How to Grow as a Christian
Michael Reeves helps us taste the goodness of God in the third of four talks from Word Alive 2011.
My Father, I pray that you would show us who you are more clearly. How kindly you deal with us in your dear son, and so draw our hearts to love you, enjoy you more and more than all others. And I pray then that people may see our great love for you, and be drawn, as we speak of you warmly, to you. Amen.
Welcome back to Matters of the Heart. Today we’re going to look at Richard Sibbes, who I would guess most of you have probably never even heard of. He was a Puritan and he’s going to be helping us think through how to grow in our love for Christ.
I want to tell you a little bit more about Sibbes, and that’s partly because he’s not very well-known today, and it’s partly because Sibbes really was a walking embodiment of love for Christ. He was a rough contemporary of Shakespeare, and in fact, Shakespeare is one of the reasons we tend to go, “Boo, the Puritans,” because Shakespeare did not like Puritans. But I think we’ll see with Sibbes, if you think “Boo, the Puritans”, some of them could be a bit dull—but Richard’s cool.
He became known as the “heavenly Doctor Sibbes”. It wasn’t because of any cold aloofness, like he was distantly other-worldly, it was because of his sheer loving-kindness, because of his good-natured amiability. And still today you read his recorded sermons and they just glow with sunny warmth. He was a man who clearly enjoyed knowing God. And still today, this is a long time later, 400 years later, his relish is still infectious if you read him. He spoke of the living God as a life-giving, warming sun, who “Delights to spread his beams and his influence in things, to make all things fruitful. Such a goodness is in God as in a fountain, continually pouring out goodness. Or as the breast that loves to ease itself of milk. ” The full breast bursting with nutritious goodness. And because he knew God to be such an overflowing fountain of goodness and love, that made him the most attractive model of god-likeness. Because of course, we all become like what we worship, right? This is sort of Isaiah 44 territory. Do you remember, about the idols, and if you worship a wooden block that cannot hear, it’s deaf-dumb-blind, then spiritually you become like that, you become spiritually deaf-dumb-blind, you become like what you worship. But become like this God, who is this fountain of goodness, well let me hand over to Richard again, he says: “Those who are led by the Spirit of God, that are like him, they have a communicative, diffusive goodness, they have a goodness that loves to spread itself”—they love to be kind, as God is. In other words, knowing that God is love, made him profoundly loving as a man.
Now Richard was never married, but it was clear that he had a extraordinary ability for cultivating warm and loving friendships. His knowledge of God clearly transformed him, from all accounts in his day, into a man, a pastor, and a preacher of just magnetic genial. He was known for being very amiable. Charles Spurgeon once told his students who were learning to preach, he said to them, “I love a minister whose face invites me to be his friend, the sort of face on which you read ‘Welcome,’ and not ‘Beware of the Dog.’” That’s exactly the sort of thing that would describe Sibbes. In fact, you’ll see in all these pictures I’ve been showing you, these dead guys, they all look a little bit somber. And it’s not just theologians who look somber. If you look at portraits of dead guys, generally they look a bit serious. They had to pose for a portrait for a long time. But in looking at 17th Century portraits, I found one which shows a person with a real sparkle in their eyes. It’s a real sit-down portrait, rather than a mock-up. It’s Richard Sibbes. And to capture in a sitting down portrait a twinkle in the eye really shows something about the man himself. He was a loving, great-hearted man.
He’s not very well-known today, but in his own day Sibbes was very influential. In his latter years he managed to hold three of the most prominent preaching posts in England. He was simultaneously master of what was then Katherine Hall, Cambridge, it’s now Catz College, Cambridge; he was also what was called Lecturer, which wasn’t quite the Vicar, but the regular preacher, at Holy Trinity Church, just behind the marketplace in Cambridge, where they had to incorporate an extra gallery to accommodate the extra numbers he drew; and he was a preacher in London at the Gray’s Inn, which is one of the London Inns of Court, where a lot of prominent politicians would come and hear him.
Now Sibbes, a phrase he repeated often in his sermons, is this. He loved to say:
“There is more grace in Christ than there is sin in us.”
