them from Me. Ezekiel 3:17
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also the to the Greek. Romans 1:16
Doubtless this will be our everlasting admiration, that so rich a crown should fit the head of so vile a sinner…Richard Baxter20
When I die, the Gospel dies not – the church dies not – the praises of God die not – the world dies not; but perhaps it will grow better, and those prayers be answered which seemed to be lost; and perhaps some of the seed I have sown will spring up when I am dead. Richard Baxter21
Heaven is won or lost on earth; the possession is there, but the preparation is here. Christ will judge all men in another state, as their works have been in this. First, “Well done, good and faithful servant;” then, “Enter thou into the joy of the Lord.” Richard Baxter22
Will it not awaken us to compassion, to look on a languishing man, and to think that within a few days his soul will be in heaven or in hell? Surely it will try the faith and seriousness of ministers, to be much about dying men! They will thus have opportunity to discern whether they themselves are in good earnest about the matters of the life to come. Richard Baxter23
Many like Agrippa are but Almost Christians, will find in the end they shall be but Almost Saved. Richard Baxter24
You can now purchase the updated and improved second edition right here: Good Mr. Baxter: Sketches of effective, Gospel-centered leadership from the life of Richard Baxter
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 211 [↩]
- Powicke A Life of Baxter 278 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 1, 12 [↩]
- Baxter Breviate 150 [↩]
- Matthew 13:40-43 [↩]
- Baxter cited in Powicke A Life of Baxter 284 [↩]
- Powicke A Life of Baxter 281 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 1, 21 [↩]
- J.I. Packer A Quest For Godliness 302 [↩]
- Richard Baxter The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (Evangelical Press: Ann Arbor, 1978) 7 [↩]
- Richard Baxter The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (Evangelical Press: Ann Arbor, 1978) 35 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 198-199 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 1, 114-115 [↩]
- Geoffrey Nuttall Richard Baxter 118-119A [↩]
- Richard Baxter The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (Evangelical Press: Ann Arbor, 1978) 12 [↩]
- Richard Baxter The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (Evangelical Press: Ann Arbor, 1978) 11 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 2, 290 [↩]
- Richard Baxter The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (Evangelical Press: Ann Arbor, 1978) 7 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 121 [↩]
- Richard Baxter The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (Evangelical Press: Ann Arbor, 1978) 59 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Dying Thoughts 62 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Dying Thoughts 10 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 102 [↩]
- N.H. Keeble, Richard Baxter: Puritan Man of Letters, Oxford, 1982, 60 [↩]