Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Smoking Flax
by Richard Sibbes
Grace is little at first - Grace is mingled with corruption
In pursuing his calling, Christ will not quench the smoking flax, or wick, but will blow it up till it flames. In smoking flax there is but a little light, and that weak, as being unable to flame, and that little mixed with smoke. The observations from this are that, in God's children, especially in their first conversion, there is but a little measure of grace, and that little mixed with much corruption, which, as smoke, is offensive; but that Christ will not quench this smoking flax.
Grace Is Little At First
There are several ages in Christians, some babes, some young men. Faith may be as 'a grain of mustard seed' (Matt. 17:20). Nothing so little as grace at first, and nothing more glorious afterward. Things of greatest perfection are longest in coming to their growth. Man, the most perfect creature, comes to perfection by little and little; worthless things, as mushrooms and the like, like Jonah's gourd, soon spring up, and soon vanish. A new creature is the most excellent creature in all the world, therefore it grows up by degrees. We see in nature that a mighty oak rises from an acorn. It is with a Christian as it was with Christ, who sprang out of the dead stock of Jesse, out of David's family (Isa. 53:2), when it was at the lowest, but he grew up higher than the heavens. It is not with the trees of righteousness as it was with the trees of paradise, which were created all perfect at the first. The seeds of all the creatures in the present goodly frame of the world were hid in the chaos, in that confused mass at the first, out of which God commanded all creatures to arise. In the small seeds of plants lie hidden both bulk and branches, bud and fruit. In a few principles lie hidden all comfortable conclusions of holy truth. All these glorious fireworks of zeal and holiness in the saints had their beginning from a few sparks.
Let us not therefore be discouraged at the small beginnings of grace, but look on ourselves as elected to be 'holy and without blame' (Eph. 1:4). Let us look on our imperfect beginning only to enforce further striving to perfection, and to keep us in a low opinion of ourselves. Otherwise, in case of discouragement, we must consider ourselves as Christ does, who looks on us as those he intends to fit for himself. Christ values us by what we shall be, and by what we are elected unto. We call a little plant a tree, because it is growing up to be so. 'Who has despised the day of small things?' (Zech. 4:10). Christ would not have us despise little things.
The glorious angels disdain not attendance on little ones - little in their own eyes, and little in the eyes of the world. Grace, though little in quantity, yet is much in vigor and worth. It is Christ that raises the worth of little and mean places and persons. Bethlehem was the least (Mic. 5:2; Matt. 2:6), and yet not the least; the least in itself, not the least in respect that Christ was born there. The second temple (Hag. 2:9) came short of the outward magnificence of the former; yet it was more glorious than the first because Christ came into it. The Lord of the temple came into his own temple. The pupil of the eye is very little, yet sees a great part of the heaven at once. A pearl, though little, yet is of much esteem. Nothing in the world is of so good use as the least grain of grace.
Grace Is Mingled With Corruption
But grace is not only little, but mingled with corruption; therefore a Christian is said to be smoking flax. So we see that grace does not do away with corruption all at once, but some is left for believers to fight with. The purest actions of the purest men need Christ to perfume them; and this is his office. When we pray, we need to pray again for Christ to pardon the defects of our prayers. Consider some instances of this smoking flax:
The reason for this mixture is that we carry about us a double principle, grace and nature. The end of it is especially to preserve us from those two dangerous rocks which our natures are prone to dash upon, security and pride, and to force us to pitch our rest on justification, not sanctification, which, besides imperfection, has some stains. Our spiritual fire is like our ordinary fire here below, that is, mixed. Fire is most pure in its own element above; so shall all our graces be when we are where we would be, in heaven, which is our proper element.
- Moses at the Red Sea, being in a great perplexity, and knowing not what to say, or which way to turn, groaned to God. No doubt this was a great conflict in him. In great distresses we know not what to pray, but the Spirit makes request with sighs that cannot be expressed (Rom. 8:26). Broken hearts can yield but broken prayers.
- When David was before the king of Gath (1 Sam. 21:13) and disfigured himself in an uncomely manner, in that smoke there was some fire also. You may see what an excellent psalm he makes upon that occasion, Psalm 34, in which, on the basis of experience, he says, 'The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart' (Psa. 34:18). 'I said in my haste, I am cut off from before thine eyes.' There is smoke. 'Nevertheless thou heardest the voice of my supplications' (Psa. 31:22). There is fire. 'Lord, save us: we perish' (Matt. 8:25), cry the disciples. Here is smoke of infidelity, yet so much light of faith as stirred them up to pray to Christ. 'Lord, I believe.' There is light.
- "˜Help thou mine unbelief"' There is smoke (Mark 9:24). Jonah cries, 'I am cast out of thy sight.' There is smoke. 'Yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.' There is light (Jon. 2:4).
- 'O wretched man that I am!', says Paul, with a sense of his corruption. Yet he breaks out into thanks to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 7:24).
- 'I sleep,' says the church in the Song of Solomon, 'but my heart waketh' (Song of Sol. 5:2). In the seven churches, which for their light are called 'seven golden candlesticks' (Rev. 2 and 3), most of them had much smoke with their light.
From this mixture arises the fact that the people of God have so different judgments of themselves, looking sometimes at the work of grace, sometimes at the remainder of corruption, and when they look upon that, then they think they have no grace. Though they love Christ in his ordinances and children, yet they dare not claim so near acquaintance as to be his. Even as a candle in the socket sometimes shows its light, and sometimes the show of light is lost; so sometimes they are well persuaded of themselves, sometimes at a loss.
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