You can just chew on that one. Isn’t that great? There is more grace in Christ than there is sin in you, my friend. When you look at your sin, there is more grace in Christ. So as he preached, he always sought to win his listeners to Christ, to draw their eyes to Christ, because this, he believed, was the duty of ministers. He said, “Ministers woo for Christ. They open the riches, beauty, honor, all that is lovely in him. One main end of our calling, the ministry is to lay open and unfold the unsearchable riches of Christ, to dig up the mine, thereby to draw the affections of those that belong to God to Christ.”
A good thing for all Christians, surely. That as we want to make Christ known, we woo people to Christ, we lay out the unsearchable riches of Christ. And for Sibbes the result was preaching so winsome, that struggling believers began to call him the “honey mouthed,” the “sweet dropper.” And apparently, hardened sinners began to deliberately avoid going to hear Sibbes preach for fear that they would be converted. That’s quite a reputation to have, isn’t it.
Let me give you the record of one guy’s experience, a guy called Humphrey Mills. He said this, and it was quite typical of reactions to Sibbes’ ministry. Mills said,
“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 [as in Bible reading and so on] 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 anyone who wore their hair anything long and not short about their ears, or that wore great ruffs and 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 Sibbes, 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.”
That was the effect. I want to take you through a little bit, but I want to leave you with this. This is a sermon called “The Tender Heart” that Richard Sibbes preached. It’s just become available. You can only just get it from next week, so order it from Banneroftruth.org. It’s a tiny little thing, absolutely tiny. You can read it in one coffee. It’ll give you a great, great taste to take away. Read that, and I think it’ll change your life. It’s extraordinarily good theology. It’s a sermon on 2 Chronicles 34, where the Lord has said to hear King Josiah’s prayer because Josiah’s heart was tender, soft unto the Lord. It’s been unavailable for ages and it just came out, Banner of Truth, with a foreword by a very handsome fan of Sibbes. Now read that. That’s not why I’m plugging it, it’s great, read it on a Tuesday morning in the rain, it’ll feel like a little trip to Barbados. It’s the sunshine of the gospel.
But “The Tender Heart,” that title of that sermon gets in a nutshell what Sibbes was all about. In his ministry, Sibbes always sought to get under the superficial layer of his listeners’ behaviour, and deal with their hearts, their affections, their desires, the things that drive behaviour. Now for Sibbes this wasn’t a superficial matter; it wasn’t like he had his theology and then this was a nice way of packaging it. He saw actually, no, dealing with people’s hearts is pastoral ministry that works out one of the most profound insights of the Reformation, of which he was a part. What was happening was, in Roman Catholicism in his day, growing in holiness basically equated with changing your habits and your external behaviours. So change your behaviour is what’s really important. We’ll see a bit more of this tomorrow. For the Reformers, they’re seeing it’s absolutely pointless trying to change your behaviour. In fact, you won’t be able to do it very well anyway, but even if you do, you’ll cultivate hypocrisy. What you need to do more than changing your behaviour, way more, you need to change your heart. Your heart needs to turn. And so Sibbes is seeking to deal with people’s hearts.
And again and again in his sermons, Sibbes speaks of both Catholic priests and Protestant pastors who, whatever they were saying their theology was, he was saying, so many of them are actually operating as if the root of our problem lies in our behaviour. So that, what’s the problem, we’ve done wrong things, so we need to start doing right things. But Sibbes plumbs much, much deeper. He knew that the outward acts of sin are merely the manifestations of the inner desires of my heart. Yeah? So when I come out and do something wicked, I’m just expressing to the world what’s actually going on in here. And if I try to alter my behaviour without my heart being changed, what I actually do is I just have a behavioural cloak that covers up the cold viciousness in my heart. Which actually is dangerous, because I’m thinking I’m growing in holiness because my behaviour’s changing, when my heart’s not changing at all. And Sibbes would note, if ministers try to operate like that, just changing the behaviour of their people without dealing with their hearts, such a ministry’s just going to be cruel to people. It’s just going to be, come on, do better. You need to work harder, your behaviour needs to be better. But that’s not how it was with Sibbes. Let me give you a little Sibbes now.
“When we are drawn to duties…with wrong motivation, not from a new nature, this is not from the Spirit. For the liberty of the Spirit is when actions come off naturally without any other motive. A child needs no other motive to please his father…”
When he knows he’s the child of his loving father, it’s natural. When a child knows he has a loving father who loves him, well, naturally he’s drawn to please his father. But if his father’s abusive, or not kind, well, all sorts of other strange motivations strange motivations start taking place in the child. So what Sibbes set out to do is, he sought to make his hearers to know themselves to be children of the loving father, so that they might naturally love him. Sort of 1 John 4:19 again. “We love because he first loved us.” So, preach the gospel to people so that they know the love of God and say, “I love such a God as that.” Naturally. I’m not seeking to impress him, I actually love him. He’s won my heart, I want him.
