Catechising Our People: Motives for Pastors
The following extract is taken from Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (256 pages, £5.75), pages 168–177.
The Duty of Personal Catechising and Instructing the Flock Particularly Recommended
Having disclosed and lamented our miscarriages and neglects, our duty for the future lies plain before us. God forbid that we should now go on in the sins which we have confessed, as carelessly as we did before. Leaving these things, therefore, I shall now proceed to exhort you to the faithful discharge of the great duty which you have undertaken, namely, personal catechizing and instructing everyone in your parishes or congregations that will submit thereto. First, I shall state to you some motives to persuade you
to this duty. Secondly, I shall answer some objections which may be made to this duty. Lastly, I shall give you some directions for performing this duty.
Part 1 Motives to This Duty
Agreeably to this plan, I shall proceed to state to you some motives to persuade you to this duty. The first reasons by which I shall persuade you to this duty, are taken from the benefits of it: The second, from its difficulty: And the third, from its necessity, and the many obligations that are upon us for the performance of it.
When I look before me, and consider what, through the blessing of God, this work, if well managed, is like to effect, it makes my heart leap for joy. Truly, brethren, you have begun a most blessed work, and such as your own consciences may rejoice in, and your parishes rejoice in, and the nation rejoice in, and the child that is yet unborn rejoice in. Yea, thousands and millions, for aught we know, may have cause to bless God for it, when we shall have finished our course. And though it is our business this day to humble ourselves for the neglect of it so long, as we have very great cause to do, yet the hopes of a blessed success are so great in me, that they are ready to turn it into a day of rejoicing.
I bless the Lord that I have lived to see such a day as this, and to be present at so solemn an engagement of so many servants of Christ to such a work. I bless the Lord, that hath honoured you of this county to be the beginners and awakeners of the nation to this duty. It is not a controverted point, as to which the exasperated minds of men might pick quarrels with us, nor is it a new invention, as to which envy might charge you as innovators, or pride might scorn to follow, because you had led the way. No; it is a well-known duty. It is but the more diligent and effectual management of the ministerial work. It is not a new invention, but simply the restoration of the ancient ministerial work. And because it is so pregnant with advantages to the Church, I will enumerate some of the particular benefits which we may hope to result from it, that when you see the excellency of it, you may be the more set upon it, and the more loath, by any negligence or failing of yours, to frustrate or destroy it. For certainly he who hath the true intentions of a minister of Christ will rejoice in the appearance of any further hope of attaining the ends of his ministry; and nothing will be more welcome to him than that which will further the very business of his life. That this work is calculated to accomplish this, I shall now show you more particularly.
1. It will be a most hopeful mean of the conversion of souls; for it unites those great things which most further such an end.
(1) As to the matter of it; it is about the most necessary things, the principles or essentials of the Christian faith.
(2) As to the manner of it: it will be by private conference, when we may have an opportunity to set all home to the conscience and the heart. The work of conversion consisteth of two parts:
First, the informing of the judgment in the essential principles of religion; Second, The change of the will by the efficacy of the truth. Now in this work we have the most excellent advantages for both. For the informing of their understandings, it must needs be an excellent help to have the sum of Christianity fixed in their memory. And though bare words, not understood, will make no change, yet, when the words are plain English, he that hath the words is far more likely to understand the meaning and matter than another. For what have we by which to make known things which are themselves invisible, but words or other signs? Those, therefore, who deride all catechisms as unprofitable forms, may better deride themselves for talking and using the form of their own words to make known their minds to others. Why may not written words, which are constantly before their eyes, and in their memories, instruct them, aswell as the transient words of a preacher? These ‘forms of sound words’ are, therefore, so far from being unprofitable, as some persons imagine, that they are of admirable use to all.
Besides, we shall have the opportunity, by personal conference, to try how far they understand the catechism, and to explain it to them as we go along; and to insist on those particulars which the persons we speak to have most need to hear. These two conjoined – a form of sound words, with a plain explication – may do more than either of them could do alone.
