Richard Baxter’s work The Reformed Pastor was first published in 1656 and is commonly considered a classic. Many seminaries recommend the book, and most pastors with graduate training are aware of it. J.I. Packer penned the introduction for the Banner of Truth edition, and after studying the work one can appreciate why Packer was forced to acknowledge the following:[1]

… Baxter was a poor performer in public life. Though always respected for his godliness and pastoral prowess, and always seeking doctrinal and ecclesiastical peace, his combative, judgmental, pedagogic way of proceeding with his peers made failure a foregone conclusion every time … his lifelong inability to see that among equals a triumphalist manner is counter-productive was a strange blind spot.

Packer called it like a fortune-teller. Some guys know how to encourage pastors. Baxter knew how to take a tomahawk to your skull and tell you he was there to help.

Baxter’s text was to be delivered at a pastor’s meeting in December 1655, but he was “disabled from going thither” and fashioned his remarks into what became The Reformed Pastor.[2]His aim was to encourage pastors to be more diligent by exposing “the sins of the ministry.” Baxter, anticipating angry howls from his peers, launched a defensive salvo by proclaiming “plain dealers will always be approved in the end; and the time is at hand when you will confess that they were your best friends.”[3] It is fair to assume Baxter did not have many Facebook friends.

Baxter’s burden was to demonstrate that pastors were generally lazy and undiligent and must become diligent. In short, he wished to consider how to stir pastors up to good works. He explained the book’s outline:[4]

I wish to propose the following method:

First, To consider what it is to take heed to ourselves. Secondly, To show why we must take heed to ourselves. Thirdly, To inquire what it is to take heed to all the flock. Fourthly, To illustrate the manner in which we must take heed to all the flock. Fifthly, To state some motives why we should take heed to all the flock. Lastly, To make some application of the whole.

This list is deceptive, however, because this “application of the whole” takes up approximately 50% of the text (pp. 133-256) and is quite tedious. Like a pastor who re-preaches his sermon during the conclusion, Baxter circles the airport like a wounded 747 and never quite “lands” his plane.

Baxter says much that is good. Unfortunately, he lacked a good editor. The book is perhaps 50% too long. Guilt trips make up perhaps 80% of the book. They are very helpful for the first 20%. Then, they get annoying. Then, they make you feel worthless. Then, one begins to really dislike Baxter.

He explains Pastors must guard their own hearts:[5]

If it be not your daily business to study your own hearts, and to subdue corruption, and to walk with God – if you will not make this a work to which you constantly attend, all will go wrong, and you will starve your hearers …

Baxter shows prophetic powers when he rails against hypocrisy. “What a difference was there between their pulpit speeches and their familiar discourse? They that were most impatient of barbarisms, solecisms, and paralogisms in a sermon, could easily tolerate them in their life and conversation.”[6] He could be referring to social media!

Pastors must look after every member of the flock, even if means downsizing or securing assistance and taking a pay cut. “If you say, that is a hard measure, and that your wife and child cannot so live, I answer, Do not many families in your parish live on less?”[7]

He warns:

We must carry on our work with patience. We must bear from many abuses and injuries from those to whom we seek to do good. When we have studied for them, and prayed for them, and exhorted them, and beseeched them with all earnestness and condescension, and given them what we are able, and tended them as if they had been our children, we must look that many of them will requite is with scorn and hatred and contempt, and account us their enemies, because we ‘tell them the truth.’

In all, the first half of Baxter’s book is ponderous but helpful. It convicts. It exhorts. It helps. Here, in this paraphrase of Baxter’s outline for “motives to the oversight of the flock,” we see a representative sample of this qualified praise:[8]

  1. Pastors are overseers of the flock
    • You must therefore take heed to the flock
    • You agreed to be a pastor, so suck it up and do your job[9]
    • You have the great honor to be an ambassador for the gospel, so go do it
    • Do not take the blessings of your pastoral position for granted
    • Be found faithful
  2. The Holy Spirit made you a pastor, so “take heed to it”
  3. How could you be unfaithful to the Church of God?
  4. Christ purchased the Church with His blood, so “shall we despise the blood of Christ?”

This cycle of (1) assertion of sin, then (2) exhortation to be faithful repeats over and over. But, by the time Baxter turns to “make some application of the whole,” the book is only halfway over. What new information does Baxter impart?

His focus is on catechizing. “I shall now proceed to exhort you to the faithful discharge of the great duty which you have undertaken, namely, personal catechizing and instructing every one in your parishes or congregations that will submit thereto.”[10] However, this emphasis is of little use to Baptist pastors who believe the New Covenant is only for regenerate believers.[11] At once, the object of his exhortations have been rendered moot for Baptist ministers, who are forced to make general application only.

