Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) was one of the greatest Puritan preachers. This is how a contemporary described the impact of his preaching: ‘I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint … Doctor Sibbes, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had much of God and was confident in Christ.’
His most famous work is The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax (1631), based on Matthew 12:20. It was written. Sibbes says, ‘at the desire and for the good of weaker Christians’ to lead them to a strong sense of assurance.
The bruising and healing of Christ
Sibbes uses the metaphor of bruising to describes the process by which God humbles sinners by giving them a true view of their sin. Both before conversion and after conversion, God must wound before he can heal. But the point of this bruising is always to lead us to Christ. There is comfort in our union with Christ and therefore our experience of the Trinitarian love and life:
What a support to our faith is this, that God the Father, the party offended by our sins, is so well pleased with the work of redemption! And what a comfort is this, that seeing God’s love rests on Christ, as well pleased in him, we may gather that he is as well pleased with us, if we be in Christ! For his love rests in whole Christ, in Christ mystical, as well as Christ natural, because he loves him and us with one love. Let us, therefore, embrace Christ, and in him God’s love, and build our faith safely on such a Saviour. (Works 1:42-43.)
So the second point that Sibbes points out is that Christ will not ‘break the bruised reed’. Sibbes draws images of physicians and surgeons who harm the body for its own good. Sibbes expands on this healing work by expounding Christ’s threefold ministry as prophet, priest and king. ‘Go boldly to God in our flesh; for this end that we might go boldly to him, he is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. Never fear to go to God, since we have such a Mediator with him, that is not only our friend, but our brother and husband.’ (46)
Sibbes expounds the second metaphor in the verse, the smoking flax, to show that Christians need not worry that evidences of grace are small in their lives. Rather every evidence of grace is a cause for reassurance because Christ will not snuff our the smouldering spark.
Sibbes’ main concern is to affirm that Christ will not quench our small beginnings because the spark is of heaven. Though Sibbes says we are not worthy of pertaining such a spark, but Christ is merciful and he gives himself unto us. Sibbes encourages ministers to be tender towards young believers, balancing severity with mercy. ‘Man for a little smoke will quench the light; Christ ever we see cherisheth even the least beginnings. How bare he with the many imperfections of his poor disciples.’ (42-43)
The government of Christ
The final section of The Bruised Reed discusses how Christ re-establishes his government in our souls. Some of Sibbes’ contemporaries believed (with Aristotle and Aquinas) that, while the will is crippled by sin, God’s grace re-enables the will to make virtuous choices. In this way the divine and human will co-operate. The will, informed by the mind, is sovereign over (potentially distracting) affections.
Sibbes, in contrast, believed the affections were sovereign. The will is not disabled, but disaffected. It still ‘works’ in that sense that it still makes choices, but now it always decides against God. But in the gospel the Spirit so discloses God’s love that our wills are moved to embrace Christ. ‘The same Spirit that enlightens the mind, inspires gracious inclinations into the will and affections, and infuses strength into the whole man.’ (82)
If the believer’s ‘affections and duty’ decline, the solution is ‘to warm ourselves at this fire of his love and mercy in giving himself for us.’ But even in this apparent initiative of the believer it is actually the Spirit’s work by which ‘he draws us strongly’ and must ‘subdue our hearts, and sanctify them to love him, without which all motives would be ineffectual.’ (79-80)
There was a strong polemic edge to Sibbes’ writing. He was challenging the tendency toward destructive self-absorption that came from examining one’s own behaviours for signs of grace in order to gain assurance of salvation. Ron Frost comments:
Sibbes clearly understood that duty can only be sustained if it is supported by the motivation of desire. Thus, Sibbes featured God’s winsome love more than his power: the Spirit accomplishes both conversion and sanctification by a single means – through the revelation of God’s attractiveness by an immediate, personal disclosure. This unmediated initiative was seen to by the means by which God draws a response of heartfelt devotion from the elect. (Ron Frost, ‘The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes’)
Faith, according to Sibbes, was not a human act of the will. But the response of the heart to the disclosure of divine love in Christ by the Spirit. We are wooed by Christ. Sibbes believed the law may be used to confront sin. But our central message must be God’s love in Christ. It is this love which causes us to embrace God and his holiness.