[Here we continue our reprint of Chapter 2 from Richard Baxter's classic tome A Christian Directory.5 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 XIII - The Blessings of Godliness
Know that true godliness is the best life upon earth, and the only way to perfect happiness. Still apprehend it therefore, and use it as the best; and with great diligence resist those temptations which would make it seem to you a confounding, grievous, or unpleasant thing.
There are all things concurrent in a holy life to make it the most delectable life on earth, to a rational, purified mind that is not captivated to the flesh, and liveth not on air or dung. The object of it is the eternal God Himself, the infallible truth, the only satisfactory good; and all these condescending and appearing to us in the mysterious but suitable glass of a mediator: redeeming, reconciling, teaching, governing, sanctifying, justifying, and glorifying all that are His own. The end of it is the pleasing and glorifying of our Maker, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; and the everlasting happiness of ourselves and others. The rule of it is the infallible revelation of God, delivered to the church by His prophets, and His Son, and His apostles, and comprised in the Holy Scriptures, and sealed by the miracles and operations of the Holy Ghost that did indite them. The work of godliness is a living unto God, and preparing for everlasting life, by foreseeing, foretasting, seeking, and rejoicing in that endless happiness which we shall have with God; and by walking after the Spirit, and avoiding the filthiness, delusions, and vexations of the world and the flesh. The nature of man is not capable of a more noble, profitable, and delectable life, than this which God hath called us to by His Son. And if we did but rightly know it, we should follow it with continual alacrity and delight. Be sure, therefore, to conceive of godliness as it is, and not as it is misrepresented by the devil and the ungodly.
As long as a man conceiveth of religion as it is, even the most sweet and delectable life, so long he will follow it willingly and with his heart, and despise the temptations and avocations of fleshly gain and pleasure. He will be sincere, as not being only drawn by other men or outward advantages, nor frightened into it by passion or fearfulness, but loving religion for itself and for its excellent ends: and then he will be cheerful in all the duties, and under all the sufferings and difficulties of it; and he will be most likely to persevere unto the end. We cannot expect that the heart or will should be any more for God and godliness than the understanding practically apprehendeth them as good. Nay, we must always perceive in them a transcendent goodness, above all that is to be found in a worldly life; or else the appearing goodness of the creature will divert us, and carry away our minds. We may see in the very brutes what a power apprehension hath upon their actions. If your horse be but going to home or pasture, how freely will he go through thick and thin! But if he go unwillingly, his travel is troublesome and slow, and you have much ado to get him on. It will be so with you in your way to heaven.
It is therefore the principal design of the devil to hide the goodness and pleasantness of religion from you, and to make it appear to you as a terrible or tedious life. By this means it is that he keeps men from it; and by this means he is still endeavouring to draw you back again, and frustrate your good beginning and your hopes. If he can thus misrepresent religion to your understandings, he will suddenly alienate your wills, and corrupt your lives, and make you turn to the world again, and seek for pleasure somewhere else, and only take up with some heartless lip-service to keep up some deceitful hope of being saved. And the means which Satan useth to these ends are such as these:
1. He will do his work to overwhelm you with appearing doubts and difficulties, and bring you to a loss, and make religion seem to you a confounding and not a satisfying thing. This is one of his most dangerous assaults upon the weak and young beginners. Difficulties and passions are the things which he makes use of to confound you, and put you out of a regular, cheerful seeking of salvation. When you read the Scriptures, he will mind you of abundance of difficulties in all you read or hear. He will show you seeming contradictions, and tell you that you will never be able to understand these things. He will cast in thoughts of unbelief and blasphemy, and cause you, if he can, to roll them in your mind. If you cast them not out with abhorrence, but dispute with the devil, he hopes to prove too hard at least for such children and unprovided soldiers as you. And if you do reject them, and refuse to dispute it with him, he will sometimes tell you that your cause is naught, or else you need not be afraid to think of all that can be said against it. This way he gets advantage of you to draw you to unbelief. If you escape better than so, he will molest and terrify you with the hideousness of his temptations, and make you to think you are forsaken of God, because such blasphemous thoughts have been so often in your minds. Thus he will one while tempt you to blasphemy, and another while affright and torment you with the thoughts of such temptations.
