‘The Bruised Reed’ by Richard Sibbes


The ‘heavenly’ Richard Sibbes—the adjective serving as a virtual title for him in puritan circles—was famous for his affective spirituality. 1 During the reigns of James I and Charles I Sibbes flourished as an educator and preacher at  both Cambridge and London until his death.  His sermon series, The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax (in print from 1630 to 1658), was highly regarded for its distinctive voice among the pastoral books of the era.  Richard Baxter, for instance, remembered receiving a copy of the book as a youth.  It “opened more the love of God to me, and gave me a livelier apprehension of the mystery of redemption, and how much I was beholden to Jesus Christ.” 2 That Sibbes, who regularly left his works unpublished, took time to edit and publish the Bruised Reed suggests its importance to him. 3 The book, published when he was fifty-three, also offered his mature thought and epitomized his main theological concerns.

Introduction to Sibbes’ Ministry

Baxter’s testimony to the impact of Sibbes’ ministry was similar to many others who expressed a distinct sense of God’s love after hearing him speak or reading his sermons.  A layman, Humphrey Mills, also expressed his relief at hearing Sibbes’ unique message of grace.

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, 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, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above their ears; 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 Sibbs, 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. 4

This gracious quality in Sibbes’ sermons has been seen to be a matter of personal disposition—a warm-hearted pastoral orientation—without offering a distinctive  theology. 5 Sibbes, however, was scarcely such a modest figure, whether as a theologian or as a religious leader.  While he was certainly irenic and politically astute as he engaged the diverse views held by other puritans on the one hand, and preached virtually under William Laud’s nose on the other, he was scarcely a modest or merely derivative theologian.  Rather, he was a persistent but careful advocate of a distinctively affective theology that he recovered and developed from some of the earlier reformers, including Martin Luther and John Calvin. 6  In particular he emphasized the inherent community of the Trinity—Trinitarian theology—rather than follow the more common Reformed emphasis on God’s simplicity and essential unity. 7  This distinctive orientation was translated into an applied theology of sanctification and personal assurance in The Bruised Reed.

In The Bruised Reed Sibbes portrayed God as reaching out to his elect people on the basis of his fatherly love for Christ, in whom the elect are united by the Spirit’s work.  In taking this stance Sibbes also meant to challenge the tendencies toward destructive self-absorption—illustrated by Humphrey Mills’ testimony—that came from examining one’s own behaviors for signs of grace in order to gain assurance of salvation.  This theology of “preparationism” held that a person who is uncertain of his status with God could presume that any significant evidences of godly conduct can be used as evidence that God’s grace is at work in him—something that pointed to a higher likelihood of election.  This moralistic premise was being used rather widely in puritan circles. 8  But it amounted, Sibbes’ charged, to adopting “the fig leaves of morality” as the grounds for assurance.  In a typical strategy of indirect confrontation Sibbes linked this error to the Roman Catholics rather than to his puritan colleagues.  Yet, in case the point was missed, he also warned that such emphases on human-initiated morality offers “[t]oo much respect to man [which is] one of the inlets of popery.” 9

The need for Sibbes to include such nudges pointed to a growing divide among the puritans.  William Erbery (1604-1654), a younger contemporary of Sibbes, saw that divide and held Sibbes to be a leader of the “free-grace” movement—the party of puritans who opposed any idea that grace is conditioned by human cooperation.

I observed four great steps of God’s glorious appearance in men’s preaching.  First, how low and legal were their teachings as they learned the way of preaching from Mr. Perkins, Bolton, Byfield and Dod and Dike . . . .  Next the doctrine of free grace came forth, but with less success or fruit of conversion by Doctor Preston, Sibs [Sibbes], [and] Crisp. . . .  Thirdly the letter of scripture, and flesh of Christ hath been highly set up by both the famous Goodwins: . . . [Thomas] excels in spiritual discourses of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession, yet much according to the flesh, for he meddles not with the mystery of Christ in us. . . . [The fourth step] is the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit. . . . 10

Erbery’s contemporary assessment was accurate.  While Sibbes acknowledged some biblical support in calling Christians to obedience as a duty—Erbery’s category of “low and legal” preaching—Sibbes clearly understood that duty can only be sustained if it is supported by the motivation of desire.  Thus, Sibbes featured God’s winsome love more than his power: the Spirit accomplishes both conversion and sanctification by a single means—through the revelation of God’s attractiveness by an immediate, personal disclosure.  This unmediated initiative was seen to by the means by which God draws a response of heartfelt devotion from the elect.

