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Richard Sibbes and the returning backslider

Category Articles
Date December 22, 2001


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

The third paper at the Westminster Conference 2001 was given by Paul Oliver co-pastor with his father at Bradford on Avon. It was on the theme “The Returning Backslider” a work of Richard Sibbes. (1577-1635). There is no better introduction to the Puritans than the writings of Richard Sibbes, who is, in many ways, a typical Puritan. ‘Sibbes never wastes the student’s time,’ wrote C. H. Spurgeon, ‘he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands.’

The facts concerning Sibbes’ life can be briefly stated (there is a full account in Volume 1 of the Banner of Truth Trust edition of his Works). He was born at Tostock, Suffolk, in 1577 and went to school at Bury St Edmunds. His father intended Richard to follow his own trade as a wheelwright, but, with the help of friends, he went up to St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1595. Here he was converted under the powerful preaching of Paul Bayne, the successor of William Perkins in the pulpit of Great St Andrew’s Church. After earning his B.D. in 1610, he was appointed a lecturer at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge. He was removed from this post five years later, however, because of his Puritan tendencies. Through the influence of powerful friends, he was chosen to be the preacher at Gray’s Inn, London, in 1617, and remained there till 1626. In that year he returned to Cambridge as Master of St Catherine’s Hall, and later returned to Holy Trinity, this time as its vicar. Goodwin describes his “plain, simple preaching” and carrying his copy of the Institutes under his arm to read before the service commenced. He was granted a Doctorate in Divinity in 1627, and was thereafter frequently referred to as ‘the heavenly Doctor Sibbes’, on account of both the matter and the manner of his preaching. He continued to exercise his ministry, at Gray’s Inn, London, as well as at Holy Trinity, Cambridge, while also remaining Master of St Catherine’s, and a member of the Church of England, until his death on 6 July 1635, at the age of 58. He never married, and he had esteemed friends such as Ussher, Burroughs and Pym. Sibbes judged good friends to be ‘walking sermons.’ Of him Izaak Walton later wrote: ‘Of this blest man, let this just praise be given: heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.’

Sibbes published little during his lifetime but his sermons were gathered and printed after his death. His fourteen sermons on Hosea entitled “The Returning Backslider”, preached in the 1620s were printed in 1639. The aim of this work is to assist the backslider to return. Sibbes writes firstly of personal backsliding, an aggravation of sin, a sin against knowledge and with a high hand. It is spiritual adultery, a loathsome thing in the world. It brings shame into his life so that sinners are justly called fools. Sin robs a man of all that is good and great; it is the bane of all our comforts.

The only course of action for the backslider is to repent.” Take your words to God and confess your sin to him.” We are to attack the Goliath sin to which we are most addicted, whose death causes other lesser sins to flee. To encourage us in this enterprise let us look especially at the mercy of God which mitigates all God’s other mighty awesome attributes. Labour for further assurance that you are his. The bedrock of assurance is found as you rest upon God in Christ. This God loves to show mercy to returning sinners. So Sibbes too seeks to encourage the penitent backslider. Preventing backsliding is crucial because it starts imperceptibly. Grow in your knowledge of God and his Son so that grace will grow. Confess your sin daily.

Then there is also ecclesiastical backsliding, and Sibbes defended the Church of England as displaying the marks of a true church – the Word, discipline, prayer and the ordinances. Yet he was aware how a group of churches could apostatize and the pressures some were bringing for the Anglican church to unite with Rome. He was curt about the papacy. “One thing we learn from the papists: they burn our books and we ought to burn theirs.”

There is also national backsliding or declension. The Reformation had been a second spring, a Goshen. Sibbes deeply loved the reformers but the King of England’s spies were everywhere and Sibbes had to preach with care. He would speak of the clouds of God’s wrath hanging over the land, but he would not be specific. That wrath showed itself in coldness of heart and an indifference to spiritual things. We preachers above all men need to be warm. Pride is another mark of backsliding, a sense of superiority to other Christians. It is easy to see the deficiencies in another while overlooking one’s own proud heart. Satan prevents us listening to our counsellors.

Satan has two eyeglasses. Looking through one big things seem small, and so he makes our sins seems insignificant. His other eyeglass makes small things seem huge. So when the backslider tries to return Satan exaggerates the task and makes the problems seem enormous.

The paper was delivered in a delightfully relaxed and assured manner and the discussion subsequently was edifying.


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