[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.
Direction XV - Concerning the Company You Keep
Be exceeding wary, not only what teachers you commit the guidance of your souls unto, but also with what company you familiarly converse, that they be neither such as would corrupt your minds with error, or your hearts with viciousness, profaneness, lukewarmness, or with a feverish, factious zeal; but choose, if possible, judicious, holy, heavenly, humble, unblamable, self-denying persons, to be your ordinary companions and familiars; especially for your near relations.
It is a matter of very great importance what teachers you choose, in order to your salvation. In this, the free grace of God much differenceth some from others: for, as poor heathens and infidels have none that know more than what the book of nature teacheth (if so much); so in the several nations of Christians, it is hard for the people to have any but such as the sword of the magistrate forceth on them or the stream of their country's custom recommendeth to them. And it is a wonder if pure truth and holiness be countenanced by either of these. But, when and where His mercy pleaseth, God sendeth wise and holy teachers, with compassion and diligence to seek the saving of men's souls; so that none but the malignant and obstinate are deprived of their help.
Ambitious, proud, covetous, licentious, ungodly men are not to be chosen for your teachers, if you have your choice. In a nation where true religion is in credit, and hath the magistrate's countenance, or the major vote, some graceless men may join with better, in preaching and defending the purity of doctrine and holiness of life: and they may be very serviceable to the church herein; especially in expounding and disputing for the truth. But even there, more experienced, spiritual teachers are much more desirable: they will speak most feelingly who feel what they speak; and they are fittest to bring others to faith and love, who believe, and love God and holiness themselves. They that have life, will speak more lively than the dead. And in most places of the world, the ungodliness of such teachers makes them enemies to the truth which is according to godliness: Their natures are at enmity to the life and power of the doctrine which they should preach; and they will do their worst to corrupt the magistrates and make them of their mind; and, if they can but get the sword to favour them, they are, usually, the cruellest persecutors of the sincere... Take heed of proud and worldly guides.
And yet it is not everyone that pretendeth piety and zeal, that is to be heard, or taken for a teacher. But, 1. Such as preach, ordinarily, the substantial truths which all Christians are agreed in. 2. Such as make it the drift of their preaching to raise your souls to the love of God, and to a holy, heavenly life, and are zealous against confessed sins. 3. Such as contradict not the essential truths, by errors of their own; nor the doctrine of godliness, by wicked, malicious applications. 4. Such as drive not on any ambitious, tyrannical designs of their own, but deny themselves, and aim at your salvation. 5. Such as are not too hot in proselyting you to any singular opinion of their own: it being the prediction of Paul to the Ephesians: "Of your ownselves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:30). 6. Such as are judicious with holy zeal, and zealous with judgment. 7. Such as are of experience in the things of God, and not young beginners, or novices in religion. 8. Such as bear reference to the judgments of the generality of wise and godly men, and are tender of the unity of the church; and not such as would draw you into a sect or party, to the contempt of other Christians; no, not to a party that hath the favour of rulers and the people, to promote them. 9. Such as are gentle, peaceable, and charitable; and not such as burn with hellish malice against their brethren, nor with an ungodly, or cruel, consuming zeal. 10. Such as live not sensually and wickedly, contrary to the doctrine which they preach; but show by their lives, that they believe what they say, and feel the power of the truths which they preach.
And your familiar companions have great advantage to help or hinder your salvation, as well as your teachers. The matter is not so great, whom you meet by the way, or travel with, or trade and buy and sell with, as whom you make your intimate or familiar friends. For such have both the advantage of their interest in your affections, and also the advantage of their nearness and familiarity; and, if they have but also the advantage of higher abilities than you, they may be powerful instruments of your good or hurt. If you have a familiar friend, that will defend you from error, and help you against temptations, and lovingly reprove your sin, and feelingly speak of God, and the life to come, inditing his discourse from the inward power of faith, and love, and holy experience; the benefit of such a friend may be more to you, than of the learnedest or greatest in the world. How sweetly will their speeches relish of the Spirit, from which they come! How deeply may they pierce a careless heart! How powerfully may they kindle in you a love and zeal to His commandments! How seasonably may they discover a temptation, prevent your fall, reprove an error, and recover your souls! How faithfully will they watch over you! How profitably will they provoke, and put you on; and pray with you fervently when you are cold, and mind you of the truth, and duty, and mercy, which you forget! It is a very great mercy to have a judicious, solid, faithful companion in the way to heaven.
But if your ears are daily filled with froth and folly, with ribaldry or idle stories, with oaths and curses, with furious words or scorns and jeers against the godly, or with the sophistry of deceivers, is it likely this should leave a pleasant or wholesome relish on your minds? Is it likely that the effect should not be seen, in your lean or leprous hearts and lives, as well as the effects of an infected or unwholesome air or diet will be seen upon your diseased bodies? He is ungodly, that liketh such company best; and he is proud and presumptuous, that will unnecessarily cast himself upon it, in confidence that he shall receive no hurt; and he is careless of himself, that will not cautiously avoid it; and few that long converse with such, come off without some notable loss, except when we live with such, as Lot did in Sodom, grieving for their sin and misery, or as Christ conversed with publicans and sinners, with a holy zeal and diligence to convert and save them, or as those that have not liberty, who bear that which they have not power to avoid.
Among the rest, your danger is not least from them that are eager to proselyte you to some party or unsound opinion. They think they are in the right, and that they do it in love, and that they think it necessary to your salvation, and that truth or godliness are the things which they profess: all this makes the danger much the greater to you, if it be not truth and godliness indeed, which they propose and plead for. And none are in more danger than the ungrounded and unexperienced, that yet are so wise in their own esteem, as to be confident that they know truth from error when they hear it, and are not afraid of any deceit, nor much suspicious of their own understandings. But of this before.
The like danger there is of the familiar company of lukewarm ones, or the profane. At first you may be troubled at their sinful or unsavoury discourse, and make some resistance against the infection, but before you are aware, it may so cool and damp your graces, as will make your decay discernible to others. First, you will bear them with less offense; and then you will grow indifferent what company you are in; and then you will laugh at their sin and folly; and then you will begin to speak as they; and then you will grow cold and seldomer in prayer and other holy duties; and if God prevent it not, at last your judgments will grow blind, and you will think all this allowable.
But of all bad company, the nearest is the worst. If you choose such into your families, or into your nearest conjugal relations, you cast [oil] upon the fire; you imprison yourselves in such fetters as will gall and grieve you, if they do not stop you; you choose a life of constant, close, and great temptations: whereas, your grace, and comfort, and salvation might be much promoted by the society of such as are wise and gracious, and suitable to your state. To have a constant companion to open your heart to, and join with in prayer, and edifying conference, and faithfully help you against your sins, and yet to be patient with you in your frailties, is a mercy which worldlings neither deserve nor value.