In this framework some additional theological assumptions were revised.  For instance Sibbes understood grace to be God’s love offered immediately (rather than mediately) by the Spirit to the elect. 11  By identifying grace primarily as a relational characteristic of God—the expression of his goodness—instead of a created quality or an empowerment of the will, Sibbes insisted that God transforms human desires by the Spirit’s immediate love and communion.  Faith, for Sibbes, is not a human act-of-the-will but a response to God’s divine wooing.  God’s laws, Sibbes’ argued, must be “sweetened by the gospel” and offered within a framework of “free grace.” 12  He also held a moderately developed form of affective anthropology. 13

Others after Sibbes became sharper in their views, but he was the senior figure among them and their basic assumptions were the same.  Thus, when Sibbes’ views are placed in the context of debates over nature and grace in his era—including the continued Calvinist-Arminian struggles, the Antinomian Controversy of New England (1636-1638), and the doctrinal upheavals of the English Civil War—Sibbes emerges as a seminal figure among a small but energetic band of puritan ministers who pressed for a more Trinitarian and relational version of Reformed theology. 14

Biographical Notes

Richard Sibbes was born in 1577 to a wheelwright of moderate means in the village of Tostock, England. 15  An able student, Sibbes received the patronage he needed to gain a place at St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1595, where he completed his sequence of Bachelors and Masters degrees in 1602.  He began tutoring as a fellow of St. John’s in 1601 and was soon rewarded with positions of increasing responsibility and status. 16  In 1610 he was granted the Bachelor of Divinity degree and a Doctor of Divinity in 1627. 17  Along with his educational advancements Sibbes’ emerging skills as a preacher flourished when he was appointed Lecturer at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, in 1610 (continuing until 1615), and then in 1617 as preacher at Gray’s Inn—one of the prestigious London Inns of Court.  There he had a significant platform to speak to London’s sympathetic politicians.  The dedication of Sibbes’ Bruised Reed, for instance, was to Sir Henry and Lady Mary Vere. 18  He also took the opportunity to engage with other Puritan ministers in the city to promote their common ambitions.

Sibbes was a moderate Puritan—one who would still conform to the requirements of ecclesiastical uniformity. 19   Yet on two occasions he drew the unhappy attention of William Laud—later Archbishop of Canterbury: once for his part in trying to raise financial support for Protestant refugees in Germany and Bohemia (1627), and a second time for his part in leading a fundraising project to place Puritan preachers in teaching posts—“lectureships”—among parish churches (1632).  Sibbes submitted in both cases and neither event diminished his freedom to minister. 20  In 1626 he was appointed Master of Katharine Hall, Cambridge University, a post he held together with his role as preacher at Gray’s Inn to the end of his life. 21  For more than a decade he shared his unique beliefs from these twin platforms with an impact that is still being measured by Puritan specialists.  Sibbes’ book thus unfolds the substance of his unique insights in early Stuart England.

The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax

The Bruised Reed title came from Matthew 12:20: “A bruised reed shall not he break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.”  Sibbes’ ambition was to lead his readers to a profound assurance of their salvation. 22  He intended to show how God’s “free offer of grace” was able to bring such comfort. 23  In his foreword to the book he took  immediate aim at the “false representations of Christ,” against which he meant to offer the true Christ, “all whose ways to such being ways of mercy, and all his thoughts, thoughts of love.” 24  The distinction of God’s love in Christ as “affectionate” marked a Trinitarian distinction for Sibbes.  William Perkins, whose preaching Sibbes would have heard as a student, offered an alternative view of God by starting with an anthropopathic premise.  That is, the “affections of the creature are not properly incident unto God, because they make many changes, and God is without change.  And therefore all affections and the love that is in man and beast is ascribed to God by figure.” 25  Perkins, then, would preach about God’s love to laymen; but in works meant for scholars—those initially published in Latin—he was careful to define all of God’s works as functions of his self-concerned will.  Sibbes, by contrast, believed that God’s immanent, intratrinitarian communion consisted of an eternally active love.  This love overflowed to the creation as God’s centrifugal self-giving.

