by Richard Baxter; an abridgement from A Christian Directory, (SDG), 386–390

Direct. I: On Lawfulness

If you would escape the sin and danger, which men commonly run into by unlawful sporting, under pretence of lawful recreations, you must understand what lawful recreation is, and what is its proper end and use.

No doubt but some sport and recreation are lawful, yea needful, and therefore a duty to some men. Lawful sport or recreation is the use of some natural thing or action, not forbidden us, for the exhilarating of the natural spirits by the fantasy, and due exercise of the natural parts, thereby to fit the body and mind for ordinary duty to God. It is some delightful exercise.

We do not call unpleasing labour by the name of sport or recreation; though it may be better and more necessary. We call not every delight by the name of sport or recreation; for eating and drinking may be delightful; and holy things and duties may be delightful; and yet not properly sports or recreation. But it is the fantasy that is chiefly delighted by sports.

All these things following are necessary to the lawfulness of a sport or recreation, and the want of any one of them will make and prove it to be unlawful:

(1) It must be engaged in with the glory of God in view. The end which you really intend in using it, must be to fit you for your service to God; that is, either for your callings, or for His worship, or some work of obedience in which you may please and glorify Him (cf. 1 Cor 10:31). Therefore the person that uses it, must be one that is heartily devoted to God, and His service, and really lives to do His work, and pleases and glorifies Him in the world: which none but the godly truly do! And therefore no carnal, ungodly person, that has no such holy end, can use any recreation lawfully; because he uses it not to a due end. For the end is essential to the moral good of any action; and an evil end must needs make it evil: “Unto the pure all things are pure, [that is, all things not forbidden,] but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure, but even their mind and conscience are defiled” (Tit 1:15).

(2) It must fit you for God’s service. A lawful recreation must be a means fitly chosen and used to this end. If it has no aptitude to fit us for God’s service in our ordinary callings and duty, it can be to us no lawful recreation. Though it be lawful to another that it is a real help to, it is unlawful to us.

Therefore all recreations are unlawful, which are themselves preferred before our callings, or which are used by a man that lives idly, or in no calling, and has no ordinary work to make him need them. For these are no fit means, which exclude our end, instead of furthering it.

Therefore all those are unlawful sports, which are used only to delight a carnal fantasy, and have no higher end, than to please the sickly mind that loves them.

And therefore all those are unlawful sports, which really unfit us for the duties of our callings, and the service of God; which, laying the benefit and hurt together, do hinder us as much or more than they help us! which is the case of all voluptuous wantons.

(3) It must not take time away from greater works. All sports are unlawful which take up any part of the time which we should spend in greater works: such are all those that are unseasonable; (as on the Lord’s day without necessity, or when we should be at prayer, or any other duty;) and all those that take up more time than the end of a recreation does necessarily require (which is too common).

(4) It must not be sacrilegious. If a recreation be profane, as making sport of holy things, it is a mocking of God, and a villainy unbeseeming any of His creatures, and laying them open to His heaviest vengeance. The children that made sport with calling the prophet “bald head” were slain by bears (2 Kgs 2:23).

(5) It must not be at the expense of others. They are unlawful sports which are used to the wrong of others: as players, that defame and reproach other men; and hunters and hawkers that tread down poor men’s corn and hedges.

(6) It must not involve deriving pleasure from the sin of others. It is sinful to make sport of other men’s sinning, or to act it ourselves so as to become partakers of it; which is too common with comedians, and other profane wits.

(7) It must not be unclean or obscene. Unclean, obscene recreations are unlawful; when filthiness or wantonness is represented without a due expression of its odiousness, or with obscene words or actions. “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting” (Eph 5:3–4).

(8) It must not evoke lust and other sinful reactions. Those sports are sinful, which plainly tend to provoke ourselves or others to sin: as to lust, to swearing, and cursing, and railing, and fighting, or the like. Those also are sinful, which are the exercise of covetousness, to win other men’s money of them; or that tend to stir up covetousness in those you play with.

