Richard Sibbes

Excerpt from Meet the Puritans
by Dr. Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson

Richard Sibbes was born in 1577 at Tostock, Suffolk, in the Puritan county of old England. He was baptized in the parish church in Thurston, and went to school there. As a child, he loved books. His father, Paul Sibbes, a hardworking wheelwright and, according to Zachary Catlin, a contemporary biographer of Sibbes, was “a good, sound-hearted Christian,” but became irritated with his son’s interest in books. He tried to cure his son of book-buying by offering him wheelwright tools, but the boy was not dissuaded. With the support of others, Sibbes was admitted to St. John’s College in Cambridge at the age of eighteen. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1599, a fellowship in 1601, and a Master of Arts degree in 1602. In 1603, he was converted under the preaching of Paul Baynes, whom Sibbes called his “father in the gospel.” Baynes, remembered most for his commentary on Ephesians, succeeded William Perkins at the Church of St. Andrews in Cambridge.

Sibbes was ordained to the ministry in the Church of England in Norwich in 1608. He was chosen as one of the college preachers in 1609 and earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1610. From 1611 to 1616, he served as lecturer at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge. His preaching awakened Cambridge from the spiritual indifference into which it had fallen after the death of Perkins. A gallery had to be built to accommodate visitors in the church. John Cotton and Hugh Peters were converted under Sibbes’s preaching. During his years at Holy Trinity, Sibbes helped turn Thomas Goodwin away from Arminianism and moved John Preston from “witty preaching” to plain, spiritual preaching.

Sibbes came to London in 1617 as a lecturer for Gray’s Inn, the largest of the four great Inns of Court, which still remains one of the most important centers in England for the study and practice of law. In 1626, he also became master of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge. Under his leadership, the college regained some of its former prestige. It graduated several men who would one day serve prominently at the Westminster Assembly: John Arrowsmith, William Spurstowe, and William Strong. Soon after his appointment, Sibbes received the Doctor of Divinity degree at Cambridge. He became known as “the heavenly Doctor,” due to his godly preaching and heavenly manner of life. Izaac Walton wrote of Sibbes:

Of this blest man, let this just praise be given,
Heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.

In 1633, King Charles I offered Sibbes the charge of Holy Trinity, Cambridge. Sibbes continued to serve as preacher at Gray’s Inn, master of St. Catharine’s Hall, and vicar of Holy Trinity until his death in 1635.

Sibbes never married, but he established an astonishing network of friendships that included godly ministers, noted lawyers, and parliamentary leaders of the early Stuart era. “Godly friends are walking sermons,” he said. He wrote at least thirteen introductions to the writings of his Puritan colleagues.

Sibbes was a gentle man who avoided the controversies of his day as much as possible. “Fractions breed fractions,” he insisted. His battles with Archbishop Laud, Roman Catholics, and Arminians were exceptions. He also remained close friends with many pastors and leaders who wanted more radical reform than he did for the Church of England.

Sibbes was an inspiration to many. He influenced Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, and Independency, the three dominant parties of the church in England at that time. He was a pastor of pastors, and lived a life of moderation. “Where most holiness is, there is most moderation, where it may be without prejudice of piety to God and the good of others,” he wrote.

The historian Daniel Neal described Sibbes as a celebrated preacher, an educated divine, and a charitable and humble man who repeatedly underestimated his gifts. Yet Puritans everywhere recognized Sibbes as a Christ-centered, experiential preacher. Both learned and unlearned in upper and lower classes profited greatly from Sibbes’s alluring preaching.

Sibbes wrote, “To preach is to woo…. The main scope of all [preaching] is, to allure us to the entertainment of Christ’s mild, safe, wise, victorious government.” He brought truth home, as Robert Burns would say, “to men’s business and bosoms.” Catlin wrote of Sibbes, “No man that ever I was acquainted with got so far into my heart or lay so close therein.” In our day, Maurice Roberts says of Sibbes, “His theology is thoroughly orthodox, of course, but it is like the fuel of some great combustion engine, always passing into flame and so being converted into energy thereby to serve God and, even more, to enjoy and relish God with the soul.”

David Masson, biographer of John Milton, wrote, “No writings in practical theology seem to have been so much read in the mid-seventeenth century among the pious English middle classes as those of Sibbes.” The twentieth-century historian William Haller said Sibbes’s sermons were “the most brilliant and popular of all the utterances of the Puritan church militant.”