The Bruised Reed sermons were gathered, thematically, around the section of Matthew’s gospel (12:15-21) that applied segments of Isaiah 42 and 43 to the ministry of Jesus.  The narrative of the gospel engaged two features of the messianic servant from the Isaiah text: a) Jesus refused to draw attention to himself, and b) he was sensitive to the fragile spiritual state of his followers: “A bruised reed he shall not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.” 26  It was the second point that Sibbes pressed home as the main thrust of his sermons concerning Christ: “He is a physician good at all diseases, especially at the binding up of a broken heart . . . .” 27  The problem of sin and God’s solution to sin, Sibbes regularly proclaimed, are both matters of the heart.  The solution to sin is a believer’s entry into God’s eternal love for Christ through the real but mystical union of Christ to the church, his body.  His consciously Trinitarian framework ensured God’s love for his saints, not on the basis of their behaviors, nor strictly on juridical grounds, but in a relationship motivated by filial affection:

And what a comfort is this, that seeing God’s love rests on Christ, as well pleased in him, we may gather that he is as well pleased with us, if we be in Christ!  For his love rests in whole Christ, in Christ mystical, as well as Christ natural, because he loves him and us with one love.  Let us, therefore, embrace Christ, and in him God’s love, and build our faith safely on such a Saviour, that is furnished with so high a commission.  See here, for our comfort, a sweet agreement of all three persons: the Father gives a commission to Christ; the Spirit furnishes and sanctifies to it; Christ himself executes the office of a Mediator.  Our redemption is founded upon the joint agreement of all three persons of the Trinity. 28

Three themes emerge in The Bruised Reed.  Sibbes began with a call for moderation in applying the moral demands of the Bible on young Christians and nonbelievers.  Most parishioners, he believed, were already insecure enough about their standing with God!  Ministers, instead, should point to God’s attractiveness.  The second theme followed logically from the first.  Since God’s plan is to redeem people by his own working, not by their efforts, the role of the Spirit in the Covenant of Grace needed to be unfolded.  The final movement explored the nature of life lived under Christ’s rule and with the Spirit’s presence—what Sibbes called Christ’s “government” of the soul.

Bruising souls for conversion

The first nine chapters of the book unfold the sources and meaning of what it means to be a “bruised reed” and “smoking flax.”  Sibbes began by acknowledging the premise, shared by most of his puritan colleagues, that God uses the moral laws of the Bible to illuminate human immorality.  Thus, the moral grief felt by Humphrey Mills, noted already, would not have been uncommon.  Mills’ three years of feeling “wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions” represented the bruising felt by many parishioners as their preachers pounded home the demands of God’s holiness. 29  Where Sibbes differed from many colleagues, however, is in his disease-and-cure solution.  The solution to an unholy heart is the good news of the gospel rather than “the fig leaves of morality.”  His implicit audience at many points of this section would have been his ministerial colleagues.  Without naming names, Sibbes made it clear that he knew not all would agree with him.

Profane spirits, ignorant of God’s ways in bringing his children to heaven, censure broken-hearted Christians [as] desperate persons, whenas God is about a gracious work with them.  It is no easy matter to bring a man from nature to grace, and from grace to glory, so unyielding and untractable are our hearts. 30

The challenge is to find a balance between confronting sin and offering the comfort of promised mercy: to “preserve just bounds of mercy and severity” which is only achieved by having “a spirit above our own.” 31  It was the parish pastor who bore the burden of bruising saints—and prospective saints—by using the law to call for godly obedience.  But where should a minister look to find the Spirit’s just bounds in the work of confronting sin?  Sibbes looked to Christ and his original choice of leaders to build the church.  Mercy was his measure.  “Christ chose those to preach mercy, which had felt most mercy, as St Peter and St Paul; that they might be examples of what they taught.”  And even Christ himself came to earth, emptying himself of majesty “in tender love to souls.”  Thus, Sibbes insisted, it is incumbent on ministers to show similar humility and care: “Shall man be proud after God hath been humble?”  Failure to apply this truth would be to engage in the proselytizing efforts of the “ministers of Satan” and to be like the Jesuits. 32  Indeed, the perceived misuse of the moral law by Roman Catholics gave Sibbes one of his sharpest rhetorical points in warning overly-moralistic puritans.

