I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead,and by His appearing and his kingdom: preach the word;be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.
2 Timothy 4:1 & 2
As one that ne’er should preach again,
And as a dying man to dying men.
Paul, awaiting imminent martyrdom, amid reports of “evil men and impostors” troubling the churches, solemnly instructed Timothy, to “preach the word” no matter the circumstance. While this passage provides the grist for many a sermon, few pastors pretend to apply it in their own preaching with the urgency enjoined by Paul. In Baxter, however, no other Scriptural ideal was so strenuously and successfully attained. The course of his entire life was literally determined by opportunities to proclaim the gospel, refute false teaching, and persuade Christians to live godly, fruitful lives.
From his late teens, he decided to lay aside his youthful desire for “Reputation of Learning…”2 and concentrate on the study and application of the Scriptures. His thirst for understanding was primarily for his own spiritual growth, but he eventually sensed God’s calling him to preach, which he pursued with his typical zeal. His parents, however, did not share his enthusiasm and he was sent to Ludlow Castle. In his eighteenth year, Mr. Wickstead had nearly persuaded him to ignore his calling and seek a position at the Court. He spent a month in London under the patronage of Sir Henry Herbert, but became disillusioned by the wordliness and debauchery at court:
I had quickly enough of the Court; when I saw a Stage Play instead of a Sermon on the Lord’s-day in the Afternoon, and saw what Course was there in fashion, and heard little Preaching, but was as to one part against the Puritans, I was glad to be gone.3
About this time, Baxter was called home quickly by the illness of his mother. She soon died and Richard resolved from that point to preach the gospel whenever and wherever possible. He would never again be turned aside.
On December 23, 1638 Baxter was ordained a deacon in the Church of England and chosen schoolmaster of Richard Foley’s school at Dudley. He found the position most suitable because, in addition to his teaching, he “might also Preach up and down in Places that were most ignorant…”
The people of Dudley were once known for their drunkenness and indifference to religion, but Baxter was grateful to spend a year among such “a poor tractable [teachable] people…ready to hear God’s Word with submission and reformation…”4 When Baxter preached, the entire countryside would fill the once vacant chapel and crowd around the windows and doors to hear the young country preacher. So accustomed did the church at Dudley become to good preaching that, for years after Baxter’s departure, the people of the town would still crowd the modest chapel to hear the Sunday sermon and weekly lectures.
Baxter’s next opportunity to preach came at the town of Bridgnorth. He spent a year there teaching a very large congregation, but he was disappointed by the results. His sermons received great praise, but apparently little application by his hearers. Perhaps it was his experience at Bridgnorth which would later remind him of the words of Jerome: “Teach in thy church, not to get the applause of the people, but to set in motion the groan; the tears of the hearers are thy praises.”5
While Baxter was at Bridgnorth, the English Parliament passed a resolution to reform the clergy. Those ministers found guilty of “Insufficiency, false Doctrine, illegal innovations, or Scandal…” were to be removed. The town of Kidderminster presented a petition for the removal of their vicar and his assistants. The minister frequented taverns, was ignorant of “the very Substantial Articles of Christianity…” and only preached a few times each year. His poor preaching even “exposed him to laughter…”6 It was determined that the vicar would continue, but a lecturer would be appointed and supported with a small portion of the minister’s living expenses.
Baxter was offered the position at Kidderminster and he eagerly accepted. The town appealed to him for the usual reasons:
My mind was much to the place as soon as it was described to me; because it was a full Congregation…an ignorant, rude and revelling People for the greater part, who had need of preaching…but above all, because they never had any lively, serious preaching among them…7
Baxter quickly found that his serious, Biblical preaching was certainly “out of season” at Kidderminster, where mobs ridiculed and threatened him with violence. But, he would not be intimidated. Once, after preaching on the doctrine of man’s sinful nature, the townspeople “railed” at him as he walked down the street, accusing him of teaching “that God hated, or loathed infants…” because he taught, as is plain from Psalm 51, that all people are born sinners. Baxter, “the man of God,” countered this abuse by opening up the Scriptures to his people, “with great patience and instruction:”
The next Lord’s Day I cleared and confirmed it, and shewed them that if this were not true, their Infants had no need of Christ, of Baptism, or of the Renewing by the Holy Ghost. And I askt them whether they durst say that their Children were saved without a Saviour…and afterward they were ashamed and mute as fishes.8
The most serious threat to Baxter appeared with the Civil War in 1642. The town of Kidderminster and the surrounding county were divided between loyalty to the King or the Parliament and this put Baxter in danger for his life. Baxter found safety at the Governor’s House in nearby Coventry, where he was invited to preach regularly to the garrison.
Many renowned ministers took commissions to serve as chaplains in the New Model Army (Parliamentary), but Baxter wanted no part of it. He would reflect years later, “So miserable were those bloody Days, in which he was most honourable, that could kill the most of his Enemies.”9 However, when news reached him concerning the poor spiritual condition of the soldiers, the divisions caused by false teachers, and a growing attitude of rebellion toward all authority, Baxter resolved to serve as chaplain with Cromwell’s forces. He willingly gave up his comfort and safety at Coventry, going into the field and seeking to retrieve those who had gone astray, having “their ears tickled.”
