Baxter’s Plea for Unity Among Pastors and Churches

Fewer books have had a greater shaping force on my convictions about pastoral ministry than Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor (“Reformed” is not used in a theological sense: it means something like “changed for the better”).

At the close of an especially stirring section (“The manner of this oversight”) Baxter pleads that his fellow pastors seek to promote unity among themselves instead of splintering into factions based on petty differences. The consistency of our human nature to seek self-aggrandizement by enlarging the distinctions that make us differ from other churches makes Baxter’s words both timeless and timely. But since Baxter wrote over 350 years ago, his vocabulary and syntax may be challenging for the modern reader. Accordingly, I have taken the liberty to “translate” Baxter’s exhortation, using contemporary wording, while attempting to retain the force and vigor of his argument.

As fellow pastors, we are allies in a common cause. Therefore, we must be diligent to cultivate union and communion among ourselves and seek to promote the unity and peace of the churches we oversee. We must realize how critical this unity and peace is to the wellbeing of the church as a whole, the strengthening of our common cause, the good of the individual church members, and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.

Instead of being instigators of conflicts among churches, pastors—of all people—should themselves feel the sting of these divisive wounds. They must accept as part of their calling the responsibility to prevent and heal divisions. They must be willing to work day and night to discover ways to close up breaches between churches. Instead of bending their ears to divisive rumors, they must listen to ideas for mending conflicts, and even come up with ideas of their own and be willing to carry them out.

To bring about such unity, pastors must have a clear grasp of the ancient simplicity of the Christian faith, and of the foundation and center of universal Christian unity. We have an inbred arrogance that turns zeal for suppressing error and maintaining the truth and into a pretense for wrecking and ripping apart the church of Christ. Pastors must learn to recognize and abhor this tendency in themselves. They must be willing to impose no other rule than the rule of Scripture, which takes precedence over church confessions and other writings. Pastors must know the difference between certainties and uncertainties, essentials and non-essentials, universal truths and personal opinions.

When dealing with controversies, pastors must be careful listeners. Some doctrinal errors are real; others are merely semantic. Let us not accuse a brother of heresy before we understand what he is actually saying. We must patiently get to the bottom of an issue so we may see the real point of difference, and not make it seem greater than it actually is. Instead of fighting with our brothers, let us combine our forces against our common enemy. Let us fellowship with each other, communicate with each other, and hold meetings together without letting smaller differences of judgment come between us. As much as we are able, let us do the work of God together. The purposes of our organizations should not be to make laws, but to avoid misunderstandings, to mutually encourage each other, to maintain love and fellowship, and to be unified in the work God has charged us to do.

Is God’s Plan to Keep You Safe and Comfortable?

When preparing to preach on Romans 8:28 last Sunday, I was reminded of an imaginary dialogue I have seen floating around the web from time to time. Many people have found some sense of comfort in this dialogue, supposing that it illustrates God’s good sovereignty at work in the lives of his children.

The dialogue goes something like this:

Person: Why did You let so much stuff happen to me today?

God: What do you mean?

Person: Well, I woke up late. My car took forever to start. At lunch they made my sandwich wrong, and I had to wait. On the way home my phone went dead just as I picked up a call. And to top of it all off, when I got home, I just wanted to soak my feet in my new foot massager and relax. But it wouldn’t work! Nothing went right today! Why did you do that?

God: Let’s see. . . . The death angel was at your bed this morning and I had to send one of my angels to battle him for your life. I let you sleep through that. I didn’t let your car start because there was a drunk driver on your route that would have hit you if you were on the road. There was salmonella in the first sandwich that was made for you, and I didn’t want you to catch that. I knew you couldn’t afford to miss work. Your phone went dead because the person that was calling was going to give false witness about what you said on that call. I didn’t even let you talk to them so you would be covered. Oh, and that foot massager? It had a shortage that was going to throw out all of the power in your house tonight. I didn’t think you wanted to be in the dark.

Person: I’m sorry, God.

God: Don’t doubt that My plan for your day is always better than your plan.

