Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) – the ‘heavenly Doctor’ as he came to be called – was a man who clearly enjoyed knowing God. And even centuries later, his relish is infectious. He spoke of the living God as a life-giving, warming sun who ‘delights to spread his beams and his influence in inferior things, to make all things fruitful. Such a goodness is in God as is in a fountain, or in the breast that loves to ease itself of milk.’
And knowing God to be such an overflowing fountain of goodness and love made him a most attractive model of God-likeness. For, he said, ‘those that are led with the Spirit of God, that are like him; they have a communicative, diffusive goodness that loves to spread itself.’ In other words, knowing God’s love, he became loving; and his understanding of who God is transformed him into a man, a preacher and a writer of magnetic geniality. He was never married, but looking at his life, it is clear that he had a quite extraordinary ability for cultivating warm and lasting friendships. Charles Spurgeon once told his students that he loved the sort of minister whose face invites you to be his friend, the sort of face on which you read the sign ‘Welcome’ and not ‘Beware of the dog’. He could have been describing Sibbes.
Born to a wheelwright in a rather obscure little village in Suffolk, few could have expected how influential young Sibbes would turn out to be. Before long, though, it was clear that he was remarkably capable: sailing through his studies at Cambridge, he became a tutor at St John’s College aged only twenty four. Bright as he was, though, it was his abilities as a preacher that soon began to mark him out. Before long, he was appointed to be a ‘lecturer’ at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge (where a gallery had to be built to accommodate the extra numbers he attracted), and a few years later he was appointed to be a preacher at Gray’s Inn, one of the London Inns of Court where many soon-to-be-influential men of Puritan persuasions came to hear him.
Knowing, as he once said, that there is more grace in Christ than there is sin in us, he always sought in his preaching to win the hearts of his listeners to Christ. This, he believed, was the special duty of ministers: ‘they woo for Christ, and open the riches, beauty, honour, and all that is lovely in him.’ The result was preaching so winsome that struggling believers began to call him the ‘honey-mouthed’, the ‘sweet dropper’, and, apparently, hardened sinners deliberately avoided his sermons for fear he would convert them. One listener, Humphrey Mills, recorded his experience of Sibbes’s ministry, and it seems to have been typical:
I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing; looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above their ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet 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 Sibbs, 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, and could overlook the world . . . my heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward.
In 1626, Sibbes was appointed Master of Katharine Hall, Cambridge, and for the last decade of his life he would use his considerable influence to promote his Christ-centred theology. He sought to place trusted Puritan preachers in church teaching posts around the country; he personally nurtured a number of young ministers, men such Thomas Goodwin, John Cotton, Jeremiah Burroughs, John Preston and Philip Nye; and through his printed sermons he affected countless more.
Richard Sibbes was not the first Puritan I read (I started with John Owen), but to my mind Sibbes is actually the best introduction to the Puritans. And ever since the day when, as a student, I read his The Bruised Reed, Sibbes has been my favourite. ‘Sibbes never wastes the student's time,’ wrote Spurgeon, ‘he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands.’ Reading him is like sitting in the sunshine: he gets into your heart and warms it to Christ.
This book was originally a four-part sermon series on 2 Chronicles 34:26-28, where the Lord is said to have heard Josiah because his heart was tender, because he was humble and because he mourned his sin.
The first sermon, ‘The Tender Heart’, is foundational, not only for the rest of the series, but for all of Sibbes’s theology. In his ministry, Sibbes always sought to get under the superficial layer of his listeners’ behaviour and deal with their hearts, their affections and desires. For Sibbes, this was no secondary matter, the devotional clothes his theology wore. Rather, in looking to deal with the heart, he believed he was preserving one of the most profound insights of the Reformation of which he was a part.
Again and again in his sermons, Sibbes speaks of both Catholic priests and Protestant pastors who – whatever their professed theology – act as though the root of our problem before God lies in our behaviour: we have done wrong things and we need to start doing right things. Sibbes plumbs much deeper. He knew that the outward acts of sin are merely the manifestations of the inner desires of the heart. Merely to alter a person’s behaviour without dealing with those desires would cultivate hypocrisy, the self-righteous cloak for a cold and vicious heart. And, Sibbes would note, ministries that worked like that were invariably cruel, based on brow-beating. No, hearts must be turned, and evil desires eclipsed by stronger ones for Christ.