So also in the study of other good books, he will tempt you to fix upon all that seems difficult to you, and there to confound and perplex yourselves. In your meditations, he will seek to make all to tend but to confound and overwhelm you, keeping still either hard or fearful things before your eyes, or breaking and scattering your thoughts in pieces, so that you cannot reduce them to any order, nor set them together, nor make anything of them, nor drive them to any desirable end. So in your prayers he would fain confound you, either with fear, or with doubtful and distracting thoughts about God, or your sins, or the matter or manner of your duty, or questioning whether your prayers will be heard. And so in your self-examination, he will still seek to puzzle you, and leave you more in darkness than you began, and make you afraid of looking homeward, or conversing with yourselves, like a man that is afraid to lie in his own house when he thinks it haunted with some apparitions. And thus the devil would make all your religion to be but like the unwinding of a bottom of yarn, or a skein of silk that is ravelled, that you may cast it away in weariness or despair.
Your remedy against this dangerous temptation is to remember that you are yet young in knowledge, and that ignorance is like darkness that will cause doubts, and difficulties, and fears; and that all these will vanish as your light increaseth. Therefore you must wait in patience, till your riper knowledge fit you for satisfaction. And in the mean time, be sure that you take up your hearts most with the great, fundamental, necessary, plain, and certain points, which your salvation is laid upon, and which are more suited to your state and strength. If you will be gnawing bones, when you should be sucking milk, and have not patience to stay till you are past your childhood, no marvel if you find them hard, and if they stick in your throats, or break your teeth. See that you live upon God in Christ, and love and practice what you know, and think of the excellency of so much as is already revealed to you. You know already what is the end that you must seek, and where your happiness consisteth; and what Christ hath done to prepare it for you, and how you must be justified, and sanctified, and walk with God. Have you God, and Christ, and heaven to think on, and all the mercies of the gospel to delight in, and will you lay by these as common matters, or overlook them, and perplex yourselves about every difficulty in your way? Make clean work before you as you go, and live in the joyful acknowledgment of the mercies which you have received, and in the practice of the things you know, and then your difficulties will vanish as you go on.
2. Another of Satan's wiles is to confound you with the noise of sectaries, and divers opinions in religion. While one sect tells you, that if you will be saved, you must be of their church; and others say, you must be of theirs. When you find that the sects are many, and their reasonings such as you cannot answer, you will be in danger either to take up some of their deceits, or to be confounded among them all, not knowing which church and religion to choose.
But here consider, that there is but one universal church of Christians in the world, of which Christ is the only King and Head, and every Christian is a member. You were sacramentally admitted into this [true] church by baptism, and spiritually by your being, "born of the Spirit" (John 3:6). You have all the promises of the gospel that if you believe in Christ you shall be saved; and that all the living members of this church are loved by Christ as members of his body, and shall be presented unspotted to the Father, by Him who is the Saviour of his body (see Eph. v. 23-29); "and that by one Spirit we are all baptized or entered into this one body," (see I Cor. xii. 12, 13). If then thou hast faith, and love, and the Spirit thou art certainly a Christian, and a member of Christ, and of this universal church of Christians. And if there were any other church, but what are the parts of this one, then this were not universal, and Christ must have two bodies. Thou art not saved for being a member of the church of Rome, or Corinth, or Ephesus, or Philippi or Thessalonica, or of any other such; but for being a member of the [true] church or body of Christ, that is, a Christian. And as thou art a subject of the King, and a member of this kingdom, whatever corporation thou be a member of (perhaps sometime of one, and sometime of another) so thou art a subject of Christ, whatever particular church thou be of; for it is no church, if they be not Christians, or subjects of Christ. For one sect then to say, "Our's is the true church", and another to say, "Nay, but ours is the true church", is as mad as to dispute whether your hall, or kitchen, or parlour, or coal-house, is your house; and for one to say, "This is the house", and another, "Nay", but that, when a child can tell them, that the best is but a part, and the house containeth them all: and for [those] that take on them to be the whole, and deny all others to be Christians and saved, except the subjects of [their church], it is so irrational, antichristian a fiction and usurpation, and odious, cruel, and groundless a damnation, of the far greatest part of the body of Christ, that it is fitter for detestation than dispute. And if such a crack would frighten the world out of their wits, no doubt but other bishops also would make use of it, and say, "All are damned that will not be subject to us."
