In The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter challenges pastors to lead their congregations in light of the responsibilities of the calling of God and the proclamation of the gospel.
One of these responsibilities is the exercise of church discipline. Many of us would prefer to leave this idea of church discipline with Baxter in the 1600s, as though we have progressed far beyond such antiquated notions of holiness and sanctification, which are obviously personal and optional preferences akin to Baxter’s hairdo and clothing choices.
Baxter advocates for initial private attempts by the pastor to bring a sinner to repentance, acknowledging the need for particular skill in the matter and sensitivity to the particular temperament of the offender. Even so, Baxter emphasizes the need to “shake their careless hearts” with respect to the sin that they commit. Baxter anticipates the objection that his hearers would surely raise, and which might as well have been prepared for those in our own time who don’t immediately agree with the concept of biblical church discipline. Those protestors would suggest “there is little likelihood that public reproof will do them good,” and that instead they would be “enraged by the shame of it.”
In response, Baxter proposes primarily that it is of little consequence to suggest that God’s “ordinances” (commands) are useless. The utility of a command from our perspective is not the test, but rather our faithfulness to obey it. Further, Baxter argues that there is great utility in “shaming of sin and humbling the sinner,” and in a time such as ours in which “self-esteem” is put forth as the god who led us out of the land of Egypt, and in which we maintain a contra-Pauline philosophy that sin should abound so grace may abound all the more, he could be speaking to our hubristic generation, directly.
Baxter also addresses the fact that discipline is not only for the offending believer, though the goal is repentance and restoration to church fellowship, but that it is also for the witness and testimony of the church. For if the church proclaims the sufficiency of the gospel for salvation, and asserts that those who are in Christ are new creatures transformed by the grace of God, lives that remain unchanged and bound in sin testify more loudly than those proclaimations and assertions. Church discipline is not easy, or popular, yet for Baxter the reformed pastor is duty-bound to so disciple the flock.