Sibbes’s last sermons, preached a week before his death, were on John 14:2, “In my Father’s house are many mansions…. I go to prepare a place for you.” When asked in his final days how his soul was faring, Sibbes replied, “I should do God much wrong if I should not say, very well.” Sibbes began his will and testament, dictated on July 4, 1635, the day before his death, with “I commend and bequeath my soul into the hands of my gracious Savior, who hath redeemed it with his most precious blood, and appears now in heaven to receive it.” William Gouge preached Sibbes’s funeral sermon.

Modern Reprints

The Works of Richard Sibbes (BTT; 7 vols., 3,850 pages; 2001). These seven volumes, meticulously edited with a 110-page memoir by Alexander Grosart, were published by James Nichol of Edinburgh in the 1860s and reprinted by the Banner of Truth Trust in the 1970s. They reveal Sibbes’s conviction that the best Christian counseling is done by the Holy Spirit through the patient and lively exposition of God’s Word. This should surprise no one who is aware of Sibbes’s subject matter in his sermons. J. I. Packer writes, “Sibbes concentrated on exploring the love, power and patience of Christ, and the riches of the promises of God. He was a pioneer in working out the devotional application of the doctrine of God’s covenant of grace.”

The first volume of Works contains “The Bruised Reed” (see below) and “The Soul’s Conflict,” a 175-page treatise on Psalm 42:11, showing how the believer can, by faith in Christ, gain victory over spiritual despair. The volume concludes with five sermons on 1 Peter 4:17-19 and four other sermons. The sermon “Christ is Best” (Phil. 1:23-24) alone is worth the price of the book.

The second volume in the set contains larger treatises from Old Testament passages, including “Bowels Opened” (expository sermons on Song of Solomon 4:16 to 6:13), “A Breathing after God” (Ps. 27:4), the well-known “Returning Backslider” (Hos. 14), and “The Glorious Feast of the Gospel” (Isa. 25:7-9).

The third volume is devoted to Sibbes’s exposition of 2 Corinthians 1. Solid doctrine, love for Christ, and warm pastoral applications abound in this commentary. Sibbes is full of Christ when he describes the Christian in his sufferings and the promised comfort of God, saying that sufferings precede comforts because that was the pattern Christ established for us. This work also contains Sibbes’s notable teaching on the sealing of the Holy Spirit (vv. 22-23).

According to Sibbes, looking at the role of the Spirit in sealing the soul of believers is like examining His work in personal assurance of faith. Sibbes viewed the sealing of the Spirit as two distinct matters, however. He distinguished between the office or function of the Spirit as a seal given in regeneration to a sinner and the work of the Spirit in applying that seal to the believer’s consciousness.

The once-for-all sealing of salvation is granted when a person first believes in Christ. Sibbes taught that as a king’s image is stamped upon wax, so the Spirit stamps believers’ souls with the image of Christ from the moment of believing. Such sealing produces in every believer a lifelong desire to be transformed fully into the image of Christ.

This seal, which every believer has whether he is conscious of it or not, is a mark of authenticity that distinguishes the believer from the world. As merchants mark their wares and herdsmen brand their sheep, so God seals His people to declare that they are His rightful property and that He has authority over them, Sibbes said.

The second kind of sealing is a process. It is the kind of assurance that can gradually increase throughout a believer’s life through singular experiences and by daily, spiritual growth. This sealing can be observed in the fruits of sanctification, such as peace of conscience; the spirit of adoption whereby we cry “Abba, Father”; prayers of fervent supplication; and conformity with the heavenly image of Christ. Sibbes thus emphasized both the intuitive testimony of the Spirit and the sanctifying fruits of the Spirit.

The Spirit grants this special sealing to saints in times of great trial, Sibbes said. The Spirit gave such seals “even as parents [who] smile upon their children when they need it most.” Such sealing was “a sweet kiss vouchsafed to the soul.” Paul in the dungeon, Daniel in the lions’ den, and his three friends in the fiery furnace experienced that kind of encouragement.