3. Another temptation to confound you in your religion is by filling your heads with practical scrupulosity, so that you cannot go on for doubting every step whether you go right; and when you should cheerfully serve your Master, you will do nothing but disquiet your mind with scruples, whether this or that be right or wrong. Your remedy here is not by casting away all care of pleasing God, or fear of sinning, or by debauching conscience, but by a cheerful and quiet obedience to God, so far as you know His will, and an upright willingness and endeavor to understand it better, and a thankful receiving the gospel pardon for your failings and infirmities. Be faithful in your obedience, but live still upon Christ, and think not of reaching to any such obedience as shall set you above the need of his merits, and a daily pardon of your sins. Do the best you can to know the will of God and do it; but when you know the essentials of religion, and obey sincerely, let no remaining wants deprive you of the comfort of that so great a mercy, as proves your right to life eternal. In your seeking further for more knowledge and obedience, let your care be such as tendeth to your profiting and furthering you to your end, and as doth not hinder your joy and thanks for what you have received: but that which destroyeth your joy and thankfulness, and doth but perplex you, and not further you in your way, is but hurtful scrupulosity, and to be laid by. When you are right in the main, thank God for that, and be further solicitous so far as to help you on, but not to hinder you. If you send your servant on your message, you had rather he went on his way as well as he can, than stand scrupling every step whether he should set the right or left foot forward, and whether he should step so far, or so far at a time, &c. Hindering scruples please not God.
4. Another way to confound you in your religion is by setting you upon overdoing by inventions of your own. When a poor soul is most desirous to please God, the devil will be religious, and set him upon some such task of voluntary humility, or will-worship, as the apostle speaks of (see Col. ii. 18, 20-23), or set him upon some insnaring unnecessary vows or resolutions, or some works of conceited supererogation, which is that which Solomon calleth, being "righteous over-much," (see Eccles. vii. 16). Thus many have made duties to themselves, which God never made for them; and taketh that for sin, which God never forbad them. The religion [of some] is very much made up of such commandments of their own, and traditions of men. As if Christ had not made us work enough, men are forward to make much more for themselves. And some that should teach them the laws of Christ, do think that their office is in vain, unless they may also prescribe them laws of their own, and give them new precepts of religion. Yea, some that are the bitterest enemies to the strict observance of the laws of God, as if it were a tedious, needless thing, must yet needs load us with abundance of unnecessary precepts of their own. And thus religion is made both wearisome and uncertain, and a door set open for men to enlarge it, and increase the burden at their pleasure. Indeed [such religion] is fitted to delude and quiet sleepy consciences, and to torment with uncertainties the consciences that are awaked.
And there is something in the corrupted nature of man that inclineth him to some additions and voluntary service of his own inventions, as an offering most acceptable unto God. Hence it is that many poor Christians do rashly entangle their consciences with vows of circumstances and things unnecessary, as to give so much, to observe such days or hours in fasting and prayer, not to do such or such a thing that in itself is lawful, with abundance of such things, which perhaps some change of providence may make accidentally their duty afterwards to do, or disable them to perform their vows; and then these snares are fetters on their perplexed consciences, perhaps as long as they live. Yea, some of the antinomians teach the people that things indifferent are the fittest matter of a vow: as to live single, to possess nothing, to live in solitude, and the like. Indeed all things lawful when they are vowed, must be performed, but it is unfit to be vowed if it be not first profitable and best, for ourselves or others, and that which is best is not indifferent, it being every man's duty to choose what is best. Vows are to bind us to the performance of that which God had bound us to by His laws before. They are our expression of consent and resolution by a self-obligation to obey His will, and not to make new duties of religion to ourselves, which else would never have been our duty.
