Today (December 8 ) is the anniversary of the death of Richard Baxter (1615–1691), the Puritan theologian who whose work The Reformed Pastor is a perennially useful classic on soul care, and whose Aphorisms on Justification caused controversy in his own time and consternation to this day.
His popular 1650 book The Saint’s Everlasting Rest is filled with excellent stuff, but one section in particular has stood out as a distinctive contribution to Christian spirituality. That section is in the thirteenth chapter, where Baxter teaches a method of prayerful meditation. Simon Chan has pointed to the chapter as a distinctively Protestant and evangelical approach to meditation. Protestant evangelicals have not exactly dominated the genre of “guides to Christian meditation,” so Baxter’s approach is worth study.
One of the points Baxter makes is that it takes hard, human work to meditate on God’s word. Some believers object that it would be more reverent to wait passively for the Spirit to move them, and that taking active steps toward meditating is a kind of self-empowered spirituality. In Baxter’s words, “some think, if they should thus fetch in their own comfort by believing and hoping, and work it out of Scripture promises, and extract it by their own thinking and studying, that then it would be a comfort of their own hammering out (as they say) and not the genuine joy of the Holy Ghost.” But Baxter counters:
A desperate mistake, raised upon a ground that would overthrow almost all duty, as well as this: which is, their setting the workings of God’s spirit, and their own spirits in opposition, when their spirits must stand in subordination to God’s. They are conjunct causes, cooperating to the producing of one and the same effect. God’s Spirit worketh our comforts, by setting our own spirits awork upon the promises, and raising our thoughts to the place of our comforts.
Chan commends Baxter’s approach precisely because it recognizes that all our good comes from the Spirit by grace, but refuses to pit that against the active use of spiritual disciplines.
Long before Chan recommended Baxter, though, the late evangelical Anglican theologian Peter Toon pointed to him as the best guide for Protestants on meditation. Toon even commended him as greatly preferable to John Owen, being more realistic and practical than Owen. In his book on meditation, From Mind to Heart: Christian Meditation Today, Toon even devoted an appendix to simply reprinting the key section of the thirteenth chapter of The Saints’ Everlasting Rest. Thinking I can do no better than Toon, I follow him here by presenting, without comment or paraphrase, Baxter on meditation:
1. Once more I entreat thee, Reader, as thou makest conscience of a revealed duty, and darest not willfully resist the Spirit; as thou valuest the high delights of a saint, and the soul-ravishing exercise of heavenly contemplation; that thou diligently study, and speedily and faithfully practise, the following directions. If, by this means, thou dost not find an increase of all thy graces, and dost not grow beyond the stature of common Christians, and art not made more serviceable in thy place, and more precious in the eyes of all discerning persons; if thy soul enjoy not more communion with God, and thy life be not fuller of comfort, and hast it not readier by thee at a dying hour: then cast away these directions, and exclaim against me for ever as a deceiver.
2. The duty which I press upon thee so earnestly, and in the practice of which I am now to direct thee, is, “The set and solemn acting of all the powers of thy soul in meditation upon thy everlasting rest.” More fully to explain the nature of this duty, I will here illustrate a little the description itself-then point out the fittest time, place, and temper of mind, for it.
3. It is not improper to illustrate a little the manner in which we have described this duty of meditation, or the considering and contemplating of spiritual things. It is confessed to be a duty by all, but practically denied by most. Many that make conscience of other duties, easily neglect this…. As digestion turns food into chyle and blood, for vigorous health; so meditation turns the truths received and remembered into warm affection, firm resolution, and holy conversation.
4. This meditation is the acting of all the powers of the soul. It is the work of the living, and not of the dead. It is a work, of all others the most spiritual and sublime, and therefore not to be well performed by a heart that is merely carnal and earthly. They must necessarily have some relation to heaven, before they can familiarly converse there. I suppose them to be such as have a title to rest, when I persuade them to rejoice in the meditations of rest. And supposing thee to be a Christian, I am now exhorting thee to be an active Christian. And it is the work of the soul I am setting thee to, for bodily exercise doth here profit but little. And it must have all the powers of the soul to distinguish it from the common meditation of students; for the understanding is not the whole soul; and therefore cannot do the whole work. As in the body, the stomach must turn the food into chyle, and prepare for the liver, the liver and spleen turn it into blood, and prepare for the heart and brain; so is the soul, the understanding must take in truths, and prepare them for the will, and that for the affections…. It is the mistake of Christians to think that meditation is only the work of the understanding and memory; when every school-boy can do this, or persons that hate the things which they think on. So that you see there is more to be done than barely to remember and think on heaven: as some labours not only stir a hand, or a foot, but exercise the whole body; so doth meditation the whole soul. As the affections of sinners are set on the world, are turned to idols, and fallen from God, as well as their understanding; so must their affections be reduced to God, as well as the understanding; and as their whole soul was filled with sin before, so the whole must be filled with God now. See David’s description of the blessed man, “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he meditate day and night.”