Baxter took seriously Paul’s admonition to Timothy in refuting the teachings of those who are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”10 Immediately he began to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with great patience and instruction.” Baxter spent the greater part of his time among the soldiers “in Preaching, Conference, and Disputing against their Confounding Errours…”11 More than once he was called upon to debate false teachers before large crowds. On one occasion he “alone disputed against them from Morning until almost Night…”12
The adversity of military life and long hours of work eventually overcame Baxter’s poor health. He was forced to leave the army at about the time the war came to an end. Baxter returned to spend nearly fifteen years among the people of Kidderminster. He experienced the joy of watching nearly the entire town converted by the preaching of the Bible and the inner working of the Spirit of God.
Baxter’s preaching usually bore much good and lasting fruit. His early success was the result of his ability to “convince and get within men..,” regardless of their social or economic position. What was his secret? He was, as Paul directed, “ready in season and out of season” to preach.
First, Baxter believed that a sermon must be lived before it can be preached:
Certainly, brethren, we have very great cause to take heed what we do, as well as what we say: if we will be the servants of Christ indeed, we must not be tongue servants only, but must serve him with our deeds…A practical doctrine must be practically preached. We must study as hard how to live well, as how to preach well. We must think and think again, how to compose our lives, as may most tend to men’s salvation, as well as our sermons.13
Baxter likened a sermon to a meal, which would only cause others indigestion and discomfort if it was not properly prepared over time. A sermon or teaching must be meditated upon and believed before it is passed on to others with any conviction:
preach to yourselves the sermons which you study, before you preach them to others…When your minds are in a holy, heavenly frame, your people are likely to partake of the fruits of it…They will likely feel when you have been much with God: that which is most on your hearts, is like to be most in their ears.14
Baxter’s method of preparation involved hard work on his part, yet he knew all would come to naught without complete reliance on the work of the Holy Spirit. He spent hours in the Scriptures composing each message. But, even the most painstaking and lengthy study would amount to nothing, believed Baxter, without much “secret prayer and meditation.” “Thence you must fetch the heavenly fire that must kindle your sacrifices…”15 he counseled others.
In the pulpit, Baxter preached with earnestness and urgency! He recalled his early Christian years and the kind of preaching which prevailed upon his own sluggish heart. It was “the plain and pressing downright Preacher, that onely seemed to me to be in good sadness [seriousness], and to make somewhat of it, and to speak with life, and light, and weight.”16 Baxter was convinced that his audience included “drowsy sinners,” who were sick unto spiritual death. The Word of God holds the cure and it was his responsibility to awaken the dying and administer the gospel in such a way that it would bring about a full recovery! Employing his guiding principle; “first light-then heat,” he sought to shine the “light” of sound doctrine in their minds, then warm their hearts with passionate exhortation to obedience.17
He lamented that far too many pastors gather “only a few naked truths…” and let them “die in their hands for want of close and lively application…”18 He advocated speaking with great “affection and fervancy,” but, adds Baxter,”…I move you not to a constant loudness in your delivery…yet see that you have a constant seriousness…”19
Baxter was an imposing figure in the pulpit at Kidderminster, standing tall and straight in his black gown, with an hourglass at his side.20 He read his sermons, over an hour long, from a manuscript. Baxter eschewed emotionalism and disapproved of jesting from the pulpit, yet he preached with great passion and there were traces of quiet wit in his sermons. A fellow Puritan described his intensity this way:
He had a moving pathos , and useful Acrimony in his words; neither did his Expressions want their Emphatical Accent, as the Matter did require. And when he spake of weighty Soul – Concerns, you might find his very Spirit Drench’d therein.21
It was said that Baxter “talked in the pulpit with great freedom of another world, like one who had been there and was coming back as a sort of express from thence to make a report concerning it.”22
He had the unique ability to speak effectively to both the simple and the intelligent. Yet, he would purposely speak over their heads on occasion as an incentive to learn and to remind them that he was the teacher.
It is important to note that, though Baxter’s fame as a preacher made him a legend in his own time, he remained ever humble. The effects of his preaching upon his hearers, not fame or reputation, remained the measure of his success. Baxter himself was his harshest critic:
I seldom come out of the Pulpit, but my Conscience smiteth me that I have been no more serious and fervent…It asketh me, ‘… Shouldst thou not weep over such people, and should not tears interrupt thy words?’23
Finally, he was known for “plain dealing” or being very straight forward, loving his audience enough to tell them what they needed to hear. While modern preachers may suffer unpopularity or ridicule for preaching the reality of a heaven and hell, Baxter risked his very life to warn others that they were on a disastrous course for the abyss. After the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, Baxter was appointed a royal chaplain. Many questioned Baxter’s judgment when he once addressed a pointed sermon to King Charles and his court on the dangers of worldliness in royalty, but none doubted his courage. It is easy to imagine Charles and his fashionable courtiers, leaning forward in their comfortable seats, fixing their attention on the stern preacher as his voice slowly elevated:
Could I but show to all this Congregation while I am preaching the invisible world of which we preach, and did you hear with Heaven and Hell in your eyesight…I durst then ask the worst that hearest me,”Dare you now be drunk, or gluttonous or worldly? Dare you go home and make a jest at piety and neglect your souls as you have done?”…Princes and Nobles live not alwaies…No man will fear you after death; much less will Christ be afraid to judge you… Live as if you saw the glorious things which you say you believe… Write upon your Palaces and Goods that sentence: “Seeing all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in all holy conversation and godliness looking for and hasting to the coming of the Day of God.”24
Evidently, Charles respected Baxter for his fearlessness in warning him of the snares of wealth and power, for he ordered the sermon published and distributed.
