Richard Baxter and His Gospel
Richard Baxter was born on the 12th of November, 1615 at Rowton, Salop, and died at the age of 76 on the 8th of December, 1691. We commemorate the 300 years of his death. The name of Richard Baxter will be associated with Kidderminster as long as the world stands. The Illustrated London News for August the 7th, 1875, referring to the great Puritan divine whose statue of white marble on its pedestal of Aberdeen granite had been newly erected, put it in this way:
Baxter without Kidderminster would have been but part of himself.
Kidderminster without him would have been famous for nothing but its carpets.
Even apart from this 300th anniversary it is clear that interest in Richard Baxter is still strong. There came out a book just a few years ago entitled The Puritans: their Origins and Successors by Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, which consists of a collection of lectures delivered over the years at the Puritan Studies and Westminster Conferences in London. This was published in 1987 by the Banner of Truth Trust and shows considerable interest in Baxter. Then again, selected Practical Works of Baxter were published by Baker of Grand Rapids in 1981. That consisted of 956 double-column closely printed pages. More recently still, James I. Packer has brought out an important book on the Puritans entitled Among God's Giants and here again we have many references to Richard Baxter. And I might mention a worthy Life of Baxter written to commemorate this occasion by one of the friends who have organised the meeting this evening, Mr. W Stuart Owen.
It is surely right that we should give attention to the theme of this lecture. After all, Richard Baxter, though a man of genius and a brilliant leader in his day, was first of all a preacher and perhaps we could say that he was a model preacher. For the Puritan, nothing mattered like the gospel and so Baxter would certainly have approved of our emphasis here tonight, Richard Baxter and his Gospel. That is what I have come to emphasise and to try to demonstrate a little from his own writings.
But before we come to do that it is only fitting that we should recall Richard Baxter as a very great man and that, too, in an age of great men. He was a many-sided man, strongly independent and at times too much so, as John Wesley was in the next century. They were both very much Englishmen and very eminent ones. You will probably be aware that there is an inscription at the base of Baxter's statue which reads as follows:
Between the years 1640 and 1660 this town was the scene of the labours of Richard Baxter, renowned equally for his Christian learning and his pastoral fidelity. In a stormy and divided age he advocated unity and comprehension, pointing the way to "the eternal". Churchmen and Nonconformists united to raise this memorial AD 1865.
So, clearly, Baxter was a figure of great importance who deserves to be remembered for many reasons.
First, he was a pastor. He wrote a classic book on this subject which is still in print 300 years later and more, entitled The Reformed Pastor brought out in 1656. Baxter catechised systematically with his assistant here in Kidderminster at the rate of fourteen families per week, and his intention was to teach the people by question and answer in their own home situation, the basic teachings of Scripture. His ambition was to cover all the eight hundred families in the parish in one year. This scheme became a model in England and it did very great good. Almost a hundred years later, George Whitefield, the eminent Methodist preacher, came to Kidderminster and said to a friend: 'I was greatly refreshed to find what a sweet savour of good Mr. Baxter's doctrine, works and discipline remain to this day'.
Then secondly, Baxter was an author. He wrote a great many books. Some are great classics and are still in print: The Saint's Everlasting Rest, A Call to the Unconverted, The Reformed Pastor, and Reliquiae Baxterianae, which consists of his posthumous autobiography and diary of his own times similar in some ways to Samuel Pepys' Diary and that of John Evelyn. His unique Christian Directory of 1673 ran to no less than one million words on the theme of the Christian life and the Christian's conduct. Stuart Owen writes like this: 'Richard Baxter was the most prolific writer of his time. His total literary output would be equivalent to 60 octavo volumes or some 30-40 thousand closely printed pages.' I recall that Baxter is somewhere said to have written over twice as many works as John Owen, and Owen wrote 16 volumes of divinity, together with a volume of Latin works and orations, and in addition several volumes of detailed commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. But Richard Baxter wrote approximately twice as much as Owen! So that gives some impression of the voluminous and prolific output of Baxter and his extraordinary diligence, especially bearing in mind that he was a man subject to constant pain, sickness and disability. It is therefore all the more a tribute to the grace of God in him and to his zeal to promote the truth of God.
