1. About Those Bruised Reeds
>> “The best men are severe to themselves, tender over others” (23).
The purpose of this discussion to talk about the smoking flax, and in particular, his discussion about the mixture of nature and grace which constitutes the smoke (corruption) and light (grace). The key text for this discusssion is the following:
“The reason for this mixture is that we carry about us a double principle, grace and nature. The end of it is especially to preserve us from those two dangerous rocks which our natures are prone to dash upon, security and pride, and to force us to pitch our rest on justification, not sanctification, which, besides imperfection, has some stains” (19).
I think is would be helpful here to provide a little background to this issue of justification and sanctification. Sibbes lived in a time during the English Reformation, less than a century that the Church of England had broke away from Rome (RCC). According to the Roman Catholic Church, justification was not punctiliar (a moment where God declares you righteous) but a process as you partake of the sacraments. The issues Sibbes was facing was both theological and pastoral; theological in the Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, and pastoral the relationship of salvation and assurance, especially in dealing with how one comes to experience comfort and peace in the midst of doubt and uncertainty. One the one hand, Sibbes cautioned people from having a false sense of security; on the other hand, he warned against spiritual pride. As a smoking flax, Sibbes helps us understand the truth of right standing from God’s perspective in Christ and brings us to examine ourselves rightly–to realize our nature and its corruption and remember our Savior’s gracious invitation and gentle treatment of those with just “a few sparks” (17). Biblical Christianity does not allow for mere nominalism (superficial Christianity) or pharisaism, and what is great about Sibbes is that in dealing with bruised reed and smoking flax, both are rejected in favor of a genuine, grace-based and gospel-centered faith which creates glory in us as we pursue the humility of Christ in examining ourselves as well as ministering to others.
One of the things Sibbes is adamant about is to help us see the work of God’s grace in us, the “spark of hope.” Let me lay out some select phrases he uses throughout the first half of the book:
“spark of hope” (4)
“a little spark of faith” (13)
“a little light” (16)
“a few sparks” (17)
“this spark is from heaven” (20)
“a spark of fire is fire” (36)
“beam of light” (38)
“kindled from heaven” (42)
“a little fire is fire, though it smokes” (52)
Often we hear Christians say, “I want to be ‘on fire’ for God!” We sing hymns entitled, “Set My Soul Afire.” And yet, for many Christians, especially new Christians, we are not a flaming fire but “a little spark.” When these little sparks see such bright flames, there is a tendency to get discouraged and think they have no light at all. The bright flames look down at such small sparks and think, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you be like me, on fire for God?”
Sibbes is quick to address both these questions tenderly and beautifully. He reminds us that, though corruption remains due to our sinful nature, the spark that we have is a true spark, a spark from heaven, lighted by God Himself. And it is God’s promise to us that he will not quench the smoking flax, but rather fan it into a flame. What an encouragement this is to us as we pursue to imitate Christ! How tenderly must we care for new believers who have just come out of darkness and into the light! We must be careful to not place a yoke upon Christians, especially new Christians, that expects them to be fully mature, overcoming sin, and living the “victorious Christian life.” If we do that, we will not deal honestly with our sin, deceving ourselves, and pretending to be more righteous before others all the while knowing we are empty inside.
Whether we are such “sparks” or others who have seemingly “little beginnings,” Christ has left us his promise and his example.
A. His Promise
Christ will not quench the smoking flax because “this spark is from heaven; it is his own, it is kindled by his own Spirit,” and “it tends to the glory of his powerful grace in his children that he preserves light in the midst of darkness, a spark in the midst of the swelling waters of corruption” (20).
B. His Example
“Man for a little smoke will quench the light. Christ, we see, ever cherishes even the least beginning. . . . Can we have a better pattern to follow than this from him by whom we hope to be saved” (21)?
“Christ refuses none for weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged, but accepts none for greatness, that none should be lifted up with that which is of so little reckoning with God” (23).
I can personally attest that there have been many I have led to Christ that I have not tenderly cared for and loved as I should. I am reminded that Paul, to the Thessalonians, considered himself as “a nursing mother caring take care of her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7) as well as “a father with his children” (1 Thess. 2:11). Why? Because they were his “glory and joy” (1 Thess. 2:20). To the Corinthians, perhaps the best examples of New Testament smoking flax, Paul affectioned stated that he became their “father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15) and that his heart is “wide open” to them (2 Cor. 6:11). The Galatians, who were being led astray by “another gospel,” Paul considered himself as someone who is “in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed” in them (Gal. 4:19). As we all are to some degree, we should “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). If Christ could care for such smoking flax as Thomas and Peter, and if Paul could exhort us with his life and teaching to love and nurture the smoking flax with our lives, then why can’t we? Why aren’t we?
Allow me to conclude with this ecnouraging and powerful word by Sibbes:
“Let us not therefore be discouraged at the small beginnings of grace, but look on ourselves as elected to be ‘holy and without blame’ (Eph. 1:4). Let us look on our imperfect beginning only to enforce further striving to perfection, and to keep us in a low opinion of ourselves. Otherwise, in case of discouragement, we must consider ourselves as Christ does, who looks on us as those he intends to fit for himself. Christ values us by what we shall be, and by what we are elected unto” (17).
Sibbes’ talks about the “secure sinners” and ”weak Christians” and that we need to have “the tongue of the learned” in order to know when and how to “raise up” (in the case of the weak Christian) or “cast down” (in the case of the secure sinner). He said that offering sweet words to secure sinners will not heal them but be “cruel pity”; on the other hand, “a sharp reproof sometimes is a “precious pearl” and “seet balm.” How do you diagnose the “secure sinners” from the “weak Christians”?
As ministers of mercy, what are some ways we can be pastorally sensitive to the smoking flax in our midst? Either from Sibbes or in your own words, what principles can we apply as we minister to people today?