There are numerous places that I would like to continue the discussion regarding The Bruised Reed, but time is running out and February is right around the corner. I would like to post one more, however, from Sibbes’ chapter on “Quench Not the Spirit.”
Excerpt from Sibbes
Instead of putting a detailed outline, I would like to quote Sibbes at length to set the stage for the discussion. Below is a portion of his section dealing with “Presuming on Christ’s Mercy.” Sibbes writes (emphasis mine):
“You know the apostle’s prohibition, notwithstanding, `Quench not the Spirit’ (1 Thess. 5:19). Such cautions of not quenching are sanctified by the Spirit as a means of not quenching. Christ performs his office in not quenching by stirring up suitable endeavors in us; and there are none more solicitous in the use of the means than those that are most certain of their good success. The reason is this: the means that God has set apart for the effecting of any thing are included in the purpose that he has to bring that thing to pass. And this is a principle taken for granted, even in civil matters; for who, if he knew before that it would be a fruitful year, would therefore hang up his plough and neglect tillage?
Hence the apostle stirs us up from the certain expectation of a blessing (1 Cor. 15:57-58), and this encouragement from the good issue of victory is intended to stir us up, and not to put us off. If we are negligent in the exercise of grace received and the use of the means prescribed, suffering our spirits to be oppressed with many and various cares of this life, and take not heed of the discouragements of the times, for this kind of neglect God in his wise care suffers us often to fall into a worse condition in our feelings than those that were never so much enlightened. Yet in mercy he will not suffer us to be so far enemies to ourselves as wholly to neglect these sparks once kindled. Were it possible that we should be given up to abandon all endeavor wholly, then we could look for no other issue but quenching; but Christ will tend this spark and cherish this small seed, so that he will always preserve in the soul some degree of care.
. . . As we look, therefore, for the comfort of this doctrine, let us not favor our natural sloth but exercise ourselves rather to godliness (1 Tim. 4:7), and labour to keep this fire always burning upon the altar of our hearts. Let us dress our lamps daily, and put in fresh oil, and wind up our souls higher and higher still. Resting in a good condition is contrary to grace, which cannot but promote itself to a further measure. Let none turn this grace `into lasciviousness’ (Jude 4). Infirmities are a ground of humility, not a plea for negligence, nor an encouragement to presumption. We should be so far from being evil because Christ is good that those coals of love should melt us. Therefore those may well suspect themselves in whom the consideration of this mildness of Christ does not work that way” (69-72).
I find this passage in The Bruised Reed to be one of the most important parts of his treatise, because it is here that Christ’s offices and promises could be taken advantage of and the promises of God presumed upon in a deadly way. Let me set the table for discussion.
Sibbes present the person of Christ as a gentle Savior with tender words–a Savior who is meek and mild in heart. If there is mercy to be found anywhere, Sibbes rightly argues, it is found in Jesus Christ. To be sure, there is more mercy in Christ than there is sin in us (13). Perhaps Sibbes was thinking of Paul, when speaking to the Romans, stated,
“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:20-21).
Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more! Is that not a wondrous comfort to those who are bruised by the misery of their sin? Yet, consider how some may twist such sweet sayings to rationalize their own sinful pursuits:
“I can go ahead and do it because God will forgive me anyway.”
“God loves me no matter what, so _____________ .”
“If God’s love towards me is unconditional, then it does not matter that I _____________ .”
Do you see where I am getting? If there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us, then someone might argue that we can be great sinners, and Christ’s mercy will be greater still! Or, in Paul’s quote, we can increase in sin because grace will abound all the more!
Paul recognized this line of thinking, and the very next verse following Romans 5:21, he writes,
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2)
What Paul was arguing regarding our right response to God’s grace, Sibbes was arguing in our right response in not quenching the Holy Spirit in presuming upon the mercy that is in Christ. Rather than thinking that such a mild and tender Savior as a license or loose living, Sibbes affectionately tells us that such tenderness should stir us up to “suitable endeavors,” to “exercise ourselves for the purpose of godliness,” to give ourselves to the “right use of means,” and to “labour to keep the fire burning always upon the altar of our hearts.”
The mercy found in Christ should never encourage us to be slothful in pursuing holiness, but quite the contrary. For in Romans 12:1, it says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” It should be the mercies of God, when in full view, that should lead us to offer ourselves entirely to God as a sacrifice. The mercy we found when we first saw Christ our Redeemer brought about genuine repentance and faith as a response to such richness of mercy and greatness of love, and such a response of repentance and faith never ceases until we are perfected in glory.
Because we know that Christ will cherish the little spark in us does not give us freedom to live in a contrary manner. In the words of Paul, “May it never be!” Instead of presuming upon God’s mercy with indifference or apathy, we are to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12-13), knowing that such a working is brought about both by God’s will and working within us and by the uniting of our affections and will to walk in obedience to God’s commands which have been sweetened by grace. When we labor and grow in Christ, we confess with the apostle Paul that we are what we are by the grace of God, for it was not us, but the grace of God that is with us (1 Cor. 15:10). Such grace does not merely provide a free ticket to heaven and the freedom to live as you choose; rather, such grace works with such perseverance to carry us upward and onward into deeper humility, greater dependence, and higher affections for treasuring Jesus Christ until that day.
1. Sibbes several times mentioned the use of means in this excerpt. What are some examples of such means that are prescribed to prevent us (and others) from presuming upon God’s mercy and grace?
2. What would you say to the person who views salvation as a “Get out of hell free” ticket? How would you counsel the unconverted sinner who simply wants to be “left off the hook” and adopt a minimalist attitude to the Christian life? (Feel free to use Sibbes’ quotes if you like.)