Baxter’s freedom to preach ended in 1662 with the Act of Uniformity. Among other conditions, the Act stated that ministers must be ordained by the Church of England and assent to complete agreement with the Book of Common Prayer. Baxter was episcopally ordained and had no major objections to the prayer book, but he did not see ordination by the Church of England or the prayer book as essential to Christian ministry. His refusal to conform resulted in his being banned from speaking to gatherings of any size.
When the opportunity to publicly preach and teach ended, Baxter turned to writing. What appeared to be the final defeat of Puritanism and Baxter’s influence as a public figure, was instead the beginning of his most effective and productive years as a writer. Baxter, ready to preach “in season and out of season,” moved from the pulpit to the printing press to teach, reprove, rebuke and exhort.
Twenty-five years later, in 1687, the Declaration of Indulgence was passed allowing “non-conformists” to hold public meetings. Richard Baxter spent his last four years peacefully at Charterhouse Yard, where he assisted his good friend Matthew Sylvester. Although in his seventies, Baxter preached on Sunday mornings and at the Thursday lecture, usually to a full house. Sylvester was thrilled to work alongside a man of Baxter’s reputation and learning, who humbly “stiled” himself Sylvester’s assistant!
Sylvester remembered one occasion when Baxter forgot his notes on Hebrews 4:15. He went ahead, speaking for “an hour or so, just the same, or more effectively.”
And when he came down from the Pulpit, he asked me, “If I was not tired.” I said, “With what?” He said, “With his Extemporate Discourse.” I told him, “That had he not declar’d it, I believe none could have discover’d it:” His reply to me was, “That he thought it very needful for a Minister to have a Body of Divinity in his head.”25
Finally, Baxter became too weak to preach in public, but he continued to conduct family worship until the very end. And even then, he would welcome all who came.
In season, out of season; whenever or wherever, he was ready to preach the Word. In a few words, the life of Richard Baxter the preacher can be summed up in Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to “…be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”26
For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. 1 Corinthians 9:16
And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. Colossians 1:28
And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men. 1 Thessalonians 5:14
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
And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation… Romans 12:6-8a
It must be serious Preaching, which must make Men serious in hearing and obeying it. Richard Baxter27
It is a palpable error of some ministers, who make such a disproportion between their preaching and their living; who study hard to preach exactly, and study little or not at all to live exactly. Richard Baxter28
Of all the preaching in the world, (that speaks not stark lies) I hate that preaching which tends to make the hearers laugh, or move their minds with tickling levity, and effect them as stage-plays used to do, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence of the name of God. Richard Baxter29
…let all who preach for Christ and men’s salvation, be unsatisfied till they have the thing they preach for. Richard Baxter30
How few ministers do preach with all their might, or speak about everlasting joys and everlasting torments in such a manner as may make men believe that they are in good earnest!…Alas! We speak so drowsily and so softly, that sleepy sinners cannot hear. The blow falls so light that hard-hearted sinners cannot feel. Richard Baxter31
Give them Scripture proof of all you say, that they may see that it is not you only, but God by you that speaketh to them. Richard Baxter32
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
- Cited in, J.I. Packer A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton, IL: 1990) 288 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae, Part 1, 5 [↩]
- Ibid., Part 1, 11 [↩]
- Ibid., Part 1, 14 [↩]
- Ibid., 120 [↩]
- Ibid., 19 & 20 [↩]
- Ibid., 20 [↩]
- Ibid., 24 [↩]
- Ibid., 46 [↩]
- 2 Timothy 3: 7 [↩]
- Ibid., 56 [↩]
- Baxter Relquiae Baxterianae 56 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 64 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 61 [↩]
- Ibid., 62 [↩]
- Geoffrey F. Nuttall Richard Baxter (Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1965) 48 [↩]
- J.I. Packer A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton, IL, 1990) 69 [↩]
- Ibid., 147 [↩]
- Ibid., 148 [↩]
- Frederick J. Powicke A Life of the Reverend Richard Baxter (London, 1924) 50 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Relquiae Baxterianae, Appendix, Elisha’s Cry 14 [↩]
- Edmund Calamy cited in, Martin Puritanism 189 [↩]
- Geoffrey F. Nuttall Richard Baxter (Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1965) 49 [↩]
- Martin Puritanism 147 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part III, “After Elijah’s Cry” 17 [↩]
- 2 Timothy 4:5 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part I, 86 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 63-64 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 119-120 [↩]
- Ibid., 121 [↩]
- Ibid., 147 [↩]
- Ibid., 254 [↩]