Sibbes was widely, deeply, both loved and respected in his day. But there is a challenge to some of this theology that can come up, and Sibbes pre-empts it. All this talk of affections, desires for the Lord, and he’ll talk about tears for sin. He says, Is this soppy Christianity? Well, he pre-empts that with a pretty damning rebuke. He says,
“It is no weak 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.”
In fact, just flick with me to Romans 1, which says very much the same thing. In Romans 1, Paul talks about those who are given up to their sinful desires, and he reaches the climax of what that looks like in verse 31. He says, the people who are given up to their sinful desires become
“foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” Heartless there means without feeling. Stony, cold-hearted. I wonder if you’ve ever actually shed tears for sin. And if you have, why? I have in two very different ways. I’ve shed tears for sin in a desperation way, just thinking, am I hell-bound for being such a sinner? Tears of terror. And I’ve shed tears for sin also when I have so known how magnificently kind Jesus is, and therefore, just how repulsive my sins are in the face of such kindness. That’s the kind of thing Sibbes is talking about. Seeing the kindness of Christ, that our sin repulses us.
Well, let’s see a little bit of how that works. Sibbes is going to proclaim the love of Christ so that we might be won to love him. I’m going to give you little bits from all over Sibbes—this is a little bit from “The Tender Heart”.
“It is not enough to have the heart broken, for a pot may be broken in pieces, and yet be good for nothing; so may a heart be, through terrors and a sense of judgment, and yet not be like wax, pliable. Therefore it must be melting…”
So you can just shatter people with the judgement of God. Now, he will preach judgment, and we’ll see that coming up. But you can shatter people, and not actually do good.
“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.”
Preach the blood of Christ, Christ’s bloody kindness definitively shown on the cross. Such kindness—and that melts the heart.
“Many say an adamant cannot be melted by fire, but by blood. I cannot tell whether this be true or no; but I am sure that nothing will melt the hard heart of man but the blood of Christ, the passion of our blessed Saviour. When a man considers of the love that God has showed him in sending of his Son, and doing such great things as he has done, in sending of Christ to satisfy his justice, in setting us free from hell, Satan, and death; the consideration of this, with a persuasion that we actually benefit from this, melts the heart and makes it become tender.”
So sin is about a coldness or hardness of heart. A hardness which he says will not be able to feel its sin, it’s just too solid, cold to the Lord. So dutiful perhaps, but not delighting in him. But the work of the gospel is to warm our hearts, soften them. Let’s see how he put it here, again, this is classic Sibbes imagery.
“As when things are cold, we bring them to the fire to heat and melt, so we bring we our cold hearts to the fire of the love of Christ. Consider we our sins against Christ, and of Christ’s love towards us, us sinners. Dwell upon this thought: think what great love Christ has showed us! How little we’ve deserved! And this will make our hearts to melt and be as pliable as wax before the sun. If you would have this tender and melting heart, be always under the sunshine of the gospel.”
Isn’t that great? If you want to be soft-hearted, to love the Lord, keep yourself under the sunshine of the gospel. The light of God’s word is sunshine, isn’t it? It’s light, driving away darkness. It’s good, warming, kind, enlightening light.
And what Sibbes is reflecting here is the Reformation’s radical shift from medieval Roman Catholicism. See, sin is a problem in the heart, not just in the behaviour. It’s a deeper problem. And so, here’s the key, the solution to sin is not a behavioural one. The solution to sin is not my attempt to stop sinning; that won’t work. In fact, take 30 seconds to discuss with your neighbor—why won’t that work? Why is it that by willpower, I won’t stop sinning?
What have we got? We’re definitely not strong enough. Absolutely. We’re born sinners, exactly. Sin is not just behaviour! Even if I’m curbing the behaviour, I’m not actually cutting to the heart of the problem. We’re in Adam, yeah. Exactly, I want to sin! Anything else? If it was that easy, why did Jesus go to the cross? Yeah, I’m depending on myself, that’s the opposite of faith. It could actually be the worst act of sin. So the solution for sin is not just to live without sin, it is the gospel of God’s free grace. Without that, all that’s left it hypocritical externalism.