To escape these snares, it is necessary that you take heed of corrupting your religion by burdens and mixtures of your own devising. You are called to obey God's laws, and not to make laws for yourselves. You may be sure that His laws are just and good, but yours may be bad and foolish. When you obey Him, you may expect your reward and encouragement from Him; but when you will obey yourselves, you must reward yourselves. You may find it enough for you to keep His laws, without devising more work for yourselves, or feigning duties which He commanded not, or sins which He forbade not. Be not rash in making vows; let them reach but unto necessary duties; and let them have their due exceptions when they are about alterable things. Or if you are entangled by them already, consult with the most judicious, able, impartial men, that you may come clearly off without a wound. There is a great deal of judgment and sincerity necessary in your counsellors, and a great deal of submission and self-denial in yourselves to bring you solely out of such a snare. Avoid sin, whatever you do, for sinning is not the way to your deliverance. And for the time to come, be wiser, and lay no more snares for yourselves, and clog not yourselves with your own inventions, but cheerfully obey what God commandeth you, who hath wisdom and authority sufficient to make you perfect laws. Christ's "yoke is easy, and His burden light" (Matt. xi. 30), and "His commandments not grievous," (I John v. 3). But if your mixtures and self-devised snares are grievous to you, blame not God, but yourselves that made them.
5. Another of Satan's ways to make religion burdensome and grievous to you, is by overwhelming you with fear and sorrow. Partly by persuading that religion consisteth in excess of sorrow, and so causing you to spend your time in striving to trouble and grieve yourselves unprofitably, as if it were the course most acceptable to God; and partly by taking the advantage of a timorous, passionate nature, and so making every of thought of God, or serious exercise of religion, to be a torment to you by raising some overwhelming fears, for "fear hath torment" (I John iv. 18). In some feminine, weak, and melancholy persons, this temptation hath so much advantage in the body that the holiest soul can do but little in resisting it, so that though there be in such a sincere love to God, His ways and servants, yet fear so playeth the tyrant in them, that they perceive almost nothing else. And it is no wonder if religion be grievous and unpleasant to such as these.
But, alas! It is you yourselves that are the causes of this, and bring the matter of your grievance with you. God hath commanded you a sweeter work. It is a life of love, and joy, and cheerful progress to eternal joy that He requireth of you, and no more fear or grief than is necessary to separate you from sin, and teach you to value and use the remedy. The gospel presenteth to you such abundant matter of joy and peace as would make these the very complexion and temperature of your souls, if you received them as they are propounded. Religious fears, when they are inordinate and hurtful, are sinful, and indeed against religion, and must be resisted as other hurtful passions. Be better acquainted with Christ and His promises and you will find enough in Him to pacify the soul, and give you confidence and holy boldness in your access to God (see Heb. iv. 16; Eph. iii. 12; Heb. x. 19). The spirit which He giveth, is not the spirit of bondage, but the spirit of adoption, or love and confidence (see Rom. viii. 15; Heb. ii. 15).
6. Another thing that maketh religion seem grievous is retaining unmortified sensual desires. If you keep up your lusts they will strive against the gospel, and all the works of the Spirit which strive against them (see Gal. v. 17). And every duty will be so far unpleasant to you as you are carnal, because it is against your carnal inclination and desire. Away, therefore, with your beloved sickness, and then both your food and your physician will be less grievous to you. "Mortify the flesh, and you will less disrelish the things of the Spirit. For the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to His law, nor can be" (Rom. viii. 7, 8).
7. Another cause of confounding and wearying you is the mixture of your actual sins, dealing unfaithfully with God, and wounding your consciences, by renewing guilt, especially of sins against knowledge and consideration. If you thus keep the bone out of joint, and the wound unhealed, no marvel if you are loth to work or travail. But it is your sin and folly that should be grievous to you, and not that which is contrary to it, and would remove the cause of all your troubles. Resolvedly forsake your willful sinning, and come home by "repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts xx. 21), and then you will find, that when the thorn is out, your pain will cease, and that the cause of your trouble was not in God or religion, but in your sin.
8. Lastly, to make religion unpleasant to you, the tempter would keep the substance of the gospel unknown or unobserved to you. He would hide the wonderful love of God revealed in our Redeemer, and all the riches of saving grace, and the great deliverance and privileges of believers, and the certain hopes of life eternal. And the kingdom of God, which consisteth in righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, shall be represented to you as consisting in errors only, or in trifles, in shadows and shows, and bodily exercise which profiteth little (see I Tim. iv. 8). If ever you would know the pleasures of faith and holiness, you must labor above all to know God as revealed in His infinite love in the Mediator, and read the gospel as God's act of oblivion, and the testament and covenant of Christ, in which He giveth you life eternal. In every duty draw near to God as a reconciled Father, the object of your everlasting love and joy. Know and use religion as it is, without mistaking or corrupting it, and it will not appear to you as a grievous, tedious, or confounding thing.