Volume 4 contains other sermons on texts or portions of the two epistles to the Corinthians, including “Glorious Freedom: The Excellency of the Gospel Above the Law” (see below) and an exposition of 2 Corinthians 4. This volume emphasizes the centrality of Christ and the role of the Spirit in the lives of believers. According to Sibbes, the Spirit must be an integral part of our lives, our churches, and our world. We must relish His indwelling and His comforting work, while striving not to grieve Him. We should walk in daily communication with the Spirit through the Word, relying upon every office the Holy Spirit provides, as described in Scripture. As Sibbes writes: “The Holy Spirit being in us, after he that prepared us for a house for himself to dwell in and to take up his rest and delight in, he doth also become unto us a counselor in all our doubts, a comforter in all our distresses, a solicitor to all duty, a guide in the whole course of life, until we dwell with him forever in heaven, unto which his dwelling here in us doth tend.”

The fifth volume offers teaching on passages in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Timothy. They contain sermons on several of the richest and best known of all Paul’s words, such as Romans 8:28 and Galatians 2:20, and address subjects such as the art of contentment, the life of faith, the power of Christ’s resurrection, the Christian’s end, Christian work, and the providence of God. Most well-known are Sibbes’s “A Fountain Sealed” (Eph. 4:30) and “The Fountain Opened” (1 Tim. 3:16).

This volume stresses the privileges of believers, such as communion with Christ, the indwelling of the Spirit, assurance of faith, and future glory. Nearly two hundred pages are devoted to teachings on Philippians, which stress the believer’s heavenly citizenship. Everywhere in this volume, Sibbes proves his reputation as “a Christ-preacher.” He writes, “The special work of our ministry is to lay open Christ, to hold up the tapestry and unfold the mysteries of Christ. Let us labour therefore to be always speaking somewhat about Christ, or tending that way. When we speak of the law, let it drive us to Christ; when of moral duties, let them teach us to walk worthy of Christ.”

The sixth volume contains eighteen sermons on a great variety of subjects, including faithful covenanting, Josiah’s reformation, successful seeking of God, the saint’s comforts, spiritual mourning, and Lydia’s conversion. “A Heavenly Conference between Christ and Mary after His Resurrection” ( John 20:16) represents Puritan divinity at its best. For example, when speaking of the constancy of Christ’s love for Mary and for the church, Sibbes writes, “The whole chain [of God’s love] so holdeth, that all the creatures in heaven and earth cannot break a link of it. Therefore never doubt of continuance, for it holds firm on God’s part, not thine. God embraceth us in the arms of his everlasting love, not that we embraced him first. When the child falleth not, it is from the mother’s holding the child, and not from the child’s holding the mother. So it is God’s holding of us, knowing of us, embracing of us, and justifying of us that maketh the state firm, and not ours; for ours is but a reflection and result of his, which is unvariable” (p. 439).

The final volume contains thirty-five sermons on practical themes such as recovery from discouragement, true happiness, prayer, the success of the gospel, the return of Christ, the dan ger of backsliding, and the resurrection. The sermon titled “The Matchless Mercy” (Micah 7:18-20) exalts the mercy of God. Sibbes’s last two sermons on John 14:2 are also included.

The Bruised Reed (BTT; 128 pages; 1998). This treatise on the dejected sinner is one of the best works of its kind. In sixteen chapters, Sibbes expounds Isaiah 42:3, “A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.” Richard Baxter said that God used the reading of this treatise to effect his own conversion. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “I shall never cease to be grateful to Richard Sibbes who was balm to my soul at a period in my life when I was overworked and badly overtired, and therefore subject in an unusual manner to the onslaughts of the devil…. I found at that time that Richard Sibbes, who was known in London in the early seventeenth century as the ‘Heavenly Doctor Sibbes’ was an unfailing remedy…. The Bruised Reed quieted, soothed, comforted, encouraged and healed me.”

Glorious Freedom (BTT; 194 pages; 2000). This book was published under the supervision of Thomas Goodwin and Philip Nye four years after Sibbes’s death. They said it shows “the liberty of the sons of God…the image of their graces here and glory hereafter” and it provides “much comfort and great encouragement to all [who] begin timely and continue constantly in the ways of God.”

Glorious Freedom explains the believer’s relation to the law based on 2 Corinthians 3:17-18. Sibbes describes the fuller revelation of God in the coming of Christ and its effect on those who behold that glory by the Spirit. The vitality of the new covenant results in spiritual liberty and likeness to Christ. The book addresses subjects such as the Spirit of Christ, liberty, the gospel beyond the law, communion with God in Christ, and conformity to the image of Christ. “Sibbes never wastes the student’s time,” Spurgeon wrote; “he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands.”



Excerpt from Meet the Puritans
by Dr. Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson
Posted with permission on by Reformation Heritage Books