Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness
1 Peter 5:1 & 2
If God would but reform the Ministry, and set them on their Duties zealously and faithfully, the people would certainly be reformed; All Churches either rise or fall as the Ministry doth rise or fall, (not in Riches and worldly Grandure) but in Knowledge, Zeal and Ability for their Work.
Baxter’s greatest success in his quest to bring unity among Christians found powerful expression at Kidderminster and among the pastors who made up the Worcestershire Association.
True and lasting reformation in the Church of England must begin in the hearts of the pastors, asserted Baxter. Yet, much of the clergy, particularly in the countryside, retained the character of a corrupt form of Roman Catholicism. Many ministers had grown comfortable in their livings, performing their religious duties by rote and spending much of their time in gluttony and drunkeness. The local churches mirrored the character of their vicars.
It was under these conditions that the Worcestershire Association officially began on December 4, 1655, when the pastors in the county met “to join in humiliation and in earnest prayer to God.” They asked the Lord’s forgiveness for their negligence in caring for His people and they sought His blessing upon the difficult work of reformation they were about to undertake.
Baxter prepared a sermon for the occasion, but acute pain and illness kept him from attending. His fellow ministers urged him to publish the sermon, which grew into a sizable book titled Gildas Silvianus: the Reformed Pastor.
The title set the tone of the book, a strong reprimand to indolent pastors and an urgent appeal to earnestly shepherd God’s flock. Gildas and Silvianus were two early Christian writers who, like Baxter, were known for their “plain dealing” with sinners. The first edition is subtitled the Reformed Pastor, with the word “reformed” standing out in large, bold typeface. When Baxter speaks of being a reformed pastor, he means one renewed in his zeal for the work of shepherding God’s people. J.I Packer succinctly expresses Baxter’s central theme:
The Reformed Pastor is the supreme transcript of Baxter’s heart as a Puritan evangelist, and it is dynamite. Evangelism as an expression of Christian love through ministerial labour is what it is about, and its spiritual honesty, integrity, energy, and straightforwardness are almost unnerving.2
Typically, Baxter covers a great deal of ground in this book, but his focus is the pastor’s obligation to “take heed” of his own spiritual condition, before he attends to the oversight of others. Baxter, the evangelist, will not settle for anything less than Christ enthroned in the hearts and minds of His pastors.
In the first chapter, Baxter goes straight to the heart and immediately tackles a devastating affliction in the Body of Christ:
It is the common danger and calamity of the Church, to have unregenerate and inexperienced pastors, and to have so many men become preachers before they are Christians…and so worship an unknown God, and to preach an unknown Christ, to pray through an unknown Spirit…3
It is almost beyond belief to think that anyone would become a leader of God’s people, without knowing God himself. Yet, this has been a chronic problem in every age and seventeenth-century England was no exception.
It was obvious to Baxter; before any man embarks upon the work of leading others to Christ, he must first be a partaker himself, of God’s mercy and grace:
See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls. 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, while you proclaim to the world the necessity of a Saviour, your own hearts should neglect him, and you should miss of an interest in him and his saving benefits.4
Surely, nothing was more pathetic to Baxter than the man who points others to heaven, while he himself is destined for judgment:
O what sadder case can there be in the world, than for a man, who made it his very trade and calling to proclaim salvation, and to help others to heaven, yet after all to be himself shut out!5
Next, Baxter turns his attention to the endless assault of temptation in a pastor’s life. Because leaders are in the forefront of the struggle, they make inviting targets. Satan “hath long tried that way…of smiting the shepherds, that he may scatter the flock: and so great hath been his success this way, that he will continue to follow it as far as he is able.”6 Only a man who is sober and alert can hope to avoid falling into scandalous sin, spreading doubt and confusion among the young and tender members of the flock:
You shall see neither hook nor line, much less the subtle angler himself, while he is offering you his bait. And his bait shall be so fitted to your temper and disposition, that he will be sure to find advantages within you, and make your own principles and inclinations betray you; and whenever he ruineth you, he will make you the instruments of ruin to others.7
Christian leadership certainly invites many temptations, but high visibility is also one of God’s gracious means of purifying men for service. Baxter reminds his readers to bless the Lord for this added protection:
you should thankfully consider how great a mercy this is, that you have so many eyes to watch over you, and so many ready to tell you of your faults; and this greater helps than others, at least for restraining you from sin. Though they may do it with a malicious mind, yet you have the advantage of it.8
Here we must stop and consider our attitude toward those who seem ever willing to point to our failings and shortcomings. Are we quick to label them as “rebellious” and perceive them as obstacles in our path to success or do we listen patiently to see if perhaps the Lord is warning us of an unseen danger? These brothers and sisters are a source of God’s blessing to us!
