Yesterday I pulled out the third volume of my Works of Richard Sibbes. He’s a sweet read on a Sunday afternoon in the late winter. At first reading I’m reminded that he wrote in Shakespeare’s era—so the style isn’t what we’re used to. But any sense of distance evaporates after a paragraph or two as I’m drawn into the substance of what he’s sharing.
The entire third volume is devoted to Sibbes’ exposition of the first chapter of 2 Corinthians. There is a lot to explore in that chapter! And the main theme is God’s grace. Or, as Sibbes would put it, God’s “free grace.”
And that touches on what set Sibbes apart from many of his fellow English Puritan pastors in the early seventeenth century. He shared the key insights of Martin Luther, the reformer who lived a century before Sibbes. And those insights divided Puritans into two competing camps.
Listen to Sibbes on God’s promise of salvation by faith in Christ alone: “Consider it therefore, and be glad of these promises; and when you have them, go to God in Christ for the performance of them. Take the counsel of that blessed man, that in these latter times brought the glorious light of religion to light, Luther, I mean (to whom we are beholden for the doctrine of free grace more than any other divine of later times). Go to God in Christ in the promises. Christ is wrapped up in the promises” .
What divided the Puritans in Sibbes’ day—and what still divides many Evangelical Christians today in how faith is lived out—is what “the gospel” represents. For Sibbes it was all about a person’s discovery of what Jesus has done on the cross for us—so that we participate both in his death and in his resurrection. And faith is a response to his loving sacrifice and life, and not a responsibility to affirm and obey a set of creedal commitments. It’s a captivating love, not a duty of the educated intellect.
What Sibbes saw in Luther’s earlier proclamation of “free grace” is a complete reorientation of the heart away from self-concern. Instead of self-examination the Spirit invites us to a new and freeing awareness of God’s initiative in and through Jesus. It’s truly through “Christ alone.” And his work is rooted in the Trinity. Let’s listen to Sibbes again as he elaborated the citation we noted above. The key to God’s work in us is his love for us.
“Therefore think, that God the Father allures and invites you when Christ doth it [i.e. fulfills Gospel promises], because he is anointed to invite you. Think that the Father is as peaceable as Christ was, because Christ was so by his Father’s appointment, by his anointing. See all the three Persons, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost in Christ. See God incarnate making all the promises before, and as the ground of all that is made good to us. See the wondrous love of God incarnate” .
The final sentence is crucial: it’s all about God’s “wondrous love” in Christ. And if some fail to grasp—to be captivated and moved by God’s love unveiled in Christ—they still haven’t heard the Gospel. It’s not about what we believe; but about who we embrace once the eyes of our hearts are opened. And as for concerns about orthodoxy, that’s cared for in our authentic embrace of Jesus. When we know him we also abide in his word and ways—a point Paul made in Romans 13:10 when he wrote, “love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Is this important?
Yes. The reason for reiterating this point as I do from time to time is a concern that today we have some sons of one version of the Puritan movement who are still trotting out a “grace” that isn’t Christ-centered. A division that formed centuries ago is still active.
How so? Because a form of grace is promoted that actually centers on the human duties to maintain certain marks of orthodoxy. But missing from such lists is the ultimate marker of love in a soul: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” [John 13:34-35]. And, even prior to that, the crucial truth that “We love because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19].
Sibbes got that difference, and so should we. Because only when the love of God offered in Christ starts to free us from our fallen self-reliance will we have the love, joy, peace, patience and more that God offers us. His free grace is captivating!