(9) It must not be cruel. Cruel recreations also are unlawful: as taking pleasure in the beholding of duellers, fighters, or any that abuse each other; or any other creatures that needlessly torment each other.

(10) It must not be too expensive. Too costly recreation also is unlawful: when you are but God’s stewards, and must be accountable to Him for all you have, it is sinful to expend it needlessly on sports.

(11) It must not be forbidden to us by our superiors. Unnecessary recreations forbidden by our lawful governors are unlawful. If they were before lawful to you, yet now they are not; because your king, your pastor, your parents, your masters, have power to rule and restrain you in such things; and you must obey them.

By this it is easy to judge of our common stage-plays, gaming, cards, dice, and diverse other such kind of sports. If they have but any one of these evil qualifications they are sinful.

All these are applicable both to young and old. But I would especially address our youths, who are sadly being carried by the love of sports and pleasure from the love of God, and the care of their salvation, and the love of holiness, and the love of their callings; and into idleness, riotousness, and disobedience to their superiors:

(1) Do you not know that you have higher delights to mind? And are these toys beseeming a noble soul, that has holy and heavenly matters to delight in?

(2) Do you not feel what a plague the very pleasure is to your affections? how it bewitches you, and befools you, and makes you out of love with holiness, and unfit for any thing that is good?

(3) Do you know the worth of those precious hours which you play away? have you no more to do with them? Look inwards to your soul, and forward to eternity, and bethink you better.

(4) Is it sport that you most need? Do you not more need Christ, and grace, and pardon, and preparation for death and judgment, and assurance of salvation? Why then are not these your business?

(5) Have you not a God to obey and serve? and does He not always see you? and will He not judge you? alas! you know not how soon. Though you be now merry in your youth, and your “heart cheer thee…, and [thou] walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: yet know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment” (Ecc 11:9).

(6) Observe in Scripture what God judges of your ways. “We ourselves… were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving diverse lusts and pleasures” (Tit 3:3), being “lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God” (2 Tim 3:4). “Flee… youthful lusts: but follow after righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim 2:22; read also 1 Peter 1:14–15; 2:11–12; 4:1–4; 2 Peter 3:3).

(7) You are but preparing for your future sorrow, either by repentance or destruction; and the greater is your pleasure now, the greater will be your sorrow and shame in the review.

Direct. II: On Needfulness

When you understand the true nature and use of recreations, labour to be acquainted just how much and what sort of recreation is needful to yourselves in particular. In which you must have respect, (1) To your bodily strength; (2) To your minds; and (3) To your labours.

And when you have resolved on it, what and how much is needful and fit, to help you in your duty, allow it its proper time and place, as you do your meals, and see that you suffer it not to encroach upon your duty.

Direct. III: On Profitability

Ordinarily join profit and pleasure together, that you lose no time. I know not one person of a hundred, or of many hundreds, that needs any game at all: there are such variety of better exercises at hand to recreate them. And it is a sin to idle away any time, which we can better improve! I confess my own nature was as much addicted to playfulness as most: and my judgment allows me so much recreation as is needful to my health and labour (and no more). But for all that I find no need of any game to recreate me. When my mind needs recreation, I have variety of recreating books, and friends, and business to do that. And when my body needs it, the hardest labour that I can bear is my best recreation: walking is, instead of games and sports, as profitable to my body, and more to my mind: if I am alone, I may improve that time in meditation; if with others, I may improve it in profitable, cheerful conference. I condemn not all sports or games in others, but I find none of them all to be best for myself: and when I observe how far the tempter and life of Christ and His best servants was from such recreations, I avoid them with the more suspicion. And I see but few, but distaste it in ministers (even shooting, bowling, and such more healthful games, to say nothing of chess and such other, as fit not the end of a recreation). Therefore there is somewhat in it that nature itself has some suspicion of. That student that needs chess or cards [ed. or computer games] to please his mind, I doubt has a carnal, empty mind. If God and all His books, and all His friends, &c. cannot suffice for this, there is some disease in it that should rather be cured than pleased. And for the body, it is another kind of exercise that profits it.

