Richard Sibbes, like so many of his peers, was a man of humble origins. He was born in 1577 in Tostock, Suffolk, the first-born son of a wheelwright. In 1595, against his father’s wishes that he carry on the family trade, Sibbes joined St John’s College, Cambridge. Though of his own spiritual progress we know little, we do know that he undoubtedly heard the preaching of William Perkins in Cambridge, and that he was ultimately converted under the ministry of Perkins’ successor, Paul Baynes. After earning his B.D. in 1610, he was appointed as a lecturer at Holy Trinity in Cambridge, a position from which he was relieved five years later because of his Puritan tendencies. Sibbes, however, had by then become widely known for his preaching, and through the influence of some powerful friends, in 1617 he was chosen to be the preacher at Gray’s Inn, one of the most influential pulpits in London. At Gray’s Inn, Sibbes’ eminence and influence as a preacher continued to grow, to the extent that his foes did not dare move against him. In 1626, he came back to Cambridge as Master of St Catherine’s Hall, while retaining his position at Gray’s Inn. And in 1633, he returned to Holy Trinity, this time by crown appointment ‘to its perpetual curacy’. Sibbes continued his preaching ministry both there and at Gray’s Inn, as well as maintaining his duties at St Catherine’s. until his death on 5th July 1635, at the age of 58.
During his lifetime, Sibbes authorised the publishing of only three volumes of his work. One is a treatise entitled The Soul’s Conflict with Itself and Victory over itself by Faith, and the other two are collections of sermons under the titles The Saint’s Safety in Evil Times and The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax. Both The Soul’s Conflict and The Saint’s Safety are able works, exposing their author as a master at the practical application of Scripture and theology. But it is in The Bruised Reed that we find crystallised the foundation and essence of Sibbes’ own ministry and preaching.
Though well written and reasoned, The Bruised Reed is far from a scholarly treatise. It was originally published as ‘Some Sermons contracted out of the 12. of Matth. 20.’ It was not written in the heat of academic debate, but in the heat of pastoral concern, as the title page continues: ‘At the desire, and for the good of weaker Christians.’ But Sibbes writes armed with more than just a pastor’s concern. He writes with a physician’s skill, for he knows the true cause of his readers’ woes and symptoms, and wastes no time in directing them to the cure:
having had occasion lately of some fresh thoughts concerning this argument, by dealing with some, the chief ground of whose trouble was the want of considering the gracious nature and office of Christ; the right conceit of which is the spring of all service to Christ, and comfort from him. [This and all subsequent quotations from Sibbes are drawn from The Bruised Reed.]
Our purpose is to understand from The Bruised Reed this experiential process by which Christ is apprehended and applied by the believer, and thereby to understand why Christ is so magnified by Sibbes. To accomplish this we shall first consider how Sibbes undertakes to convince his readers that their wrong conceit of themselves is the true source of their misery, for such a wrong conceit will never allow Christ to be rightly understood or appreciated. Once the wound is lanced and the true position uncovered, we shall then observe Sibbes’ description of the way Christ heals and saves us by exercising the offices of prophet, priest and king on our behalf. Finally, we shall consider the particularly powerful way in which Sibbes applies these truths concerning Christ to his readers to their great benefit.