Those fiery, tempestuous, and destructive spirits in popery, that seek to promote their religion by cruelty, show that they are strangers to that wisdom which is from above, which makes men gentle, peaceable, and ready to show that mercy [which] they have felt before themselves. 33

His point was not to avoid confronting sin, including the generic “looseness of life” which “is cruelty to ourselves, and to the souls of others,” but to avoid damaging other believers “by hasty censures, especially in things of an indifferent nature.”  The question of motives, more than behaviors, was crucial both in confronting the sin and in offering restoration.  Sibbes’ advice was that love should cover leaders like a “mantle” when making judgments on “lesser errors.” 34  The proper analogy for ministry is a “common hospital,” with believers considering “what affection Christ” the “great physician” would apply to the spiritual disease being addressed.  Thus, Sibbes believed, the law may be used to display and confront sin, but the basic motive of ministry must be Christ’s love and mercy being used to draw—rather than to coerce by threats or force—bruised souls to embrace holiness.

A Spirit-centered covenant of grace

In chapters ten through seventeen Sibbes offered the covenantal structure of his affective vision of faith, as well as some advice on how to be assured of God’s saving work.  His covenantal language sounded similar to the emerging federal theology of his day if treated superficially.  The federal model, suggested in the Golden Chaine of William Perkins, and later developed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, held that God offers two fundamental covenants, one of works and another of grace.  Where Adam failed to maintain the covenant of works, Christ succeeded.  Those who recognized their own Adamic failure to achieve righteousness through works and who took Christ in faith were given a better covenant in Christ, the covenant of grace.  These parallel covenants were held to be in operation from Adam onward, with a proleptic certainty from Adam to the coming of Christ that the guilt of sin would be cared for; and after the cross all believers could look back to the cross for their confidence.

Sibbes used the language of two covenants in The Bruised Reed—one of works and the other of grace—but he actually adopted Luther’s polarity between the two chronological covenants of the Bible.  That is, he held the Mosaic law of the Old Testament to be a covenant of works because of its conditional features.  By contrast the coming of Christ and the Spirit brought a new era.  Thus a believer must know how to distinguish “between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, between Moses and Christ . . . .” 35  And all those who were saved in the Old Testament era were saved not by works but by transformed hearts, a change that reflected an “evangelical mitigation.” 36  The fundamental requirement of both covenants is the same—the Shema call to love God in Deuteronomy 6:5.  But in the Mosaic era it “must be taken in the rigour” that is, by human effort; while under grace it becomes “delightful to the inner man . . . .” 37

In distinguishing the two covenants Sibbes warned that it is the error of the Roman church to collapse the Mosaic law and the Gospel of Christ’s grace into one covenant.  Sibbes’ Law-Gospel polarity was, in fact, much more Lutheran than Reformed—which helps account for the charges by John Cotton and others of Sibbes’ offspring in the New England Antinomian debate that their opponents had, indeed, collapsed the two covenants into one.

The pastoral benefits of the Covenant of Grace were unfolded throughout this section of The Bruised Reed.  Because the “duty” to love God is actually kindled in the soul by the gracious presence of the Spirit, a believer could relax with the assurance that their appetite for spiritual matters would grow because “holy truths are conveyed by way of a taste” and “Grace alters the relish.”  Or, in a separate analogy, just as fire carries sparks upward, “so the Spirit of Grace carries the soul heavenward.” 38  The latter analogy captured the second phrase of Sibbes’ title “and Smoking Flax” that he believed to be God’s assurance to weak Christians that even the faintest desire for God displayed a work of his grace in them—promising to take believers beyond the stage of merely smoking into the status of the fully enflamed.

Christ’s government of the soul

In the final section of The Bruised Reed, chapters eighteen to twenty-eight, Sibbes invited readers to a vision of life under Christ’s “government.”  This unveiled the main assumptions of Sibbes’ spiritual anthropology which, in turn, represented the most distinctive features of his applied theology.  Some context is needed to understand how his approach set him apart from many of his puritan colleagues.

While Sibbes was a student at Cambridge, William Perkins was answering the question of how God reaches humanity—the relation of grace to nature—by reengaging Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century cooperative approach to salvation. 39  Aquinas, with Aristotle, believed that morality is determined by the will, so that virtue is gained by making the virtuous choice.  In its Christian expression the human will must be engaged in a saving choice to believe.  But Aquinas also held, with Augustine, that the will is crippled by sin.  Aquinas’s solution was to synthesize the moral axiom of Aristotle and Augustine’s axiom of disability: God places a newly created gift of grace in the souls of the elect that enables the will to operate once again.  By this means of gracious enablement the will receives the necessary power to embrace salvation by an act of faith.  This enabling “habit of grace” allowed a person to make the saving decision, a decision God crowned with merit.

