A rather eclectic article is the only option following such an eclectic title. But there is method to my madness. I want to do several things here. One is to remind us all of the crucial value of history, and how enriched we all become when we drink deeply from it.
Avoiding history not only means that we will repeat its mistakes, but it means we will needlessly try to reinvent the wheel. There is really very little which is new. Just about most things have been tried before. “There is nothing new under the sun” as Solomon wisely reminded us.
So having a good grasp of history can provide countless benefits and advantages. This is especially true for the Christian. Time and time again Scripture exhorts us to remember, to recall, to not forget. It warns us not to overlook what God has done in the past.
Related to the importance of reading and knowing history is the extreme value of reading and learning from biographies. For the Christian there is nothing better than to soak up the lives of saints gone by. Reading about great Christians, missionaries, and mighty men and women of faith results in invaluable outcomes.
As Tozer once stated, “Next to the Holy Scriptures, the greatest aid to the life of faith may be Christian biographies.” By them your faith is challenged, your eyes are enlightened, and your sights are set high. It is hard to settle for the ordinary after you read about how God greatly used believers in the past. Plus you can find much common ground and plenty of areas of similarity.
You can be reading a biography and think, “Wow, he went through the same struggles I am going through”. Or you can see that there may be many parallels between your life and the saint you are reading about. You may have an “aha!” moment where you realise you are not alone, but share much in common with others.
So let me tie all this together with my final point: Baxter. Richard Baxter that is, the great English Puritan, theologian, writer, and Reformed pastor (1615 – 1691). The more I read about the Puritans in general, the more impressed I am with them. They have gotten a very bad press over the years, and deserve to be rediscovered and re-appreciated.
But back to Baxter. The other day I went to a Christian bookstore (not unusual) and brought back a big bunch of books (not unusual). I grabbed two sale items by the late Marcus Loane, the noted Sydney Anglican leader. I snatched up his 1970 volume, They Were Pilgrims, and his 1960 volume, Makers of Puritan History.
In this second volume are portraits of four leading Puritans, including Baxter. Of course I have been well aware of him already, but it was good to read Loane’s 75-page portrait of the great man. He really was an amazing Christian leader. It is not my intent here however to offer a mini-biographical sketch, but simply to highlight three key points about him.
First, a few words about his preaching. He preached before kings and he preached before the common man. But whoever he preached to, his sermons “were aimed at heart and conscience and were preached with a fire and passion which could not be ignored” as Loane says.
He continues, “his passion for preaching gave him command of his hearers from his early days at Dudley to his latest years in London. The poor nailers at Dudley not only filled the roomy church within, but clung to the window leads without. The crowds which came to hear him in London were so large at times that it was impossible for some to get within the sound of his voice at all. Men who did hear him felt that he spoke as one who had come from the unseen presence of God and they listened as men would listen for the voice of eternity.”
I just cannot visualise that happening in our churches today. What church today has people hanging from the windows just to hear the preaching? Baxter obviously had something which Christian leaders today are sorely lacking. Indeed, in part, it is what he preached about which is so lacking today.
He actually preached about sin and coming judgment. Says Loane, “there was an edge to his language which cut through all pretence. But while he did not spare the knife, it was held and controlled by the sure hand of love. He might denounce sin in words of appalling energy, and its sores were exposed in the light of absolute holiness: but it was all to urge men to flee from the wrath to come and to lay hold on the hope of heaven….
“There was the penetrating vision of a prophet who knew the need of man and the elevating rapture of a mystic who knew the heart of God. Baxter was a man who toiled and preached with heaven and hell before his eyes, and men who heard him in the day of his power were constrained to make their choice in full view of the great white throne where all at last must stand.”
Second, let me mention his role as a pastor. Perhaps one of his most famous books is The Reformed Pastor. This classic volume, penned in 1656, is perhaps second only to his 1650 volume The Saints’ Everlasting Rest in terms of his most famous and well-loved works.
It is a remarkable book on pastoral care and the oversight of the flock. I have just pulled my copy off the shelves, blown off the dust, and opened it to this passage: “A minister is not merely to be a public preacher, but to be known as a counsellor for the souls, as the physician is for their bodies, and the lawyer for their estates.”
To read this book, and to learn about what he actually did as a pastor, should make every Christian leader today blush and hang their heads in shame. All his life he was racked with pain and illness, yet he managed to be a prolific writer and preacher, but also conducted full pastoral duties.
Loane describes his methodical approach to caring for his parishioners: “He mapped out the parish so that he could interview and catechize every member of every household. Two days each week Baxter and his assistant took between them fourteen families. . . . He would carefully examine them in the catechism which he had prepared for that purpose: then he would take each one apart for a personal interview and would urge them ‘tenderly and earnestly to immediate decision’. There were few who left him before they had been moved to tears.”
Wow – talk about genuine pastoral care and discipleship. I wonder how many pastors come even close to doing similar things today. The whole emphasis on accountability seems utterly foreign in our churches today. Imagine performing such very close-up and intimate spiritual checkups like this. Indeed, in today’s megachurches such individualised pastoral care is all but impossible.
Finally, let me mention the man and his books (this is the part I especially relate to!). Baxter loved to learn, loved to read, and loved to collect books. Says Loane, “Books were the one pleasure in life which he deemed a necessity, and he spared no money in their purchase. . . . The love of books was to survive all the vicissitudes of the future.”
Indeed, “He shared his time between the books in his study and the people in his parish, and he allowed nothing else to compete with these priorities.” But he not only read countless books, he also penned plenty of books: “The list of his printed works is known to number at least one hundred and sixty-eight books, and they could not have been comprised in a uniform edition of less than sixty octavo volumes with a total of some thirty-five thousand closely printed pages.”
Not bad for a tremendously busy pastor who already led such a full and demanding life of service and ministry. And I like what one writer says about Baxter, as quoted by Loane: “He was ‘all his life long a sort of knight-errant’ in the service of truth.”
I have to say I find so much to sympathise with in the words of Baxter: “I must confess, it is much more pleasing to myself to be retired from the world and to have very little to do with men, and to converse with God and conscience and good books.” Ah, a man after my own heart! But of course he (and I) knew that such is not possible, and dealing with people and their needs is why we are here, and he of course did that supremely well.
In sum, Baxter was a godly man who gave his life for the gospel, no matter what the cost. Because of his zeal for Christ, he spent many months in prison and often lost all his worldly goods, even his beloved books. Because of his constant pain and suffering, he was always sensitive to eternal realities. His memorable volume The Saints’ Everlasting Rest grew out of his continued physical and spiritual sufferings.
But because of all this he could “preach as a dying man to dying men”. If we only had such great saints and such mighty preachers today. And if we only had more great Christian leaders like Loane to remind us of these great and godly saints of yesteryear.