Of course, it is possible for God to intervene in specific ways to keep people from getting sick or hurt or dying. But the dialogue leaves us with the impression that God is working all things for the “good” of our staying safe and healthy. It says that our consolation is to be found in believing that God allows some minor inconveniences in order to shield us from greater disasters.

But that’s a serious misunderstanding of God and his plan for his children.

Because sometimes the drunk driver does hit the van filled with children. Sometimes the sandwich does poison us so that we get sick and miss work and lose pay. And sometimes people do use our words to destroy our reputation. And sometimes the divorce papers do show up on the kitchen table. And sometimes the diagnosis comes as cancer. And sometimes the power goes out and everything goes dark.

If the outcome of God’s plan is the “good” of keeping you healthy and wealthy and comfortable, then it wasn’t good for the Apostle Peter because he died a martyr’s death. And it wasn’t good enough for Paul because he was beheaded. And it wasn’t good enough for Jesus because he died on a cross. And it isn’t good for the many Christians, past and present, whom God allows to suffer in excruciating ways.

The problem with the above dialogue is not just that it misses the point of Romans 8:28. It also scorns the glory of God, mangles the plan of God, and exchanges hope in God for a pitiful, contemptible counterfeit.

No, God is not a genie who is busy keeping you from salmonella and drunk drivers and cancer and power outages. He is infinitely better than that. He can use those things for a higher purpose that will satisfy you infinitely more than health and safety and comfort—and, most importantly, will bring glory to himself. The “good” of Romans 8:28 is not comfort and safety, but his children being conformed to the image of Christ for the glory of God (Romans 8:29).

Your ultimate conformity to the image of Christ is the only thing that simultaneously exalts God and thrills every part of your being.

In light of that—not some imaginary dialogue in which your inconveniences are justified by God’s shielding you from disasters—we can say with the Apostle Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s “Personal Reformation”

“Start by reading something that will warm your spirit,” Martin Lloyd-Jones advises preachers who struggle in their prayer lives. “Get rid of a coldness that may have developed in your spirit. You have to learn how to kindle a flame in your spirit, to warm yourself up, to give yourself a start.”

I’ve taken that advice to heart, and Robert Murray M’Cheyne is my kindling of choice. As a young man, he wrote out what he called his “personal reformation”—a continual and deep examination of his heart and behavior. There were three parts to this “personal reformation,” highlights of which I include below.

1. To maintain a conscience void of offense

“I ought to confess my sin the moment I see it to be sin. . . . If I go on with the duty, leaving the sin unconfessed, I go on with a burdened conscience, and add sin to sin.”

2. To be filled with the Holy Spirit

“I ought to study the Comforter more—His Godhead, His love, His Almightiness. I have found by experience that nothing sanctifies me so much as meditating on the Comforter, as John 14:16. And yet how seldom I do this! Satan keeps me from it. . . . If I would be filled with the Spirit, I must read the Bible more, pray more, and watch more.”

3. To gain entire likeness to Christ

“I am persuaded that nothing is thriving in my soul unless it is growing. ‘Grow in grace.’ ‘Lord, increase our faith.’ ‘Forgetting the things that are behind.’ . . . I ought to strive for more purity, humility, patience under suffering, love. ‘Make me Christ-like in all things,’ should be my constant prayer.”

How Christian Suffering Is Different

My current preaching series in Romans 8 has led me to examine the theme of Christians and their suffering. Suffering for a believer is radically different than the suffering of those who are not “in Christ,” and we see this difference in three important ways:

  1. When believers suffer, they suffer “with Christ” (Romans 8:17). This doesn’t mean only that Christ is present in our suffering: it means also that Christ transforms our suffering into something meaningful and full of purpose.
  2. When believers suffer, they suffer temporarily. The transitory nature of our suffering finds expression here in the words “this present time” (8:18) as well as in 2 Corinthians 4:17 (“this momentary light affliction”). Our fleeting suffering stands in contrast with the tragic suffering of those who persist in unbelief, whose suffering will be forever.
  3. When believers suffer, their suffering is the path to glory. This is the theme that Paul takes up in 8:18-30, in which he weighs “the suffering of this present time” against the eternal weight of glory—a glory so immense that the creation, the Spirit, and we ourselves groan for it to be consummated. In light of this magnificent glory, we may, with Paul, “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (8:18).

