Pillar Journal

Richard Sibbes: Sweet Mercy and Bruised Reeds

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) was a kindhearted Puritan known for the sweetness of his writings.

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) was a kindhearted Puritan known for the sweetness of his writings. He was converted through the ministry of Paul Baynes, Perkins’s successor at Cambridge. He trained many preachers and cultivated a remarkable network of friendships with ministers and political figures. His classic book on repentance, The Bruised Reed, was so popular that it went through six editions between 1630 and 1638.1Dever, Richard Sibbes, 228. In that work Sibbes said that God’s people are all “bruised reeds” prior to conversion (cf. Isa. 42:3), except for those saved in childhood, “yet in different degrees, as God seeth meet; and as difference is in regard of temper, parts, manner of life.”2Richard Sibbes, The Brvised Reede and Smoaking Flax, 3rd ed. (London: by M. F. for R. Dawlman, 1631), 10.

This bruising, which Christ described as being “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), refers to a sense of heinousness of our sins against God, mingled with desire for Christ and a “spark of hope.”3Sibbes, The Brvised Reede and Smoaking Flax, 11–12. Affliction itself does not bring sinners to sorrow for sin, rather, they are “brought to see their sin…when conscience is under the guilt of sin.”4Sibbes, The Brvised Reede and Smoaking Flax, 30. Sibbes wrote, “Our hearts (like malefactors) until they be beaten from all shifts, never cry for the mercy of the Judge. Again, this bruising maketh us set a high price upon Christ, the gospel is the gospel indeed then, then the fig-leaves of morality will do us no good.”5Sibbes, The Brvised Reede and Smoaking Flax, 14. Thus a sound and lasting conversion to Christ requires “the lash of the law.”6Sibbes, The Brvised Reede and Smoaking Flax, 15.

Pettit says that of all the “preparationists,” Sibbes was “by far the most extreme in terms of the abilities he assigned to natural man.”7Pettit, The Heart Prepared, 73. Similarly, Bruce Elliott says, “Sibbes has gone beyond anything that Calvin or Perkins would have come out and stated.” He says this is a sign of “seismic shifts” with massive implications for “the theoretical foundations of the Puritan movement.”8Bruce S. Elliott, “The Wrights of Salvation: Craft and Conversion among 17th Century English Puritans” (PhD Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2001), 156–57.

Yet Sibbes himself said, “This bruising is required before conversion, so that the Spirit may make way for itself into the heart, by leveling all proud high thoughts.”9Sibbes, The Brvised Reede and Smoaking Flax, 13. Thus preparation is not our hearts opening themselves by our own power to let the Spirit enter, but rather, the Spirit opening our hearts by His power so that He may come in. Sibbes viewed bruising as both “a state into which God bringeth us” and “a duty to be performed by us.” Sibbes said, “when he humbles us, let us humble ourselves.”10Sibbes, The Brvised Reede and Smoaking Flax, 33. He wrote,

We must lay siege to the hardness of our own hearts, and aggravate sin all we can: we must look on Christ, who was bruised for us, look on him whom we have pierced with our sins. But all directions will not prevail, unless God by his Spirit convinceth us deeply, setting our sins before us, and driving us to a stand. Then we will make out for mercy. Conviction will breed contrition, and this humiliation.11Sibbes, The Brvised Reede and Smoaking Flax, 34–35.

Though painful, bruising is a labor of love, like the lancing and cutting of a surgeon intent on healing, Sibbes said.12Sibbes, The Brvised Reede and Smoaking Flax, 19. Christ bruises but does not destroy the elect sinner: “Christ his course is first to wound, then to heal.”13Sibbes, The Brvised Reede and Smoaking Flax, 27. This view is far removed from legalism or Pelagianism; it says that sovereign grace must stir the hearts of sinners to sense their need of salvation and act accordingly.14Paul R. Schaefer, Jr., The Spiritual Brotherhood: Cambridge Puritans and the Nature of Christian Piety (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 205–17. In a manner that anticipates Jonathan Edwards more than a century later, Sibbes urged those not yet in a state of grace to “seek” and “strive” after salvation.15Beck, “Gratia Praeparans in the Soteriology of Richard Sibbes,” 180–84.

Sibbes’s clearest teaching on preparation for saving faith may be in his sermon, “Lydia’s Conversion.”16Dever, Richard Sibbes, 126. Beck, “Gratia Praeparans in the Soteriology of Richard Sibbes,” 162. The conversion of Lydia, briefly noted in Acts 16:13–14, was the subject of a number of Puritan sermons.17For different Puritan perspectives on Lydia, see Charles L. Cohen, “Two Biblical Models of Conversion: An Example of Puritan Hermeneutics,” Church History 58, no. 2 (June 1989): 186–91. Noting that Lydia worshiped God prior to her conversion, Sibbes made the following points about the work of preparation:

  • This preparation is God’s usual way of bringing adult sinners to conversion. “It is true God usually prepares those that he means to convert, as we plough before we sow. We do not sow among thorns; and we dig deep to lay a foundation.”
  • This preparation is necessary. “There is such a distance between the nature and corruption of man and grace, that there must be a great deal of preparation, many degrees to rise by before a man comes to that condition he should be in.”
  • This preparation is divine grace before salvation to prepare for more divine grace unto salvation. “All preparations are from God. We cannot prepare ourselves, or deserve future things by our preparations; for the preparations themselves are of God.”
  • This preparation has no merit or power to effect conversion. “We grant no force of a meritorious cause in preparations to produce such an effect as conversion is. No. Only preparation is to remove the hindrances, and to fit the soul for conversion.”
  • This preparation does not make a soul good enough to be saved; rather, preparation makes Christ precious enough to move the soul to pursue Him as its treasure. Preparation is sufficient when “the soul is so far cast down as it sets a high price on Christ, and on grace, above all things in the world.”
  • This preparation first breaks the “natural rudeness and fierceness” of a man (Job 11:12) and “civilizeth people,” and, second, casts them down by “a work of the law.18“Lydia’s Conversion,” in The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1863), 6:522–23.

Though Sibbes did not say so here, one can infer that the concept of preparation civilizing people contributed to Puritan views on child-rearing and mission work among people such as the Native Americans.

Sibbes was known as “the sweet dropper.” One man said after his death, “Heaven was in him before he was in heaven.” Yet Sibbes also taught that God prepares the soul for faith in Christ by bruising us in regard to our sins. The doctrine of preparation did not arise out of cruel or emotionless spirits; it was taught by loving men who delighted in the saving work of Christ.

Excerpt from
Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ
Joel Beeke & Paul Smalley