Moreover, we shall have the best opportunity to impress the truth upon their hearts, when we can speak to each individual’s particular necessity, and say to the sinner, ‘Thou art the man’; and plainly mention his particular case; and set home the truth with familiar importunity. If anything in the world is likely to do them good, it is this. They will understand a familiar speech, who understand not a sermon; and they will have far greater help for the application of it to themselves. Besides, you will hear their objections, and know where it is that Satan hath most advantage of them, and so may be able to show them their errors, and confute their objections, and more effectually convince them. We can better bring them to the point, and urge them to discover their resolutions for the future, and to promise the use of means and reformation, than otherwise we could do. What more proof need we of this, than our own experience? I seldom deal with men purposely on this great business, in private, serious conference, but they go away with some seeming convictions, and promises of new obedience, if not some deeper remorse, and sense of their condition.
O brethren, what a blow may we give to the kingdom of darkness, by the faithful and skilful managing of this work! If, then, the saving of souls, of your neighbours’ souls, of many souls, from everlasting misery, be worth your labour, up and be doing! If you would be the fathers of many that are born again, and would ‘see of the travail of your souls,’ and would be able to say at last, ‘Here am I, and the children whom thou hast given me’ – up and ply this blessed work! If it would do your heart good to see your converts among the saints in glory, and praising the Lamb before the throne; if it would rejoice you to present them blameless and spotless to Christ, prosecute with diligence and ardour this singular opportunity that is offered you. If you are ministers of Christ indeed, you will long for the perfecting of his body, and the gathering in of his elect; and you will ‘travail as in birth’ till Christ be formed in the souls of your people. You will embrace such opportunities as your harvest-time affords, and as the sunshine days in a rainy harvest, in which it is unreasonable and inexcusable to be idle. If you have a spark of Christian compassion in you, it will surely seem worth your utmost labour to save so many ‘souls from death, and to cover’ so great ‘a multitude of sins.’ If, then, you are indeed fellow-workers with Christ, set to his work, and neglect not the souls for whom he died. O remember, when you are talking with the unconverted, that now you have an opportunity to save a soul, and to rejoice the angels of heaven, and to rejoice Christ himself, to cast Satan out of a sinner, and to increase the family of God! And what is your ‘hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing?’ Is it not your saved people ‘in the presence of Christ Jesus at his coming?’ Yes, doubtless ‘they are your glory and your joy.’
2. It will essentially promote the orderly building up of those who are converted, and the establishment of them in the faith.
It hazardeth our whole work, or at least much hindereth it, if we do it not in the proper order. How can you build, if you first not lay a good foundation? or how can you set on the top-stone, while the middle parts are neglected? ‘Grace makes no leaps,’ any more than nature. The second order of Christian truths have such a dependence upon the first, that they can never be well learned till the first are learned. This makes many labour so much in vain; they are ‘ever learning, but never come to the knowledge of the truth,’ because they would read before they learn to spell, or to know their letters. This makes so many fall away: they are shaken with every wind of temptation, because they were not well settled in the fundamental principles of religion. It is these fundamentals that must lead men to further truths; it is these they must build all upon; it is these that must actuate all their graces, and animate all their duties; it is these that must fortify them against temptations. He that knows not these, knows nothing; he that knows them well, doth know so much as will make him happy; and he that knows them best, is the best and most understanding Christian. The most godly people, therefore, in your congregations, will find it worth their labour to learn the very words of a catechism. If, then, you would safely edify them, and firmly establish them, be diligent in this work.
3. It will make our public preaching better understood and regarded.
When you have instructed them in the principles, they will the better understand all you say. They will perceive what you drive at, when they are once acquainted with the main points. This prepareth their minds, and openeth a way to their hearts; whereas, without this, you may lose the most of your labour; and the more pains you take in accurate preparation, the less good you may do. As you would not, therefore, lose your public labour, see that you be faithful in this private work.
