Our title is taken from a sermon series in Richard Sibbes’ Works (vol. 4) where “charter” spoke of a set of formal rights. The thought was inspired by a Bible text, 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, where Sibbes found a set of benefits for Christians who are “one with Christ” (p.29).
Sibbes began with the promise, “all things are ours” (p.30). His point was similar to Martin Luther’s “third benefit of faith” in the latter’s Freedom of a Christian where Luther pointed to the upshot of faith. In traditional marriages the couple have shared ownership of all their resources. So with Christ a believer gains Christ’s righteousness and Christ receives the believer’s sin and guilt. The “all things” was the “charter” Sibbes addressed: a promise given to all those who are in Christ. If a person doesn’t live in Christ the only alternative—and Luther’s point—is a life that promises eventual “damnation” (Sibbes’ word).
Sibbes began with an obvious question: “But how shall I know that Christ is mine, or that I am in Christ, or [not]?” He answered with three tests. First, our consent; second, our spirit; and, third, our willingness to “stand for Christ upon all occasions, and stand for religion. He [the Christian] will not be a lukewarm neuter” (p.30).
“Consent”—the first item—is a person’s reception of Christ by faith: to come “under the government of Christ, to be ruled by his Spirit.” The alternative is to live as self-governed souls; as those who follow “their own lusts.”
The second test was also linked to the Spirit: “consider by what spirit thou art guided, whether by the Spirit of Christ or [not].” The example Sibbes used for the Spirit’s guidance is Christ’s life in a heart. Is he now working in believers in the same ways he did “in Christ”? Sibbes pressed his point: “If we have the Spirit of Christ, [he] will transform us to be like Christ in our judgment and dispositions and affections every way; in some degree, according to our capacity and measure.” A true Christian, in other words, will live and love as Jesus did.
The third test is the energy it produces. “If we be Christ’s, we will be strong for Christ; we will be true to him; we will not betray Christ, and the cause of religion that is put into our hands.” Sibbes spent more time making this point than the others.
Even in his day he realized believers face pressures in an angry and irreligious world. These pressures, Sibbes suggested, may make Christians go underground, into a privatized faith that only speaks of Christ at home or church. Sibbes insisted, however, that true devotion to Jesus will be open and obvious. And, with that devotion, public believers are assured of Christ’s self-giving life, while unbelievers face eventual tragedy: “What a comfortable consideration is this in all storms, to be housed in Christ, to dwell in Christ, to be clothed with Christ! When the storm of God’s anger shall come upon a nation, and at the day of judgement to be found in Christ” (p.31).
So how useful is Sibbes for today? He certainly recognized ageless realities! At my local coffee shop, for instance, I’m the sole evangelical Christian to visit a perpetual coffee klatch. I only join them from time to time but when I do visit I usually get an earful of anger at “evangelicals” who “elected this president” or who are “haters” of every alternative lifestyle. We’re also charged with scientific ignorance, intractable arrogance, hypocrisy, and much, much more.
So Sibbes’ third insight is still helpful. With the Spirit in us we have access to the energy and wisdom Jesus had when he faced angry Scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, and hypocrites. We can express our faith even in the face of misunderstandings—and, on occasions, in the face of anger towards truths that non-believers despise. As we give and take about hard issues we start to command respect among many who didn’t realize at first how much Christ offers.
The issue, Sibbes realized, isn’t whether we like controversies but whether we’re responsive to the Spirit who will share Christ’s life through us. So enjoy Christ’s communion that lasts forever, and stand firm in the meantime. It’s part of our Christian Charter.