5. This meditation is set and solemn. As there is solemn prayer, when we set ourselves wholly to that duty; and ejaculatory prayer, when, in the midst of other business we send up some short request to God: so also there is solemn meditation, when we apply ourselves wholly to that work; and transient meditation, when, in the midst of other business, we have some good thoughts of God in our minds. And, as solemn prayer is either set, in a constant course of duty, or occasional, at an extraordinary season; so also is meditation….
6. This meditation is upon thy everlasting rest. I would not have you cast off your other meditations; but surely as heaven hath the pre-eminence in perfection, it should have it also in our meditation. That which will make us most happy when we possess it, will make us most joyful when we meditate upon it. Other meditations are as numerous as there are lines in the scripture, or creatures in the universe, or particular providences in the government of the world. But this is a walk to Mount Zion; from the kingdoms of this world to the kingdom of saints; from earth to heaven; from time to eternity; it is walking upon sun, moon, and stars, in the garden and paradise of God. It may seem far off; but spirits are quick; whether in the body, or out of the body, their motion is swift.
7. As to the fittest time for this heavenly contemplation, let me only advise, that it be – stated – frequent – and seasonable.
8. Give it a stated time. If thou suit thy time to the advantage of the work, without placing any religion in the time itself, thou hast no need to fear superstition. Stated time is a hedge to duty, and defends it against many temptations to omission. Some have not their time at command, and therefore cannot see their hours; and many are so poor, that the necessities of their families deny them this freedom: such persons should be watchful to redeem time as much as they can, and take their vacant opportunities as they fall, and especially join meditation and prayer, as much as they can, with the labours of their callings. Yet those that have more time to spare from their wordly necessities, and are masters of their time, I still advise to keep this duty to a stated time. And indeed, if every work of the day had its appointed time, we should be better skilled, both in redeeming time, and in performing duty.
9. Let it be frequent, as well as stated. How often it should be, I cannot determine, because men’s circumstances differ. But, in general, scripture requires it to be frequent, when it mentions meditating day and night. For those, therefore, who can conveniently omit other business, I advise, that it be once a day at least. Frequency in heavenly contemplation is particularly important.
10. Frequent society breeds familiarity, and familiarity increases love and delight, and makes us bold in our addresses. The chief end of this duty is, to have acquaintance and fellowship with God; and, therefore, if thou come but seldom to it, thou wilt keep thyself a stranger still; for seldom conversing with God will breed a strangeness between thy soul and him. When a man feels his need of God, and must seek his help in a time of necessity, then it is great encouragement to go to a God we know and are acquainted with. “O!” saith the heavenly Christian, “I know both whither I go, and to whom. I have gone this way many a time before now. It is the same God that I daily converse with, and the way has been my daily walk. God knows me well enough, and I have some knowledge of him.” On the other side, what a horror and discouragement will it be to the soul, when it is forced to fly to God in straits, to think, “Alas! I know not whither to go. I never went the way before. I have no acquaintance at the court of heaven. My soul knows not that God that I must speak to and I fear he will not know my soul.” But especially when we come to die, and must immediately appear before this God, and expect to enter into his eternal rest, then the difference will plainly appear; then what a joy will it be to think, “I am going to the place that I daily conversed in; to the place from whence I tasted such frequent delights; to that God whom I have met in my meditation so often. My heart hath been at heaven before now, and hath often tasted its reviving sweetness; and if my eyes were so enlightened, and my spirits so refreshed, when I had but a taste, what will it be when I shall feed on it freely?”… Therefore I persuade to frequency in this duty. And as it will prevent strangeness between thee and God, so also,
11. It will prevent unskilfulness in the duty itself. How awkwardly do men set their hands to a work they are seldom employed in! Whereas, frequency will habituate thy heart to the work, and make it more easy and delightful. The hill which made thee pant and blow at first going up, thou mayest easily run up, when thou art once accustomed to it.
