Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Marks of the Smoking Flax
by Richard Sibbes
Our rule is the covenant of grace - The presence of the. heavenly fire
To determine whether we are this smoking flax which Christ will not quench, we must remember these rules:
We must have two eyes, one to see imperfections in ourselves and others, the other to see what is good. 'I am black,' says the church, 'but comely' (Song of Sol. 1:5). Those who are given to quarrelling with themselves always lack comfort, and through their infirmities they are prone to feed on such bitter things as will most nourish that disease which troubles them. These delight to be looking on the dark side of the cloud only.
We must not judge of ourselves always according to present feeling, for in temptations we shall see nothing but smoke of distrustful thoughts. Fire may be raked up in the ashes, though not seen. Life in the winter is hid in the root.
We must beware of false reasoning, such as: because our fire does not blaze out as others, therefore we have no fire at all. By false conclusions we may come to sin against the commandment in bearing false witness against ourselves. The prodigal would not say he was no son, but that he was not worthy to be called a son (Luke 15:19). We must neither trust to false evidence, nor deny true; for so we should dishonor the work of God's Spirit in us, and lose the help of that evidence which would cherish our love to Christ, and arm us against Satan's discouragements. Some are as faulty in this way as if they had been hired by Satan, the 'accuser of the brethren' (Rev. 12:10), to plead for him in accusing themselves.
Our Rule Is The Covenant Of Grace
We must acknowledge that in the covenant of grace God requires the truth of grace, not any certain measure; and a spark of fire is fire, as well as the whole element. Therefore we must look to grace in the spark as well as in the flame. All have not the like strong, though they have the like precious, faith (2 Pet. 1:1), whereby they lay hold of, and put on, the perfect righteousness of Christ. A weak hand may receive a rich jewel. A few grapes will show that the plant is a vine, and not a thorn. It is one thing to be deficient in grace, and another thing to lack grace altogether. God knows we have nothing of ourselves, therefore in the covenant of grace he requires no more than he gives, but gives what he requires, and accepts what he gives: 'If she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtle doves' (Lev. 12:8). What is the gospel itself but a merciful moderation, in which Christ's obedience is esteemed ours, and our sins laid upon him, wherein God, from being a judge, becomes our Father, pardoning our sins and accepting our obedience, though feeble and blemished? We are now brought to heaven under the covenant of grace by a way of love and mercy.
It will prove a special help to know distinctly the difference between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, between Moses and Christ. Moses, without any mercy, breaks all bruised reeds, and quenches all smoking flax. For the law requires personal, perpetual and perfect obedience from the heart, and that under a most terrible curse, but gives no strength. It is a severe task master, like Pharaoh's, requiring the whole tale of bricks and yet giving no straw. Christ comes with blessing after blessing, even upon those whom Moses had cursed, and with healing balm for those wounds which Moses had made.
The same duties are required in both covenants, such as to love the Lord with all our hearts and with all our souls (Deut. 6:5). In the covenant of works, this must be fulfilled absolutely, but under the covenant of grace it must have an evangelical mitigation. A sincere endeavor proportionable to grace received is accepted (and so it must be understood of Josiah, and others, when it is said they did that which was right in the sight of the Lord).
The law is sweetened by the gospel, and becomes delightful to the inner man (Rom. 7:22). Under this gracious covenant, sincerity is perfection. This is the death in the pot of the Roman religion, that they confound the two covenants, and it deadens the comfort of drooping ones that they cannot distinguish them. And thus they suffer themselves to be held under bondage when Christ has set them free, and stay in the prison when Christ has set open the doors before them.
We must remember that grace sometimes is so little as to be indiscernible to us. The Spirit sometimes has secret operations in us which we know not for the present, but Christ knows. Sometimes, in bitterness of temptation, when the spirit struggles with a sense of God's anger, we are apt to think God an enemy. A troubled soul is like troubled water: we can see nothing in it, and, so far as it is not cleansed, it will cast up mire and dirt. It is full of objections against itself, yet for the most part we may discern something of the hidden life, and of these smothered sparks. In a gloomy day there is so much light that we may know it to be day and not night; so there is something in a Christian under a cloud whereby he may be discerned to be a true believer and not a hypocrite. There is no mere darkness in the state of grace, but some beam of light whereby the kingdom of darkness does not wholly prevail.