And then, thirdly Baxter was a man of affairs. As well as preacher, he was chaplain in the Parliamentary army, 1642-47. He attended, not indeed the Westminster Assembly, but he did attend the Savoy Conference of 1661 in which Nonconformists met to discuss theological and church issues. He lived in London for a time, he was known to Cromwell and to the great men of his day. He was regarded as an eminent man, and a great leader. He was in prison for his faith for one week at Clerkenwell gaol in 1669 and then again for twenty-one months in Southwark gaol, 1685-6. He was a famed leader of the Nonconformists, but especially of the Presbyterians and he corresponded with a wide circle of persons, being looked up to by thousands of Christians in his time.
He was at times a rather controversial figure — a strong advocate of unity and comprehension for at least 40 years. I may say that too much is sometimes made of this point in that some modern ecumenicals claim him for themselves. He was not slipshod, however, in doctrine and deeply lamented the divisions in the church of his day, and it would be not at all fair to equate him with the spirit of modern ecumenism. However, he did plead, certainly, for what he called 'mere Christianity'; that is, he was an advocate of a minimal rather than a maximal creed, and he was for ever saying that he would have been content to unite the churches on the basis of the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. In this he was virtually alone among Puritan leaders and perhaps just as well because they would not by any means agree to so insufficient a basis of union. With many others, he was ejected in 1662 and suffered in a notorious manner at the hands of Judge Jeffreys during that fearful time when Nonconformists in England and Scotland were being assaulted for their faith.
But we could go on. Richard Baxter was a saint. He was commonly referred to in and after his time as 'holy Baxter'. He was something of a mystic in the best sense of that word.
What is perhaps most interesting to us in the times in which we live is that he was a powerful instrument in the hands of God to promote true revival. Surely this must be so. James Packer says that as the Vicar of Kidderminster in 1647-61 he converted 'just about the whole town'. Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones could say this: 'Surely we must agree that in England in the case of Rogers of Dedham and Baxter at Kidderminster we are entitled to speak of revival'. Certainly these testimonies of modern writers and preachers is correct. Baxter's own testimony is this. He said that the Parish Church of his day held about a thousand persons but that in his time it was overflowing and no less than five galleries had to be erected in the church. Then he tells us this:
On the Lord's days there was no disorder to be seen in the streets, but you might hear a hundred families singing psalms and repeating sermons as you passed through the streets. In a word, when I came thither (he means to Kidderminster) first, there was about one family in a street that worshipped God and called on his name. When I came away there were some streets where there was not more than one family in the side of a street that did not so.
So, great as Baxter was in other respects, his most important gift was of a gospel preacher. Indeed, this is central to everything he loved, stood for and desired to be. To him there was no greater calling than that of a preacher of the everlasting gospel of Christ. This is not always sufficiently remembered in centennial celebrations like the present, but I believe that this is where he is most important and speaks now to our own generation and to all other generations in the most powerful way. So I turn to this subject now.
In endeavouring to make an assessment of Baxter's gospel we have in his writings an embarrassment of riches on the subject. All his books expound the gospel. Especially, however, this would be true of his early book A Call to the Unconverted. Dr Packer says that 'Baxter's Call is the first evangelistic pocket book in English which, in its year of publication, sold twenty thousand copies and brought an unending stream of readers to faith during Baxter's lifetime'. The importance of the book is further heightened when we remember that it had a deep influence on George Whitefield. Those who are familiar with Arnold Dallimore's Life of Whitefield will know that in the first volume he shows that Whitefield benefited greatly from reading Baxter's Call. Then in the line of great preachers we have the words of C. H. Spurgeon to this effect: 'I remember when I used to awake in the morning (he means as a child) the first thing I took up was Alleine's Alarm or Baxter's Call to the Unconverted. 'Oh, those books, those books!' exclaimed Spurgeon looking back, 'I read and devoured them'.
