Christ's Wise Government

by Richard Sibbes

"A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory." (Matt 12:20)

The second conclusion from the final part of the text is that Christ's government in his church and in his children is a wise and well ordered government because it is called judgment, and judgment is the life and soul of wisdom. Of this conclusion there are two branches: first, that the spiritual government of Christ in us is joined with judgment and wisdom, and secondly, wherever true spiritual wisdom and judgment are, there likewise the Spirit of Christ has brought in his gracious government.

As to the first, a well guided life by the rules of Christ stands with the strongest and highest reason of all; and therefore holy men are called `wisdom's children' (Luke 7:35), and are able to justify, both by reason and experience, all the ways of wisdom. Opposite courses are folly and madness. Hereupon Paul says that `he that is spiritual judgeth all things' (1 Cor. 2:15) that appertain to him, and is judged of none that are of an inferior rank, because they lack spiritual light and sight to judge. Yet this sort of men will judge and `speak evil of the things that they understand not' (2 Pet. 2:12); they step from ignorance to prejudice and rash censure, without taking right judgment in their way, and therefore their judgment comes to nothing. But the judgment of a spiritual man, so far as he is spiritual, shall stand, because it is agreeable to the nature of things. As things are in themselves, so they are in his judgment. As God is in himself infinite in goodness and majesty, so he is to him. He ascribes to God in his heart his divinity and all his excellencies. As Christ is in himself the only Mediator, and all in all in the church (Col. 3:11), so he is to him, by making Christ so in his heart. As all things are dung in comparison with Christ (Phil. 3:8), so they are to Paul, a sanctified man. As the very worst thing in religion, `the reproach of Christ', is better than `the pleasures of sin for a season' (Heb. 11:25 26), so it is to Moses, a man of a right esteem. As one day in the courts of God is better than a thousand elsewhere (Psa. 84:10), so it is to David, a man of a reformed judgment. There is a conformity of a good man's judgment to things as they are in themselves, and according to the difference or agreement put by God in things, so does his judgment differ or agree.

Truth is truth, and error, error, and that which is unlawful is unlawful, whether men think so or not. God has put an eternal difference between light and darkness, good and ill, which no creature's conceit can alter; and therefore no man's judgment is the measure of things further than it agrees to truth stamped upon things themselves by God. For this reason, because a wise man's judgment agrees to the truth of things, a wise man may in some sense be said to be the measure of things, and the judgment of one holy wise man to be preferred before a thousand others. Such men usually are immovable as the sun in its course, because they think, and speak and live by rule. A Joshua and his house will serve God (josh. 24:15), whatsoever others do, and will run a course contrary to the world, because their judgments lead them a contrary way. Hence it is that Satan has a spite at the eye of the soul, the judgment, to put it out by ignorance and false reason, for he cannot rule in any until either he has taken away or perverted judgment. He is a prince of darkness, and rules in darkness of the understanding. Therefore he must first be cast out of the understanding by the prevailing of truth and planting of it in the soul. Those, therefore, that are enemies of knowledge help Satan and antichrist, whose kingdom, like Satan's, is a kingdom of darkness, to erect their throne. Hence it is promised by Christ, that the Holy Ghost shall convince the world of righteousness or judgment (John 16:8); that is, that he is resolved to set up a throne of government, because the great lord of misrule, Satan, `the prince of this world', is judged by the gospel, and the Spirit accompanying it. His impostures are discovered, his enterprises laid open. Therefore when the gospel was spread the oracles ceased, Satan fell from heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18). Men were translated out of his kingdom into Christ's. Where prevailing is by lies, discovery is victory: `they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men' (2 Tim. 3:9). So that manifestation of error gives a stop to it, for none will willingly be deceived. Let truth have full scope without check or restraint, and let Satan and his instruments do their worst, they shall not prevail, as Jerome says of the Pelagians in his time: `The discovery of your opinions is the vanquishing of them, your blasphemies appear at the first blush."

Hence we learn the necessity that the understanding should be grounded in knowledge which is above nature. 1 Jerome (c.347 419) in his Epistle to Ctesiphon for a well ordered Christian life. There must be light to discover an end beyond nature, because of which we are Christians, and a rule suitable to direct to that end, which is the will of God in Christ, discovering his good pleasure toward us, and our duty towards him. And in virtue of this discovery we do all that we do which may in any way further what we reckon to be true. The eye must first be single, and then the whole body and frame of our conduct will be light (Matt. 6:22); otherwise both we and our course of life are nothing but darkness. The whole conduct of a Christian is nothing else but knowledge reduced to will, affection and practice. If the digestion of food in the stomach is not good, the working of the liver cannot be good; so if there is error in the judgment it mars the whole of practice, as an error in the foundation does a building. God will have no blind sacrifices, no unreasonable services (Isa. 1:13), but will have us to love him with all our mind (Rom. 12:2), that is, with our understanding part, as well as with all our hearts (Luke 10:27), that is, the feeling part of the soul.

