[Here we continue our reprint of Chapter 2 from Richard Baxter's classic tome A Christian Directory.10 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.
Begin not too early with controversies in religion; and when you come to them, let them have but their due proportion of your time and zeal; but live daily upon [the] certain great substantials, which all Christians are agreed in.
1. Plunge not yourselves too soon into controversies: For (1.) It will be exceedingly to your loss, by diverting your souls from greater and more necessary things: you may get more increase of holiness, and spend your time more pleasingly to God, by drinking in deeper the substantials of religion, and improving them on your hearts and lives.
(2.) It will corrupt your minds, and instead of humility, charity, holiness, and heavenly-mindedness, it will feed your pride, and kindle faction and a dividing zeal, and quench your charity, and possess you with a wrangling, contentious spirit, and you will make a religion of these sins and lamentable distempers.
(3.) And it is the way to deceive and corrupt your judgments, and make you erroneous or heretical, to your own perdition and the disturbance of the church; for it is two to one, but either you presently err, or else get such an itch after notions and opinions that will lead you to error at the last. Because you are not yet ripe and able to judge of those things, till your minds are prepared by those truths that are first in order to be received. When you undertake a work that you cannot do, no wonder if it be ill done, and must be all undone again, or worse.
Perhaps you will say, that you must not take your religion upon trust, but must "prove all things, and hold fast that which is good" (I Thess. 5:21).
Answer. Though your religion must not be taken upon trust, there are many controverted smaller opinions that you must take upon trust, till you are capable of discerning them in their proper evidence. Till you can reach them yourselves, you must take them on trust, or not at all. Though you must believe all things of common necessity to salvation with a divine faith; yet many subservient truths must be received first by a human faith, or not received at all, till you are more capable of them. Nay, there is a human faith necessarily subservient to the divine faith, about the substance of religion; and the officers of Christ are to be trusted in their office, as helpers of your faith. Nay, let me tell you, that while you are young and ignorant, you are not fit for controversies about the fundamentals of religion themselves. You may believe that there is a God, long before you are fit to hear an atheist proving that there is no God. You may believe the Scripture to be the Word of God, and Christ to be the Savior, and the soul to be immortal, long before you will be fit to manage or study controversies hereupon. For nothing is so false or bad, which a wanton or wicked wit may not put a plausible gloss upon; and your raw unfurnished understandings will scarce be able to see through the pretence, or escape the cheat. When you cannot answer the arguments of seducers, you will find them leave a doubting in your minds; for you know not how plain the answer of them is, to wiser men. And though you must prove all things, you must do it in due order, and as you are able; and stay till your furnished minds are capable of the trial. If you will needs read before you know your letters, or pretend to judge of Greek and Hebrew authors, before you can read English, you will but become ridiculous in your undertaking.
2. When you do come to smaller controverted points, let them have but their due proportion of your time and zeal. And that will not be one hour in many days, with the generality of private Christians. By that time you have well learned the more necessary truths, and practiced daily the more necessary duties, you will find that there will be but little time to spare for lesser controversies. Opinionists that spend most of their time in studying and talking of such points, do steal that time from greater matters, and therefore from God, and from themselves. Better work is undone the while. And they that here lay out their chiefest zeal, divert their zeal from things more necessary, and turn their natural heat into a fever.
3. The essential necessary truths of your religion, must imprint the image of God upon your hearts, and must dwell there continually, and you must live upon them as your bread, and drink, and daily necessary food; all other points must be studied in subserviency to those; all lesser duties must be used as the exercise of the love of God or man, and of a humble heavenly mind. The articles of your creed, and points of catechism, are fountains ever running, affording you matter for the continual exercise of grace; it is both plentiful and solid nourishment of the soul, which these great substantial points afford. To know God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, the laws and covenant of God, and His judgment, and rewards and punishments, with the parts and method of the Lord's prayer, which must be the daily exercise of our desires, and love, this is the wisdom of a Christian; and in these must he be continually exercised.
You will say perhaps that the apostle saith: "Leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works," etc. (Heb. 6:1).
Answer. By "leaving" he meaneth not passing over the practice of them as men that have done with them, and are past them; but leaving at that time to discourse of them, or his supposing them taught already; though he lay not the foundation again, yet he doth not pluck it up. 2. By "principles" he meaneth the first points to be taught, and learnt, and practised; and indeed regeneration and baptism is not to be done again; but the essentials of religion which I am speaking of, contain much more: especially to live in the love of God, which Paul calls the more excellent way (see I Cor. 12 and 13). 3. Going on to perfection, is not by ceasing to believe and love God, but by a more distinct knowledge of the mysteries of salvation, to perfect our faith, and love, and obedience.
The points that opinionists call higher, and think to be the principal matter of their growth, and advancement in understanding, are usually but some smaller, less necessary truths, if not some uncertain, doubtful questions. Mark well I Tim. 1:4; 4:4; II Tim. 2:23; Titus 3:9; compared with John 17:3; Rom. 13:8-10; I Cor. 13; I John 3; I Cor. 1:23; 15:1-3; 2:2; Gal. 6:14; James 2; 3:1.