Essay / Theology

UnTrinitarian Discouragement (Sibbes)

Sibbes with Jughead hat cropped out

Richard Sibbes’ (1577–1635) book The Bruised Reed is an extended meditation on discouragement. Sibbes has penetrating insight into how grace and disgrace are always mingled in the life of the Christian. Following his wise counsel can deliver you from unrealistic optimism on the one hand and hopelessness on the other. The “bruised reed” in the title is a crushed plant which still has life in it: really bruised, but really alive, like so many believers. In Isaiah 42, it is paired with “smoking flax,” or a dimly-burning wick, which God promises his servant will not snuff out: because it’s really burning, even if if just barely and with lots of foul smoke. That’s the basic idea of the book, and Sibbes works it out with his characteristic verbal inventiveness and quotability. There’s gold on every page.

And because Sibbes connects every truth to all truth, he gets trinitarian in several passages. Right at the beginning he connects his main theme to the Trinity. Christ, according to Isaiah 42, is the chosen servant of God, on whom he puts his Spirit. “See here,” Sibbes points out, “for our comfort, a sweet agreement of all three persons: the Father gives a commission to Christ; the Spirit furnishes and sanctifies to it; and Christ himself executes the office of a Mediator.” In other words, “Our redemption is founded upon the joint agreement of all three persons of the Trinity.”

Around the middle of the book, Sibbes is considering why we ought to persevere in our known duties even when we are beset with discouragements. A large part of his argument consists in sorting out the origins of these two things, duties and discouragements. Duties come from God. Discouragements come from elsewhere. He has a whole list of elsewheres that they come from.

But the main point he wants to make is that they do not come from the Trinity. And I quote:

1. Not from the Father, for he has bound himself in covenant to pity us as a father pities his children (Psa. 103: 13) and to accept as a father our weak endeavors. And what is wanting in the strength of duty, he gives us leave to take up in his gracious indulgence. In this way we shall honor that grace in which he delights as much as in more perfect performances. Possibilitas tua mensura tua (What is possible to you is what you will be measured by).

2. Not from Christ, for he by office will not quench the smoking flax. We see how Christ bestows the best fruits of his love on persons who are mean in condition, weak in abilities, and offensive for infirmities, nay, for grosser falls. And this he does, first, because thus it pleases him to confound the pride of the flesh, which usually measures God’s love by some outward excellency; and secondly, in this way he delights to show the freedom of his grace and confirm his royal prerogative that ‘he that glorieth’ must ‘glory in the Lord’ (1 Cor. 1:31).

3. Neither do discouragements come from the Spirit. He helps our infirmities, and by office is a comforter (Rom. 8:26); John 14: 16). If he convinces of sin, and so humbles us, it is that he may make way for his office of comforting us.

In closing the section, Sibbes points to the source of these things: “Discouragements, then, must come from ourselves and from Satan, who labors to fasten on us a loathing of duty.” Being the opposite of duty, and coming from an opposed source, they make no part of an argument against duty. They are enemies of the Trinity.


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