This cooperative scheme featured the human and divine wills working together, with the mind using information offered by God.  When the will has a set of options set before it, its challenge is to overcome distracting affections.  The greater the power of the properly-informed will, the greater its ability to defeat faulty passions.  The act of believing is thus the premier work of the will, and is only accomplished by the prevenient enabling grace God had provided.

Sibbes’ anthropology, by contrast, held that the mind and will are merely instruments of the affections.  This offered the compatibilistic solution to the question of how nature and grace are engaged in conversion: God works through the affections of the elect, drawing them to share his values by transforming their hearts.  The fallen will, then, is not disabled and in need of more power, but disaffected—morally opposed to God’s rule because of distorted passions—and thus in need of God’s love.  In salvation the Spirit comes to the elect to disclose God’s love to them which then moves their wills to embrace God’s ways.

Christ and we are of one judgment, and of one will.  He hath his will in us; and his judgments are so invested into us, as that they are turned into our judgment, we carrying “his law in our hearts, written by his Spirit,” Jer. 31:33. 40

If the believer’s “affections and duty” decline, the solution is “to warm ourselves at this fire of his love and mercy in giving himself for us.” 41  But even in this apparent initiative of the believer it is actually the Spirit’s work by which “he draws us strongly” and must “subdue our hearts, and sanctify them to love him, without which all motives would be ineffectual.” 42

This assertiveness by the Spirit was critical to Sibbes’ concept of Christ’s spiritual government, reflecting his Spirit-Christicism—a belief that Christ, in his humanity, relied on the Spirit for his own spiritual conduct.  The kenotic emptying of his divine power represented Christ’s purpose to demonstrate to all believers how life in the Spirit is accomplished.  The common reliance of both Christ and his body on the Spirit’s presence and guidance in their daily conduct served as their bond of union—making the language of “one body” more than a metaphor.

Yet for believers, unlike Christ, the need for the Spirit’s immediate work is based, prior to grace, on a fundamental disaffection: “God finds nothing in us but enmity” which then must be transformed. 43  Thus Sibbes looked for the Spirit to function as an active presence in believers’ lives—“The same Spirit that enlightens the mind, inspires gracious inclinations into the will and affections, and infuses strength into the whole man.” 44  Judgments are thus born of a “soft and pliable heart” rather than vice versa:

For without a work upon the heart by the Spirit of God, it will follow its own inclination to that which it affects. . . .  For the heart unaltered will not give [freedom] to the judgment coldly and soberly to conclude what is best . . . .  Judgment hath not power over itself where the will is unsubdued, for the will and affections bribe it to give sentence for them . . . . 45

Thus, it is only in union with Christ, through the transforming work of his Spirit that “Christ prevails” and then “he backs his own graces in us.”  Sibbes treats this relational theology of grace as a virtual formula: “Grace conquers us first, and we by it conquer all things else; whether it be corruptions within us, or temptations without us.”  By this “government of Christ’s Spirit . . . our wills are brought to his will.” 46


In the penultimate paragraph of The Bruised Reed Sibbes recalled Luther’s role as God’s man by whom he “kindled that fire by which all the world shall never be able to quench.” 47  The parallels between Luther’s views and those held by Sibbes are intriguing—including the polarity of law and grace, an affective anthropology, and a strong emphasis on the Spirit’s immediate work in believers.  It points to Sibbes’ role in offering a bold but irenic counterpoint to the moralistic puritanism of his era.  He perceived a shift within the English Protestant Reformation away from its roots in the century since Luther shook the world.  In particular, Sibbes resisted the themes of cooperative theology that were emerging in federal theology.  His goals, however, were mainly pastoral—seeking to free his listeners from what he saw as a bruising use of the law in his day.  The message of the gospel is freedom, the freedom and assurance of being loved by God while being unlovely.  His ambitions in the Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax were well-summarized in the final sentence of the work in which he called upon Christ “to let the prevailing power of his Spirit in us be an evidence of the truth of grace begun, and the pledge of final victory, at that time when he will be all in all, in all his, for all eternity.  Amen.  Finis.” 48

This essay is chapter 5 of The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics by Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason. © 2004 by Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426.


