Puritan Preachers: Richard Sibbes

Continuing in our series on Puritan preachers (parts #1, #2), we come to Richard Sibbes (1577–1635). One source in which he reveals his view of preaching is The Fountain Opened, a collection of his sermons on 1 Timothy 3:16 (Works, vol. 5), where he addresses the office of the preacher particularly when he comes to the phrase “preached unto the Gentiles.”
 
When a king is enthroned, both his nobles and his common subjects must know it. Therefore, it is not enough for Christ to be “seen of angels,” His heavenly nobility. His kingdom must also be proclaimed to the entire world, all men called to submit to Him. He must be preached before He can be “believed on in the world,” Sibbes writes, for “faith is the issue and fruit of preaching” (Works 5:504). Sibbes says, “Preaching is the ordinance of God, sanctified for the begetting of faith, for the opening of the understanding, for the drawing of the will and affections to Christ.” This is the ladder of heaven that we must ascend one step at a time: first preaching, then faith, then prayer (Works 5:514).
 
Sibbes advocates world missions, even though English exploration of other continents was in its infancy in his day. Taking up the words “preached unto the Gentiles,” he boldly says, “Hence we have a ground likewise of enlarging the gospel to all people, because the Gentiles now have interest in Christ; that merchants, and those that give themselves to navigation, they may with good success carry the gospel to all people.” The gospel, like the sun, is traveling from east to west until it shall illuminate all nations (Works 5:512). Though a people be “savages, ever so barbarous,” Christians must “labor to gain them for Christ.” Along these lines, Sibbes calls upon explorers and merchants not to compel people into Christianity by force: “There is nothing so voluntary as faith. It must be wrought by persuasions, not by violence” (Works 5:513). Preaching, not the sword, is the means by which the nations find Christ, whether in England or India.
 
Preaching is the instrument for the application of redemption. Christ is medicine that must be taken, clothing that must be put on, a foundation on which we must build, a treasure to be dug up, a light to be set forth, and a food that must be eaten. Therefore, the preacher must “open the mystery of Christ” in His natures; His offices of Prophet, Priest, and King; His state of humiliation to work our salvation for us; His state of exaltation to apply our salvation to us; and His promises, which are “but Christ dished and parceled out” (Works 5:505). Even when we listen to Sibbes preaching about preaching, we sense the centrality of Christ and the usefulness of imaginative and affectionate language.
 
He anticipates this question: “But must nothing be preached but Christ?” He replies, “Nothing but Christ, or that that tends to Christ.” The law serves Christ. The threats of the law bring men low so that Christ may lift them up. Moral duties show us what it means to walk worthy of Christ (Col. 1:10). Sibbes says, “The graces for these duties must be fetched from Christ; and the reasons and motives of a Christian’s conversation [or conduct] must be from Christ, and from the state that Christ hath advanced us unto.” This concern for solus Christus drove Sibbes’s opposition to Romanism: “Why is the Church of Rome so erroneous, but because she leaves Christ and cleaves to other things?” (Works 5:509–510)
 
Preaching is more than teaching; it is the language of divine love. Sibbes says that “it is not sufficient to preach Christ” merely by teaching people the doctrines of the Bible; rather, “there must be an alluring of them, for to preach is to woo” (Works 5:505). He compares the preacher to a friend of the Bridegroom, who seeks to win the soul to marry Christ (on this imagery, see John 3:29; 2 Cor. 11:2). On the one hand, marriage must be entered with eyes wide open, based on a factual knowledge of the other person. So the friend of the Bridegroom makes known to the woman both her desperate need and her heavenly Suitor’s riches and nobility (Works 5:514). On the other hand, this is not just an intellectual matter, so the preacher must “entreat for a marriage,” employing all his abilities and powers to woo a bride for Christ (Works 5:506).
 
Sibbes’s matrimonial language does not negate the necessity of preaching the law and its curses against sinners, but it does give a sweet purpose to severe preaching. Preaching of sin and misery is not an end to itself; it “makes way for the preaching of Christ.” Sibbes queries, “Who cares for Christ, that sees not the necessity of Christ?” Yet preaching the terrors of divine judgment should arise from a tender and humble heart. Preachers must “beseech” or beg sinners to be reconciled with God (2 Cor. 5:20); indeed, “Christ, as it were, became a beggar himself, and the great God of heaven and earth begs our love, that we would so care for our own souls that we would be reconciled unto him.” The fact that we should be the ones begging God for mercy makes God’s sweet beseeching of us all the more poignant (Works 5:506). Like Paul, who wept over the enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil. 3:18), preachers must preach with “grief and compassion” for lost sinners, “because they are led by the Spirit of Christ, who was all made of compassion” (“Exposition of Philippians Chapter III,” in Works 5:126).
 
Seeing preaching as divine wooing also highlights the power of the ministry of the Word above other means of grace. Sibbes commends the personal reading of the Bible to learn the truth, but “the truth unfolded hath more efficacy” (Works 5:507). Preaching not only offers Christ, but through it, Christ is given to the heart: “Together with it goes a power—the Spirit clothing the ordinance of preaching—to do all.” That is why Paul calls preaching of the gospel “the ministration of the spirit” in 2 Corinthians 3:8 (Works 5:514).
 
Some people might object that they already know enough and do not need more teaching. Sibbes says, “The word of God preached, it is not altogether to teach us, but, the Spirit going with it, to work grace, necessary to ‘strengthen us in the inward man’ (2 Cor. 4:16).” It is hard enough to learn how to talk and think rightly about the things of God—far harder than learning a trade, for which men train for several years. But true religion is not just the ability to talk and think, but a mysterious knowledge in the heart. We do not really know God’s grace until His grace is within us. This indwelling of grace is effected by preaching: “Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ up and down the world. Christ doth not profit but as he is preached” (Works 5:508). Preaching does more than inform; by God’s grace, it unites us to Christ.
 
Preaching is a profoundly relational act joining preacher and listener in Christ. This is part of the reason why God decided that mere men would preach His Word. That is not to say that the preacher wins his hearers by his personal charisma; he calls them to “obedience to the truth.” Nevertheless, in preaching, God aims to “knit man to man by bonds of love.” He does not terrify us by a cloud of fire or an angelic visitation, but magnifies His power by working through weak men like us. It helps “our weakness to have men that speak out of experience from themselves that preach the gospel, that they have felt the comfort of [it] themselves.” When Paul and Peter preached, they did so as men humbled by their sins and astonished by the mercy of God. Such preaching by redeemed sinners gives much hope to fearful sinners (Works 5:507).
 
Thus, Sibbes makes preaching a thoroughly experiential work, a vital triangle drawing together Christ, the preacher, and the hearers. It is a net thrown wide to catch the nations and a wooing of souls by the agent of a heavenly Lover. Preaching includes doctrinal teaching and goes beyond it, engaging the affections and most fundamental commitments of the will. In all this, the ministry of the Word is an instrument in the hands of the sovereign, electing God of grace.