Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Spirit of Mercy Should Move Us
by Richard Sibbes
Simplicity and humility - Sound judgment - How those in authority should act - We are debtors to the weak
Preachers need to take heed therefore how they deal with young believers. Let them be careful not to pitch matters too high, making things necessary evidences of grace which agree not to the experience of many a good Christian, and laying salvation and damnation upon things that are not fit to bear so great a weight. In this way men are needlessly cast down and may not soon be raised up again by themselves or others. The ambassadors of so gentle a Saviour should not be overbearing, setting up themselves in the hearts of people where Christ alone should sit as in his own temple. Too much respect to man was one of the inlets of popery. 'Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ' (1 Cor. 4:1), neither more nor less, just so much. How careful was Paul in cases of conscience not to lay a snare upon any weak conscience.
Simplicity and Humility
Preachers should take heed likewise that they hide not their meaning in dark speeches, speaking in the clouds. Truth fears nothing so much as concealment, and desires nothing so much as clearly to be laid open to the view of all. When it is most unadorned, it is most lovely and powerful. Our blessed Saviour, as he took our nature upon him, so he took upon him our familiar manner of speech, which was part of his voluntary abasement. Paul was a profound man, yet he became as a nurse to the weaker sort (1 Thess. 2:7).
That spirit of mercy that was in Christ should move his servants to be content to abase themselves for the good of the meanest. What made the kingdom of heaven 'suffer violence' (Matt. 11:12) after John the Baptist's time, but that comfortable truths were laid open with such plainness and evidence that the people were so affected with them as to offer a holy violence to obtain them?
Christ chose those to preach mercy who had felt most mercy, as Peter and Paul, that they might be examples of what they taught. Paul became all things to all men (1 Cor. 9:22), stooping unto them for their good. Christ came down from heaven and emptied himself of majesty in tender love to souls. Shall we not come down from our high conceits to do any poor soul good? Shall man be proud after God has been humble? We see the ministers of Satan turn themselves into all shapes to 'make one proselyte' (Matt. 23:15). We see ambitious men study accommodation of themselves to the humours of those by whom they hope to be raised, and shall not we study application of ourselves to Christ, by whom we hope to be advanced, nay, are already sitting with him in heavenly places? After we are gained to Christ ourselves, we should labour to gain others to Christ. Holy ambition and covetousness will move us to put upon ourselves the disposition of Christ. But we must put off ourselves first.
Again we should not rack their wits with curious or 'doubtful disputations' (Rom. 14:1), for so we shall distract and tire them, and give occasion to make them cast off the care of all. That age of the church which was most fertile in subtle questions was most barren in religion; for it makes people think religion to be only a matter of cleverness, in tying and untying of knots. The brains of men inclining that way are hotter usually than their hearts.
Yet notwithstanding, when we are cast into times and places wherein doubts are raised about principal points, here people ought to labour to be established. God suffers questions oftentimes to arise for trial of our love and exercise of our abilities. Nothing is so certain as that which is certain after doubts. Shaking settles and roots. In a contentious age, it is a wise thing to be a Christian, and to know what to pitch our souls upon. It is an office of love here to take away the stones, and to smooth the way to heaven. Therefore, we must take heed that, under pretence of avoidance of disputes, we do not suffer an adverse party to get ground upon the truth; for thus may we easily betray both the truth of God and souls of men.
And likewise those are failing that, by overmuch austerity, drive back troubled souls from having comfort by them, for, as a result of this, many smother their temptations, and burn inwardly, because they have none into whose bosom they may vent their grief and ease their souls.
We must neither bind where God looses, nor loose where God binds, neither open where God shuts, nor shut where God opens. The right use of the keys is always successful. In personal application, there must be great heed taken; for a man may be a false prophet, and yet speak the truth. If it be not a truth to the person to whom he speaks, if he grieve those whom God has not grieved by unseasonable truths, or by comforts in an ill way, the hearts of the wicked may be strengthened. One man's meat may be another's poison.