Now, Sibbes was writing around the time of the gunpowder plot, when Roman Catholics tried to blow up the House of Parliament, and he wrote this:
“The papists, after they’ve been at their superstitious devotion, are fittest for powder plots and treasons, because their hearts are so much more hardened.”
Now, where he’s going with that is, if you’re just concentrating on external behaviour, you’re not dealing with your hearts, your hearts have just been hardening, therefore you will act in a hard-hearted way, that’ll just come out. You might be very religious but you don’t love the Lord. Whereas those who are tender-hearted, they actually desire and grow in their desire for the Lord of salvation. Not just for salvation, but for the Lord of salvation himself. And only then, when a person is brought to love the Lord with a heartfelt sincerity, do they increasingly begin to hate their sin, actually find it distasteful, instead of simply dreading God’s punishment of it.
A couple of observations here. Isn’t Sibbes beautifully capturing the warmth and joy of holy happiness? Isn’t it an attractive model of holiness? We saw Edwards talking about God’s holiness is a very attractive thing, as his beauty. Not his aloofness, but his pure kindness. And here, our holiness, too, is a beautiful, relational thing, enjoying, depending on, loving the Lord, and being warm to him. But I think he’s also making a very significant point. Which is this: We grow in holiness, in the Christian life, in just the same way which we were first saved. Let me just say that again, because it’s so important. We grow in holiness, we grow in the Christian life, in just the same way which we were first saved, by believing in Jesus Christ, by trusting him. And so, what happens is, the Spirit opens my eyes to see the love of Christ, and when I see the love of Christ, when I see, the Lord is actually not this monster I thought he was, he’s kind, the Lord has loved me, then my heart is won to him. That how I first become a Christian, my heart is won to him by his love. And that’s how I go on being a Christian, as I hear again of his love, and my heart is won afresh to him, my first love renewed.
So Sibbes believed that the secret of sanctification, of growing in holiness, was 2 Corinthians 3:18. He was far from alone in thinking this, but I think he captures it really well. Let me give you the background what’s going on here. It’s talking about the time in Exodus where, remember, Moses would go in to be with the Lord, and his face would glow, would shine from being with the Lord. Then he would go out to be with the people, and he would cover his face with a veil. Because out there, it’s like they just don’t get it. They don’t get the purpose of the law. Their minds are veiled, they’re not seeing right. But when you get it, it’s when anyone turns to the Lord, goes in to see the Lord, that’s when the veil is removed. So he says, this is Paul speaking:
“We all with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord we are transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.”
So it is by beholding the glory of the Lord that you are transformed into his image. It’s by gazing on Christ that you are transformed into his image. That’s how you grow to be like him, by contemplating him. So here’s Sibbes. He says,
“The very beholding of Christ is a transforming sight. If we look upon him with the eye of faith, it will make us like Christ. For the gospel is a mirror, that when we see ourselves interested in it, we’re changed from glory to glory. A man cannot look upon the love of God in Christ in the gospel but it will change him to be like God and Christ. For how can we see Christ, and God in Christ, but that we shall see how God hates sin in his purity, and that will transform us to hate it as God does, who hates it so much that it could not be expunged but with the blood of Christ, God-man.”
Do you see? It is by contemplating Christ, by fixing my eyes on him, by holding my thoughts on him, and as I appreciate him in his purity, beauty, glory, my taste for him grows, and so my distaste for what he hates grows. I see, he’s so kind! He’s so generous. So I grow in my delight in generosity and kindness. So I might naturally desire to use you for my own ends, but when I see how Christ is, his goodness is just so much more attractive than that dirty desire to use you. And so the vision of Christ transforms me, not to use you, but to be kind to you as Christ is kind to me.
A guy in the next generation of Puritans was named Thomas Goodwin, and Sibbes said to Thomas Goodwin—I think, if you don’t take anything else away from this message, or even this week, take this—
“Young man, if ever you would do good, you must preach the gospel and the free grace of God in Christ Jesus.”
