The Pastoral Benefit of Baxter and Burroughs
We scarcely need to add to the existing praise for the two puritan pastors before us today — Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) and Richard Baxter (1615-1691). We can allow a few old saints to speak for themselves:
“I have made, next to the Bible, Baxter’s Reformed Pastor my rule as regards the object of my ministry” – John Angell James
“it is a work worthy of being printed in letters of gold; it deserves, at least, to be engraven on the heart of every minister.” – William Brown
And it was Baxter himself who said he wished “all the Independents [were] like Jeremiah Burroughs.”
As these men labored and pastored in the first half of the 17th century, they took great care of souls – their own souls and the souls of their sheep. And, fortunately for us, they wrote and preached about it. And herein lies their benefit to pastors: With clarity, depth, and energy, they press the minister to take seriously their most foundational and necessary responsibilities. To put it plainly, they help us put first things first.
Let me briefly highlight a few of these “first things” by referencing their most influential works, Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment and Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor:
Necessity of tending to our own souls.
These men saw that tending to one’s own heart was of first importance to the minister. Baxter writes, “Take heed to yourselves, lest you perish, while you call upon others to take heed of perishing; and lest you famish yourselves while you prepare food for them… Oh what aggravated misery is this, to perish in the midst of plenty! – to famish with the bread of life in our hands, while we offer it to others, and urge it on them!” Likewise, Burroughs writes, “A Christian’s profession is to be dead to the world and to be alive to God, that is his profession, to have his life hid with Christ in God, to satisfy himself in God. What! Is this your profession? And yet if you have not everything you want, you murmur and are discontented. In that you even deny your profession.”
Baxter models the reverence and fervency which ought to mark our ministries.
The Reformed Pastor is an extended exposition of 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.” Baxter directs his seriousness and zeal toward a few areas in particular:
The minister’s preaching
“I know not how it is with others, but the most reverent preacher, that speaks as if he saw the face of God, doth more affect my heart, though with common words, than an irreverent man with the most exquisite preparations.”
The minister’s evangelism
“Take heed for yourselves, for you have a heaven to win or lose, and souls that must be happy or miserable forever.”
The minister’s one-on-one conversation
“I have found by experience, that some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse in half and hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten years’ public preaching.”
Burroughs shows that contentment in Christ is to have everything. Period.
The Rare Jewel is a collection of sermons on Phil 4:11-13, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” He defines contentment as “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every situation.” Burroughs helps us learn contentment in a few pointed ways:
Burroughs unpacks the mystery of having great contentment while possessing little.
“Mark here lies the mystery of [contentment], A little in the world will content a Christian for his passage, but all the world, and ten thousand times more, will not content a Christian for his portion.” It’s contentment in Christ that will keep us steadily growing, through hardship and through plenty, in the decades to come.
Burroughs shows us that studying the temptations and joys of our hearts is a crucial part of the process of learning contentment.
“You must learn to know your own hearts well, to be good students of your own hearts… You will never get any skill in this mystery of contentment, except you study the book of your own hearts”
Burroughs’ Potent word-pictures
“It is a sign your heart is glued to the world, that when God would take you off, your heart tears, if God, by an affliction, should come to take anything in the world from you, and you can part from it with ease, without tearing, it is a sign then that your heart is not glued to the world.”
“To be content as a result of some external thing is like warming a man’s clothes by the fire, but to be content through an inward disposition of the soul is like the warmth that a man’s clothes have from the natural heat of his body. A man who is healthy in body puts on his clothes, and perhaps at first on a cold morning they feel cold. But after he has had them on a little while they are warm. Now, how did they get warm? They were not near the fire? No, this came from the natural head of his body. Now when a sickly man, the natural heat of whose body has deteriorated, puts on his clothes, they do not get hot after a long time. He must warm them by the fire, and even then they will soon be cold again.”
So go ahead, feast on the wealth of wisdom from these fellow pastors! Admit yourselves under these doctors of the soul. Take these truths, and boundless more, and press them on your heart, until you see afresh the weight of your calling and the sweetness of your Christ. And I pray that through embracing the works of these two men, you too will see that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim 6:6).