Direct. IV: On Moderation

Watch against inordinate, sensual delight, even in the most lawful sport. Excess of pleasure in any such vanity, does very much corrupt and befool the mind. It puts it out of relish with spiritual things; and turns it from God, and heaven, and duty.

Direct. V: On Control

To this end keep a watch upon your thoughts and fantasies, that they run not after sports and pleasure. Else you will be like children that are thinking of their sport, and longing to be at it, when they should be at their books or business.

Direct. VI: On Company

Avoid the company of revellers, gamesters, and such time-wasters. Come not among them, lest you be ensnared. Accompany yourselves with those that delight themselves in God (2 Tim 2:22).

Direct. VII: On Eternality

Remember death and judgment, and the necessities of your souls. Usually these sports seem but foolishness to serious men; and they say of this mirth, as Solomon, “It is mad” (Ecc 2:2). And it is great and serious subjects which make serious men. Death and the world to come, when they are soberly thought on, do put the mind quite out of relish with foolish pleasures.

Direct. VIII: On Diligence

Be painful in your honest callings. Laziness breeds a love of sports; when you must please your slothful flesh with ease, then it must be further pleased with vanities.

Direct. IX: On Preferred Delights

Delight in your relations and family duties and mercies. If you love the company and converse of your parents, or children, or wives, or kindred as you ought, you will find more pleasure in discoursing with them about holy things or honest business, than in foolish sports. But adulterers that love not their wives, and unnatural parents and children that love not one another, and ungodly masters of families that love not their duty, are put to seek their sport abroad.

Direct. X: On Sanctifying

See to the sanctifying of all your recreations, when you have chosen such as are truly suited to your need; and go not to them before you need, nor use them beyond your need. See also that you lift up your hearts secretly to God, for His blessing on them; and mix them all along as far as you can with holy things; as with holy thoughts or holy speeches. As for music, which is a lawful pleasure, I have known some think it profaneness to use it privately or publicly with a psalm, that scrupled not using it in common mirth; whereas all our mirth should be as much sanctified as is possible. All should be done to the glory of God; and we have much more in Scripture for the holy use of music, (public and private,) than for any other use of it whatever. And it is the excellency of melody and music, that they are recreations which may be more aptly and profitably sanctified by application to holy uses, than any other. And I should think them little worth at all, if I might not use them for the holy exhilarating or elevating of my soul, or affecting it towards God, or exciting it to duty.

Direct. XI: On Time Spent

The sickly and the melancholy (who are usually least inclined to sport) have much more need of recreation than others, and therefore may allow it a much larger time than those that are in health and strength. Because they take it but as physic to recover them to health, being to abate again when they are recovered.

Direct. XII: On Judging Others

Be much more severe in regulating yourselves in your recreations, than in censuring others for using some sports which you dislike. For you know not perhaps their case, and reasons, and temptations; but an idle, time-wasting, sensual sporter, every one should look on with pity as a miserable wretch.

[Richard Baxter (1615–1691) pastored the church at Kidderminster, near Wales. He was much admired in his own day in the area of casuistry, or practical theology. He was not so highly regarded, however, in the area of justification and sanctification. Even his fellow Puritans, who respected his ability to apply Scripture to so many areas of life, wrote strongly against what they called “the Baxterian perversion of the doctrine of justification,” which inclined itself towards a “sanctified and then justified” position. Baxter never fell into the fatal error, though, of attributing any merit to anything we do.—from SDG Books website. Most of Baxter’s controversial works have not been republished, though his views do surface occasionally in his more popular works, such as his excellent treatise, The Reformed Pastor. Despite that, Baxter can be very profitable reading whenever he does not touch on justification or the relationship between law and grace. We are publishing the present abridgement on that basis.

J.J. Lim]

18 August, 2002