If we look to the general temper of these times, rousing and waking Scriptures are fittest; yet there are many broken spirits who need soft and comforting words. Even in the worst time the prophets mingled sweet comfort for the hidden remnant of faithful people. God has comfort. The prophet is told, 'Comfort ye my people' (Isa. 40:1), as well as, 'Lift up thy voice as a trumpet' (Isa. 58:1).
And here likewise there needs a caveat. Mercy does not rob us of our right judgment, so as to take stinking fire brands for smoking flax. None will claim mercy more of others than those who deserve due severity. This example does not countenance lukewarmness, nor too much indulgence to those that need quickening. Cold diseases must have hot remedies. It made for the just commendation of the church of Ephesus that it could not bear them which were evil (Rev. 2:2). We should so bear with others as to manifest also a dislike of evil. Our Saviour Christ would not forbear sharp reproof where he saw dangerous infirmities in his most beloved disciples. It brings under a curse to do the work of the Lord deceitfully (Jer. 48:10), even where it is a work of just severity, as when it is sheathing the sword in the bowels of the enemy. And those whom we suffer to be betrayed by their worst enemies, their sins, will have just cause to curse us one day.
It is hard to preserve just bounds of mercy and severity without a spirit above our own, by which we ought to desire to be led in all things. That wisdom which dwells with prudence (Prov. 8:12) will guide us in these particulars, without which virtue is not virtue, truth not truth. The rule and the case must be laid together; for if there be not a keen insight, seeming likeness in conditions will give rise to errors in our opinions of them. Those fiery, tempestuous and destructive spirits in popery that seek to promote their religion by cruelty show that they are strangers to that wisdom which is from above, which makes men gentle, peaceable and ready to show that mercy which they themselves have felt. It is a way of prevailing agreeable both to Christ and to man's nature to prevail by some forbearance and moderation.
And yet often we see a false spirit in those that call for moderation. Their doing so is but to carry their own projects with the greater strength; and if they prevail they will hardly show that moderation to others which they now call for from others. And there is a proud kind of moderation likewise, when men will take upon them to censure both parties, as if they were wiser than both, although, if the spirit be right, an onlooker may see more than those that are in conflict.
How Those In Authority Should Act
In the censures of the church, it is more suitable to the spirit of Christ to incline to the milder part, and not to kill a fly on the forehead with a mallet, nor shut men out of heaven for a trifle. The very snuffers (wick trimmers) of the tabernacle were made of pure gold, to show the purity of those censures whereby the light of the church is kept bright. The power that is given to the church is given for edification, not destruction. How careful was Paul that the incestuous Corinthian (2 Cor. 2:7), if he repented, should not be swallowed up with too much grief. Civil magistrates, for civil exigencies and reasons of state, must let the law have its course; yet thus far they should imitate this mild king, as not to mingle bitterness and passion with authority derived from God. Authority is a beam of God's majesty, and prevails most where there is least mixture of that which is man's. It requires more than ordinary wisdom to manage it aright. This string must not be too tight, nor too loose. Justice is a harmonious thing. Herbs hot or cold beyond a certain degree, kill. We see even contrary elements preserved in one body by wisely tempering them together. Justice in rigor is often extreme injustice, where some considerable circumstances should incline to moderation; and the reckoning will be easier for bending rather to moderation than rigor.
Insolent behavior toward miserable persons, if humbled, is unseemly in any who look for mercy themselves. Misery should be a lodestone of mercy, not a footstool for pride to trample on. Sometimes it falls out that those who are under the government of others are most injurious by waywardness and harsh censures, herein disparaging and discouraging the endeavors of superiors for public good. In so great weakness of man's nature, and especially in this crazy age of the world, we ought to take in good part any moderate happiness we enjoy by government, and not be altogether as a nail in the wound, exasperating things by misconstruction. Here love should have a mantle to cast upon lesser errors of those above us. Oftentimes the poor man is the oppressor by unjust clamors. We should labour to give the best interpretation to the actions of governors that the nature of the actions will possibly bear.
We Are Debtors To The Weak
In the last place, there is something for private Christians, even for all of us in our common relations, to take notice of: we are debtors to the weak in many things.