Friends, if ever you would do good—to yourself, to others, to the world—you must preach the gospel and the free grace of God in Christ Jesus. Now, Sibbes meant that with every fiber of his being. For he saw, it is the free grace of God in Christ Jesus that is what first wins the hearts of sinners to God, it’s what first turns them. And it is the means by which the hearts of sinners continue to be turned, from love of sin to a greater love for Christ. And so that’s what we are to do for ourselves each day. It’s not just advice for preachers, it’s advice for every Christian. We hold up Christ before ourselves. Don’t you find that each day, what happens is you naturally turn your knowledge of God and you distort it so that God becomes more devilish, and you don’t delight in him and you just fear him and you want to turn from him. And so every day, every morning you need to hold up Christ as he is, preach the gospel to yourself again, to see how good he is. That’s what we do for ourselves, that’s what we do for each other. If we can be a people who preach the gospel, the free grace of God in Jesus Christ to ourselves and each other every day, then we’ll be a people with hearts won to him more fully.
Let’s just take one minute and talk to your neighbour about what you’re picking up so far. What’s striking you here? My growth in holiness is in and through Christ alone, because the Christian life is about knowing him. It’s very easy to feel like I ought to turn from sin, from certain things, which is very different than by knowing how kind Christ is, I actually find that sin distasteful now. It’s not just that I ought to turn from it, but knowing Christ better—yes. Things that once were appealing to you lose their allure as Christ becomes a greater attraction to you. Absolutely. That reminds me, there’s a great 19th century preacher called Thomas Chalmers who once preached a sermon called “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” And what he meant by that was, we have affections, desires for things, and you can’t simply go through life to say well, I have a desire for this, let’s stop it. The only way to overcome your desire for a wicked thing is to have a stronger desire which expels it, a desire for Christ. And that’s what we have as Christians, our desire for Christ eclipses and expels other desires as we grow. Let me carry on.
What then would it look like for our hearts to be won to Christ? He says,
“What will come of it, if Christ be set in the highest place in our heart? If we crown him there, make him King of Kings and Lord of Lords in a hearty submitting of all the affections, the desires of the soul to him, while the soul continues in that state, it cannot be drawn to sin, discomfort, and despair, the honors, pleasures, and profits that are got by base sinful engagements, what are these to Christ? When the soul is rightly possessed of Christ and of his excellency, it scorns that anything should come into competition with him.”
Do you see? When you see the excellency of Christ, other things seem less alluring to you. And if you love him, not only will other distractions from him start losing their appeal, but also, if you love Christ you will speak of him warmly, winsomely, and freely, heartily, and winningly. Because Jesus said in Matthew 12,
“It is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks.”
So here’s the thing. Awkward, forced evangelism is done by those who don’t love Christ. But those who grow in their love for Christ grow in simply desiring to speak of him. Let’s see Sibbes again. He says,
“Where love is, there it enlarges the heart, which enlarges the tongue as well. The tongue of the church has never enough of commending Christ and setting out his praise. The tongue is loosed, set free, because the heart is loosed. Love will alter a man’s disposition, as we see in experience. A man, a sinful man, love will make him liberal.”
He doesn’t mean theologically liberal, he means generous. Love will make him generous. Isn’t it a shame that word has become purely a negative word in so many ways. Liberal is about generousity. Love will make him generous.
“He that is tongue-tied, love will make him eloquent. If you put any worldly man to a worldly theme that he cares about, he will speak of it daily.
You always talk about what you care about, you always do. If you care about cars, you always talk about cars. If you love Christ, you’ll speak of Christ. So how do you get to love Christ like that? Again, it is not something you whip up, importantly. It’s only when you begin to desire Christ, to love what he loves, you only walk away freely from sin when you see how much he loves you. It’s his gracious love that woos you away. 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loves us.” And only then is he more attractive than other things. Let’s see a bit more.
“Christ esteems his church highly, even as his very love, even at that time when she’s sleepy.”
Now just pause there. I’m actually reading a section from another series of sermons called “Bowels Opened”, yes; Banner of Truth is also republishing this one but they’re retitling it, strangely, called “The Love of Christ”. I’d recommend you get it. By “Bowels Opened” he means bowels are about desires, he’s opening the desires of Christ for the church and the desires the church has for Christ. And he’s thinking Revelation 3:20 territory. Jesus comes to the sleepy church at Laoedicea and says, “Here I stand at the door and knock.” He’s coming in graciousness to a sleepy church that isn’t that bothered about him, and yet he’s bothered about her. Isn’t that striking? He’s bothered about her.