If Satan’s outward enticements fail to compromise the man of God, the sin of pride lies dormant, quickened by the slightest inducement. When it is awakened, it creeps into every area of a man’s life and taints everything he touches:
Oh what a constant companion, what a tyrannical commander, what a sly and subtle insinuating enemy, is this sin of pride! It goes with men to the draper, to the mercer, the tailor; it chooseth them their cloth, their trimming, and their fashion.9
Baxter saw such haughtiness and the lack of humility in ministers as a formidable impediment to growth and peace within the Body of Christ in his day. The seduction of acclaim and power was just as strong then as now, driving popular ministers to seek larger and larger congregations. Baxter attributed such arrogance to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Biblical, servant leadership:
I seldom see ministers strive so furiously, who shall go first to a poor man’s cottage to teach him and his family the way to heaven; or who shall first endeavour the conversion of a sinner, or first become the servant of all. Strange, that notwithstanding all the plain expressions of Christ, men will not understand the nature of their office! If they did, would they strive who would be the pastor of a whole county and more, when there are so many thousand poor sinners in it that cry for their relief.10
Baxter lamented the effects of this “superstar” mentality upon the local church:
O, happy had it been for the Church…that pastors had been multiplied as churches increased, and the number of overseers had been proportioned to the number of souls, that they might not have let the work be undone, while they assume empty titles and undertook impossibilities!11
Truly, when pastors take on the impossibility of single-handedly shepherding hundreds of people, the Scriptural duties of the overseers outlined in Acts 20 will eventually be crowded out. While the leader of a large congregation may receive wide acclaim and perhaps even wealth, the people under his care will wither from spiritual malnutrition. “Oh, therefore, be jealous of yourselves; and amidst all your studies, be sure to study humility,”12 Baxter pleads with his fellow ministers.
Finally, Baxter censured those leaders who no longer followed the admonition of Peter, shepherding God’s flock “voluntarily,” out of “eagerness.” Serving their brothers and sisters had become merely an obligation or, in some cases, an easy way of making a living.
The ministerial work must be carried on purely for God and the salvation of souls…They who engage in this as a common work, to make a trade of it for their worldly livelihood, will find that they have chosen a bad trade, though a good employment. Self-denial is of absolute necessity in every Christian, but it is doubly necessary in a minister, as without it he cannot do God an hour’s faithful service.13
In one sentence, Baxter effectively presents the essence of the pastor’s vocation, revealing all of its dignity and severity:
We are seeking to uphold the world, to save it from the curse of God, to perfect the creation, to attain the ends of Christ’s death, to save ourselves and others from damnation, to overcome the devil, and demolish his kingdom, to set up the kingdom of Christ, and to attain and help others to the kingdom of glory.
He underscores the gravity of this work by posing the question, “And are these works to be done with a careless mind, or a lazy hand?”14
The answer is, of course, “no.” In The Reformed Pastor, Baxter again confronts us with an earnestness which is foreign to our modern Christian experience. Perhaps, this is the “spiritual honesty” which J.I. Packer describes as “unnerving.” Indeed it is disturbing, because Baxter calls upon us to look beyond our popularity, the size of our congregation, the myriad of programs or any of the other contemporary yardsticks commonly used to determine the success of a Christian leader. Baxter demands instead that we consider the condition of our hearts and our willingness to engage in selfless, arduous work for our Master.
Baxter’s own bent toward introspection presses us, his readers, into a self-audit of difficult questions. Do I really serve God or myself? Do I seek to meet the needs of others or am I actually pursuing self-fulfillment or a life of ease? Is my teaching and preaching merely a showcase for my intellect and abilities or am I compelled to proclaim the message as Paul, who exclaimed “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel.”15 Finally, am I a reformed pastor, being renewed daily by the Holy Spirit? If not, perhaps reading Baxter’s Reformed Pastor would be a good place to start.
The Reformed Pastor is truly dynamite and considered essential reading by no less than John Wesley (b. 1703-d. 1791), the founder of Methodism. Philip Doddridge (b. 1702-d. 1751), the devout pastor, author, and hymnist thought the book “should be read by every young minister, before he takes a people under his stated care; and, I think, the practical part of it reviewed every three or four years…”16
Charles Spurgeon records one Sunday evening when, disappointed by his own lack of fervor, he entreated his wife, “My dear, I fear I have not been as faithful in my preaching today as I should have been. I have not been as much in earnest after poor souls as God would have me be! Go to the study and fetch down Baxter’s Reformed Pastor, and read some of it to me. Perhaps that will quicken my sluggish heart.”17
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among whom the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. Acts 20:28
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17
For the shepherds have become stupid and have not sought the Lord; therefore they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered. Jeremiah 10:21
It is a fearful thing to be an unsanctified professor, but much more to be an unsanctified preacher. A holy calling will not save an unholy man. Richard Baxter18
It is indeed a troublesome and painful work, and such as calls for some self-denial, because it will bring upon us the displeasure of the wicked. But dare we prefer our carnal ease and quietness, or the love and peace of wicked men before our service to Christ our Master? Richard Baxter19
Oh, if we did but study half as much to affect and amend our own hearts, as we do those of our hearers, it would not be with many of us as it is! Richard Baxter20
I will be a Pastor to none that will not be under Discipline: That were to be half Pastor, and indulge Men in an unruliness and contempt of the Ordinance of Christ…. Richard Baxter21
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 1, 115 [↩]
- Packer A Quest for Godliness 305 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 56 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 53 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 72 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 74 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 75 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 76 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 137 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 127 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 89 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 146 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 111 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 112 [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 9:16b [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 5 [↩]
- Charles Spurgeon cited in Timothy Beougher and J.I. Packer ‘Go fetch Baxter’ Christianity Today , January 13, 1992, 26 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 73 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 167 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 133 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 2, 161 [↩]