[Here we continue our reprint of Chapter 2 from Richard Baxter's classic tome A Christian Directory.7 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 have), there is much in here worthy of meditation also for those who have been walking with God for many years.]--Ed.
SPECIAL NOTE TO READERS: I especially commend this particular study of Richard Baxter's for all believers (not just young Christians) to read, as it contains so much information that is valuable for our Christian growth. Of course, all of us (not just young Christians) are in the process of growing as Christians, and so this study is valuable to us all.--Ed.
Be very thankful for the great mercy of your conversion: but yet overvalue not your first degrees of knowledge or holiness, but remember that you are yet but in your infancy, and must expect your growth and ripeness as the consequent of time and diligence.
You have great reason to be more glad and thankful for the least measure of true grace, than if you had been made the rulers of the earth; it being of a far more excellent nature, and entitling you to more than all the kingdoms of the world. . . "Rejoice not that the spirits are subject to you; but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20). Christ will warrant you to rejoice, though enemies envy you, and repine both at your victory and triumph. If there be "joy in heaven in the presence of the angels" (Luke 15:10) at your conversion, there is great reason you should be glad yourselves. If the prodigal's father will needs have the best robe and ring brought forth, and the fat calf killed, and the music to attend the feast, that they may eat and be merry (see Luke 15:23), there is great reason that the prodigal son himself should not have the smallest share of joy; though his brother repine. But yet, take heed lest you think the measure of your first endowments to be greater than it is. Grace imitateth nature, in beginning, usually, with small degrees, and growing up to maturity by leisurely proceeding. We are not new-born in a state of manhood, as Adam was created. Though those texts that liken the kingdom of God to a grain of mustard seed, and to a little leaven (see Matt. 13:31,33) be principally meant of the small beginnings and great increase of the church of kingdom of Christ in the world; yet it is true also of His grace or kingdom in the soul. Our first stature is but to be "newborn babes desiring the sincere milk of the word, that we may grow by it" (I Pet. 2:2). Note here, that the new birth bringeth forth but babes, but growth is by degrees, by feeding on the word. The word is received by the heart, as seed into the ground (see Matt. 13). And seed useth not to bring forth the blade and fruit to ripeness in a day.
Yet I deny not, but that some men (as Paul) may have more grace at their first conversion, than many others have at their full growth. For God is free in the giving of His own, and may give more or less as pleaseth Himself. But yet in Paul himself, that greater measure is but his smallest measure, and he himself is capable of increase to the last. And so great a measure at first is as rare, as his greater measure, at last, in its full growth, is rare, and scarce to be expected now.
And if God should give a great measure of holiness at first, to any now, as possibly He may, yet their measure of gifts is never great at first, unless they had acquired or received them before conversion. If grace find a man of great parts and understanding, which by study and other helps he had attained before, no wonder if that man, when his parts are sanctified, be able in knowledge the first day; for he had it before, though he had not a heart to use it. But if grace find a man ignorant, unlearned, and of mean abilities, he must not expect to be suddenly lifted up to great understanding and high degrees of knowledge by grace. For this knowledge is not given, now, by sudden infusion, as gifts were, extraordinarily, in the primitive church. You need no other proof of this but experience, to stop the mouth of any gainsayer. Look about you, and observe whether those that are men of knowledge, did obtain it by infusion, in a moment, or whether they did not obtain it by diligent study, by slow degrees (though I know God blesseth some men's studies more than others). Name one man that ever was brought to great understanding, but by means and labour, and slow degrees; or that knoweth any truth, in nature, or divinity, but what he read or heard, or studied for, as the result of what he read or heard. The person that is proudest of his knowledge, must confess that he came to it in this way himself.
But you will ask, What then is the illumination of the Spirit, and enlightening the mind, which the Scripture ascribeth to the Holy Ghost? Hath not our understanding need of the Spirit for light, as well as the heart or will for life?
Answer. Yes, no doubt; and it is a great and wonderful mercy: and I will tell you what it is. 1. The Holy Spirit, by immediate inspiration, revealed to the apostles the doctrine of Christ, and caused them infallibly to indite the Scriptures. But this is not the way of ordinary illumination now. 2. The Holy Spirit assisteth us in our hearing, reading, and studying the Scripture, that we may come, by diligence, to the true understanding of it; but doth not give us that understanding, without hearing, reading or study. "Faith cometh by hearing" (Rom. 10:17). It blesseth the use of means to us, but blesseth us not in the neglect of means. 3. The Holy Spirit doth open the eyes and heart of a sinner, who hath heard, and notionally understood the substance of the gospel, that he may know that piercingly, and effectually, and practically, which before he knew but notionally, and ineffectually; so that the knowledge of the same truth is now become powerful, and, as it were, of another kind. And this is the Spirit's sanctifying of the mind, and principal work of saving illumination; not by causing us to know any thing of God, or Christ, or heaven, without means; but by opening the heart, that, through the means, it may take in that knowledge deeply, which others have but notionally, and in a dead opinion; and, by making our knowledge clear, and quick, and powerful, to affect the heart, and rule the life. 4. The Holy Spirit sanctifieth all that notional knowledge which men had before their renovation. All their learning and parts are now made subservient to Christ, and to the right end, and turned into their proper channel. 5. And the Holy Ghost doth, by sanctifying the heart, possess it with such a love to God, and heaven, and holiness, and truth, as is a wonderful advantage to us, in our studies for the attaining of further knowledge. Experience telleth us, how great a help it is to knowledge, to have a constant love, delight, and desire to the thing which we would know. All these ways the Spirit is the enlightener of believers.
The not observing this direction, will have direful effects; which I will name, that you may see the necessity of avoiding them.
