Section navigation

Richard Sibbes and the Mercy of God

Date May 28, 2014

Introduction

‘When through the blood of the everlasting covenant we children of the shadows reach at last our home in the light, we shall have a thousand strings to our harps, but the sweetest may well be the one tuned to sound forth most perfectly the mercy of God.’

This thought of A. W. Tozer’s is eminently true; for we have no natural right to be with God in heaven; we were numbered among the rebels who in the days before our new birth sinfully banished God from our lives; and we have chosen to go our own way times without number since the day God adopted us into his family. Let us not fool ourselves, we do not deserve the least mercy from God; and as Spurgeon says: ‘all more than hell is mercy.’ We must therefore acknowledge with Toplady:

A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing.

The wonder is, that though the Almighty has us all in his power, and we have not the slightest claim on his mercy, his goodness and mercy have followed us all the days of our life. As we come up out of the wilderness of this world leaning upon our Beloved, God has shown himself to be a God of mercy, rich in mercy, plenteous in mercy, delighting in mercy. No-one would bear and forbear as he has done with us his sinful children. Truly, as the Puritan Thomas Goodwin says: ‘All God’s children are be-mercied!’

ln this article, we shall briefly consider how Goodwin’s fellow Puritan Richard Sibbes (1577-1635)1 experienced and preached on the mercy of God. Without entering into the details of his fruitful Christian life and ministry, we simply record Isaak Walton’s touching testimony to his spirituality:

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

Trinitarian Mercy

‘Our redemption,’ writes Sibbes, ‘is founded upon the joint agreement of all three persons of the Trinity.’ (Works, Volume 1, page 43)2 God the Father is the fountain of mercy; God the Son is the channel of mercy, and God the Spirit is the stream of mercy. From all three, therefore, mercy is conveyed into the souls of the redeemed.(3.49; 4.293)

The Father: Fountain of Mercy

Consistent with biblical usage, Sibbes often refers the term ‘God’ to the Father. He is merciful by nature, inclined to pity anyone in misery (3.28). Our misery is the magnet that draws his mercy (3.42). Despite all his august majesty, he abounds in mercy (2.292). Mercy ‘is his nature; it is himself’ (3.28). As the prophet Micah says (Mic. 7:18), ‘he delighteth in mercy’ (3.35). Indeed, mercy is such a sweet attribute in God that all his other attributes would be a terror to us without it (2.292). It is therefore his great purpose to ‘be glorified in showing mercy’ (3.29-30). Everything he does, in both creation and redemption, is ‘all for the glory of his mercy’ (3.31). This, concludes Sibbes, is ‘the true reality of fatherhood,’ the true doctrine of the Fatherhood of God. Whatever, therefore, we may lawfully expect from an earthly father, ‘we may expect from God our Father, and infinitely more’ (6.451), for he looks on us, his adopted children, with the same ‘eternal sweet tenderness’ as he does on his natural Son (6.461).

The Son: the Channel of Mercy

Yet because God is ‘the God and Father of Christ first,’ he becomes the Father of mercy to us only through him. ‘Christ hath all first, and we have all from him. He is the first Son, and we are [later] sons. He is the first beloved of God, and we are beloved in him.’ Whatever mercy we receive, therefore, we must receive it ‘in Christ, and through Christ, and from Christ’ (3.27).

As Mediator between God and us, Christ reveals the mercy of God in a unique way. Because ‘we cannot endure the brightness of the majesty of the Father,’ he chose his dear Son to be our Mediator, and chose us in him to become his sons and daughters. As our Surety-Substitute, who satisfied every demand of his holy justice when he suffered on the cross for our sins, Christ makes God ‘our Father . . . the Father of mercies’ (3.28). This is why the Lord Jesus told his disciples: ‘I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God’ (John 20:17). This too is why Christ now calls us his brethren: he is our Elder Brother, and we are brothers and sisters in his Father’s family (6.450). Surely, Sibbes adds with evident satisfaction, he who chose us in Christ in eternity past will glorify us with Christ in eternity future (4.32; 6.453). Let us then realize that a ‘greater glory of mercy . . . shines forth to fallen man in Christ’ than ever shone on Adam in innocence (Glorious Freedom,3 p. 75).

To rest in God’s mercy, therefore, is to rest in the gospel of Christ, which brings that mercy to us. ‘When faith considers God pictured out in the gospel, it sees him the Father of Christ, and our Father, and the Father of mercies and God of comforts; faith seeing infinite mercy in an infinite God’ (3.37). This is how we should look on God at all times – in Christ. When our conscience speaks to us of sin, when Satan seeks to disturb our peace, when we are engaged in spiritual conflict, and when we come to die, we must look on him as reconciled to us in Christ. Then, and only then, shall we enjoy peace, for it flows down to us in the same channel as his mercy and grace (3.21).