Now that he’s like that, that may teach us not to listen to Satan. Because Satan moves us to look upon that which is a failing, that which is naught, that which is nothing in us, and when Satan gets us to do that it abates our love for Christ and our understanding of his love for us. Satan knows if we sense the love of Christ to us, we will love him again. If a man is in love with Christ, what will be harsh to him in the world? The devil knows this well enough. Therefore, one of the devil’s main engines and temptations as the accuser of the brethren is to weaken our hearts in the sense of God’s love and of Christ’s.”
That’s one of Satan’s main engines, to weaken our sense of God’s love, to make God look devilish, unloving, ungracious, unkind. This is something you will know every day. You sin, and the accuser of the brethren whispers, “Well, now you’ve blown it. Sinned once too often. God loved you up to a point, but that is it. Sorry. You’re outside God’s love now.” That is the accuser of the brethren. And absolute blasphemy to the cross of Christ. For Christians are those who have been purchased by the blood of Christ, and to say that one sin somehow puts me beyond the blood of Christ is to say my sin has more power than the blood of Christ; to say Christ’s cross didn’t work. It is devilish blasphemy.
But what Sibbes is showing us here is, it’s not enough simply to know or speak the truth. It must be sensed, grasped, enjoyed. Because it’s very easy to say yeah yeah, we know this stuff. That is not the point. There is a vital difference between just knowing something and having gone slightly cold on it, and appreciating Christ and his love.
So let me show you the sort of thing Sibbes would say, to hold out Christ, to win hearts, especially doubting, cold hearts. Basically what he does is, he fills our eyes with a vision of Christ’s goodness. He says look, in receiving Christ, do we have any loss here? Just pause there. Isn’t that what we so often think? That if we are to have anything to do with Christ, it’s the sacrifice for you. Right? You give something up for Christ. So it’s primarily our sacrifice. But he says,
“Do we actually entertain Christ to our loss? Does he come empty, needy, grabbing, taking from us? No! He comes iwht all grace! His goodness is a communicative, diffusive goodness. He comes to spread his treasures, to enrich the heart with all grace and strength, to bear all afflictions, to encounter all dangers, to bring peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost; he comes indeed to make our hearts as it was a heaven. Now consider this. He comes not for his own ends, but to empty his goodness into our hearts, as a breast that desires to empty itself when it’s full, so this fullness hath a fullness of a fountain, which strives to empty its goodness into our souls. He comes out of love to us.”
I was just chatting with a good friend earlier today and this issue came up pastorally as we were chatting. This friend is a good Christian mate, and he was saying, “I love Christ, but I love being comfortable too. So I know in my decisions in life, I’m quite hampered by the fact that I’m thinking well, I don’t want to make a sacrifice of those things that make me comfortable because I love them so much.” Do you see what he’s doing? He’s thinking that Christ makes us a loser. But Christ does not come to bring us loss. And so you do not actually ultimately give up anything for Christ! It may seem for a time as if you do. But, in my friend holding on to these worldly comforts and knowing that they restrain him from following Christ, actually, those are joy-sucking shackles for him. And if you can trust Christ, Christ is offering him joy, the delight of knowing him better, a relationship which is life, peace. We need to know, in these hard decisions, Christ is kind. He doesn’t come to take from us, but to give from us.
Now where is all this coming from, in Sibbes? What is driving this theology? Because Sibbes is so sunny, isn’t he? He’s so warm; this gospel is so attractive. Now, why is that? It all comes back to what he thinks the gospel essentially is. You see, he didn’t think that the gospel essentially is about a ruler having mercy on us. No, he sees that Christianity is about the love story in which Christ, the bridegroom, comes to win his bride the church. Something we’ve seen yesterday was a massive change from Medieval Roman Catholicism, where you have a distant God, dripping down grace distantly on us. But when you see the Lord is the bridegroom who comes to his beloved bride, suddenly you’ve got a much warmer gospel, a very different sort of gospel. So Sibbes said,
“Let us very often think of this nearness between Christ and us, if we’ve once given our names to him, and be not discouraged for any sin or unworthiness in us. Who sues a wife for debt when she’s married? Therefore, when the accuser of the brethren comes, answer all accusations like this: ‘Go to Christ!’”
