[With this study, we continue our reprint of Chapter 2 from Richard Baxter's classic tome A Christian Directory.9 This chapter consists of twenty directions to (as Mr. Baxter says) "young Christians or beginners in religion, for their establishment and safe proceeding." Though these studies were written specifically for "young" Christians, I think that you will find (as I did), there is much in here worthy of meditation also for those who have been walking with God for many years.]--Ed.
Labour to understand the true method of divinity, and see truths in their several degrees and order; that you take not the last for the first, nor the lesser for the greater. Therefore see that you be well grounded in the catechism; and refuse not to learn some catechism that is sound and full, and keep it in memory while you live.
Method, or right order, exceedingly helpeth understanding, memory, and practice. Truths have a dependence on each other; the lesser branches spring out of the greater, and those out of the stock and root. Some duties are but means to other duties, or subservient to them, and to be measured accordingly; and if it be not understood which is the chief, the other cannot be referred to it. When two things materially good come together, and both cannot be done, the greater must take place, and the lesser is no duty at that time, but a sin, as preferred before the greater. Therefore it is one of the commonest difficulties among cases of conscience, to know which duty is the greater, and to be preferred. Upon this ground, Christ healed on the sabbath day, and pleaded for His disciples rubbing the ears of corn, and for David's eating the shew-bread, and telleth them, that "the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27) and that God "will have mercy, and not sacrifice" (Matt. 12:7).
Divinity is a curious, well-composed frame. As it is not enough that you have all the parts of your watch or clock, but you must see that every part be in its proper place, or else it will not go, or answer its end; so it is not enough that you know the several parts of divinity or duty, unless you know them in their true order and place. You may be confounded before you are aware, and led into many dangerous errors, by mistaking the order of several truths; and you may be misguided into heinous sins, by mistaking the degrees and order of duties; as, when duties of piety and charity seem to be competitors; and when you think that the commands of men contradict the commands of God; and when the substance and the circumstances or modes of duty are in question before you as inconsistent; or when the means seemeth to cease to be a means, by crossing of the end; and in abundance of such cases, you cannot easily conceive what a snare it may prove to you, to be ignorant of the methods and ranks of duty.
Objection. If that be so, what man can choose but be confounded in his religion; when there be so few that observe any method at all, and few that agree in method, and none that hath published a scheme or method so exact and clear, as to be commonly approved by divines themselves? What then can ignorant Christians do?
Answer. Divinity is like a tree that hath one trunk, and thence a few greater arms or boughs, and thence a thousand smaller branches; or like the veins, or nerves, or arteries in the body, that have first one or few trunks divided into more, and those into a few more, and those into more, till they multiply at last into more than can easily be seen or numbered. Now it is easy for any man to begin at the chief trunk, and to discern the first divisions, and the next, though not to comprehend the number and order of all the extreme and smaller branches. So is it in divinity: it is not very hard to begin at the unity of the eternal God-head, and see there a Trinity of Persons, and of primary attributes, and of relations; and to arise to the principal attributes and works of God as in these relations, and to the relations of man to God, and to the great duties of these relations, to discern God's covenants and chiefest laws, and the duty of man in obedience thereto, and the judgment of God in the execution of His sanctions; though yet many particular truths be not understood. And He that beginneth, and proceedeth as he ought, doth know methodically so much as he knoweth; and he is in the right way to the knowledge of more: and the great mercy of God hath laid so great a necessity on us to know these few points that are easily known, and so much less need of knowing the many small particulars, that a young Christian may live uprightly, and holily, and comfortably, that well understandeth his catechism, or the creed, Lord's prayer, and Ten Commandments; and may find daily work and consolation in the use of these.
A sound and well composed catechism studied well and kept in memory, would be a good measure of knowledge, to ordinary Christians, and make them solid and orderly in their understanding, and in their proceeding to the smaller points, and would prevent a great deal of error and miscarriage, that many by ill teaching are cast upon, to their own and the church's grief! Yea, it were to be wished, that some teachers of late had learnt so much and orderly themselves.