12. Thou wilt also prevent the loss of that heat and life thou hast obtained. If thou eat but once in two or three days, thou wilt lose thy strength as fast as it comes. If in holy meditation thou get near to Christ, and warm thy heart with the fire of love, and then come but seldom, thy former coldness will soon return; especially as the work is so spiritual, and against the bent of depraved nature. It is true, the intermixing of other duties, especially secret prayer, may do much to the keeping thy heart above; but meditation is the life of most other duties, and the view of heaven is the life of meditation.
13. Choose also the most seasonable time. All things are beautiful and excellent in their season. Unseasonableness may lose the fruit of thy labour, may raise difficulties in the work, and may turn a duty to a sin. The same hour maybe seasonable to one, and unseasonable to another. Servants and labourers must take that season which their business can best afford; either while at work, or in travelling, or when they lie awake in the night. Such as can choose what time of the day they will, should observe when they find their spirits most active and fit for contemplation, and fix upon that as the stated time. I have always found that the fittest time for myself is in the evening, from sunsetting to the twilight. I the rather mention this, because it was the experience of a better and wiser man; for it is expressly said, “Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide.” The Lord’s day is exceeding seasonable for this exercise. When should we more seasonably contemplate our rest, than on that day of rest which typifies it to us? It being a day appropriated to spiritual duties, methinks we should never exclude this duty, which is so eminently spiritual. I verily think this is the chief work of a Christian sabbath, and most agreeable to the design of its positive institution. What fitter time to converse with our Lord, than on the Lord’s day? What fitter day to ascend to heaven, than that on which he arose from earth, and fully triumphed over death and hell? The fittest temper for a true Christian, is, like John, to “be in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” And what can bring us to this joy in the Spirit, but the spiritual beholding of our approaching glory? … Especially you that are poor, and cannot take time in the week as you desire, see that you well improve this day: as your bodies rest from their labours, let your spirits seek after rest from God.
14. Besides the constant seasonableness of every day, and particularly every Lord’s day, there are also more peculiar seasons for heavenly contemplation. As for instance:
15. When God hath more abundantly warmed thy spirit with fire from above, then thou mayest soar with greater freedom. A little labour will set thy heart a-going at such a time as this; whereas, at another time, thou mayest take pains to little purpose. Observe the gales of the Spirit, and how the Spirit of Christ doth move thy spirit. “Without Christ, we can do nothing;” and therefore let us be doing while he is doing; and be sure not to be out of the way, nor asleep when he comes. When the Spirit finds thy heart, like Peter in prison, and in irons, and smites thee, and says, “Arise up quickly, and follow me,” be sure thou then arise, and follow, and thou shalt find thy chains fall off, and all doors will open and thou wilt be at heaven before thou art aware.
16. Another peculiar season for this duty is, when thou art in a suffering, distressed, or tempted state. When should we take our cordials, but in time of fainting? When is it more seasonable to walk to heaven, than when we know not in what corner of earth to live with comfort? Or when should our thoughts converse more above, than when they have nothing but grief below? … Reader, if thou knowest what a cordial to thy griefs the serious views of glory are, thou wouldst less fear these harmless troubles, and more use that preserving, reviving remedy. “In the multitude of my troubled thoughts within me,” saith David, “thy comforts delight my soul.” “I reckon,” saith Paul, “that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”…
17. And another season peculiarly fit for this heavenly duty is, when the messengers of God summon us to die. When should we more frequently sweeten our souls with the believing thoughts of another life, than when we find that this is almost ended? No men have greater need of supporting joys, than dying men; and those joys must be fetched from our eternal joy. As heavenly delights are sweetest, when nothing earthly is joined with them; so the delights of dying Christians are oftentimes the sweetest they ever had. What a prophetic blessing had dying Isaac and Jacob, for their sons! With what a heavenly song, and divine benediction, did Moses conclude his life! What heavenly advice and prayer had the disciples from their Lord, when he was about to leave them! When Paul was ready to be offered up, what heavenly exhortation and advice did he give the Philippians, Timothy, and the elders of Ephesus! How near to heaven was John in Patmos, but a little before his translation thither! It is the general temper of the saints to be then most heavenly when they are nearest heaven….
