by Richard Sibbes (1577–1635)
Since Christ is thus comfortably [that is completely and/or fully, in a reassuring manner] set out to us, let us not believe Satan’s representations of him. When we are troubled in conscience for our sins, Satan’s manner is then to present Christ to the afflicted soul as a most severe judge armed with justice against us. But then let us present him to our souls as offered to our view by God himself, holding out a scepter of mercy, and spreading his arms to receive us.
HOW WE SHOULD THINK OF CHRIST
When we think of Joseph, Daniel, John the Evangelist, we frame conceptions of them with delight, as of mild and sweet persons. Much more when we think of Christ, we should conceive of him as a mirror of all meekness. If the sweetness of all flowers were in one, how sweet must that flower be? In Christ all perfections of mercy and love meet. How great then must that mercy be that lodges in so gracious a heart? Whatever tenderness is scattered in husband, father, brother, head, all is but a beam from him; it is in him in the most eminent manner. We are weak, but we are his; we are deformed, but yet carry his image upon us. A father looks not so much at the blemishes of his child as at his own nature in him; so Christ finds matter of love from that which is his own in us. He sees his own nature in us: we are diseased, but yet his members. Who ever neglected his own members because they were sick or weak? None ever hated his own flesh. Can the head forget the members? Can Christ forget himself? We are his fullness, as he is ours. He was love itself clothed with man’s nature, which he united so near to himself, that he might communicate his goodness the more freely to us. And he took not our nature when it was at its best, but when it was abased, with all the natural and common infirmities it was subject to.
Let us therefore abhor all suspicious thoughts, as either cast in or cherished by that damned spirit who, as he labored to divide between the Father and the Son by jealousies, by saying, `If thou be the Son of God’ (Matt. 4:6), so his daily study is to divide between the Son and us by breeding false opinions in us of Christ, as if there were not such tender love in him to such as we are. It was Satan’s art from the beginning to discredit God with man, by calling God’s love into question with our first father Adam. His success then makes him ready at that weapon still.
WHEN CHRIST SEEMS TO BE AN ENEMY
`But for all this, I feel not Christ so to me,’ says the smoking flax, `but rather the clean contrary. He seems to be an enemy to me. I see and feel evidences of his just displeasure:
Christ may act the part of an enemy a little while, as Joseph did, but it is to make way for acting his own part of mercy in a more seasonable time. He cannot restrain his bowels of mercy long. He seems to wrestle with us, as with Jacob, but he supplies us with hidden strength to prevail at length. Faith pulls off the mask from his face and sees a loving heart under contrary appearances. Fides Christo larvam detrahit (Faith pulls away the mask from Christ). At first he answered the woman of Canaan, who was crying after him, not a word. Then he gave her a denial. After that he gave an answer tending to her reproach, calling her a dog, as being outside the covenant. Yet she would not be so beaten off, for she considered the end of his coming. As his Father was never nearer him in strength to support him than when he was furthest off in sense of favor to comfort him, so Christ is never nearer us in power to uphold us than when he seems most to hide his presence from us. The influence of the Son of righteousness pierces deeper than his light. In such cases, whatever Christ’s present bearing is towards us, let us oppose his nature and office against it. He cannot deny himself, he cannot but discharge the office his Father has laid upon him. We see here the Father has undertaken that he shall not `quench the smoking flax’, and Christ has also undertaken to represent us to the Father, appearing before him for us until he presents us blameless before him (John 17:6, 11). The Father has given us to Christ, and Christ gives us back again to the Father.
`This would be good comfort,’ says one, `if I were but as smoking flax.’ It is well that this objection pinches on yourself, and not on Christ. It is well that you give him the honor of his mercy towards others, though not to yourself. Yet do not wrong the work of his Spirit in your heart. Satan, as he slanders Christ to us, so he slanders us to ourselves. If you are not so much as smoking flax, then why do you not renounce your interest in Christ, and disclaim the covenant of grace? This you dare not do. Why do you not give yourself up wholly to other pleasures? This your spirit will not allow you to do. Where do these restless groanings and complaints come from? Lay your present state alongside the office of Christ to such, and do not despise the consolation of the Almighty nor refuse your own mercy. Cast yourself into the arms of Christ, and if you perish, perish there. If you do not, you are sure to perish. If mercy is to be found anywhere, it is there.
