An Example From the Reformers (Richard Sibbes and Thomas Goodwin).
[I have NOT edited the following letter for thought and content, or even the 16th century grammar, as I usually strive to do. However, you should be mindful that the following is a personal and private letter. And even with the whole of the letter, we are left without the complete context. In this case, I want you to also see the emotional heart of the matter… Goodwin has poured out his heart and soul to Sibbes and instead of receiving encouragment and support, Sibbes lashes out at Goodwin for “the haynousnesse of this sin.”
With this in mind, I bring this letter to your attention (though it may take a little extra work to read) because it is between two great lights of the early Reformers; Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) and Thomas Goodwin D.D. (1600-1679), who has been designated the Atlas and patriarch of Independency from the Church of England. Sibbes is 25 years older than Goodwin and is acting as a senior pastor with a lot of experience in such matters. Sibbes is also admonishing Goodwin, who he loves and respects, and so he is doing it to help, strengthen and turn Thomas Goodwin around, not to injure him, and that is important. But the fact of the matter is, that Sibbes, in this instance, may indeed be grievously wrong. Others have correctly pointed out, that Sibbes would have acted more faithfully as well as more consistently, had he followed the example of his friends, Goodwin, John Cotton, John Davenport, Thomas Hooker, Samuel Stone, and their compatriots. The spirit that pervades his letter is worthier than his arguments.
The letter comes from the Memoir of Richard Sibbes, and it is a letter from him to “An Afflicted Conscience”, taken to be to Goodwin, on very good evidence that we shall not go into here. The letter sheds a fascinating light on the reasoning behind the thinking of the “Stayers” when confronted by the “Separaters” from the Church of England at a time when Popish ceremonies were being introduced by Bishops and King, and the ordained ministers are ordered to administer them, or face banishment, loss of goods, loss of livelihood, and even death. Sibbes continued to preach the Gospel, did not give in to ritualism, but stays in by the powerful influence of his many friends, and though certainly, summoned before Star Chamber and High Commission, he holds on in his way of preaching the same gospel everywhere by means of his friends and the power of his sermons. That explains his remaining within the church.
You and I can heartily understand that Goodwin could not have enjoyed listening and acting upon his conscience in opposition to Sibbes; an act which Sibbes describes to Goodwin as a “heinous sin”. But scholars have pointed out that Goodwin’s reaction to Sibbes does not appear in any of Goodwin’s memoirs, which is much to his credit. –MWP]
I understand by your Letter, that you have many and grevious tryals; some externall and bodily, some internall and spirituall: as the deprivall of inward comfort, the buffetings (and that in more then ordinary manner), of your soule, with Satan’s temptations: and (which makes, all those inward and outward, the more heavy and insupportable) that you have wanted Christian society with the Saints of God, to whom you might make knowne your griefes, and by whom you might receive comfort from the Lord, and incouragement in your Christian course.
Now that which I earnestly desire in your behalfe, and hope likewise you doe in your owne, is that you may draw nearer to God, and be more conformable to his command by these afflictions; for if our afflictions be not sanctified, that is, if we make not an holy use of them by purging out old leaven of our ingenerate corruptions, they are but judgments to us, and makes way for greater plagues: Ioh v. 14. And therefore the chiefe ende and ayme of God in all the afflictions which he sends to his children in love is, that they may be partakers of his holinesse, and so their afflictions may conduce to their spiritual! advantage and profit, Heb. xii. 10. The Lord aymes not at himselfe in any calamities he layes on us, (for God is so infinitely all-sufficient, that we can adde nothing to him by all our doings or sufferings) but his maine ayme is at our Melioration and Sanctification in and by them. And therefore our duty in every affliction and pressure, is thus to thinke with our selves: How shall we carry and behave our selves under this crosse, that our soules may reap profit by it? This (in one word) is done by our returning and drawing nearer to the Lord, as his holy Apostle exhorts us, Iames iv. 8. This in all calamities the Lord hath speciall eye unto, and is exceeding wroth if he finde it not.
The Prophet declares That his anger was not turned from Israel, because they turned not to him that smote them, Isa. i. 4, 5. Now it is impossible that a man should draw nigh to God, and turne to him, if he turne not from his evil wayes: for in every conversion there is Terminus a quo, something to be turned from, as well as Terminus ad quod, something to be turned to.
Now, that we must turn to, is God; and that we must turne from, is sinne; as being diametrally opposite to God, and that which separated betweene God and us.
To this purpose we must search and try our hearts and wayes, and see what sinnes there be that keepe us from God, and separate us from his gracious favour: and chiefly we must weed out our special bosom-sine. This the ancient Church of God counsels each other to doe in the time of their anguish and affliction, Lam. iii. 89, 40, Let us search and try our wayes, and turne againe to the Lord: for though sinne make not a final divorce betwixt God and his chosen people, yet it may make a dangerous rupture by taking away sense of comfort, and suspending the sweet inference of his favour, and the effectual operation of his grace.