If you have something to say to me, go to my husband! Isn’t that good? It’s because, the wedding vows: All I am, I give to you, All I have, I share with you. So actually we sent the accuser of the brethren to Christ. He goes on, unpacks it more:
“Often think with yourself, ‘What am I?’ I am a poor, sinful creature, but I have a righteousness in Christ that answers all. I’m weak in myself, but Christ is strong. I’m foolish in myself, but I’m wise in him. And what I lack in myself I have in him. He is mine, and his righteousness is mine. Know that, as a sinful, failing Christian. His righteousness is mine. And being clothed with this, I stand safe against conscience, hell, wrath, and whatsoever, and though I have daily experience of my sin, yet there is more righteousness in Christ who is mine, and who is the chief of ten thousand, than there is sin in me.”
What a great response to the whisperings of Satan! “Go away, there is more righteousness in Christ who is mine than there is sin in me.” I am sinful, yet his righteousness in mine. Great, great assurance. But, more. Think, picture a wedding scene, or a perfect married couple. What is it that a perfect, loving, bridegroom husband wants for his bride? I’m not thinking about a cruel, needy, selfish man, but a perfectly loving husband. What does a perfectly loving husband want for his wife? What pleases Christ, is where I’m going with that? Sibbes says, and get this,
“We cannot please Christ better than showing ourselves welcome. By cheerful taking part of his rich provision.”
He’s seeing that the gospel is a banquet that we are to enjoy. And it is an honour to his graciousness, his bounty, to fall to. Tuck in. That’s what he wants. He’s delighted to give to us.
It is a temper of spirit that a Christian aims at to rejoice, to enjoy, always in the Lord. And that rejoicing comes from enjoying our privileges in him. Our duty is to accept Christ’s inviting us. What will we do for him, if we will not feast with him? Listne to this next bit: “We will not suffer with him if we will not feast with him.”
Now, just pause there. I think we often talk about, which is right to do, that the Christian life is suffering now and glory later. Absolutely true. There’s a life of suffering now with glory to come. We will suffer with Christ. But Sibbes is saying actually, we won’t suffer with Christ if we won’t feast with him. I won’t enjoy him if I don’t love him, so I won’t even do the suffering bit. The love, the feasting, the enjoyment has to come first. We will not suffer with him if we will not joy with him, and in him. That which we should labour to bring with us is a taste of these dainties of the gospel, these delicious courses of the gospel banquet, an appetite to them, the chief thing that Christ requires is a good stomach to these dainties.”
Do you see? It’s about taking in Christ’s goodness, receiving, feeding on them. So he says, let us open our mouths wide, since Christ is so ready to fill it. Another cream-cake of graciousness. We are not constrained in his love, but in our own hearts. We’re bidden to delight in the Lord, and in whom should we delight, but where all fullness is had to delight in? Our spirits, my friends, are not so large as those blessed comforts which we are called to enjoy. Do you see? He has more grace than I have appetite for grace. Don’t think he has more grace than you need. I don’t think I can exaggerate the importance of Sibbes’ message for today. Our Christian busyness and activism so easily degenerate into a hypocrisy in which you can easily keep up appearance of holiness without the heart of it. And what we can do is, we can bludgeon each other into a hollow Christianity of performance, and we can use, especially if you’re a Bible study group leader or in any form of ministry, you can use Christ as a package to pass on to others, rather than enjoying him first and foremost as your own saviour. But true reformation must begin in the heart, with love for Christ. He loves us, and wins our heart to love him. It is only then that reformation will come in the heart. And that reformation in the heart can only come when the free grace of God in Christ Jesus is proclaimed. So friends, if ever you would do good, preach the gospel, and the free grace of God in Christ Jesus. Let me pray for us.
Our great God, the fountain of every blessing, you stun us with your graciousness, your kindness, and daily we imagine you cannot be so good. I pray, would you help us to be a people who preach to ourselves, to each other, to the world, free grace of God in your son Jesus Christ, so that our hearts might be constantly drawn to you, such that our love for you might eclipse our love for other things, and so I pray, might we see reformations in our hearts every day, and reformation in our land, as hearts are drawn to you, and out of the overflow of their hearts people speak of you warmly and full of love, and so may many see you, not as a cold, dark tyrant, but as the Lord of graciousness, and be won to you by your kindness. All glory to you, great kind Lord. In your great son’s name, Amen.
©2011 Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF)
This talk is reproduced from UCCF’s Theology Network www.theologynetwork.org and is used with permission.