Although Richard Baxter was a chaplain in Cromwell’s Model Army (Continued from ET, November 2015), he was at heart a Royalist.
At Coventry he declared his allegiance to the parliamentary cause, but later said that he was sorry he had done so and wrote a 32 point apology for it! He gave as a reason for becoming an army chaplain his fear of the rise of religious sects (meaning Baptists, Independents and such like!). We note though his concern for church unity.
It is another strange contradiction that his heart never warmed towards Oliver Cromwell. However, he paid him this tribute: ‘I perceived that it was his design to do good in the main and promote the gospel and interests of godliness more than any had done in this land before him’. And later he confessed that ‘under Cromwell I had liberty, but, under Charles II, I only have liberty to write’.
In 1658 Oliver Cromwell died and was succeeded by his son Richard. But there were moves afoot to re-establish the monarchy, calling Charles II back from French exile. The French Protestants assured the English Protestants that Charles II was favourable to their cause and there was no danger. History was to show how wrong they were!
Baxter was torn between loyalty to the throne and misgivings for the future. He was in favour of the king’s return but not without anxiety as to the king’s character. He said, ‘We all look to be silenced and some or many of us imprisoned or banished, but yet will do our part to restore the king, because no foreseen consequence must hinder us from our duty’.
Shortly after, came the Great Ejection of 1662, when 2000 nonconformist ministers were put out from their pulpits on ‘Black Bartholomew’s Day’, as it came to be called. Baxter was to suffer two periods of imprisonment after this, including under the notorious Judge Jeffreys.
After the Civil War, he returned to Kidderminster and began his greatest life’s work. George Whitefield visited Kidderminster 83 years later (1743) and wrote in his journal, ‘I was greatly refreshed to find what a sweet savour of good Mr Baxter’s doctrine, works and discipline remain to this day’.
This is a deserved testimony to Baxter’s enduring work, carried out against the backcloth of his continued ill health. It is interesting and amusing to read of the medical remedies he resorted to, and a wonder he didn’t kill himself with them! One required him to swallow a gold bullet of 20-30 shillings weight, a ‘cure’ from which he nearly died! Another was a potion from mould extracted from a human skull!
Yet Baxter toiled on as the Lord gave him strength. He preached twice each Sunday before the Civil War, and once each Sunday in his Kidderminster ministry. He also preached every Thursday for about an hour.
He said of the focus of his preaching: ‘The thing which I daily open to [the congregation] and with greatest importunity labour to imprint upon their minds was the great fundamental principle of Christianity — even a right knowledge and belief of, and subjection to, and love to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, and love to all men and concord with the church and one another’.
‘They must be led on, but not so as to leave the weak behind, and so as to be truly subservient to the great points of faith, hope and love, holiness and unity, which must be still always consistently inculcated at the beginning and end of all’.
Two days every week were given to the visiting parishioners, a work he shared with his curate. He mapped out the parish and, each week, they together covered about 14 families. It seems that the assistant went to the various homes, took the people through the points of the catechism and questioned them on the Sunday and Thursday sermons. Those interviewed by Baxter were seen in his own house.
A typical weekly programme for Baxter was: Monday and Tuesday given to visits and interviews with families; preaching every Thursday morning, after which several ministers spent the afternoon with him in study and prayer; every Thursday evening neighbours met him in his own house for questions and discussion.
Once a week he had meetings for young people and prayed at length with them. At other times in the week he met with other ministers. On the first Wednesday of every month he held a meeting for parish discipline.
On one occasion some families in Kidderminster firmly shut their doors when they expected Baxter to visit and firmly refused to see him. He met this challenge by arriving on a day they didn’t expect and going into a friendly home, with a view of the front door closed to him. He would then wait and watch for that door to open (even ajar) and would seize his opportunity!
Baxter’s ministry met with such great success and his congregation became so numerous that five galleries were built in Kidderminster’s parish church to accommodate the numbers. It is said that there was no disorder in the town during all the time of his ministry, and zeal for the things of God increased. He was generous with his money and the town doctor!
The one place we may legitimately criticise Richard Baxter is in his theology. For example, he wrote in The aphorisms of justification: ‘To affirm therefore that our evangelical or new covenant righteousness is in Christ and not in ourselves, or performed by Christ and not by ourselves, is such a piece of antinomian doctrine, that no man who knows the nature and difference of the covenant can possibly entertain, and which every Christian should abhor as insufferable’.
But the Reformers described justification by faith in very different terms. They maintained that to be ‘justified’ was to be, judicially, declared righteous in the sight of God, solely because of what Christ has wrought for us on the cross.
The opposing Roman Catholic position is that justification means not just declaring but making righteous. In other words, it coalesces justification and sanctification. And Baxter came dangerously close to the Roman Catholic position on justification.
He embraced an error called Amyraldianism which is similar to Arminianism. Arminians believe that faith is the ground (rather than the channel) of our justification. Richard Baxter came close to accepting faith as the ground of our acceptance with God. However, the ground of the believer’s acceptance with God is Christ’s great work on Calvary, with faith as merely the hand stretched out to receive the great gift.
Baxter’s neonomianism turned faith into a ‘new law’, in which exercising faith in Christ is equivalent to obeying the law of God and thereby brings God’s mercy.
In spite of these doctrinal faults, we can still learn much from Baxter. We can profit, first, from his emphasis on teaching. He said there were three rules for success in the ministry, ‘to teach the people, and to teach the people, and to teach the people’. He was greatly concerned that his congregation should be rooted in the great fundamentals of the faith.
Secondly, there was his emphasis on holiness of life. He believed we should be what we profess; our profession of faith should be matched by holiness of life.
Thirdly, there was his emphasis on evangelism. He preached ‘as a dying man to dying men’. Read his sermons and you will find them heart-melting. Great was his concern for the salvation of the lost. His book, The reformed pastor,is a challenge to ministers and churches to make the gospel known.
Then there was his emphasis on the Word of God as our supreme authority in all matters of faith and practice, and his high view of the ministerial office.
Baxter knew what it was to suffer for the faith. At one time his treasured library had to be sold to make ends meet. His goods were confiscated and he was even turned out of his sick bed. He had an argumentative spirit in some respects. He wanted unity, but sometimes the way he argued for it stirred up strife! But we admire his call to the essentials.
We are wary of some of his doctrinal deviations. We long for his pastoral heart. We want that concern for the lost that he had and would seek to emulate his selfless life.
Richard Baxter died on 8 December 1691, passing into the ‘saint’s everlasting rest’, which he had longed for during such a large portion of his difficult life.