Tag Archives: Richard Baxter

Listening As If For the Last Time

In his book Expository Exultation, John Piper describes how he prays right before preaching.  As an elder is reading the text for the sermon, Piper pleads with God for strength and effectiveness in the pulpit.  He understands the significance of what he’s about to do and so he begs God for help.  I can relate to that.

I’ve been preaching now for over 20 years.  In earlier times, I’d usually pray beforehand, but back then it was mostly because of nervousness and fear.  My first time on a pulpit in a Canadian Reformed Church was in my home congregation in Edmonton.  At that time (1999), it was the largest Canadian Reformed Church – over 600 members.  I was petrified.  What if I said something wrong?  What if I messed up the order of worship?  I had everything I had to say written down, just in case.  And I prayed and prayed.

As time went on, I became more comfortable with preaching and leading worship.  Only then did the momentous significance of what I was doing on the pulpit begin to really grip me.  It was a process.  Somewhere along the way I read the words of Richard Baxter, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  Along the way, I experienced more than once that a person heard me preach on one Sunday and then, by the next, they were no longer there.  God had called them out of this life.

The event that most impacted me was how God called home a United Reformed colleague, Rev. Eric Fennema.  I didn’t know him personally.  But I heard about him from a close friend who did.  One Sunday he was preaching as a guest minister in the URC in Lynden, Washington.  He preached a powerful, amazing sermon on the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13).  You can still listen to it here.  He exhorted the congregation to always be ready to meet the Lord.  If you were to make one sermon your last, you would want it to be that one.  It was his last.  Late the following week he was playing golf and had a heart attack.  He never preached again.

Thus I gradually learned the urgency of preaching.  Preaching is life and death.  I now approach each sermon with two thoughts in mind.  First, what if this is the last sermon I ever preach?  Second, what if this is the last sermon someone in the pews will ever hear?  Those thoughts drive me to make sure I preach the gospel each time.  They also drive me to prayer far more than my early nervousness ever did.

Late last year and early this year, I enjoyed a sabbatical of several months.  I love preaching, but having that burden of urgency off my shoulders was refreshing.  I was blessed to have my old pastor, Rev. Richard Aasman, on the pulpit for a good portion of my sabbatical.  I could just sit and listen – and ponder.  I then learned there’s a flip-side to the urgency of preaching.

Listening to the preaching of God’s Word is also a matter of momentous significance.  If you knew that this was the last sermon you would ever hear preached, how would you listen differently?  But you don’t know.  It could be your last sermon – and that’s how you ought to approach it.  You should approach it prayerfully.  Ask God to help you treat it as the life-and-death proclamation of his Word to you.  Ask for the Holy Spirit to help you listen as if your life depends on it.

Eric Fennema’s passage from Matthew 25 certainly warns us, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v.13).  You don’t know when the Bridegroom will appear with the clouds of heaven, but you also don’t know when he will call you to himself.  Therefore, you need to be watchful.  Part of being watchful is giving heed to his every word to you.  Urgently hang on his words as he speaks to you through preaching.  As our Lord says in another place, “Pay attention to what you hear…” (Mark 4:24).

To drive home the urgency of listening to God’s Word preached, we could rephrase Baxter’s dictum:

I listened as if never sure to listen again, and as a dying man listening to a dying man.”

It’s a lesson better learned sooner rather than later!


Who Should Treat Depression?

Depression -- "The Black Dog."

Depression — “The Black Dog.”

Clinical depression has been described as the common cold of mental illnesses.  At times in my ministry I have wondered:  who doesn’t suffer with depression or hasn’t at some point or other?  The more open we are about discussing it, the less stigma we attach to it, the more we discover how common this ailment is.  Unfortunately, its prevalence does not mitigate its pain.

The pain is not eased by those who see the ailment in a simplistic way as merely a spiritual problem with a spiritual cure.  Even today there are Reformed believers who want to maintain the old view that a spiritual issue is the root cause of most (maybe even all) depression.  This view insists that depression is directly caused by the sufferer’s sin and then the solution to depression rests in repentance.  According to this perspective, pastors, elders, and regular believers, should call depression-sufferers to determine the sin which caused their anguish and turn from it.

Thankfully, other voices have been bringing a more balanced view.  Among them is Dr. David Murray.  His excellent book Christians Get Depressed Too (review here) proceeds on the basis that depression is a complex phenomenon often involving biological and medical realities.  One might think that this is a contemporary approach, something only developed in the last few years.  However, Murray points out that a nuanced view of clinical depression has been around for hundreds of years.  William Perkins (1558-1602) recognized that depression requires medical treatment, and so did Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).

Perkins and Edwards were not alone.  I was recently paging through Peter Lewis’ The Genius of Puritanism.  In chapter 3 (“The Puritan in Private”), Lewis has a discussion of mental depression.  He notes that the Puritans distinguished spiritual depression (obviously caused by sin) from mental depression.  They used the term “melancholy” for the latter.  Lewis notes that Richard Baxter (1615-1691) and Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) both recognized melancholy as a medical phenomenon.  I want to focus for a moment on Brooks and what he writes about this in The Crown and Glory of Christianity (found in volume 4 of The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks).

Brooks was addressing the question of why some Christians seem to be hard pressed with sadness, sorry, and grief.  After all, shouldn’t Christians be joyful?  Part of Brooks’ answer was to note that some of these issues arise from our bodies and the way we were constituted.  Some people are constitutionally more inclined towards melancholy.  He adds a vivid description of it:

Now there is no greater enemy to holy joy and gladness than melancholy, for this pestilent humour will raise such strange passions and imaginations, it will raise such groundless griefs, and fears, and frights, and such senseless surmises and jealousies, as will easily damp a Christian’s joy, and mightily vex, perplex, trouble, and turmoil, daunt, and discourage a Christian’s spirit (page 260).

He further says that this inclination towards melancholy can be used by Satan to his advantage.  Moreover, it is a condition which afflicts both soul and body.  There is definitely a spiritual aspect to the experience of depression, according to Thomas Brooks.  In another book, he writes that this malady “tries the physician, grieves the minister, wounds relations, and makes sport for the Devil.”  This surely sounds familiar!

Also familiar is the cure of which Brooks writes.  He writes, “The cure of melancholy belongs rather to the physician than to the divine, to Galen than to Paul” (page 260).  By “divine” here, Brooks means “theologian” or “pastor.”  Galen (129-200 or 216) was one of the ancient pioneers of medical science.  In our terms, Brooks was saying that depression needs to be treated by doctors, rather than by ministers.  Certainly he would agree that ministers must be involved and can provide spiritual guidance as treatment is sought and provided, but at its roots this is a medical problem to be addressed by medical science.  Did I mention that this was written in 1662?  Yes, in those times they had a far different understanding of medical science, yet they were not averse to pinning a mood disorder on a biological cause.

If you were to encounter a brother or sister suffering from a brain tumour, you would encourage them rather than admonish them to examine themselves for the sin which caused their condition.  Of course, we hold each other accountable for how we respond to medical ailments.  Every Christian is responsible for how they respond to adversity in whatever form.  Clinical depression should be dealt with in the same way.  Those suffering from it need medical treatment — and Christian encouragement from office bearers and regular church members.  In so doing, we reflect the heart and compassion of our Saviour Jesus.