In ‘The Tender Heart’, then, Sibbes sets about the deepest possible work – of heart-surgery. He explains that those who are tender hearted – who are soft to the Lord – do not simply desire ‘salvation’; they desire the Lord of salvation himself. Only then, when a person is brought to love the Lord with heart-felt sincerity, will they begin to hate their sin truly instead of merely dreading the thought of God’s punishment of it. In all this, Sibbes displays just how beautiful, pure and desirable a soft heart is, and by his honesty and kindness, he heaps burning coals on hypocrisy, making you mourn your own hard-heartedness as you feel what a wretched thing it is.
Then, having whetted your appetite for such a heart, he shows you how hearts can be made tender:
tenderness of heart is wrought by an apprehension of tenderness and love in Christ. A soft heart is made soft by the blood of Christ. (p. 13 below)
As when things are cold we bring them to the fire to heat and melt, so we bring our cold hearts to the fire of the love of Christ (p. 35 below)
If you will have this tender and melting heart, then use the means of grace; be always under the sunshine of the gospel. (p. 35 below)
Not only is Sibbes beautifully capturing the warmth and joy of hearty holiness; he is also making a most significant point. That is, we are sanctified just as we were first saved – through believing in Christ. By revealing Christ to me, the Spirit turns my heart from its natural hatred of God towards a sincere love for him. Only thereby can my heart be made tender. Sibbes once said to Thomas Goodwin, ‘Young man, if ever you would do good, you must preach the gospel and the free grace of God in Christ Jesus.’ He meant it with every fibre of his being, for he saw that the free grace of God in Christ Jesus is the means by which the hearts of sinners are first turned to God, and the means by which the hearts of believers continue to be turned from the love of sin to love of God.
I don’t think I can exaggerate the importance of ‘The Tender Heart’ and its message for today. Our busyness and activism so easily degenerate into a hypocrisy in which we keep up all the appearance of holiness without the heart of it. Ministers can bludgeon their people into such hollow Christianity, and even use Christ as a package to pass on to others, instead of enjoying him first and foremost as their own Saviour. But true Reformation – whether Reformation in Josiah’s day, Sibbes’s, or ours – must begin in the heart, with love for Christ. And that can only come when the free grace of God in Christ Jesus is preached.
After ‘The Tender Heart’, the next two sermons unpack what such a heart will be like. In ‘The Art of Self-Humbling’, Sibbes shows that tenderness of heart and humility go together. And that is because humility is not the vain attempt to think less of myself (which would simply be a masochistic form of self-obsession); it is the inevitable result of having a softened heart. The hard-hearted, captivated by themselves, proudly revel in their supposed independence and strength. But with my heart won to the Lord, and ever more captivated by him, I begin to revel in my absolute dependence on him. For, recognising my emptiness, I now love God’s glorious fullness. So ‘Grow in the love of God’ (p. 72 below) Sibbes counsels those who would have a hearty humility.
In the third sermon, ‘The Art of Mourning’ (by which he means mourning for sin), Sibbes explains how the heart that grows to love the Lord grows to hate sin. A hard heart simply cannot feel the weight of the sin it bears, and so while hypocrites may battle with their sin for how it discredits them, they will never truly hate it. But again, it is only a hearty mourning for sin that Sibbes is interested in.
The outward is easy, and subject to hypocrisy. It is an easy matter to rend clothes and to force tears, but it is a hard matter to afflict the soul. The heart of man taketh the easiest ways, and lets the hardest alone, thinking to please God with that. But God will not be served so; for he must have the inward affections, or else he doth abhor the outward actions. (pp. 88-89 below)
Occasionally, some have suspected Sibbes of sentimentalism. All this talk of heart-felt desires, of affections for the Lord, of tears for sin: is this soppy Christianity? For such censors, Sibbes has the most damning rebuke. It is, he says, no weak (‘womanish’) thing to love the Lord so; to suggest that it is simply reveals a repulsive cold-heartedness, a proud and faithless desire to be strong in ourselves.
Appropriately, Sibbes concludes the work with ‘The Saint’s Refreshing’, in which he unfolds the tender heart’s much-desired reward: we shall be gathered to Christ!
Richard Sibbes was a bright lantern of the Reformation, and he knew the issues dealt with in this book to be essential to the work of reform. Oh, may it reform you as you read it, and foster Reformation in our day!
This is the foreword to the Banner of Truth Puritan Paperbacks title, Josiah's Reformation.
Michael Reeves is President of Union and Professor of Theology. He is the author of The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Paternoster, 2012).