"Alas, the misery of the unconverted is so great that it calls loudest for our compassion. . . . It is so sad to see them in a state of damnation, that methinks we should not be able to let them alone, either in public or in private, whatever other work we have to do. I confess I am forced frequently to neglect that which would tend to the further increase of the godly, and what may be called 'stronger meat,' because of the lamentable necessity of the unconverted . . . (Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor).
I read those words in 1977, as I was just about to enter seminary---and never heard their like again. It was the fifth "Christian book" I had read in my life (the first three being by Francis Schaeffer and the fourth by a man named Harvie Conn). Baxter's logic was as uncomfortable as it was inescapable: If I now believe that men who die Christ-less are damned, I should put away the Beatles albums, bag Francis Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology, and go sit in a café and wait for someone to strike up a conversation with.
Baxter goes on to say:
"Who can talk of controversies, nice, unnecessary points, or even truths of a lower degree of necessity, however excellent, to gratify certain heaters of higher fancies (who look for rarities, and expect to have their ears pleased), while he sees a number of ignorant, carnal, miserable sinners before him, who must be changed of damned? Methinks I even see them entering upon their final woe! Methinks I see them crying out for the speediest help. . . ."
Seminary was a great relief from this heartburn. I never heard much about hell again. I won't say it was all "controversies, nice, unnecessary points, or even truths of a lower degree of necessity, however excellent," but there was a decidedly more forensic cast to what went on there. They say there is a trickle-down benefit to the debate over "ordo salutis" and infralapsarianism but I haven't noticed it yet. When I was working at the café years later, I snuck out one day to watch a debate on N.T. Wright, and I confess I didn't understand a word of it, no kidding. But then again, it's been decades since my mind ran in those grooves.
I understand that someone has to talk about these subjects sometimes. And if not in seminary, then where? But even in seminary, I should think that we would find more urgency in the obvious and non-controversial things the Bible has to say for our life preparation and the preparation of men to shepherd. Otherwise, the churches become extensions of the academies.
Just a few suggestions:
- Ask the students if they have been praying for specific spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:31 and 1 Corinthians 14:1 invite and exhort us to do so. I fear that many gifts lie moldering the in the "unclaimed gifts" department of heaven.
- Ask the students if they have been pleading to God for more of the Holy Spirit. Luke 11:13 bids us to do so. It is crucial to effective ministry. And we need that a lot more than another go-around with Predestination.
- Ask the students, what's your prayer life like? Let's talk about it.
Richard Baxter was born in 1615, in the midst of a protracted controversy between the Church of England and the so-called Non-Conformists. He was interested in the debate---and even did prison time---but kept a loose grip on all forms of Presbyterianism and the competing brands of church government. He wrote The Reformed Pastor to a general ministerial audience, with Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Independents in mind.
He figured there was nothing to be gained by denominations in a perpetual state of warfare, not while men were going to hell. It's funny: I started with Baxter, took a detour into the academy, and am ending with Baxter in my old age.
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