1. If you imagine that you are presently men of great understanding, and abilities, and holiness, while you are young beginners, and but newborn babes, you are entering into "the snare and condemnation of the devil" (I Tim. 3:7), even into the odious sin of pride; yea, a pride of those spiritual gifts which are most contrary to pride; yea, and a pride of that which you have not, which is most foolish pride. Mark the words of Paul, when he forbids to choose a young beginner in religion to the ministry: "Not a novice" (that is, a young, raw Christian) "lest being lifted up" (or besotted) "with pride, he fall into the condemnation of the devil" (I Tim. 3:6). Why are young beginners more in danger of this than other Christians? One would think their infancy should be conscious of its own infirmity. But Paul knew what he said. It is, (1.) Partly because the suddenness of their change; coming out of darkness into a light which they never saw before, doth amaze them, and transport them, and make them think they are almost in heaven, and that there is not much more to be attained. Like the beggar that had a hundred pounds given him, having never seen the hundredth part before, imagined that he had as much money as the king. (2.) And it is partly because they have not knowledge enough to know how many things there are that yet they are ignorant of! They never heard of the Scripture difficulties, and the knots in school divinity, nor the hard cases of conscience: whereas, one seven years' painful studies, will tell them of many hundred difficulties which they never saw; and forty or fifity years' study more, will clothe them with shame and humility, in the sense of their lamentable darkness. (3.) And it is also because the devil doth with greatest industry lay this net to entrap young converts, it being the way in which he hath the greatest hope.
2. Your hasty conceits of your own goodness or ability, will make you presumptuous of your own strength, and so to venture upon dangerous temptations, which is the way to ruin. You will think you are not so ignorant, but you may venture into the company heretics or deceivers, or read their books, or be present at their worship. And I confess you may escape; but it may be otherwise, and God may leave you to "show you all that was in your hearts," as it is said of Hezekiah (II Chron. 32:21,25,26).
3. And your overvaluing your first grace, will make you too secure (when your souls have need of holy awfulness and care) to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12); and to "serve God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear, as knowing that He is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:28,29). And security is the forerunner of a fall.
4. It will make you neglect the due labour and patience in the use of means, for further knowledge and increase of grace, while you think you are so well already. And so you will be worse than those that are ever learning, and never come to any ripe knowledge; for you will think that you are fit to be teachers, when you have need to be taught that which you will not submit to learn. And then, "when for the time ye ought to have been teachers, you will have need to be catechised, or taught again which be the first principles of the oracles of God, as having need of milk, and not of strong meat" (Heb. 5:12). Mark here, how the Holy Ghost maketh time and exercise necessary to such growth as must enable you to be teachers (see Heb. 5:12-14). Therefore, he addeth, "but strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age; those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Heb. 5:14). Mark here, how wisdom and strength is to be expected.
5. This over-hasty conceit of your own ability, will tempt you to run into controversies, and matters that you are not fit for; and so divert you from necessary and seasonable studies.
6. It will make you over-confident of all your own opinions, and stiff in all your own conceits; too like him, "The fool rageth and is confident" (Prov. 14:16). How many and many a time have I heard a man that understood not what he talked of, and could scarce speak sense, to plead for his opinion so confidently, as to scorn or pity the wisest contradicter, when his ignorance, and phrenetic confidence and rage, did make him a real object of pity, to men of ordinary understandings. There is a kind of madness in this disease, that will not leave you with enough to know that you are mad.
7. It will make you also very censorious of others: this ignorant pride will make you think other men's knowledge to be ignorance, if they be not just of your fond opinions; and other men's graces to be none, if they be not of your mind and way. None are so ready as such to censure those that are better than themselves, or that they have no acquaintance with, as being but civil, moral men, or being erroneous or deluded. It is a very loathsome thing, to hear an ignorant, self-conceited fellow to talk of those that are a hundred times wiser and much better than himself, as magisterially, with a proud compassion or contempt, as if he were indeed the wise man, that knoweth not what he saith.
8. And it will make you rebellious against your governors and teachers, and utterly unteachable, as despising those that should instruct and rule you. You will think yourselves wiser than your teachers, while you are but in the lowest form. It is such that James speaks to: "My brethren, be not many masters" (or teachers) "knowing that ye shall receive the greater condemnation" (James 3:1). And that whole chapter, well worth your studying, is spoke to such.
9. And thus it will entangle you in heretical opinions, to which there is no greater preparatory, than pride-possessing, half-witted young beginners in religion.
10. And so it will make you troublers of the church, contending unpeaceably for that which you understand not.
11. And it tendeth to hypocrisy, making you give thanks for that which you never had; as puffed up with a knowledge that is not enough to keep you humble, and wanting the charity which would edify yourselves and others (see I Cor. 8:1).
12. And it tendeth to delude you in point of assurance of salvation; taking your own over-valuing self-esteem for true assurance; which is not ordinarily to be expected, till grace be come to strength.
13. Lastly, it tendeth to corrupt your apprehensions of the nature of Christianity itself; while you will judge of it in others according to your own overvalued measure: when, if you knew it as it is in the heart and practice of the sober, wise, humble, charitable, peaceable, mortified, heavenly believer, you would see that it hath a higher glory than any that is manifested by you.
I have named to you all these sad effects of overvaluing your beginnings in religion, that as you love your souls, you may avoid them. I take it to be a matter of exceeding great moment, for your safety and perseverance, that while you are infants in grace, you know yourself to be such; that you may keep your form, and learn first the lessons that must first be learned, and "walk humbly with you God, and obey those that are over you in the Lord" (Heb. 13:7,27; I Thess. 1:5,12), and may wait on the Spirit, in the use of means, and may not rejoice the tempter, by corrupting all that you have received, and imitating him, in falling from your state of hope.