It is well known that the Call was a link in a chain of important conversions over a number of centuries. Richard Sibbes, the early Puritan, wrote The Bruised Reed and this was very influential in Baxter's own conversion as a young man. In turn, Baxter wrote A Call to the Unconverted and amongst those who were blessed through reading this book was Philip Doddridge who, in turn, wrote The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. That book was blessed to William Wilberforce who wrote A Practical View, which proved a profoundly influential book in the life of Thomas Chalmers. So Baxter's Call has had an exceptionally important influence in the history of our nation over the centuries since it was written.
It is sometimes claimed that Richard Baxter was converted through a book of Jesuit devotion. But that is not entirely correct. Robert Parsons, an English Jesuit at the time of the Reformation had written a book which was corrected by a certain Edmund Bunny. This work came to be known as Bunny's Resolution and when Baxter read it as a young boy it awakened his soul. He was about fifteen at the time. But then later he read Sibbes' Bruised Reed. This also helped him greatly. But he himself says in his autobiography he did not know precisely when he was converted. So we must not lay too much stress on the claim that he was converted by a book of Jesuit devotion.
Before I come to give you a fuller outline of Baxter's preaching and the nature of it, as we see that in his famous book, A Call to the Unconverted, let me just mention one further point of very considerable interest concerning Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He tells us in his book The Puritans: their Origins and Successors: 'My real interest in the Puritans arose in 1925 when I happened to read a new biography of Richard Baxter'. So we must not fail to notice that Baxter's influence has been very profound on Whitefield, Spurgeon and Dr Lloyd-Jones, and therefore it is difficult to overstate the importance of his influence.
So much then for Richard Baxter, his life and his general background. It is a pity that we have had to be so sketchy but my subject requires me now to turn to this other part of the title, and that is 'The gospel which he preached'. So let us come to an analysis of Richard Baxter's book A Call to the Unconverted in order to see what the gospel was which he preached.
First he informs us how the book came to be written. In his autobiography he tells us: 'I also published A Call to the Unconverted. The occasion was my converse with Bishop Ussher of Armagh while I was in London'. He says rather modestly, that he 'supposed that he could do nothing but what was done as well or better already'. Then he says that he published this little book at last 'which God hath blessed with unexpected success beyond all the rest that I have written except The Saint's Rest. In a little more than a year there were about twenty thousand of them printed by my own consent and ten thousand since, beside many thousands by stolen impression which poor men stole for lucre's sake. Through God's mercy I have had information of about almost whole households converted by this small book which I set so light by (he means he considered himself to be so unfit to write) and as if all this in England, Scotland and Ireland were not mercy enough to me, God (since I was silenced) hath sent it over on his message to many beyond the sea; for when Mr. (John) Eliot had printed all the Bible in the Indians' language, he next translated this my Call to the Unconverted'.
Let us come now to consider some concluding thoughts on Baxter and on the gospel he preached. I quote J. I. Packer again: 'The content of Baxter's gospel was not in any way distinctive. It was the historic, Puritan, evangelical New Testament message of ruin, redemption and regeneration'. This certainly comes across to us very plainly as we read Baxter's Call. It raises the question, Why then was it so successful? There was nothing remarkable in the content of what he says other than that he was preaching the good old evangelical message which we are so familiar with today, and yet which in our age appears not to be anything like so successful as it was in Baxter's time. What have we to learn as lessons for our own day? I would offer the ten following points of comment:
- First of all, we notice Baxter's directness. He talks to us as if he were at our side or rather as though he was summoning us to sit in the pew in front of his pulpit. He takes his hearers almost by the throat. He addresses them as 'you', he speaks to their innermost thoughts, he searches their hearts and he exposes them to themselves. That surely is one of the greatest gifts as a preacher that he had.