1. Grosart’s “Memoir” in Works of Richard Sibbes, 7 vols., Alexander B. Grosart, ed., (Edinburgh, 1862-1864; reprint ed., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1973-1982), 1:xix.  Grosart’s edition is very reliable and serves as the standard source for Sibbes’ studies.

2. Baxter, Reliquiæ Baxterianæ, pp. 8, 4, lib. i., pt. 1, 1696, folio.  Cited by Grosart, “Memoir of Richard Sibbes, D.D.” in Sibbes, Works, 1:xxi.

3. He notes in his forward (“To the General Reader”) that he was aware of a plan for the works to be published by an auditor—not an uncommon activity in his day—thus he wanted to defend the work by offering a reliable edition and to include “some fresh thoughts.” Sibbes, Works, 1:38.  The dates for the sermons are unknown, thus this relative sense of urgency to preclude publication of an unauthorized version is taken to be adequate evidence that the sermons had been preached within a year or so of the 1630 publication.  The great majority of Sibbes’ sermons were published by friends soon after he died.  The works published in Sibbes’ lifetime constitute just part of the first volume of Grosart’s seven-volume edition.

4. John Rogers, Ohel or Bethshemesh, A Tabernacle for the Sun (London, 1653), 410; this work is a collection of puritan testimonials.  The particular sermons that affected Mills are not cited in the testimony.

5. E.g. Mark Dever, Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2000), ch. vi.  Dever, evaluates Sibbes’ works by finding excerpts that affirm certain touchstone Reformed doctrines and endorses Sibbes as “one of the last of the great Reformed preachers in England” (134).  The reader is left to infer that Sibbes was merely a subsidiary rather than a seminal theologian.  For an alternative interpretation that informs this chapter, see R. N. Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of London, 1997).

6. Frost, “Richard Sibbes,” 50-58.

7. Cf. Amy Plantinga Pauw, The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) who discusses a) Jonathan Edwards’ substantial engagement of Sibbes’ Trinitarian and affective theology, and b)—as a separate discussion—Edwards’ mere affirmation of God’s simplicity and his strong development of God’s Trinitarian nature (or, in Edwards’ neologism: “Triplicity”).

8. Sibbes’ heart-based anthropology, discussed later in the chapter, presumed a place for human spiritual initiatives as the fruit of supernaturally-transformed affections; and thus allowed for self-assessments of one’s own affections—but not the behaviors—as grounds for assurance.  This critical distinction has been missed by historians who have traced the doctrine of preparation among puritans; e.g. R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), and Norman Pettit, The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life (2nd ed., Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1989; first published 1966).

9. Works, 1.44 & 53; cp. 55 & 59.

10. William Erbery, The Testimony of William Erbery (London, 1658), pp. 67-69; cited in Stanley P. Fienberg, “Thomas Goodwin’s Scriptural Hermeneutics and the Dissolution of Puritan Unity”, Journal of Religious History 10 (June 1978): 36.

11. E.g. Geoffrey Nuttall, The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992; first published 1946), 14, for Sibbes’ role in promoting the Spirit.  Additionally, a number of recent studies have pointed to Sibbes’ role in leading a more affective theology that challenged the “intellectual” or “moralist” theology of William Perkins and William Ames.  These studies share a common starting point, namely the explosion of the Antinomian Controversy under John Cotton, who represented Sibbes’ views.  See, for instance, Michael Schuldiner, Gifts and Works: The Post-Conversion Paradigm and Spiritual Controversy in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1991); Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter Between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995); Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994); Frost, “Richard Sibbes.”

12. Sibbes, Works, 1.59 & 39.

13. Augustine’s affective position emerged in the Pelagian debate.  Augustine held sin to be concupiscence of the heart—an enslavement to a love of self rather than God.  In Augustine’s anthropology the heart is held to generate values; the mind uses the heart’s values to consider its options and to offer its best judgments; the will uses those judgments to engage in action.  Sibbes’ familiarity with Augustine’s views is evident in the Bruised Reed, including at least four citations or allusions to the Latin Father (57, 58, 68 & 70).  For a summary of this tradition see R. N. Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?”, Trinity Journal 18 NS (1997): 223-241.