In this appears Christ’s care to you, that he has given you a heart in some degree sensitive. He might have given you up to hardness, security and profaneness of heart, of all spiritual judgments the greatest. He who died for his enemies, will he refuse those, the desire of whose soul is towards him? He who, by his messengers, desires us to be reconciled, will he put us off when we earnestly seek it at his hand? No, doubtless, when he goes before us by kindling holy desires in us, he is ready to meet us in his own ways. When the prodigal set himself to return to his father, his father did not wait for him, but met him in the way. When he prepares the heart to seek, he causes his ear to hear (Psalm 10:17). He cannot find in his heart to hide himself long from us. If God should bring us into such a dark condition as that we should see no light from himself or the creature, then let us remember what he says by the prophet Isaiah,
`Who is among you . . . that walketh in darkness, and hath no light?’ no light of comfort, no light of God’s countenance `let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God’ (Isa. 50:10).
We can never be in such a condition that there will be just cause of utter despair. Therefore let us do as mariners do, cast anchor in the dark. Christ knows how to pity us in this case. Look what comfort he felt from his Father when he was broken (Isa. 53:5). This is what we shall feel from himself in our bruising.
The sighs of a bruised heart carry in them a report, both of our affection to Christ, and of his care to us. The eyes of our souls cannot be towards him unless he has cast a gracious look upon us first. The least love we have to him is but a reflection of his love first shining upon us. As Christ did, in his example to us, whatever he charges us to do, so he suffered in his own person whatever he calls us to suffer, so that he might the better learn to relieve and pity us in our sufferings. In his desertion in the garden and on the cross he was content to be without that unspeakable solace which the presence of his Father gave, both to bear the wrath of the Lord for a time for us, and likewise to know the better how to comfort us in our greatest extremities. God sees fit that we should taste of that cup of which his Son drank so deep, that we might feel a little what sin is, and what his Son’s love was. But our comfort is that Christ drank the dregs of the cup for us, and will succor us, so that our spirits may not utterly fail under that little taste of his displeasure which we may feel. He became not only a man but a curse, a man of sorrows, for us. He was broken that we should not be broken; he was troubled, that we should not be desperately troubled; he became a curse, that we should not be accursed. Whatever may be wished for in an all sufficient comforter is all to be found in Christ:
1. Authority from the Father. All power was given to him (Matt. 28:18).
2. Strength in himself. His name is `The mighty God’ (Isa. 9:6).
3. Wisdom, and that from his own experience, how and when to help (Heb. 2:18).
4. Willingness, as being bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh (Gen. 2:23; Eph. 5:30).
Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage: Richard Sibbes (or Sibbs) (1577–1635) was an English theologian. He is known as a Biblical exegete, and as a representative, with William Perkinsand John Preston, of what has been called “main-line” Puritanism.
He was the author of several devotional works expressing intense religious feeling — The Saint’s Cordial (1629), The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax (1631, exegesis of Isaiah 42:3), The Soules Conflict (1635), etc. The clerical leaders of the Feoffees, Davenport, Gouge and Sibbes, all adhered to Calvinist covenant theology, as shaped by the English theologians Perkins, Preston, William Ames, and Thomas Taylor.
His works were much read in New England. Thomas Hooker, prominent there from 1633, was directly influenced by Sibbes, and his “espousal theology”, using marriage as a religious metaphor, draws on The Bruised Reed and Bowels Opened. Sibbes was cited by the Methodist John Wesley. The Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon studied his craft in Sibbes, Perkins and Thomas Manton. The evangelical Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote in the highest terms of his own encounter with the work of Sibbes.