The Presence Of The Heavenly Fire
Applying these rules, we may say:
First, if there be any holy fire in us, it is kindled from heaven by the Father of lights, who 'commanded the light to shine out of darkness' (2 Cor. 4: 6). As it is kindled by the use of means, so it is fed. The light in us and the light in the Word spring the one from the other and both from the one Holy Spirit. Therefore, in the case of those that regard not the Word, it is 'because there is no light in them' (Isa. 8:20). Heavenly truths must have a heavenly light to discern them. Natural men see heavenly things, not in their own proper light, but by an inferior light. In every converted man, God puts a light into the eye of his soul proportionable to the light of truths revealed to him. A carnal eye will never see spiritual things.
Secondly, the least divine light has heat with it in some measure. Light in the understanding produces heat of love in the affections. In the measure that the sanctified understanding sees a thing to be true or good, in that measure the will embraces it. Weak light produces weak inclinations, strong light, strong inclinations. A little spiritual light is of strength enough to answer strong objections of flesh and blood, and to see beyond all earthly allurements and opposing hindrances, presenting them as far inferior to those heavenly objects it beholds. All light that is not spiritual, because it lacks the strength of sanctifying grace, yields to every little temptation, especially when it is fitted and suited to personal inclinations. This is the reason why Christians that have light that is little for quantity, but heavenly for quality, persevere, when men of larger apprehensions sink. This prevailing of light in the soul is because, together with the spirit of illumination, there goes, in the godly, a spirit of power (2 Tim. 1:7) to subdue the heart to truth revealed, and to put a taste and relish into the will, suitable to the sweetness of the truth; otherwise a will that is merely natural will rise against supernatural truths, as having an antipathy and enmity against them. In the godly, holy truths are conveyed by way of a taste; gracious men have a spiritual palate as well as a spiritual eye. Grace alters the spiritual taste.
Thirdly, where this heavenly light is kindled, it directs in the right way. For it is given for that use, to show us the best way, and to guide us in the particular passages of life; otherwise, it is but common light, given only for the good of others. Some have light of knowledge, yet follow not that light, but are guided by carnal reason and policy, such as those the prophet speaks of, 'All ye that kindle a fire . . . walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow' (Isa. 50:11). God delights to confound carnal wisdom, as enmity to him, and robbing him of his prerogative, who is God only wise. We must, therefore, walk by his light, not the blaze of our own fire. God must light our candle (Psa. 18:28) or else we will abide in darkness. Those sparks that are not kindled from heaven are not strong enough to keep us from lying in sorrow, though they make a greater blaze and show than the light from above, as madmen do greater things than sober men, but by a false strength: so the excess of these men's joy arises from a false light. 'The light of the wicked shall be put out' (Job 18:5). The light which some men have is like lightning which, after a sudden flash, leaves them more in darkness. They can love the light as it shines, but hate it as it discovers and directs. A little holy light will enable us to keep Christ's Word, and not betray religion nor deny his name, as Christ speaks of the church of Philadelphia (Rev. 3:8).
Fourthly, where this fire is, it will sever things of diverse natures, and show a difference between such things as gold and dross. It will sever between flesh and spirit, and show that this is of nature, this of grace. All is not ill in a bad action, or good in a good action. There is gold in ore, which God and his Spirit in us can distinguish. A carnal man's heart is like a dungeon, wherein nothing is to be seen but horror and confusion. This light makes us judicious and humble, upon clearer sight of God's purity and our own uncleanness, and makes us able to discern the work of the Spirit in another.
Fifthly, so far as a man is spiritual, so far is light delightful to him. He is willing to see anything amiss that he may reform, and any further service discovered that he may perform, because he truly hates ill and loves good. If he goes against light discovered, he will soon be reclaimed, because light has a friendly party within him. Therefore, at a little sight of his error, he is soon open to counsel, as David was in his intention to kill Nabal; and he blessed God afterwards, when he was stopped in an ill way (1 Sam. 25:32).
In the case of a carnal man, the light breaks in on him, but he labors to block its entrance. He has no delight in coming to the light. It is impossible, before the Spirit of grace has subdued the heart, that it should not sin against the light, either by resisting it, or keeping it prisoner under base lusts and burying it, as it were, in the earth, or perverting it, and so making it an agent and factor for the flesh, in searching out arguments to plead for it, or abusing that little measure of light men have, so as to keep out a greater, higher, and more heavenly light. So, at length, they make the light they have a misleading guide to utter darkness. And the reason is because the light has no friend within. The soul is in a contrary frame, and light always hinders that sinful peace that men are willing to promise themselves. Hence we see that light often enrages men more, as the sun in spring time brings on feverish illnesses when it stirs up bodily humours rather than overcoming them.
