Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Bruised Reed: A Reader’s Guide to a Christian Classic

The Bruised Reed

Some sentences can change your life. One written four hundred years ago changed mine: “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us” (Works of Richard Sibbes, 1:47).

The author was one of the greatest preachers of the Puritan age, Richard Sibbes (1577–1635), and the sentence is found in his greatest book, The Bruised Reed, in which he “scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands,” as Charles Spurgeon put it (Lectures to My Students, 778). That sentence, and that book, ignited in me a passion to spend time every month reading dead pastors, like Sibbes, who point me to the living Christ. The Bruised Reed just might do the same for you.

‘Sweet Dropper’

Sibbes was born in Suffolk, England, in 1577, and grew up in a Christian home. He began his studies at Cambridge at the age of 18. After he was converted to Christ in 1603, he began to faithfully minister the gospel to others. Over the next three decades, those who heard Sibbes preach in Cambridge and London often called him “The Sweet Dropper,” because of his tenderhearted gift of “unfolding and applying the great mysteries of the gospel in a sweet way” (Works, 3:4).

After receiving his doctorate of divinity from Cambridge in 1627, he was often referred to as the “heavenly Doctor Sibbes,” on account of his heavenly minded life and doctrine. A couplet was written about him upon his death on July 6, 1635, at the age of 58: “Of that good man let this high praise be given: Heaven was in him before he was in heaven” (Meet the Puritans, 535).

Sibbes regularly wrote out his sermons, leaving behind over two million words on paper. But The Bruised Reed is far and away his best-remembered and most-treasured book. It’s considered a classic of Puritan devotion, a paradigm of practical divinity. It’s easy to see why.

The book is a Christ-exalting exposition and application of Isaiah 42:3, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” Following Matthew’s lead (Matthew 12:18–20), Sibbes understands this prophetic text about the servant of the Lord, the one in whom God delights, and upon whom the Spirit dwells (Isaiah 42:1), to be fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Over the course of sixteen brief chapters, Sibbes unfolds his argument in three parts: (1) Christ will not break the bruised reed; (2) Christ will not quench the smoking flax (or “burning wick”); (3) Christ will not do either of these things until he has sent forth judgment into victory.

Balm for Weary Believers

Why might Christians today read this book written by a preacher in London nearly four centuries ago?

For this reason: since its initial publication in 1630, countless weary Christians have found The Bruised Reed to be full of encouragement for the downcast and full of strength for the weak — because it is full of Jesus Christ, the merciful and mighty Savior of sinners.

In his book Preaching and Preachers, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “I shall never cease to be grateful to Richard Sibbes who was balm to my soul at a period in my life when I was overworked and badly overtired, and therefore subject in an unusual manner to the onslaughts of the devil. . . . The ‘Heavenly Doctor Sibbes’ was an unfailing remedy. . . . The Bruised Reed quieted, soothed, comforted, encouraged and healed me” (Preaching and Preachers, 186–87).

The seventeenth-century Puritan pastor Richard Baxter, reflecting upon his childhood, said that God used The Bruised Reed to effect his own conversion to Christ. It “opened the love of God to me and gave me a livelier apprehension of the mystery of redemption, and how much I was beholden to Jesus Christ” (Richard Sibbes, vii).

Christ, Strong and Tender

According to Sibbes, Christians encounter spiritual trouble by failing to consider “the gracious nature and office of Christ,” which is “the spring of all service to Christ, and comfort from him.” In other words, in The Bruised Reed Sibbes labors to help forgiven sinners behold afresh the “wonderful sweetness of pity and love” found in the merciful heart of Christ (Works, 1:38). “What mercy may we not expect from so gracious a mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), who took our nature upon him that he might be gracious. He is a physician good at all diseases, especially at the binding up of a broken heart” (Works, 1:45).

Sibbes wrote this book for “bruised reeds,” for heartbroken, distressed, and discouraged Christians. He shows from God’s word that Christ will neither break them nor quench them; instead, he cherishes them. Sibbes beckons the hurting and weary Christian to look to Christ for comfort and strength, knowing that since he has finished his work for us, he will most certainly finish his work in us. By looking to Christ, “we see salvation not only strongly wrought, but sweetly dispensed by him” (Works, 1:40).

In the prophecy of Isaiah 42:3, Christ is described as a tender Savior who gently loves and mercifully bears with the failings of the weak. And at the same time, in this text God also promises to provide omnipotent grace in Christ to bring forth victory on behalf of his people (Works, 1:40).

“We are weak, but we are his” (Works, 1:71).

Prayers of the Exhausted

Any careful reader of The Bruised Reed will notice how consistently Sibbes focuses on looking away from oneself to the God of all comfort. God “would have us know that he sets himself in the covenant of grace to triumph in Christ over the greatest evils and enemies we fear . . . and that there are heights, and depths, and breadths of mercy in him above all the depths of our sin and misery” (Works, 1:39).

Our sins are the sins of men, but Christ’s mercy is the mercy of an infinite God. The blood of Christ cries louder than the guilt of our sin (Works, 1:89). This gracious heart of Christ is what Sibbes seeks to show to his readers on every page. When we see this merciful and mighty Christ, revealed in the wondrous grace of his gospel, we find strength to serve him for his glory.

But Sibbes is quick to admit that Christians often fail, and become spiritually exhausted. Listen to how he applies the glories of Isaiah 42:3 to the believer who feels weary and heavy laden in the discipline of prayer:

The Spirit helps our infirmities with “groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26), which are not hid from God. “My groaning is not hid from thee” (Psalm 38:9). God can make sense out of a confused prayer. . . . God accepts our prayers, though weak, because we are his own children, and they come from his own Spirit, because they are according to his own will, and because they are offered in Christ’s mediation. . . . There is never a holy sigh, never a tear we shed, which is lost. (Works, 1:65–66)

God of Pure Grace

According to Sibbes, Christ is “pure grace clothed with our nature” (Works, 4:519). And because he has committed to “bring forth judgment into victory” in our lives, by his grace we ought to respond by using the means of grace he has made available to us in the local church. “When we draw near to Christ (James 4:8), in his ordinances, he draws near to us.”

We fight and strive by grace, but Sibbes reminds us that the victory, ultimately, lies not with us, but with Christ, who conquers for us and in us. We strive to be “strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might” alone (Ephesians 6:10). “Christ will not leave us till he has made us like himself, all glorious within and without, and presented us blameless before his Father (Jude 24). What a comfort this is in our conflicts with our unruly hearts, that it shall not always be thus! Let us strive a little while, and we shall be happy forever” (Works, 1:98).

Faith prevails because faith unites the sinner to the Savior of sinners. It is not the strength of our faith that saves; it is weak faith in a strong Christ. “A little thing in the hand of a giant will do great things. A little faith strengthened by Christ will work wonders” (Works, 1:84).

Why read The Bruised Reed? Because you need to be reminded that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in you.

from Desiring God
via DG