As I study and preach through this section of Scripture, I marvel at how timely and relevant God’s Word is—not only for my church but also for me personally. Whether intense or mild, our suffering can prompt us to wonder, “Is this really worth it? Why would God allow this?” This passage is like a bugle call to hope and assurance.

Yes, God lovingly orchestrates our suffering for our good!

Yes, it is so “worth it” that present suffering doesn’t even register on the scales.

Yes, infinite, pain-eclipsing joy awaits us when we are finally conformed to the image of his Son.

That’s glory.

You can find a recording of the sermon I preached on this passage here.

Read Less. Reflect More.

“Readers are leaders and leaders are readers.”

Yes, but that dictum can be misleading. One does not become a leader simply by reading. And one does not become a better leader simply by reading more.

But what about those successful people who post their reading lists on social media near the end of the year? “Here are the 623 books I read this year,” they proclaim to their wide-eyed admirers. I’ll grant that there some people intelligent enough to read that many books and profit from it. But I think those people are few and far between.

And I am not one of them.

Reading serves many purposes, but the purpose of the best kind of reading—the kind that improves you as a person—is to help you think. And if you are reading so much that you are not thinking, you need to read less, not more.

In saying this, I’m in good company. In his essay “Of Studies,” Francis Bacon counsels us to read “to weigh and consider” — an exercise that takes time and mental effort. “Some books,” he continues, “are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Again, the purpose of reading is not to swell your brain with facts, much less to give you a cause to boast, but to discourse with great ideas, and in so doing, to raise you above the level you were. Not all books have that element of greatness, and even those that do possess them only in some parts. (This is, by the way, one reason why I think we should feel no obligation to finish a book that is proving itself to be a waste of time. Get what you need out of a book, then get out of the book!)

Another author hammers this point with even more force: “The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from the other passions that monopolize the soul. . . . The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading” (A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life).

Of course, the title of this post must be qualified. You must read—a lot, perhaps— to stay current in your discipline. But don’t panic that you aren’t keeping up with all the tweets, all the blogs, all the new books.  If you are reading so much that you have little time for deep reflection, then read less and reflect more. After all, the ideas we think are new are usually just old ones recently remembered.

Center on the most important books.

Most of all, learn to think well.

The Secret to a Productive Morning

The early morning hours are the most precious hours of my day.

After a shower and some coffee, morning is when I most alert, most creative, and most energized. Out of every hour of the day, I will protect mornings most fiercely.

But my mornings also have a couple big enemies. First, too much sleep. Second, the dozens of menial tasks that need to be done to get ready for the day.

Here’s the sad reality: the most precious time of my day can be ruined by oversleeping, or by the need to get things ready for the day.

But I discovered this simple principle. The best way to have a productive morning is to have a disciplined evening.

That’s it. Be disciplined enough to get everything you can possibly do the night before: clothes laid out, coffee ready. I even lay my Bible open to the passage I’m going to read. And—this is important—go to sleep when you should. Discipline yourself to use your horizontal time for actually sleeping, not for using your phone. Let the wise be warned.

If it helps, think about it this way. You become a servant the night before so you can be a king in the morning.

If this isn’t already your habit, try it. Your morning self will thank your evening self for freeing up those most precious hours of the day.

A Pastor’s Ministry Focus

Before I began pastoring my current church, a friend recommended The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry. And how thankful I am for his recommendation!

Here’s an excerpt I especially appreciate:

“As pastors, we must resolve to study, live, and teach the Scriptures. Our people need us to know, breathe, and abide in the Word of God. They need us to have a daily encounter with the living Christ through his Word, because it is from this Word that we have something to give them. We teach, reprove, correct, train, and equip on this foundation. Apart from knowledge of the Word, we have no competence in the ministry” (from The New Pastor’s Handbook by Jason Helopoulos)

Enough said.