- Then second, we notice that he brings forth reasons for everything. Baxter was a great exhorter but he was never a ranter. He does not simply shout or make an assault on the will or emotions. He addresses the mind of his hearers. This is characteristic of Puritan preaching. Man, they said, is a rational being and he needs to know why he is being called on to turn to God, and then he needs to be informed how he must turn. So reasons are brought forward, everything is explained, opened up and elucidated.
- Then third, Baxter rips up the conscience of his hearers as with a ploughshare. Almost every word and sentence is a challenge to the conscience of sinful men. It drives them out of every refuge of lies and summons them before God's judgment-seat, exposes them and makes them see their need to flee to Christ.
- Then fourthly, we should point out how Baxter was entirely thorough. He leaves nothing unsaid. He says it and says it again. He is not afraid of multiplying his exhortations. He covers the ground this way and that, realising that the sinner is all too ready to find refuge in other places than in Christ. So there is a thoroughness which marks everything that he says.
- Then fifthly, we notice his clarity of method. In a few words we summarise it like this: he announces his main text and then he states the doctrines which he is to draw from the text. These doctrines he then proves and having proved them from Scripture he opens them up and gives a relentless application, bending this way and that way in order to catch the hearers and to look at their various excuses, to answer their objections and to collect them all, as it were, like a flock of wandering sheep and bring them to the Shepherd. The method is clear: there is nothing obscure in what he is saying.
- Then sixthly, he deals with primary truths. He is talking all the time about heaven and hell, about God and Christ, about faith and repentance, about sin and the evils of it, about the judgment to come, about God's knowledge of men's hearts. With these great and central gospel facts he corners and sets upon his hearers and he is in full pursuit like a lion after his prey.
- Then seventhly, we may notice his deep compassion and profound pastoral concern. He cared deeply for the lost state of men. He had a burning heart of love to Christless sinners. This adds an unction and gives peculiar tenderness and sweetness even to his most direct approaches to the consciences of men.
- Eighthly, he is careful to answer every conceivable objection. We have seen and noticed this point. The Puritan evangelist removed every shred and piece of self-righteousness from the sinner. He stripped him bare, took away his armour and left him naked in the sight of God. It was a great gift which they had and something from which we can all learn today.
- Ninthly, we have to mention that he was a past master at unmasking sin. He shows sin to be exceeding sinful. He shows that it is delightful only when seen in a false light and that the essential character of sin is hateful and detestable. God is the enemy of those who persist in it. He makes sin appear to be sin.
- Then tenthly, he presents God in Christ as supremely delightful and desirable. He does this, of course, especially in that wonderful book The Saint's Everlasting Rest, but he does it everywhere and he does it in the book which has been our centre of attention today, A Call to the Unconverted.
What profound lessons we have all to learn today from Richard Baxter as a preacher of Christ's gospel. We surely cannot hesitate to affirm that we need in Britain today another Baxter. We need men who can preach God's Word to the masses like this.
Picture Kidderminster again in Baxter's time: the Sabbath days that he speaks about in which the crowds of people on the Lord's Day were either singing the psalms as they went about or else speaking to one another of the content of the sermons. What an extraordinary difference between that and the typical Sunday we know of today in our country! Kidderminster I am afraid, is no longer as it was in Baxter's time, but then is anywhere in our country?
O for more men like this! O for such a preacher as Richard Baxter was! O for this plain, searching dealing with the souls of sinners! O that God would raise up a thousand Richard Baxters and that we would have in our pulpits men of this calibre, and in the open air, on the radio and on our television, preaching in every corner of the land! May God hasten the day when such things shall be and when Baxter's gospel, in all its plainness and power, shall be trumpeted again across the housetops and in the churches of our beloved land!