Here is a safe haven into which we may flee under the sense of God’s wrath. So, Sibbes tenderly exhorts us: ‘Despair not, thou drooping soul, whosoever thou art under the guilt of sin; come to the Father of mercies, cast thyself into this sea of mercy.’ To give us double assurance, he adds winsomely: ‘There is mercy for thee if thou wilt come in’ (3.31). When by grace we do gain access, al1 our sins disappear like a spark that falls into the ocean (3.35).

Should we waver or doubt the sincerity of the invitation, Sibbes reassures us that God in Christ ‘is more willing to pardon’ than we are ‘to ask mercy’ (3.36). Just as the father in the parable ran and embraced his prodigal son, so God ‘will come and meet you, and kiss you,’ when you fall ‘at the feet of his mercy,’ and cast yourself into ‘the arms of his mercy’ (3.40). Once we are reconciled to him in Christ, he will as soon cease to love his Son as cease to love us’ (6.641).

In sum, all God’s saving mercies reach us only through his dear Son Christ, who is ‘the great ordinance of God for our salvation.’ He is the treasury in which God stores up for us all his ‘grace and love and mercy.’ The ministry of the gospel opens that treasury to us (Glorious Freedom, p. 84).

The Spirit: the Stream of Mercy

The last link in our enjoyment of the mercy of God is the work of the Holy Spirit. He who actually conveys God’s mercy into our hearts is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. In the covenanted purpose of God, his special role is to dispense the mercy the Father has been pleased to bestow and the Son has purchased with his own precious blood. Consequently, all life, truth, grace, peace, joy, holiness and comfort are from him. (Glorious Freedom, pp. 6-26). He who first filled the human nature of Christ without measure now fills his people with all saving and sanctifying grace.

Even the glorious gospel will be ineffectual without his ministrations. But ‘having by his death and sufferings reconciled us to his Father and purchased the Spirit for us,’ Christ now gives ‘his Spirit to us.’ As there was at first nothing to hinder the gift of the Spirit to the human nature of Christ, so now there is ‘nothing to hinder the blessed gift of the Spirit’ to us his children. Indeed, ‘Christ does his church more good now that he is in heaven, from where he sends the Spirit, than he could do if he were here below, because though his human nature is confined in heaven, his [divine] person is everywhere. And being “ascended now far above all heavens,” he gives gifts more liberally and plentifully, inasmuch as he fills all things (Eph. 4:10)’ (Glorious Freedom, pp. 11, 13, 14).

From this special ministry of the Holy Spirit, Sibbes draws a much needed lesson. ‘The most powerful means that ever was ordained for our good will be dead and heartless if he [Christ] is not there by his Spirit to put life into it . . . We should therefore desire that Christ would join his Spirit to all the ordinances of God and make them effectual.’ It is ‘the sin of this age,’ he laments, that through ‘dead formality’ professed worshippers of God ‘will hear a sermon now and then, look at a book, and perhaps pray morning and evening, but never look up to the living and quickening Spirit.’ Consequently, ‘all they do is dead and loathsome, like salt that has no savour.’ So whenever we hear a sermon or read the Bible, ‘we should lift up our eyes and hearts and voices to heaven and say: “Lord, join thy Spirit, be present with us . . .’ (Glorious Freedom, pp. 16, 17)

But when by the Spirit’s regenerating work and the exercise of saving faith we are joined to Jesus, all God’s mercy becomes ours. Our union with Christ as Mediator by the Holy Spirit is therefore ‘the ground of all comfort,’ for by his mediation all the mercy that lies deep in God’s merciful nature flows out of him into us (3.27).

‘Along with the ministry’ of the gospel, ‘he gives us his Holy Spirit.’ The Spirit knocks at our hearts, attracts us to Christ, and persuades and enables us to embrace him. This is how God descends to our mean and miserable level, with ‘Christ, and grace, the gospel, the ministry, the Spirit, all by way of love to us . . .’ (Glorious Freedom, p. 84)

Experiencing God’s Mercy

While acknowledging both God’s absolute sovereignty in dispensing his mercy and our dependence on his mercy at all times, Sibbes fastens on two particular times when his saints taste that mercy in all its sweetness.

The first is when he pardons our sins. He shows himself to be merciful ‘in pardoning sin freely, in pardoning all sin, the punishment and the guilt [i.e. liability to punishment] and all’ (3.30). Nothing tastes sweeter to the poor and needy believer than pardoning mercy.

The second is when we find ourselves ‘bruised and broken’ by the Fall. At such times, we are so pre-occupied with our distress that we ‘dare not claim any present interest of mercy.’ Our doubts and fears make us like a smoking flax – grace seems to be almost dead in us. Seeing us in this sad plight, our merciful God gives us some hope of mercy from the promise, and examples of those that have obtained mercy before us. This goads us to ‘hunger and thirst after it.’ In his own good time, God sends us his Spirit, who makes way for himself into our heart, and brings deliverance and relief (The Bruised Reed,4 p. 4). The wonder of mercy is that Christ will never break the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax (Isa. 42:1-3; Matt. 12:18-20).

