This morning, once again, the rich and meaningful words of a long-dead saint hit me hard. The words were written by Richard Baxter way back in 1656 in his classic work, The Reformed Pastor. Baxter’s book was titled as it was not as a defense of pastoring in the Reformed theological tradition, but rather as a wake-up call to pastors who needed to revive, renew, and reform their understanding of and approach to ministry. It seems that they had gotten off track. The book is as relevant today as it was 365 years ago.
Richard Baxter’s message to those of us who lead, both then and now, is based on Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”
As we stand in the doorway ready to pass through into another year, most of us are engaging in at least a little bit of self-examination. If you are like me, you want to get a fresh start by resolving to do better, to improve, and to correct course where needed. And that’s where Baxter’s words from this morning seem like a timely directive for all of us who are engaged in some kind of ministry, youth workers included. If you would, take some time to read carefully and to ponder Baxter’s directive from The Reformed Pastor (pages 124-126) as you prepare to enter 2022. This is so, so good! . . .
The nature of our office requireth us to take heed to the flock.’ What else are we overseers for “Bishop” is a title which intimates more of ‘labor than of honor,’ says Polydore Virgil. To be a bishop, or pastor, is not to be set up as an idol for the people to bow to, or as idle slow bellies,’ to live to our fleshly delight and ease; but it is to be the guide of sinners to heaven. It is a sad case that men should be of a calling of which they know not the nature, and undertake they know not what. Do these men consider what they have undertaken, that live in ease and pleasure, and have time to take their superfluous recreations and to spend an hour and more at once, in loitering, or in vain discourse, when so much work doth lie upon their hands? Brethren, do you consider what you have taken upon you? Why, you have undertaken the conduct, under Christ, of a band of his soldiers against principalities and powers, and spiritual wickedness in high places.’ You must lead them on to the sharpest conflicts; you must acquaint them with the enemies’ stratagems and assaults; you must watch yourselves, and keep them watching. If you miscarry, they and you may perish. You have a subtle enemy, and therefore you must be wise. You have a vigilant enemy, and therefore you must be vigilant. You have a malicious and violent and unwearied enemy, and therefore you must be resolute, courageous and indefatigable. You are in a crowd of enemies, encompassed by them on every side, and if you heed one and not all, you will quickly fall. And oh, what a world of work have you to do! Had you but one ignorant old man or woman to teach, what a hard task would it be, even though they should be willing to learn! But if they be as unwilling as they are ignorant, how much more difficult will it prove! But to have such a multitude of ignorant persons, as most of us have, what work will it find us! What a pitiful life is it to have to reason with men that have almost lost the use of reason, and to argue with them that neither understand themselves nor you! O brethren, what a world of wickedness have we to contend against in one soul; and what a number of these worlds! And when you think you have done something, you leave the seed among the fowls of the air; wicked men are at their elbows to rise up and contradict all you have said. You speak but once to a sinner, for ten or twenty times that the emissaries of Satan speak to them.
Moreover, how easily do the business and cares of the world choke the seed which you have sown. And if the truth had no enemy but what is in themselves, how easily will a frozen carnal heart extinguish those sparks which you have been long in kindling! yea, for want of fuel, and further help, they will go out of themselves. And when you think your work doth happily succeed, and have seen men confessing their sins, and promising reformation, and living as new creatures and zealous converts, alas! they may, after all this, prove unsound and false at the heart, and such as were but superficially changed and took up new opinions and new company, without a new heart. O how many, after some considerable change, are deceived by the profits and honors of the world, and are again entangled by their former lusts! How many do but change a disgraceful way of flesh-pleasing, for a way that is less dishonorable, and maketh not so great a noise in their consciences! How many grow proud before they acquire a thorough knowledge of religion; and, confident in the strength of their unfurnished intellects, greedily snatch at every error that is presented to them under the name of truth; and, like chickens that straggle from the hen, are carried away by that infernal kite, while they proudly despise the guidance and advice of those that Christ hath set over them for their safety! O brethren, what a field of work is there before us! Not a person that you see but may find you work. In the saints themselves, how soon do the Christian graces languish if you neglect them; and how easily are they drawn into sinful ways, to the dishonor of the gospel, and to their own loss and sorrow! If this be the work of a minister, you may see what a life he hath to lead. Let us, then, be up and doing, with all our might; difficulties must quicken, not discourage us in so necessary a work. If we cannot do all, let us do what we can; for, if we neglect it, woe to us, and to the souls committed to our care! Should we pass over all these other duties, and, by a plausible sermon only, think to prove ourselves faithful ministers, and to put off God and man with such a shell and vizor, our reward will prove as superficial as our work.