There is nothing in the world more uneasy than the heart of a wicked man made to listen to spiritual instruction, until, like a thief, he puts out the candle so that he may sin with less restraint. Spiritual light is distinct. It apprehends spiritual good and applies it to ourselves; but common light is confused, and lets sin lie quiet. Where fire is, in any degree, it will fight everything contrary to it. God put irreconcilable hatred between light and darkness from the first; so also between good and ill, flesh and Spirit (Gal. 5:17). Grace will never join with sin, any more than fire with water. Fire will mingle with nothing contrary, but preserves its own purity, and is never corrupted as other elements are. Therefore, those that plead and plot for liberties for the flesh show themselves strangers from the life of God. Feeling this strife, gracious men often complain that they have no grace. But they contradict themselves in their complaints, as if a man that sees should complain he cannot see, or complain that he is asleep; whereas the very complaint, springing from a displeasure against sin, shows that there is something in him opposite to sin. Can a dead man complain? Some things, though bad in themselves, yet reveal good, as smoke reveals the presence of fire. A violent reaction in the body shows bodily vigor. Some infirmities show more good than some seemingly beautiful actions. Excess of passion in opposing evil, though not to be justified, yet shows a better spirit than a calm temper where there is just cause of being moved. It is better that the water should run somewhat muddily than not run at all. Job had more grace in his ill temper than his friends in their seemingly wise demeanor. Actions stained with some defects are more acceptable than empty compliments.
Sixthly, fire, where it is present, is in some degree active. So the least measure of grace works, as springing from the Spirit of God, who, from his operations, is compared to fire. Even in sins, when there seems nothing active but corruption, there is a contrary principle, which breaks the force of sin, so that it is not boundlessly sinful, as in those that are carnal (Rom. 7:13).
Seventhly, fire makes metals pliable and malleable. So grace, where it is given, makes the heart pliable and ready to receive all good impressions. Obstinate spirits show that they are not so much as smoking flax.
Eighthly, fire, as much as it can, sets everything on fire. So grace labors to produce a gracious impression in others, and make as many good as it can. Grace also makes a gracious use even of natural and civil things, and spiritualizes them. What another man does only in a civil way a gracious man will do holily. Whether he eats or drinks or whatsoever he does, he does all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), making everything serviceable to that ultimate end.
Ninthly, sparks by nature fly upwards. So the Spirit of grace carries the soul heaven ward and sets before us holy and heavenly aims. As it was kindled from heaven, so it carries us back to heaven. The part follows the whole: fire mounts upward, so every spark to its own element. Where the aim and bent of the soul is towards God, there is grace, though opposed. The least measure of it is seen in holy desires, springing from faith and love, for we cannot desire anything which we do not believe first to be, and the desire of it issues from love. Hence desires are counted a part of the thing desired, in some measure. But these desires must be (1) constant, for constancy shows that they are supernaturally natural, and not enforced; (2) directed to spiritual things, such as to believe, to love God, not because of a particular emergency, in that one thinks one might escape some danger if one had grace, but as a loving heart is carried to the thing loved for the sake of some excellency in it; (3) accompanied with grief when the desire is hindered, so as to stir us up to pray: 'Oh that my ways were directed that I might keep thy statutes!' (Psa. 119:5); 'O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me?' (Rom. 7:24); and (4) such desires as drive us onward still: 'Oh, that I might serve God with more liberty. Oh, that I were more free from these offensive, unsavory, hateful lusts!'
Tenthly, fire, if it has any matter to feed on, enlarges itself and mounts higher and higher, and, the higher it rises, the purer is the flame. So where true grace is, it grows in measure and purity. Smoking flax will grow to a flame; and, as it increases, so it discards what is contrary to itself and refines itself more and more. Ignis, quo magis lucet, eo minus fumat (As fire gives more light, it gives less smoke). Therefore, it argues a false heart to set ourselves a low standard in grace and to rest in beginnings, alleging that Christ will not quench the smoking flax. This merciful disposition in Christ is joined with perfect holiness, shown in perfect hatred to sin; for, rather than that sin should not have its deserved punishment, he became a sacrifice for sin. In this his Father's holiness and his own shone most of all. And besides this, in the work of sanctification, though he favors his work in us, yet he does not favor sin in us; for he will never take his hand from his work, until he has taken away sin, even in its very being, from our natures. The same Spirit that purified his holy human nature cleanses us by degrees to be suitable to so holy a Head, and frames the judgment and affections of all to whom he shows mercy to concur with his own, in laboring to further his end of abolishing sin out of our natures.
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