If we saw that such would reform without reproof, we would gladly forbear the publishing of their faults. But when reproofs themselves prove so ineffectual, that they are more offended at the reproof than at the sin, and had rather that we should cease reproving than that themselves should cease sinning, I think it is time to sharpen the remedy. For what else should we do? To give up our brethren as incurable were cruelty, as long as there are further means to be used.
The Lord had been bringing a group of pastors in 17th-century England under conviction for their neglect of their duty before the Lord to instruct and teach their flocks personally in the law of the Lord. They organized a day of of public humiliation and repentance and asked their fellow pastor Richard Baxter to speak. Having prepared much material, Baxter, of a chronically weak constitution, fell sicker than usual and was unable to be present when the day came; but, at the request of many (or at least divers ones ;), he pulled together in written form what he had intended to present in person. The result was a book called The Reformed Pastor, which has been a continued help to faithful pastors over the last three hundred years.
Baxter anticipated, though, that some would object to the public form of publishing their sins, and he spoke to this and other objections in the Introduction of the book.
Blaise Pascal, a contemporary of Baxter, faced the same types of issues in his dealings with the Roman Catholic church; I have previously brought attention to Pascal’s helpful words in When charity requires strong words.
But the issue is far from a merely 17th century thing. The difficulties of confronting sin are always the same. From the time of ancient Israel, the one delivering the call to repent is looked on as if he is claiming personal perfection and personally condemning his hearers. The Great King delivers a message of eternal importance, but the recipients are offended by the obvious personal unworthiness of the sinful messenger by whom He delivers it and ignore the message. Yet it is the kindness of God to call us to repentance now, while there is yet time to bear fruit in keeping with repentance and not come to that Day empty-handed. Surely we are not such fools as to desire comfort now but be shown to be the worthless slave on that Day, are we?
Baxter’s words, addressed particularly to pastors, are applicable to all whom God has placed in a position of authority. Let us all–husbands, mothers, masters, pastors–hear Baxter’s words from 300 years ago, and consider our ways.
And to him who is sorry whenever he sees public sin publicly reproved, read Baxter’s words and understand how far “there is absolutely nothing at stake here” is from the truth.
To my bretheren and dearly-beloved brethren, the faithful ministers of Christ, in Britain and Ireland, Grace and Peace in Jesus Christ be increased.
The subject of this treatise so nearly concerneth yourselves, and the churches committed to your care, that it emboldeneth me to this address, notwithstanding the imperfections in the manner of handling it, and the consciousness of my great unworthiness to be your monitor.
Before I come to my principal errand, I shall give you an account of the reasons of the following work, and of the freedom of speech I have used, which to some may be displeasing. When the Lord had awakened his ministers in the county of Worcestershire, and some neighboring parts, to a sense of their duty in the work of catechizing, and private instruction of all in their parishes who would not obstinately refuse their help, and when they had subscribed an agreement, containing their resolutions for the future performance of it, they judged it unmeet to enter upon the work, without a solemn humbling of their souls before the Lord, for their long neglect of so great and necessary a duty; and, therefore, they agreed to meet together at Worcester, December 4, 1655, and there to join in humiliation and in earnest prayer to God, for the pardon of our neglects, and for his special assistance in the work which we had undertaken, and for the success of it with the people whom we had engaged to instruct; at which time, among others, I was desired by them to preach. In compliance with their wishes, I prepared the following Discourse; which, though it proved longer than could be delivered in one or two sermons, yet I intended to have entered upon it at that time, and to have delivered that which was most pertinent to the occasion, and to have reserved the rest to another season. But, before the meeting, by the increase of my ordinary pain and weakness, I was disabled from going thither; to recompense which unwilling omission, I easily yielded to the request of divers of the brethren, forthwith to publish the things which I had prepared, that they might read that which they could not hear. If it be objected, that I should not have spoken so plainly and sharply against the sins of the ministry, or that I should not have published it to the view of the world; or, at least, that I should have done it in another tongue, and not in the ears of the vulgar; especially, at such a time, when Quakers and Papists are endeavoring to bring the ministry into contempt, and the people are too prone to hearken to their suggestions — I confess I thought the objection very considerable; but that it prevailed not to alter my resolution, is to be ascribed, among others, to the following reasons:
1. It was a proposed solemn humiliation that we agreed on, and that this was prepared and intended for. And how should we be humbled without a plain confession of our sin?
2. It was principally our own sins that the confession did concern; and who can be offended with us for confessing our own sins, and taking the blame and shame to ourselves, which our consciences told us we ought to do?
3. Having necessarily prepared it in the English tongue, I had no spare time to translate it into Latin.
4. When the sin is open in the sight of the world, it is vain to attempt to hide it; all such attempts will but aggravate and increase our shame.
5. A free confession is a condition of a full remission; and when the sin is public, the confession should also be public.
