A man who already had his PhD warned me before I started my own adventure, “Be sure to pick a topic you can live with. If you pick something that doesn’t satisfy, you’ll pay for it!” Good advice, and advice I followed when I selected Richard Sibbes as my subject of study!
Getting to know Sibbes was a special treat. I’m now sure—after getting to know him rather well in a four-year effort—that when he arrived to be with his Lord on July 5, 1635, he must have been ushered to a seat of special honor as crowds gathered to welcome him home. He was a man captured by God’s love, and he faithfully and freely shared that love with others. I’m blessed to be included among the recipients of that care, even if at a distance of a few hundred years. I now hope to spread that goodness even more widely. As a small step in that direction let me share just one segment of Sibbes’ writings here as a way to introduce him to readers who may not know of him yet.
But first let me say a bit more about him. He preached and taught in Cambridge and London, and was what now would be called a trinitarian theologian. This grew out of his adult Bible study and by reading the first Reformers as well as the medieval Bernard of Clairvaux and the early church fathers such as Augustine, Athanasius, and the Cappadocians.
Let me underscore that to call him a trinitarian theologian speaks of more than his belief in the Trinity—something every orthodox Christian shares. It represents, instead, a belief that nothing said about God can be said outside his relational reality. It is a theology aligned with the great teachings of the early church councils at Nicaea and Cappadocia, holding that the eternal triune communion of three persons is the ultimate reality about God, a reality out of which every other discussion about God must begin. In a basic text on theology, for instance, it is a major misstep to spend hundreds of pages on God’s attributes prior to addressing the Trinity. And an error to discuss God’s various qualities without first affirming the bedrock relational reality that “God is love.” May a new generation of Christian writers do better in this regard than past practitioners!
A major feature of Sibbes’ ministry was his fascination with Jesus. This is illustrated in a series of sermons published as A Description of Christ. In this post I will refer to that series as found in his Works [noting just 1.17-18 here]. The Description was, as suggested already, embedded in a trinitarian context as were the rest of his mature works. Christ’s humanity, Sibbes taught, was dependent on the Spirit’s presence and activity:
Whatsoever Christ did as man, he did by the Spirit. Christ’s human nature, therefore, must be sanctified and have the Spirit put upon it. God the Father, the first person in Trinity, and God the Son, the second, they work not immediately, but by the Holy Ghost, the third Person.
Sibbes was conscious of the Gospel summaries of the Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism as well as the Spirit directing Jesus to his wilderness temptation. This arrangement of Christ’s human dependence was for our sake as those who need his presence and leading. But most important is the Spirit’s work of distributing the communion of the Godhead to those united to Christ by his unique work.
Now as the Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son, so he works from the Father and the Son. He sanctifies and purifies, and does all from the Father and the Son, and knits us to the Father and the Son; to the Son first, and then to the Father . . . [citing 2 Cor. 13:14]. All the communion that Christ as man had with God was by the Holy Ghost; and all the communion that God has with us, and we with God, is by the Holy Ghost; for the Spirit is the bond of union between Christ and us, and between God and us.
It was crucial, Sibbes believed, for Christ to have experienced the Spirit in his own life and work as a man in order for him to send the Spirit as the agent of that life and ministry, so that “Whatsoever the Holy Ghost works in us, he takes of Christ first.”
What was of monumental importance to Sibbes is that the bond of the Father and the Son, by the Spirit, was and is a bond of love. What Jesus experienced of the Father’s love, through the Spirit, is now present to us!
The Holy Ghost tells our souls that God loves Christ first, and he loves us in Christ, and that we are those that God gave Christ for, that we are those that Christ makes intercession for in heaven. The Holy Ghost witnesses to us the love of the Father and the Son, and so he draws from Christ whatsoever he works.
All this does much to correct misunderstandings of the Spirit’s ministry, Sibbes concluded. No longer do we connect the Spirit with “illusions and delusions, that are nothing but frantic conceits of comfort that are groundless.” Instead we engage Christ himself through the Spirit’s ministry in us.
So, to wrap up this brief post, let me invite readers to reflect, with Sibbes, on the union of the Godhead. May we have a greater sense than ever before that we have been drawn into “the” love relationship of all relationships. May we realize that the whole point of the incarnation of Christ is to draw us into the communion that God has experienced for all of eternity. Why? Because his love is free for the sharing. The Father delights in the Son. He sent his greatest joy to be the source of our own joy by sending us the Spirit who is the bond of union between the Father and the Son; and between the Son and us. Wow! That’s some very good news. Call it the gospel truth!