Richard Sibbes’ portrayal of faith was trinitarian and Christ-centered. An English Puritan (1577-1635), he shared a deep concern about a question still alive today. How do we engage God? Do we matter to him? And if so, what does he want from us?
Sibbes’ answer was biblical and personal. God the Father wants a bride for his Son. And his Spirit is now calling out people to be the collective bride of Christ. These people—with gender issues dismissed—are characterized by their love. When Jesus calls, they hear and respond with whole hearts. Here is Sibbes’ claim, from A Description of Christ in his Works [1.1-41].
“God in paradise did choose a wife for Adam, so God hath chosen a husband for his church; he hath chosen Christ for us.…” And “When God hath him for us, shall not we think him worthy to be embraced and regarded; shall we not kiss the Son with the kiss of love, and faith, and subjection?” [p.10].
The phrase, “kiss the Son” from Psalm 2:12 was a basis for Sibbes treating marriage as more than a simple metaphor for the Divine-human union. In Sibbes’ language this was the “conjunction” of God and his people that sets up eternal union and communion.
Sibbes’ main New Testament focus was Ephesians 5:31-32 where Paul cited Genesis 2:24 as a “mystery” revealed as God’s basis for human participation in the Trinity. And this marital union of Christ and the church explains day-by-day spirituality. Puritans used Paul’s language to speak of every believer’s “mystical union” with Christ. This phrase referred to the bond of all believers as the single body of Christ. It was distinct from the Roman Catholic and Neoplatonic language of mysticism that featured ecstatic religious experiences.
John Calvin, before Sibbes, also affirmed this union of believers with Jesus. Like Martin Luther too, these leaders used Pauline terms—as in 1 Corinthians 6:16-17 and Ephesians 5. The former text also cited Genesis 2:24—“For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” So, as Calvin commented on John 14:20, “We are said to be in him because, grafted into his body, we are partakers of all His righteousness and all His blessings. He is said to be in us because He plainly shows by the efficacy of His Spirit that He is the author and the cause of our life.”
Back to Sibbes. He wanted all believers to gain a felt assurance of God’s love in Christ. With the form of love aligned with the wealth of a sound marriage. And this included a father loving his son’s bride as much as he loves his son, the bridegroom.
The underlying question Sibbes addressed here was whether God’s love is somehow layered. Is his love more lively for the Son than for other humans? No. If God’s love for humanity is less than the active love within the Triune communion, then there could be a stratification of divine love. And, if so, a question in any spiritual life must be about how to climb from one station of love to another. Sibbes instead insisted that God’s love is who he is, always faithful and indivisible. The bride is as beloved as the bridegroom.
“God loves and delights in Christ mystical, that is, in Christ and his members, in whole Christ. ‘This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,’ not only with whom alone by himself, but ‘in whom,’ in him as God, in him in body and soul, in him as head of the church, in him mystically, in all that are under him any kind of way. God delights in him, and all his.” [p.12].
For Sibbes, then, the Father’s love for the Son is the same love he has for the church. The only qualitative difference for believers is in their awareness and response. So, a dull life in Christ is born of human disaffection, and not from God’s reluctance. And the solution is not to “try harder” to be lovely. Instead, believers can ask the Spirit, who bonds members to Christ’s body, to awaken them to his love. After regeneration any reluctance to believe they are “beloved” comes from a past in Adam, and not from an actual standing in Christ.
Finally, does this marital status with Jesus make a difference in applied life?
We should turn to Jesus first. In a good marriage a spouse can always ask his or her partner, “How are we doing?” The same is true with Jesus. As a believer, try it, and then take a quiet walk without any distractions. My experience is that he’s happy to answer with a gentle, Heart-to-heart, inaudible whisper.
Next, let’s stop blaming God for all we think is wrong with him. After all, he gave Adam dominion over the world and we’ve made a mess of it. In the wilderness temptation, we find Satan gloating to Jesus about his successful usurpation. But Jesus is the true human who spurns the deceiver and asserts his local rule as the Son of man and Son of God. He now offers his own sort of kingdom to and through the church. And we start to regain communion with him as we abide in his love, in his word, and in his Spirit’s leading.
Finally, we’re invited to be thankful. No marriage ever prospers under the weight of “to do” lists. Instead, we start to have eyes for Christ’s steady providence as we give thanks in everything. Even when things seem broken. The story of Joseph, ending in Genesis 50:19-20, is a lesson for all.
In sum, try out being “bride-like” with Jesus and see what happens. Men will prosper as men, and women will find more joy than any ever hoped for. Then pass Sibbes’ little “mystery” along to others. It’s what we’re made for!