Sibbes naturally extends the saints’ experience of God’s mercy to all the chastisements and corrections they receive at their heavenly Father’s hands. These, he says, are always seasoned with comforts, as Lamentations 3.22-23 leads us to expect. In fact, he concludes, everything that ‘comes from God to his children’ in this present life is ‘dipped in mercy’ (3.30).

Practical Lessons

In true Puritan fashion, Sibbes draws a number of practical lessons from his meditations on God’s mercy. We mention four of them.

The first is that while in the past God showed mercy to his chosen [such as Moses, David, Manasseh and Paul, as Sibbes’ contemporary Jeremy Taylor pointed out to encourage his people], we must believe that it is available to us now. Precisely because he is merciful by nature, and because his mercy lives forever as a boundless store of pity and compassion, we should seek to enjoy his mercy, not through mystical visions, but simply by looking by faith on God in Christ. This alone will banish our terrors and bring us real comfort (3.53). Coming to him in this way will enable us to find him ‘a Father in covenant; not only a Friend, but a Father, a gracious Father’ (6.398).

Secondly, once we have ‘tasted the sweet mercy’ of God in Christ, we should ‘break forth’ in praise and thanksgiving, as naturally as birds sing in spring (3.22-23). With reverent love, we should glory in his sheer unmerited goodness to us (6.452).

Third, we should be merciful to others; for ‘all the sons of this Father . . . are merciful,’ like their Father in heaven (3.40).

Fourthly, whatever depths of misery we may find ourselves in, we should follow the example of King David in Psalm 130 and cry to God out of our depths. Realize, Sibbes urges, that ‘his mercy is deeper than our misery’ (3.36). Even though we may lose father and mother, or our nearest and dearest friends, we still have ‘a Father of mercy’ whose mercies, like himself, can never die (3.42). One day, he will in mercy wipe away every tear from our eyes (2.482).

Afternote

It is worth pointing out that not only are both Testaments of Holy Scripture full of the mercy of God, every Christian writer of note (like the poor tax collector who cried: ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’) casts himself or herself on that mercy. Augustine calls on the Lord as ‘My God, my Mercy.’ The most deeply-felt aria in J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is ‘Have mercy, Lord, on me.’ The Arminian Charles Wesley cries out in wonder at the possibility of mercy for himself:

Depth of mercy! Can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?

Henry Francis Lyte prays:

God of mercy, God of grace,
Show the brightness of thy face.

Even Shakespeare eulogizes this glorious attribute in Portia’s speech: ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,’ calling it ‘an attribute of God himself.’

Now, we believe, the heavenly-minded Sibbes basks in that mercy in the immediate presence of his God and Saviour. Do we ever pray: ‘O that we were there! O that we were there!’?

Notes

  1. See a brief biography of Sibbes here. The Trust publishes his Works in seven volumes (see Note 2), a facsimile of the 1862-64 Edinburgh edition. References in this article are to volume and page number in this edition.
    • image of the works of Richard Sibbes
      price $179.00 $161.10
      Avg. Rating
      Rated 5.00 out of 5

      Description

      Introduction ‘When through the blood of the everlasting covenant we children of the shadows reach at last our home in the light, we shall have a thousand strings to our harps, but the sweetest may well be the one tuned to sound forth most perfectly the mercy of God.’ This thought of A. W. Tozer’s […]

    • Glorious Freedom

      Glorious Freedom

      The Excellency of the Gospel Above the Law

      by Richard Sibbes


      price $9.00 $7.20
      Avg. Rating
      Rated 5.00 out of 5

      Description

      Introduction ‘When through the blood of the everlasting covenant we children of the shadows reach at last our home in the light, we shall have a thousand strings to our harps, but the sweetest may well be the one tuned to sound forth most perfectly the mercy of God.’ This thought of A. W. Tozer’s […]

    • The Bruised Reed
      price From: $6.00
      Avg. Rating
      Rated 5.00 out of 5

      Description

      Introduction ‘When through the blood of the everlasting covenant we children of the shadows reach at last our home in the light, we shall have a thousand strings to our harps, but the sweetest may well be the one tuned to sound forth most perfectly the mercy of God.’ This thought of A. W. Tozer’s […]

John Brentnall is Editor of Peace and Truth, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union, from the 2014:2 edition of which the above is taken with permission. Notes added.

Latest Articles

The Resurrection: What If It Is Not True? What If It Is? April 23, 2019

It is worth asking the question: What difference does it make to believe in the resurrection of Christ, as opposed to not believing it? Death is clearly the great reality and the great leveller of life. Fools die and wise men die — as do kings and paupers, celebrities and nonentities. Princess Diana dies, and so too Kerry Packer […]

Neglected Aspects of the Cross April 19, 2019

No doctrine has received greater attention than the Atonement. And yet, comparing the studies of the present with those of the past, and the emphases of the Bible with those of its interpreters, one begins to suspect that several aspects of the doctrine are not receiving the attention they deserve. Its Horror This is true, […]