This ordering of Christ's government by judgment is agreeable to the soul, and God delights to preserve the manner of working peculiar to man, that is, to do what he does out of judgment. As grace supposes nature, as founded upon it, so the frame of grace preserves the frame of nature in man. And, therefore Christ brings about all that is good in the soul through judgment, and that so sweetly that many, by a dangerous error, think that that good which is in them and issues from them is from themselves, and not from the powerful work of grace. So it is in evil, where the devil so subtly leads us according to the stream of our own nature that men think that Satan had no hand in their sin; but here a mistake is with little peril, because we are evil of ourselves, and the devil only promotes ill he finds in us. But there are no seeds of supernatural goodness at all in us. God finds nothing in us but enmity, only he has engraved in our nature an inclination in general to that which we judge to be good. Now when he clearly reveals what is good in particular, we are attracted to it; and when he shows us convincingly what is evil we abhor it as freely as we embraced it before.

From this we may know whether we work as we should do or not. That is, when we do what we do out of inward principles, when we do not choose what is good only because we were so brought up, or because such and such whom we respect do so, or because we will maintain a side, so making religion a faction; but out of judgment, when what we do that is good we first judge in ourselves so to be; and what we abstain from that is ill we first judge to be ill from an inward judgment. A sound Christian, as he enjoys the better part, so has he first made choice of it with Mary (Luke 10:42). He establishes every purpose by counsel (Prov. 20:18). God, indeed, uses carnal men to very good service, but without a thorough altering and conviction of their judgment. He works by them, but not in them. Therefore they do neither approve the good they do nor hate the evil they abstain from.

The second branch of this conclusion is that, wherever true wisdom and judgment are, there Christ has set up his government, because where wisdom is it directs us, not only to understand, but to order our ways aright. Where Christ as a prophet teaches by his Spirit, he likewise as a king subdues the heart by his Spirit to obedience to what is taught. This is that teaching which is promised of God, when not only the brain but the heart itself is taught; when men do not only know what they should do but are taught the very doing of it. They are not only taught that they should love, fear and obey, but they are taught love itself, and fear and obedience themselves. Christ sets up his throne in the very heart and alters its direction, so making his subjects good, together with teaching them to be good. Other princes can make good laws, but they cannot write them in their people's hearts (Jer. 31:33). This is Christ's prerogative: he infuses into his subjects his own Spirit. Upon him there does not only rest the spirit of wisdom and understanding, but likewise the spirit of the fear of the Lord (Isa. 11:2). The knowledge which we have of him from himself is a transforming knowledge (2 Cor. 3:18). The same Spirit who enlightens the mind inspires gracious inclinations into the will and affections and infuses strength into the whole man. As a gracious man judges as he should, so he inclines to and does as he judges. His life is a commentary on his inward man. There is a sweet harmony among God's truth, his judgment, and his whole conversation.

The heart of a Christian is like Jerusalem when it was at its best, a city compact within itself (Psa. 122:3), where are set up the thrones of judgment (Psa. 122:5). Judgment should have a throne in the heart of every Christian. Not that judgment alone will work a change. There must be grace to alter the bent and sway of the will before it will yield to be wrought upon by the understanding. But God has so joined these together that whenever he savingly shines on the understanding he gives a soft and pliable heart. For without a work upon the heart by the Spirit of God it will follow its own inclination to that which it loves, whatever the judgment shall say to the contrary. There is no natural proportion between an unsanctified heart and a sanctified judgment. For the unaltered heart will not give leave to the judgment coldly and soberly to conclude what is best, as a sick man, whilst his feverish illness corrupts his taste, is rather desirous to please that than to hearken to what the physician may say. Judgment has no power over itself where the will is unsubdued, for the will and affections bribe it to give sentence for them, when any profit or pleasure shall come in competition with that which the judgment only shall in general think to be good. And therefore it is, for the most part, in the power of the heart what the understanding shall judge and determine in particular things. Where grace has subdued the heart, unruly passions do not cast such a mist before the understanding that it does not see in particular cases what is best. Base considerations, springing from self love, do not alter the case and bias the judgment into a contrary way; but that which is good in itself shall be good to us, although it crosses our particular worldly interests.

The right understanding of this has an influence on practice, which has drawn me to a more full explanation. This will teach us the right method of godliness: to begin with judgment, and then to beg of God, together with illumination, holy inclinations of our will and affections, that so a perfect government may be set up in our hearts, and that our knowledge may be `in all judgment' (Phil. 1:9), that is, with experience and feeling. When the judgment of Christ is set up in our judgments, and thence, by the Spirit of Christ, brought into our hearts, then it is in its proper place and throne. Until then, truth does us no good, but helps to condemn us. The life of a Christian is a regular life, and he that walks by the rule (Gal. 6:16) of the new creature, peace shall be upon him. He that despises God's way and loves to live at large, seeking all liberty to the flesh, shall die (Prov. 19:16). And it is made good by Paul, `If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die' (Rom. 8:13).

We learn likewise that men of an ill governed life have no true judgment. No wicked man can be a wise man. Without Christ's Spirit the soul is in confusion, without beauty and form, as all things were in the chaos before the creation. The whole soul is out of joint till it be set right again by him whose office is to `restore all things'. The baser part of the soul, which should be subject, rules all and subdues what little truth is in the understanding, holding it captive to base affections. And Satan by corruption gets all the holds of the soul, till Christ, stronger than he, comes and drives him out, taking possession of all the powers and parts of soul and body to be weapons of righteousness, to serve him. Then it becomes true, `New lords, new laws'. Christ as a new conqueror changes the fundamental laws of old Adam and establishes a government of his own.


From, The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes

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