And therefore (deare Sir) my earnest suit and desire is, that you would diligently peruse the booke of your conscience, enter into a thorow search and examination of your heart and life; and every day before you go to bed, take a time of recollection and meditation, (as holy Isaac did have private walkes, Gen. xxiv. 68), holding a privy Session in your soule, and indicting your selfe for all the sins, in thought, word, or act committed, and all the good duties you have omitted. This self-examination, if it be strict and rigid as it ought to be, will soone shew you the sins whereto you are most inclinable (the chiefe cause of all your sorrowes), and consequently, it will (by God’s assistance) effectually instruct you to fly from those venomous and fiery serpents, which have so stung you.
And though you have (as you say) committed many grievous sinnes, as abusing God’s gracious ordinances, and neglecting the golden opportunities of grace: the originall, as you conceive of all your troubles; yet I must tell you, there is another Coloquintida in the pot, another grand enormity (though you perceive it not) and that is you separation from God’s Saints and Servants in the Acts of his publike Service and worship. This you may clearly discern by the affliction it selfe, for God is methodical in his corrections, and doth (many times) so suite the crosse to the sinne, that you may reade the sin in the crosse. You confesse that your maine affliction, and that which made the other more bitter, is, that God tooke away those to whom you might make your complaint; and from whom you might receive comfort in your distresse. And is not this just with God, that when you wilfully separate your selfe from others, he should separate others from you? Certainly, when we undervalue mercy, especially so great a one as the communion of Saints is, commonly the Lord takes it away from us, till we learne to prize it to the full value. Consider well therefore the haynousnesse of this sin, which that you may the better conceive, First, consider it is against God’s expresse Precept, charging us not to forsake the assemblies of the Saints, Heb. x. 20, 25. Again, it is against our own greatest good and spirituall solace, for by discommunicating & excommunicating our selves from that blessed society, we deprive our selves of the benefit of their holy conference, their godly instructions, their divine consolations, brotherly admonitions, and charitable reprehensions; and what an inestimable boon is this? Neither can we partake such profit by their prayers as otherwise we might: for as the some in the naturall body conveyes life and strength to every member, as they are compacted and joyned together, and not as dis-severed; so Christ conveyes spiritual life and rigour to Christians, not as they are disjoyned from, but as they are united to the mysticall body, the Church.
But you will say England is not a true Church, and therefore you separate ; adhere to the true Church.
I answer, our Church is easily proved to be a true Church of Christ: First, because it hath all the essentialls, necessary to the constitution of a true Church; as sound preaching of the Gospel, right dispensation of the Sacraments, Prayer religiously performed, and evil! persons justly punisht (though not in that measure as some criminals and malefaetors deserve:) and therefore a true Church.
2. Because it hath begot many spiritual children to the Lord, which for soundnesse of judgemcnt, and holinesse of life, are not inferiour to any in other Reformed Churches. Yea, many of the Separation, if ever they were converted, it was here with us: (which a false and adulterous Church communicated.)
But I heare you reply, our Church is corrupted with Ceremonies, and pestered with prophane persons. What then? must we therefore separate for Ceremonies, which many think may be lawfully used. But admit they be evils, must we make a rent in the Church for Ceremonious Rites, for circumstantial evils? That were a remedy worse than the disease. Besides, had not all the true Churches of Christ their blemishes and deformities, as you may see in seven Asian Churches? Rev. ii. and iii. And though you may finde some Churches beyond Sea free from Ceremonies, yet notwithstanding they are more corrupt in Preachers, (which is the maine) as in prophanation of the Lord’s day, &c.
As for wicked and prophane Persons amongst us, though we are to labour by all good meanes to purge them out, yet are we not to separate because of this residence with us : for, there will bee a miscellany and mixture in the visible Church, as long as the world endures, as our Saviour shewes by many parables: Matth. xiii. If therefore we should be so overjust as to abandon all Churches for the intermixture of wicked Persons, we must salle to the Antipodes, or rather goe out of the world, as the Apostle speaks: so it is agreed by all that Noah’s Arke was a type and embleme of the Church. Now as it had been no lesse then selfe-murder for Noah, Sem, or Iaphet to have leapt out of the Arke, because of that ungracious Gains company; so it is no better then soule-murder for a man to cast himself out of the Church, either for reall or imaginall corruptions. To conclude, as the Angell injoyned Hagar to returne, and submit to her Mistris Sarah, so let me admonish you to returne your selfe from these extravagant courses, and submissively to render your self to the sacred communion of this truly Evangelicall Church of England.
I beseech you therefore, as you respect Gods glory and your owne eternall salvation, as There is but one body and one spirit, one Lord, one Baptisme, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all; so endeavour to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, Eph. iv., as the Apostle sweetly invites you. So shall the peace of God ever establish you, and the God of peace ever preserve you; which is the prayer of
Your rernembrancer at the Throne of Grace
As scholar and editor, Rev. Alexander Balloch Grosart points out, “Who doubts for a moment, that, if his mouth had been shut, as was Goodwin’s, on the ‘one thing,’ that Sibbes would have placed himself beside his friend. Perhaps there would have been more of lingering effort on Sibbs part to get Goodwin above the difficulties. Perhaps, Goodwin would have had more pain in sundering of the ties that bound him to the church, more sway given to heart than head. Still the final decision, beyond all debate, would have been the same as that of the ‘two thousand’ that were oppressed of 1662. The more shame to those in power who compelled such loyal lovers of ‘the church’ to leave her.”
From “Works of Richard Sibbes” Volume One.
Pub. James Nichol, Edinburgh 1862