The Call to Be a Reformed Pastor

Jason Hood teaches NT at Gordon-Conwell’s Boston campus and serves as director of Advanced Urban Ministerial Education. He and his family live in Boston. His most recent book is Imitating God in Christ.

The Reformed Pastor has nothing to do with the word “Reformed” as we commonly use it these days. It also has nothing to do with the word ‘pastor’ as that word is commonly used today. This famous Puritan work by 17th-century Anglican vicar Richard Baxter is not about pastors committed to TULIP and Reformed soteriology. In fact, Baxter’s theology is several steps removed from most models of Reformed orthodoxy. Nor does Baxter fit Eugene Peterson’s contemplative model, the “quivering mass of availability” (Hauerwas’s label) exhibited by British vicars on BBC dramas, or the CEO model prevalent in large American churches.

Baxter portrays a wholly different task. He runs the rule over himself and his contemporaries, using Acts 20:28 as his outline: “paying close attention to yourselves and all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made your overseers, tending the church which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Here’s a survey of a few characteristics of this book that helped it become a classic and text.

  • Baxter is far more readable than many of his contemporaries and many of our own. If you’re the “crack a book until you find an inspirational or brutal quote” sort, then you’ll like The Reformed Pastor. If you’re the type who appreciates a thorough and vigorous investigation of an important topic, with criticisms anticipated and plenty of logic brought to bear, you’ll love it. But don’t come expecting humorous anecdotes: “Of all preaching in the world, (that speaks not stark lies) I hate that preaching which tends to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with tickling levity, and affect them as stage-plays used to do, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence of the name of God.” As his preaching, so his writing.
  • In keeping with the beginning of Acts 20:28, “Keep watch over yourselves,” the book begins by attending not to the general duties of the task but to the pastor’s self-oversight: beating the gospel into one’s heart, hating sin, and avoiding common pitfalls in ministry. For “what speedier way is there for the depraving and undoing of the people than the corruption of their guides?”
  • Baxter spends the bulk of his book arguing for the transformation of pastoral and ecclesial practices. He puts the following hypothetical line in God’s mouth: “What is reformation, but the instructing and importunate persuading of sinners to entertain my Christ and grace, as offered to them, and the governing of my Church according to my word?” In Baxter’s day the pastoral task was compromised by greed, self-seeking, convenience, neglect, and the separation of clergy from the life of the flock. The Reformed Pastor reminds us that reformation and transformation require more than clarification of doctrine: if you don’t change ecclesiology and pastoral ministry, you don’t change the church.
  • Baxter’s model stresses personal ministry, starting with fathers and families and visiting people where they are. It’s fair to say that, for Baxter, a pastor who is not in people’s homes and lives is not a pastor. Moreover, the most urgent need and most effective activity is not preaching, although that is vital, but counseling and catechizing on a personal level. The emphasis on putting religion (including inquiring deeply as to whether the gospel is alive in the parishioner’s heart, and laying stress on prayer at home) and catechism to work might sound heavy-handed. But contemporary statistics on divorce, support for Trump, and other eye-catching barometers reveal that regular church attendance, family prayer, and other such activities are far better tests and bulwarks than mere self-identification. It’s almost as if our habits reveal our hearts.
  • The Reformed Pastor displays an almost ruthless passion for rigorous Christian ministry. Here’s a sample: “Is it not more reasonable that you should pinch your flesh and family, then undertake a work that you cannot perform, and neglect the souls of many of your flock? . . . I know, that what I say will seem hard to some; but to me it is an unquestionable thing, that, if you have but a hundred pounds a year, it is your duty to live upon part of it, and allow the rest to a competent assistant, rather than that the flock which you are over should be neglected.” After addressing a variety of objections with devastating rhetorical questions, he drives the knife home: “If you shall still say, that you cannot live so meanly as poor people do, I further ask, Can your parishioners better endure damnation, than you can endure want and poverty?” He twists that knife in our side for a few more pages, as if through torture he might cause the recalcitrant to yield the point.
  • Baxter spends a significant part of every chapter addressing motives that could help accomplish pastoral objectives. But he’s not exactly Mr. Positivity, and his “motives” wouldn’t pass our gospel-centered tests: “We have a base man-pleasing disposition, which will make us let men perish lest we lose their love, and let them go quietly to hell, lest we should make them angry with us for seeking their salvation.” He follows this up with more “motivation” by decrying our carnality, weakness in faith, and “unskiflulness and unfitness for this work.” And that’s before he explains the difficulties found in those whom we serve. Baxter is non-plussed if we find the challenges and the required rigor of the work overwhelming; “difficulties must excite to greater diligence in a necessary work.” Sure, Richard. If you say so.
  • J. I. Packer was so impressed with this book that he wrote an introduction.

Gospel and the Reformed Pastor

As a pastor myself with an ample share of shortcomings, I usually find Baxter’s rigor, discipline, and passion crushing. It’s a valuable work, of course, and it’s worthy of its classic title. Contemporary pastors are constantly tempted to do something other than absorb themselves in the small, local, catechetical, focused, personal ministry emphasized by Baxter. But being a “Baxterite” is a recipe for continually wrecking yourself against an impossible standard.

The gospel sweetly calls us to admit our faults. Baxter’s rigor should push us to exercise the vital, life-giving discipline of taking our pastoral failures to the cross, finding forgiveness and rest in God’s grace. And since even the most vigorous exercise of pastoral ministry cannot justify, we don’t just take our failures to be washed in Jesus’s blood. We also take our successes, our rigor, and every hidden trace of self-justification.

A church that receives that priceless blood is certainly worthy of our great labor. A book this serious is a phenomenal foil against frivolity, vocational misdirection, and temptations old and new. And a gospel gracious enough to save miserable ministers can also fuel us for great and humble service, regardless of whether we ever attain Baxter’s lofty heights.

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