1. Let us be watchful in the use of our liberty, and labour to be inoffensive in our behavior, that our example compel them not. There is a commanding force in an example, as there was in Peter (Gal. 2). Looseness of life is cruelty to ourselves and to the souls of others. Though we cannot keep those who will perish from perishing, yet if we do that which is apt of itself to destroy the souls of others their ruin is imputable to us.
2. Let men take heed of taking up Satan's office, in misrepresenting the good actions of others, as he did Job's case, 'Doth Job fear God for naught?' (Job 1:9), or slandering their persons, judging of them according to the wickedness that is in their own hearts. The devil gets more by such discouragements and reproaches that are cast upon religion than by fire and faggot. These, as unseasonable frosts, nip all gracious inclinations in the bud, and as much as in them lies, with Herod, labour to kill Christ in young professors. A Christian is a hallowed and a sacred thing, Christ's temple; and he that destroys his temple, him will Christ destroy (1 Cor.3:17).
3. Among the things that are to be taken heed of, there is among ordinary Christians a bold usurpation of censure towards others, not considering their temptations. Some will unchurch and unbrother in a passion. But ill humours do not alter true relations; though the child in a fit should disclaim the mother, yet the mother will not disclaim the child.
There is therefore in these judging times good ground of James's caveat that there should not be 'many masters' (James 3:1), that we should not smite one another by hasty censures, especially in things of an indifferent nature; some things are as the mind of him is that does them, or does them not; for both may be unto the Lord.
A holy aim in things neither clearly right nor wrong makes the judgments of men, although seemingly contrary, yet not so much blamable. Christ, for the good aims he sees in us, overlooks any ill in them, so far as not to lay it to our charge. Men must not be too curious in prying into the weaknesses of others. We should labour rather to see what they have that is for eternity, to incline our heart to love them, than into that weakness which the Spirit of God will in time consume, to estrange us. Some think it strength of grace to endure nothing in the weaker, whereas the strongest are readiest to bear with the infirmities of the weak.
Where most holiness is, there is most moderation, where it may be without prejudice of piety to God and the good of others. We see in Christ a marvelous temper of absolute holiness, with great moderation. What would have become of our salvation, if he had stood upon terms, and not stooped thus low unto us? We need not affect to be more holy than Christ. It is no flattery to do as he does, so long as it is to edification.
The Holy Ghost is content to dwell in smoky, offensive souls. Oh, that that Spirit would breathe into our spirits the same merciful disposition! We endure the bitterness of wormwood, and other distasteful plants and herbs, only because we have some experience of some wholesome quality in them; and why should we reject men of useful parts and graces, only for some harshness of disposition, which, as it is offensive to us, so it grieves themselves?
Grace, while we live here, is in souls which, because they are imperfectly renewed, dwell in bodies subject to several humours, and these will incline the soul sometimes to excess in one passion, sometimes to excess in another. Bucer was a deep and a moderate divine. After long experience he resolved to refuse none in whom he saw aliquid Christi, something of Christ. The best Christians in this state of imperfection are like gold that is a little too light, which needs some grains of allowance to make it pass. You must grant the best their allowance.
We must supply out of our love and mercy that which we see wanting in them. The church of Christ is a common hospital, wherein all are in some measure sick of some spiritual disease or other, so all have occasion to exercise the spirit of wisdom and meekness.
So that we may do this the better, let us put upon ourselves the Spirit of Christ. There is a majesty in the Spirit of God. Corruption will hardly yield to corruption in another. Pride is intolerable to pride. The weapons of this warfare must not be carnal (2 Cor. 10:4). The great apostles would not set upon the work of the ministry until they were 'endued with power from on high' (Luke 24:49). The Spirit will only work with his own tools. And we should think what affection Christ would carry to the party in this case. That great physician, as he had a quick eye and a healing tongue, so had he a gentle hand, and a tender heart.
And, further, let us take to ourselves the condition of him with whom we deal. We are, or have been, or may be in that condition ourselves. Let us make the case our own, and also consider in what near relation a Christian stands to us, even as a brother, a fellow member, heir of the same salvation. And therefore let us take upon ourselves a tender care of them in every way; and especially in cherishing the peace of their consciences. Conscience is a tender and delicate thing, and must be so treated. It is like a lock: if its workings are faulty, it will be troublesome to open.
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