Speaking of her servant Malvolio, Maria informs her guest, “Sir, sometimes he is is a kind of Puritan.” Her guest Sir Andrew replies, “Oh! If I thought that, I’d beat him like a dog!” To this Maria states, “The devil a Puritan that he is….so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him.” This exchange from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night sheds light on a least one contemporary view of Puritans. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter we see another portrayal. The Puritan minister Arthur Dimmesdale exclaims:
“God knows; and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be his name! His will be done! Farewell!” (23.35)
Such a caricature promotes the idea of the Puritan as a glutton for divine pain and suffering. However, nothing could be farther from the truth, especially with the Cambridge Puritan divine, Richard Sibbes.
In Sibbes’s Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax, readers are treated to a warm and uplifting offering of pastoral motivation. Such encouragement comes rooted in the sovereignty of God and the love of Christ, yet also offers readers a practical spirituality. For those in the midst of doubting or disturbance in their faith, Sibbes offers readers a firm yet gentle pastoral reply. In the first half of Bruised Reed, Sibbes describes in detail the nature and purpose of the bruised reed and the smoking flax—imagery taken directly from Isaiah 42:3. Contrary to claims that Sibbes was more concerned with justification rather than sanctification, Bruised Reed focuses on the sustaining love of the triune God while inviting readers to “pray…hear…strive…[and] do as we are able, according to the measure of grace received.”
Richard Sibbes was born in 1577 at Tostock, Suffolk. From an early age he was found with his nose buried in a book. His love of books and book-buying so distressed his father that he tried to offer him tools for wheel making instead (a not so subtle hint), but young Sibbes was not dissuaded. He entered St. John’s College in Cambridge, receiving a bachelors and masters of arts. He would later receive a bachelor of divinity as well as a doctor of divinity from Cambridge. He was known as the “heavenly doctor” based on his preaching and godliness. Izaac Walton once said of Sibbes, “Of this blest man, let this just praise be given, Heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.”
While an impassioned preacher, Sibbes was not an extreme controversialist. His encounters with doctrinal adversaries such as Roman Catholics and Arminians were exceptions rather than the rule. He remained faithful (perhaps reluctantly but unapologetically) to the Church of England yet through his relationships and ministry was able to influence the thinking of Presbyterian and Independent Puritans.
One interested person once wrote, “No writings in practical theology seem to have been so much read in the mid-seventeenth century among the pious English middle classes as those of Sibbes.” Of Sibbes’s sermons William Haler states, “[They were] the most brilliant and popular of all the utterances of the Puritan church militant.”
The Bruised Reed
In his preface to the text Sibbes says, “His main government is not for his own pleasure, but for our good. We are saved by a way of love, that love might be kindled by this way in us to God again; because this affection melteth the soul, and mouldeth it to all duty and acceptable manner of duty. It is love in duties that God regards, more than duties themselves.” Sibbes’s launches his pastoral project from this foundation of God’s love for man in Christ. The bruised reed, as Sibbes explains, is the “man that for the most part is in some misery…and by misery is brought to see sin the cause of it.” From here the bruised reed “is sensible of sin and misery, even unto bruising…seeing no help in himself, is carried with restless desire to have supply from another, with some hope, which a little raiseth him out of himself to Christ.” Though fears and doubts may be present due to corruption, this hope makes one a “smoking flax” in which Christ has come to fan the flame, not quench.
Christ is a gentle savior who did not come to break the backs of the weak, as “popery” tends to do, but rather carries the believer along though there may be pain and strife. Sibbes asserts, “[Christ] is a physician good at all diseases, especially at the binding up of a broken heart; he died that he might heal our souls with a plaster of his own blood, and by that death save us, which we were the procurers of ourselves, by our own sins.” Christ, like a physician, make need to cut and perform surgery. In this way he may wound, but he also heals. Sibbes provides readers with a list of signs to discern one’s bruising. First, the bruised recognizes the nature of their sin. From here man must see sin as “the greatest evil, and the favour of God the greatest good.”From here man is brought exceedingly low and humbled by the word of God. Lastly, a broken heart guides that one to “all sanctified means to convey comfort.”
From this point Sibbes encourages his readers to seek a measure of bruising for themselves. This comes in the form of recognizes God’s discipline. The obstinate are not bruised—they are broken. This bruising comes in the form of lament and turning to Christ alone for comfort. Sibbes states, “But all directions will not prevail, unless God by his Spirit convinceth us deeply, setting our sins before us, and driving us to stand. Then we will make our for mercy. Conviction will breed contrition, and this humiliation.” Sibbes wishes to convey the point that man has a duty to mortify sin, that is, make sin seem odious compared to the beautiful reality of God’s grace. Once again, though bruised, the believer is assured that Christ is the gentle shepherd rather than the harsh task-master.
The Smoking Flax
The smoking flax is the believer who needs the divine fanning to ignite the flame. Sibbes encourages readers to interpret the smoke as a sign of divine favor—any spark producing smoke is from God. However small the grace of the spark may seem, it is entirely from God and he will tend to it. Sibbes encourages readers to understand that though God will fan the flame, any such fire in this life will ultimately be mixed with smoke. Sibbes states, “The purest actions of the purest men need Christ to perfume them, and so is his office.”Christ recognizes the impurity of his disciples, yet will “cherisheth even the least beginnings.” Here is the crux of the gospel—Christ inaugurates and carries us through by grace. Sibbes exclaims, “It is better to enjoy the benefit of light, though with smoke, than to be altogether in the dark.”
It is the duty of pastors to help fan the flame, not extinguish the spark. Here we see a glimpse of Sibbe’s anti-Roman polemic: “That power that is given to the church is given for edification, not destruction.”Sibbes accuses Rome with confounding the two covenants, making what should be the covenant of grace like the one of works, saying that “it deads the comfort of the drooping ones.”Ministers of the gospel are to look evidences of eternity in a person, not damnation. Sibbes states, “Some think it strength of grace to endure nothing in the weaker, wheras the strongest are readiest to bear with the infirmities of the weak.” Such is the ministry of Christ, so shall it be for his ministers. Though Christ cares for even the weakest of believers, Sibbes propels readers to action. He states, “[We] should take heed of a spirit of discouragement in all other holy duties, since we have so gracious a Saviour. Pray as we are able, hear as we are able, strive as we are able, do as we are able, according to the measure of grace received. God in Christ will cast a gracious yet upon that which is his own.” Though discouragement may be present, believers must continue in the exercise of means, that is, drawing near to God through godly action. According to Sibbes, grace propels believers to seek after more grace. Even the faintest smoky flax will wish to do so.
Deflating all cultural conceptions of Puritanism, Richard Sibbes and The Bruised Reed provides an apologetic for the pastoral concern and vibrant spirituality of Puritan thought and practice. We see in this work a wonderful piece of pastoral rhetoric, intended to encourage the believer and woo him or her towards their savior. He begins with Isaiah 42:3 and explains how Christ carries an individual through from first grace to glory. Sibbes spurs believers towards piety based on the sovereignty of God and grace in Christ. The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax serves as a paragon of Puritan pastoral encouragement and will continue to aid believers and pastors alike for generations to come.