18. Concerning the fittest place for heavenly contemplation, it is sufficient to say, that the most convenient is some private retirement. Our spirits need every help, and to be freed from every hinderance in the work. If, in private prayer, Christ directs us to “enter into our closet, and shut the door, that our Father may see us in secret,” so should we do this in meditation. How often did Christ himself retire to some mountain, or wilderness, or other solitary place? I give not this advice for occasional meditation, but for that which is set and solemn. Therefore withdraw thyself from all society, even that of godly men, that thou mayst awhile enjoy the society of thy Lord. If a student cannot study in a crowd, who exerciseth only his invention and memory; much less shouldst thou be in a crowd, who art to exercise all the powers of thy soul, and upon an object so far above nature. We are fled so far from superstitious solitude, that we have even cast off the solitude of contemplative devotion. We seldom read of God’s appearing by himself, or by his angels, to any of his prophets or saints, in a crowd; but frequently when they were alone. But observe for thyself what place best agrees with thy spirit; within doors or without. Isaac’s example, in going out to meditate in the field, will, I am persuaded, best suit with most. Our Lord so much used a solitary garden, that even Judas, when he came to betray him, knew where to find him: and though he took his disciples thither with him, yet he was withdrawn from them for more secret devotions; and though his meditation be not directly named, but only his praying, yet it is very clearly implied; for his soul is first made sorrowful with the bitter meditations on his sufferings and death, and then he poureth it out in prayer. So that Christ had his accustomed place, and consequently accustomed duty; and so must we; he hath a place that is solitary, whither he retireth himself, even from his own disciples, and so must we: his meditations go further than his thoughts, they affect and pierce his heart and soul, and so must ours.
19. I am next to advise thee concerning the preprations of thy heart for this heavenly contemplation. The success of the work much depends on the frame of thy heart. When man’s heart had nothing in it to grieve the Spirit, it was then the delightful habitation of his Maker. God did not quit his residence there, till man expelled him by unworthy provocations. There was no shyness or reserve till the heart grew sinful, and too loathesome a dungeon for God to delight in. And was this soul reduced to its former innocency, God would quickly return to his former habitation; yea, so far as it is renewed and repaired by the Spirit, and purged from its lusts, and beautified with his image, the Lord will yet acknowledge it as his own; Christ will manifest himself unto it, and the Spirit will take it for his temple and residence. So far as the heart is qualified for conversing with God, so far it usually enjoys him. Therefore, “with all diligence keep thy heart, for out of it are the issues of life.” More particularly,
20. Get thy heart as clear from the world as thou canst. Wholly lay by the thoughts of thy business, troubles, enjoyments, and every thing that may take up any room in thy soul. Get it as empty as thou possibly canst, that it may be the more capable of being filled with God. If thou couldst perform some outward duty with a piece of thy heart, while the other is absent, yet this duty, above all, I am sure thou canst not. When thou shalt go into the mount of contemplation, thou wilt be like the covetous man at the heap of gold, who, when he might take as much as he could, lamented that he was able to carry no more: so thou wilt find so much of God and glory as thy narrow heart is able to contain, and almost nothing to hinder thy full possession, but the incapacity of thy own spirit. Then thou wilt think, “O that this understanding, and these affections, could contain more! It is more my unfitness than anything else, that even this place is not my heaven. God is in this place, and I know it not. This mount is full of chariots of fire; but mine eyes are shut, and I cannot see them. O the words of love Christ hath to speak, and wonders of love he hath to show, but I cannot bear them yet? Heaven is ready for me, but my heart is unready for heaven.” Therefore, Reader, seeing thy enjoyment of God in this contemplation much depends on the capacity and disposition of thy heart, seek him here, if ever, with all thy soul. Thrust not Christ into the stable and the manger, as if thou hadst better guests for the chief rooms.
21. Be sure to set upon this work with the greatest solemnity of heart and mind. There is no trifling in holy things. “God will be sanctified in them that come nigh him.” These spiritual, excellent, soul-raising duties, are, if well used, most profitable; but, when used unfaithfully, most dangerous. Labour, therefore, to have the deepest apprehensions of the presence of God, and his incomprehensible greatness.