I’m tempted to say that every Christian pastor needs to read Richard Baxter’s Reformed Pastor. We need to read it more than other pastoral manuals. And we need to read it more than once. After all, for what other book can it be said that merely reading the table of contents could change your life?
Already in his detailed summary of the book, Baxter begins his powerful and practical case for pastoring the flock of God in person. Puritans had finally won their long fight for freedom to preach. In the glow of this victory, Baxter realized that the task of visiting and instructing individuals and families had become so widely neglected that the neglect was no longer considered a problem.
Readers will quickly see how this is relevant for us today: visiting with God’s people, teaching them one on one, being in their homes — or as Baxter sometimes did, asking them to come and meet with him — this kind of personal pastoral work is in many places a lost art. And yet it is often the best way, sometimes the only way, of helping those who do not even know how much they need help.
It means something that Baxter, famous for plugging visitation, was also famous for preaching. He lived as one who had heaven to win or lose just as much as those around him, and that made him relatable. And he preached, he said, as a dying man to dying men, and that made him earnest. His local church was sometimes full beyond its capacity, and he was constantly sought as a preacher at venues around England. He was big deal, a minor celebrity before there were major celebrities, a conference speaker if they had done that sort of thing in those days.
And yet, although he had to preach constantly, he spent two full days per week — or at minimum two half-days — visiting with individuals and families in his town. When he was worried that he might not have enough time to visit his large flock, he cut his own wages so that he could hire an assistant pastor — not so that the other man could to do the visiting on behalf of the “senior pastor,” but so that Baxter himself could better reach the many souls under his charge.
We learn these details from his own massive autobiography and from The Reformed Pastor itself. As the story goes, Baxter had become convinced that he needed to visit with people in his church and neighborhood, and that he needed to try to teach adults and children ignorant of the Christian faith. Once he decided that this was his own duty as a pastor, he figured that it would be just as well if all the ministers in his region did the same, so he gathered them together and persuaded them to join him! (I like this kind of ambition.)
Baxter’s fellow ministers in return had two sensible concerns — the kinds of questions that someone reading Baxter’s book might have too. First, how might people respond to this personal pastoral care? Second, how should it be done?
Baxter addressed the first problem by writing a letter to members of churches that other ministers could themselves use — a piece persuading them of the need for and blessing of shepherds coming among the sheep, “for we were afraid lest they would not have submitted to it.”1 The Reformed Pastor offers counsel to pastors on how to help church members see the blessing of pastoral care. Baxter then planned to preach a practical sermon to area pastors, encouraging them in the work and showing them how it could be done. When he fell ill and could not preach, he simply expanded the planned sermon into a large book — the sort of thing he seemed to do all the time.
The Reformed Pastor has a series of chapters or parts. It begins with the pastor’s oversight of himself, for Baxter wants the pastor to practice what he preaches. The next part of the book turns to the oversight of the church, and why we must chase after the unconverted, help those who are questioning the faith, build up the saints, and visit families, the sick, and the wandering. The spirit in which this is to be done is considered at length, and powerful motives for investing in the flock are carefully catalogued in yet another section of the book.
Other parts follow, and I suppose that this is as good a place as any to acknowledge that, in addition to sporting a long title (Gildas Silvianus; The Reformed Pastor. Shewing the nature of the pastoral work; especially in private instruction and catechizing), this is also a long book. I recommend reading it in installments. Readers should not race to get knowledge about pastoral care, but slowly reflect on Baxter’s counsel, seeking wisdom as to how to apply it in our own situation (Should we add phone calls to in-person visits? Should we have Zoom calls for those living far from the church?). The book is also best read in installments because the chapters read more like essays on overlapping themes. Baxter is much more concerned about being thorough than being concise — for he returns more than once to motives for pastoral care, objections to pastoral care, and practical how-to tips for visitation.
The tips that Baxter offers are gold nuggets with which to stuff your pockets on your next visit. How can you make your questions maximally friendly? Unintimidating? Clear? Baxter will tell you how, supplying sample dialogues and detailed suggestions.
“For our own good, we sometimes must do the work that only God can see.”
Of course, it is not merely our words that will prove useful. Baxter understood that when we use our time like this, when we invest in people’s lives, we are at some level purchasing their affection with what is very dear to us — our time and convenience. Baxter’s first biographer (other than himself!) wrote that “his unwearied industry to do good to his flock, was answer’d by correspondent love and thankfulness.”2 Nor is the good intended in visiting the flock the only good reaped, for this kind of ministry can also protect our hearts: Baxter comments, perceptively, that the “pulpit is the hypocritical minister’s stage,” as is the press.3 For our own good, we sometimes must do the work that only God can see.
For Current and Future Pastors
I first read Baxter’s book for pastors 25 years ago, and have regularly reread sections ever since. I first started having pastoral interns in 2006, and every intern was required to read part or even much of the book. In later years, I’ve been serving as a seminary professor, and every class on pastoral theology has to read Chrysostom and Gregory the Great. They have to study the works of the Protestant Reformers on pastoral ministry and the best of nineteenth-century manuals on pastoral care. But above all, they must read Baxter.
Baxter always had an eye out for young men being called into pastoral work. He wrote letters matching up godly teachers with godly students, and he kept an eye on the progress of those students over time.4 I find him ideal reading for pastors in the making. But Baxter wrote his book for working pastors especially — pastors who are wondering how to reach neighbors who don’t know Christ, pastors who find that people are going out the back door as fast as they are coming in the front, pastors who discover that the people who do stay don’t seem to be learning.
Non-pastors can benefit from the work too: the woman who would later become my wife read this book as a new Christian, and I can see from her marginal notes that she learned from this book how better to pray for pastors. Indeed, a slip of paper left inside these pages, one that escaped my notice until now, reveals that it was while reading of Baxter’s care for his congregation that Emily understood that she needed to become more involved in a local church.
This is wonderful providence, because the book is not really intended for new Christians. Indeed, the original title signifies that this was intended to be a tough read. Gildas Silvianus is a reference to two church fathers whom Baxter admired for their outspoken style. He respected one for his courage in exposing the faults of the British, and the other for his rebukes of the Romans.5 Baxter considered their work and his work as examples of plain speaking. Truth be told, sections also serve as examples of his well-known legalistic streak. Certainly, along with his invaluable counsel, he could have offered some more encouragement to ministers seeing their pastoral failings and needing grace and forgiveness.
What is the best version of the work to read? The 1656 edition, expanded in 1657, was abridged in 1829 and later reprinted by the Banner of Truth. The abridgement is sensible, although something is lost in the flattening of Baxter’s style (I think we lose something in changing Baxter’s description of pastoral care from “so happy a work” to “so great a work”!).6
“Read the book carefully, consider Baxter’s counsel prayerfully, and begin the work joyfully.”
A more recent abridgement, at once more sympathetic and more severe, is found in the recent edition produced by Crossway under the expert editorship of Tim Cooper. As I wrote in the foreword to that book, “In assigning sections of Baxter’s Reformed Pastor I always felt like I was coming to the text with a cleaver, butchering the book by assigning chunks here and there.” By contrast, “Dr. Cooper has approached his task with a surgeon’s knife, giving the book the slimmer look that most bodies don’t need but which some books do. In this case, when sewn back together, the effect is impressive.”7
Whatever the edition, the main thing is to read the book carefully, consider Baxter’s counsel prayerfully, and begin the work joyfully, for the pastor who does this humble work is the man the King delights to honor.