The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter was on my “these books are on every big kahuna’s list of important books by dead guys so I guess I ought to get around to reading them” list, so this book ended up being the ”great book by a dead guy” for the month of April, partially as a hat-tip to the upcoming Together for the Gospel Conference this week in Louisville that I will be attending. Although I have not asked any of the speakers, I am relatively sure that all of them have read this book (I know that Mark Dever has because he recently compared Baxter to Beethoven here).
The Reformed Pastor was actually very different than I anticipated, being nothing about reformed theology or even theology at all. “Reformed Pastor” actually means reforming pastors, using the word the same way we would say “reformed hardened criminal.” Hmmm. I guess that already tells you this book isn’t one of those “feel-good” books.
Richard Baxter was famous for two things: being a tremendous pastor to a town in England, and getting constantly into trouble for being so blunt that he would make enemies of his friends. This book is about being a tremendous pastor, and it is very very blunt.
It is an extended lecture he proposed to give to a local ministerial association in 1656. The book uses as its foundation and framework Acts 20:28: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” The book first deals with pastors “taking heed” to their own spiritual state and life, and then turns its attention to taking heed to all the flock.
As to the topic of taking heed to their own spiritual lives, Baxter starts at the beginning, with making sure the reader is truly a Christian, and progresses through disciplines, qualifications, and indwelling sin. He next emphasizes the reasons why a pastor must be rigorous in his own spiritual life. He expounds reasons such as how many eyes are on the man of God, how difficult the work is, and how the honor of Christ depends on it. He reminds his reader of many practical insights, such as “all that a minister does is a kind of preaching” and to avoid the error of men who “study hard to preach exactly, and study little or not at all to live exactly.”
After dealing with the pastor’s personal life, he tackles the pastor’s responsibility to shepherd his congregation. His most radical recommendation, radical back then and almost unthinkable to American churches today, is for a pastor to personally visit and catechize people (for those unfamiliar with the term, it means to teach a list of several hundred questions and answers of basic theology). Specifically, he says a pastor should catechize each and every family, in the pastor’s entire town, each and every year. In Baxter’s town that meant 2000 people in 800 families, that he and his associate pastor took two full days every week to go through the whole town every year.
He bluntly states, “If the pastoral office consists of overseeing all the flock, then surely the number of souls under the care of each pastor must not be greater than he is able to take such heed as to here is required.” Yea, and I’m sure the pastoral staff of most churches personally know every member of their flock. And yes, I know that we consider Sunday School teachers or small group leaders to be “overseeing the flock”— but how many of those leaders in our churches see themselves as shepherds, have been theologically trained and commissioned as overseers, one-on-one ask them regularly about their spiritual life, and are seen by the members of their class or group as having spiritual responsibility over them?
But it was a radical idea even back then, so much so that Baxter takes dozens of pages to specifically give all the reasons why every pastor should devote himself to this universal visitation and dozens more pages to specifically answer a whole series of objections to the work. In short, he says that he had found that an hour of focused questions concerning a person’s spiritual state was often more helpful than years of listening to sermons for their spiritual growth. It’s hard to argue with that conclusion, and harder to argue with the marked growth (in both numbers and spiritual maturity) that history shows that his church had under his pastorship.
As to objections to why not do it, he says that they all are variations on the theme of “I’m too lazy or greedy” which he viciously attacks as unworthy of any follower of Christ, let alone a pastor. To laziness, he asks “Are these works to be done with a careless mind, or a lazy hand? O see, then, that this work be done with all your might!”
To greed, he states that if a pastor has too many families in his church for him to visit individually, then he should hire another pastor out of his own salary to help him. He challenges, “What! Do you call yourselves ministers of the gospel, and yet are the souls of men so base in your eyes, that you had rather they eternally perish, than that you and your family should live in a low and poor condition?” Whoa there, Baxter must have never read Your Best Life Now!
The book is chock full with other helpful insights and wry comments, such as “All our teaching must be as plain and simple as possible.” “Is it not a pity, then, that our hearts are not as orthodox as our heads?” “It is a contradiction in terms, to be a Christian, and not humble.” “We must study how to convince and get within men, and how to bring each truth to the quick.” “In the name of God, brethren, labour to awaken your own hearts, before you go to the pulpit, that you may be fit to awaken the hearts of sinners.” And my list could go on and on and on. I have already discussed his specific instructions on personal evangelism in another article.
After reading The Reformed Pastor, I have to agree with Spurgeon, Packer, Dever and all the other big kahunas— this is absolutely essential reading for any man called to the ministry, to pin him against the wall and make him take stock of his ministry, his priorities, and his life before God, and to make him deeply consider about how best to “take heed over” himself and all his flock.