4. By means of it, you will come to be familiar with your people, and may thereby win their affections.
The want of this, with those who have very numerous congregations, is a great impediment to the success of our labours. By distance and unacquaintedness, abundance of mistakes between ministers and people are fomented; while, on the other hand, familiarity will tend to beget those affections which may open their ears to further instruction. Besides, when we are familiar with them, they will be encouraged to open their doubts to us and deal freely with us. But when a minister knows not his people, or is as strange to them as if he did not know them, it must be a great hindrance to his doing any good among them.
5. By means of it, we shall come to be better acquainted with each person’s spiritual state, and so the better know how to watch over them.
We shall know better how to preach to them, and carry ourselves to them, when we know their temper, and their chief objections, and so what they have most need to hear. We shall know better wherein to be ‘jealous over them with a godly jealousy,’ and what temptations to guard them most against. We shall know better how to lament for them, and to rejoice with them, and to pray for them. For as he that will pray rightly for himself must know his own wants, and the diseases of his own heart, so he that will pray rightly for others, should know theirs as far as possible.
6. By means of this trial and acquaintance with our people’s state we shall be much assisted in the admission of them to the sacraments.
Though I doubt not a minister may require his people to come to him at any convenient season, to give an account of their faith and proficiency, and to receive instruction, and therefore he may do it as a preparation for the Lord’s supper, yet because ministers have laid the stress of that examination upon the mere necessity of fitness for that ordinance, and not upon their common duty the reformed pastor to see the state and proficiency of each member of their flock at all fit seasons, and upon the people’s duty to submit to the guidance and instruction of their pastors at all times, they have occasioned people ignorantly to quarrel with their examinations. Now, by this course we shall discover their fitness or unfitness, in a way that is unexceptionable; and in a way far more effectual than by some partial examination of them before they are admitted to the Lord’s table.
7. It will show men the true nature of the ministerial office, and awaken them to the better consideration of it, than is now usual.
It is too common for men to think that the work of the ministry is nothing but to preach, and to baptize, and to administer the Lord’s supper, and to visit the sick. By this means the people will submit to no more; and too many ministers are such strangers to their own calling, that they will do no more. It hath oft grieved my heart to observe some eminent able preachers, how little they do for the saving of souls, save only in the pulpit; and to how little purpose much of their labour is, by this neglect. They have hundreds of people that they never spoke a word to personally for their salvation; and if we may judge by their practice, they consider it not as their duty; and the principal thing that hardeneth men in this oversight is the common neglect of the private part of the work by others. There are so few that do much in it, and the omission hath grown so common among pious, able men, that the disgrace of it is abated by their ability; and a man may now be guilty of it without any particular notice or dishonour. Never doth sin so reign in a church or state, as when it hath gained reputation, or, at least, is no disgrace to the sinner, nor a matter of offence to beholders. But I make no doubt, through the mercy of God, that the restoring of the practice of personal oversight will convince many ministers, that this is as truly their work as that which they now do, and may awaken them to see that the ministry is another kind of business than too many excellent preachers take it to be. Brethren, do but set yourselves closely to this work, and follow it diligently; and though you do it silently, without any words to them that are negligent, I am in hope that most of you who are present may live to see the day, when the neglect of private personal oversight of all the flock shall be taken for a scandalous and odious omission, and shall be as disgraceful to them that are guilty of it, as preaching but once a day was heretofore. A schoolmaster must take a personal account of his scholars, or else he is like to do little good. If physicians should only read a public lecture on physic, their patients would not be much the better of them; nor would a lawyer secure your estate by reading a lecture on law. Now, the charge of a pastor requireth personal dealing, as well as any of these. Let us show the world this by our practice; for most men are grown regardless of bare words.
The Banner publishes a number of confessions and catechisms. See the following:
- The Westminster Shorter Catechism (booklet)
- The Westminster Larger Catechism (booklet)
- The Heidelberg Catechism (gift ed.)
- The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (gift ed.)
Featured painting: John Frederick Herring, 1795–1865, British, Harvest, 1857, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.332.
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