14. Sibbes was linked to the Antinomian Controversy, for instance, through John Cotton who had been converted under Sibbes’ preaching. Both men defined saving grace in relational terms—as the believer’s response to God’s love disclosed to the elect through Scripture, by the Spirit. See David D. Hall, The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1968).

15. For a critical summary of Sibbes’ biographical data, see Dever, Richard Sibbes, ch. 1.  A contemporary memoir by Zachary Catlin is available in Sibbes’ Works, 1.cxxxiii-cxli, appended to the editor, A. B. Grosart’s nineteenth-century biographical summary, xix f.

16. See Dever, Richard Sibbes, 30-33.  Sibbes was elected both Senior Dean and Lector Domesticus of the college in 1615.  In 1619, after Sibbes had begun spending substantial time at his new post at Gray’s Inn, he was made a senior fellow at Cambridge—a position of primary leadership, along with the other senior fellows, under the master of the college.  This, no doubt, set him up for his later selection as Master of Katharine Hall.

17. Dever, Richard Sibbes, 37; Grosart’s “Memoir,” Works, cxi.

18. Sir Henry Vere served in the Army for King James in the Bohemian campaign (1622-23) and was the first peer created by Charles I.  Works, 85 (notes).

19. Mark E. Dever, “Moderation and Deprivation: A Reappraisal of Richard Sibbes,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 43 (1992): 396-413.

20. On both occasions Sibbes was called to testify before the High Commission which led to a reprimand in the first case, and a dissolution of the fundraising organization, confiscation of its funds, with threats of banishment in the second.  However no further consequences can be traced in Sibbes’ career, something Grosart attributed the political shelter provided by Sibbes’ powerful friends at court. See Grosart, “Memoir,” Works, 1.lx-lxxv.

21. Grosart notes that a variance would have been necessary for Sibbes’ to retain both posts.  The arrangement points to Sibbes’ high standing at both the University and Grays Inn. Grosart, “Memoir,” Works, 1.xlviii-xlix.

22. Michael P. Winship, Making Heretics: Militant Protestantism and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1636-1641 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), miscasts Sibbes’ view of assurance by suggesting that Sibbes believed “the immediate witness of the Spirit [was] . . . a rare and special experience and a supplement to the assurance derived from faith and sanctification” (36).  Sibbes’ pneumatology and spiritual anthropology were actually very distinct from assurance-by-sanctification views held by William Perkins and others (contra Winship’s assertion, 16-17).  Sibbes’ optimistic version of assurance relied on the Spirit’s continuing disclosures of his love which then elicit responsive affections from the saint.  Transformed affections then generate transformed behaviors.

23. Sibbes, “To the General Reader,” Works, 1.39.  Most spellings are modernized.

24. Works, 1.38.

25. William Perkins, The Workes of . . . William Perkins, 3 vols. (London, 1626), 1.742.  See Frost, “Richard Sibbes,” 61; cf. Bryan D. Spinks, Two Faces of Elizabethan Anglican Theology: Sacraments and Salvation in the Thought of William Perkins and Richard Hooker (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1999), 58-59.

26. Matthew 12:20; Works, 1.42.

27. Works, 1.45.

28. Works, 1.42-43.

29. See Paul S. Seaver, Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985).  This study reveals the moral distress felt by at least one puritan layman in Sibbes’ era.

30. Works, 1.44-45.

31. Works, 1.55.

32. Works, 1.54.

33. Works, 1.55.

34. Works, 1.56.

35. Works, 1.58.

36. Works, 1.59.

37. Works, 1.59.

38. Works, 1.60 & 62.

39. Perkins, in constructing his theology, drew heavily from Geneva, especially incorporating Theodore Beza’s theological and anthropological synthesis in his own work.  See Strehle, Catholic Roots, for a detailed assessment of the Protestant use of the late medieval voluntarist tradition to describe the working of salvation.  Also, Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Durham: Labyrinth, 1986).

40. Works, 1.78.

41. Works, 1.79.

42. Works, 1.80.

43. Works, 1.82.

44. Works, 1.82.

45. Works, 1.83.

46. Works, 1.87.

47. Works, 1.100.

48. Works, 1.101.

Ron Frost

Ron Frost

Ronald N. Frost is a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International and a mentor for Cor Deo.
Ron Frost

Ron Frost

Ronald N. Frost is a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International and a mentor for Cor Deo.