Baxter begins the application section by spending 39 pages trying to convince pastors to repent of their sloth.[12] “What pains do we take to humble them, while we ourselves are unhumbled!”[13] In short, he beats a dying horse with gusto and drove this pastor to personal despair.

One is tempted to shout at the book, “Yes, I admit I’m not the best pastor ever! Leave me alone, Saint Baxter!” It is doubtful a sentient being has yet lived who would not melt under Baxter’s steely Puritan gaze. Again, a paraphrased outline makes the point:

  1. We have great pride (9 pages)
  2. We are lazy (4 pages):
    • “If we were duly devoted to our work, we should not be so negligent in our studies.”[14]
    • “If were heartily devoted to our work, it would be done more vigorously, and more seriously, than it is by most of us.”[15]
    • “If we are heartily devoted to the work of God, why do we not compassionate the poor unprovided congregations around us, and take care to help them find able ministers …?”[16]
  3. We are too worldly (6 pages):
    • We wed ourselves to whatever political party happens to be in power.
    • We do not speak the truth because it will harm our interests.
    • We hoard our money and are not charitable.
  4. We are sectarian (12 pages).
  5. We do not exercise church discipline (4 pages).

If this were not enough, after a brief discussion of how to catechize,[17] Baxter circles the airport once again in his 747 with 17 pages of “motives from the necessity of this work” and “applications” thereof, in which he largely repeats himself. These pages are filled with exhortations that have grown annoying (and worse) by their incessant repetition:

And if you pity them, will you not do this much for their salvation?[18]

Oh what a dreadful thing it is to answer for the neglect of such a charge! and what sin more heinous than the betraying of souls?[19]

What cause have we to bleed before the Lord this day, that we have neglected so great and good a work for so long …?[20]

And now, brethren, what have we to do for the time to come, but to deny our lazy flesh, and rouse up ourselves to the work before us.[21]

After continuing in this vein, Baxter summons a crescendo of 15 itemized “condemnation[s] that is like to befall negligent pastors.”[22] Baxter assures us that (among other things) our parents will condemn us, our training will condemn us, “all that Christ hath done and suffered for” will condemn us, all Scripture “will rise up and condemn us,” and all our sermons will condemn us.

Baxter is clearly a man with a burden. Unfortunately, his burden for catechizing is not applicable for Baptist ministers. Because he held to Presbyterian polity and came from a “State church” context, Baxter assumed the members of his “parish” were New Covenant members because they had been baptized. Baptists believe only believers are New Covenant members. Where Baxter wanted to catechize, Baptists would evangelize.

Also, his attempts at exhortation degenerate into guilt trips from overuse, and his entire work has a superior, snobby sort of air to it. It cannot be described. It must be experienced. To this bi-vocational pastor, it largely increased feelings of inadequacy that were already present. I will not read it again and would never recommend it. As the learned archeologist Dr. Henry Jones often remarked in a different context, “it belongs in a museum.”


[1] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (reprint; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2012), 10-11.  

[2] Ibid, 38.  

[3] Ibid, 39.  

[4] Ibid, 52.  

[5] Ibid, 62.  

[6] Ibid.  

[7] Ibid, 91-92.  

[8] Ibid, 124-132.  

[9] “Consider that it is by your own voluntary undertaking and engagement that all this work is laid upon you. No man forced you to be overseers of the Church. And doth not common honesty bind you to be true to your trust?” (Ibid, 127).  

[10] Ibid, 172.  

[11] Some dispensationalists believe the New Covenant has no application to the Church. I will not engage that position, here.

[12] Baxter, Reformed Pastor, 133-172.  

[13] Ibid, 133.  

[14] Ibid, 146.  

[15] Ibid, 147.  

[16] Ibid, 150.  

[17] Ibid, 172-194.  

[18] Ibid, 198.  

[19] Ibid, 199.  

[20] Ibid, 200.  

[21] Ibid, 202.  

[22] Ibid, 205-211.  

4 thoughts on “Baxter and “The Reformed Pastor”

  1. Baxter has been on my shelf a while, and I’ve never gotten around to picking it up. Maybe I won’t. But then again, maybe that will just prove him right. Ha!
    Thanks for the review.

    1. To be honest, I’m a bi-vocational pastor, and perhaps that’s why I’ve disliked every “how to be a better pastor” book I’ve read. I may be being too hard on Baxter. But, I suspect not. Still, take that grain of salt for whatever it’s worth!

      1. Yeah, I understand. I’m not bivocational yet every time I read the pastoral epistles I feel the sting of my own inadequacies as a pastor. And that goes for virtually every pastor I know, many of whom have been pastoring nearly as long as I’ve been alive. I think most pastors could use encouragement proportionally more than rebukes (although we need those at times, too). Keep up the good work, brother!

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