If the ministers of England had sinned only in Latin, I would have made shift to admonish them in Latin, or else have said nothing to them. But if they will sin in English, they must hear of it in English. Unpardoned sin will never let us rest or prosper, though we be at ever so much care and cost to cover it: our sin will surely find us out, though we find not it out. The work of confession is purposely to make known our sin, and freely to take the shame to ourselves; and if ‘he that confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall have mercy,’ no wonder if ‘he that covereth them shall not prosper.’ If we be so tender of ourselves, and so loath to confess, God will be the less tender of us, and he will indite our confessions for us. He will either force our consciences to confession, or his judgments shall proclaim our iniquities to the world.
6. Too many who have undertaken the work of the ministry do so obstinately proceed in self-seeking, negligence, pride, and other sins, that it is become our necessary duty to admonish them. If we saw that such would reform without reproof, we would gladly forbear the publishing of their faults. But when reproofs themselves prove so ineffectual, that they are more offended at the reproof than at the sin, and had rather that we should cease reproving than that themselves should cease sinning, I think it is time to sharpen the remedy. For what else should we do? To give up our brethren as incurable were cruelty, as long as there are further means to be used.
We must not hate them, but plainly rebuke them, and not suffer sin upon them. To bear with the vices of the ministry is to promote the ruin of the Church; for what speedier way is there for the depraving and undoing of the people, than the depravity of their guides? And how can we more effectually further a reformation, than by endeavoring to reform the leaders of the Church? For my part, I have done as I would be done by; and it is for the safety of the Church, and in tender love to the brethren, whom I venture to reprehend — not to make them contemptible and odious, but to heal the evils that would make them so — that so no enemy may find this matter of reproach among us. But, especially, because our faithful endeavors are of so great necessity to the welfare of the Church, and the saving of men’s souls, that it will not consist with a love to either, to be negligent ourselves, or silently to connive at negligence in others. If thousands of you were in a leaking ship, and those that should pump out the water, and stop the leaks, should. be sporting or asleep, or even but favoring themselves in their labors, to the hazarding of you all, would you not awaken them to their work and call on them to labor as for your lives? And if you used some sharpness and importunity with the slothful, would you think that man was in his wits who would take it ill of you, and accuse you of pride, selfconceitedness, or unmannerliness, to presume to talk so saucily to your fellow-workmen, or that should tell you that you wrong them by diminishing their reputation? Would you not say, ‘The work must be done, or we are all dead men. Is the ship ready to sink, and do you talk of reputation? or had you rather hazard yourself and us, than hear of your slothfullness? ’ This is our case, brethren, The work of God must needs be done! Souls must not perish, while you mind your worldly business or worldly pleasure, and take your ease, or quarrel with your brethren! Nor must we be silent while men are hastened by you to perdition, and the Church brought into greater danger and confusion, for fear of seeming too uncivil and unmannerly with you, or displeasing your impatient souls! Would you be but as impatient with your sins as with our reproofs, you should hear no more from us, but we should be all agreed! But, neither God nor good men will let you alone in such sins. Yet if you had betaken yourselves to another calling, and would sin to yourselves only, and would perish alone, we should not have so much necessity of molesting you, as now we have: but if you will enter into the office of the ministry, which is for the necessary preservation of us all, so that by letting you alone in your sin, we must give up the Church to loss and hazard, blame us not if we talk to you more freely than you would have us to do. If your own body were sick, and you will despise the remedy, or if your own house were on fire, and you will be singing or quarrelling in the streets, I could possibly bear it, and let you alone, (which yet, in charity, I should not easily do,) but, if you will undertake to be the physician of an hospital, or to a whole town that is infected with the plague, or will undertake to quench all the fires that shall be kindled in the town, there is no bearing with your remissness, how much soever it may displease you. Take it how you will, you must be told of it; and if that will not serve, you must be told of it yet more plainly; and, if that will not serve, if you be rejected as well as reprehended, you may thank yourselves. I speak all this to none but the guilty.
And, thus, I have given you those reasons which forced me to publish, in plain English, so much of the sins of the ministry as in the following Treatise I have done. And I suppose the more penitent and humble any are, and the more desirous of the true reformation of the Church, the more easily and fully will they approve such free confessions and reprehensions. But I find it will be impossible to avoid offending those who are at once guilty and impenitent; for there is no way of avoiding this, but by our silence, or their patience: and silent we cannot be, because of God’s commands; and patient they will not be, because of their guilt and impenitence. But 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. But my principal business is yet behind. I must now take the boldness, brethren, to become your monitor, concerning some of the necessary duties, of which I have spoken in the ensuing discourse. If any of you should charge me with arrogance or immodesty for this attempt, as if hereby I accused you of negligence, or judged myself sufficient to admonish you, I crave your candid interpretation of my boldness, assuring you that I obey not the counsel of my flesh herein, but displease myself as much as some of you; and would rather have the ease and peace of silence, if it would stand with my duty, and the churches’ good. But it is the mere necessity of the souls of men, and my desire of their salvation, and of the prosperity of the Church, which forceth me to this arrogance and immodesty, if so it must be called. For who, that hath a tongue, can be silent, when it is for the honor of God, the welfare of his Church, and the everlasting happiness of so many souls?