The words of Richard Baxter

Faith & Inspiration

"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. . . ."

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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.

To hear commentaries by Andrée Seu, click here.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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