Puritans vs Quakers

nuttallI recently finished Geoffrey Nuttall’s The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience. It was overall a very helpful book on understanding some of the key theological and practical issues that 17th century Puritans and their opponents were wrestling with. Throughout the book Nuttall compares the conservative Puritans and nonconformists (largely though not exclusively relying on Sibbes, Petto, Owen, Baxter, T Goodwin, and Howe), the “radical Puritans” and Separatists (Saltmarsh,
Llwyd, Ebury), and the Quakers (Fox, Dewsbury).

One of the dividing lines between Puritans and Quakers was the relationship between the Spirit and the Word. The Puritans followed Calvin (see my past blog ) in the indivisible connection between the Spirit of God and the Word of God, whereas George Fox and the Quakers allowed for a separation between the two. What this led too in the Quakers was an elevating the Spirit within over the Word of God that we’ve received, which then quickly progressed to a trust in inner impulses over the written and authoritative Word of God. The relationship between the Spirit and the Word wasn’t a 17th century matter but is a Church matter…in every century (see past blog on Spirit and Word in Acts). How does God speak to us, lead us, and open our eyes? How does the written Word become alive in our hearts and minds? Do we trust first something inside of us which may or may not be the Spirit or do we trust first what we know is the Spirit since He has spoken through the inspired Word? These are questions that aren’t talked about enough in churches today but are absolutely essential for how we live the Christian life. Here are a few important thoughts and quotes from the book on the relationship between the Spirit and the Word as a fault-line between Puritans and Quakers.

Nuttall summarizes the Puritan’s stance as follows: “The normal, central emphasis throughout Puritanism is upon the closest conjunction of Spirit and Word” (23). What this means, in sum, is that God’s Spirit always speaks to us today in, by, or through the Word of God. Also, the Word of God, written or spoken, is only made effective or enlightened in the reader/hearer by the Spirit’s illumination of the Word. This means the Spirit and the Word always work in tandem. The Spirit has spoken authoritatively and infallibly through the Word, and the Word needs the Spirit’s illumination for it to penetrate our minds and hearts. This neither set the Spirit over the Word nor do it set the two in opposition. Rather, since it is the Spirit who inspired the Word we cannot and should not imagine the Spirit now contradicting himself or setting up a different authority. Richard Sibbes explains it like this: “the breath of the Spirit in us is suitable to the Spirit’s breathing in the Scriptures; the same Spirit doth not breathe contrary motions” (23).

This is immensely helpful in testing our faith and experience. How do we test something we feel “led to do” or we think “God is saying to us” through an internal prompting? “Hitherto, God’s Word in Scripture has been treated as the criterion by which to test faith and experience. Now, the Holy Spirit is introduced as the touchstone by which all else is to be tried, including the Bible itself….Throughout the years from 1650 onwards there is a perpetual controversy, whether the Word is to be tried by the Spirit, or the Spirit by the Word” (28). Here Nuttall summarizes the issue between the two groups: do we test the internal Spirit by the external Word or do we test the Word by the Spirit? In other words, do we take our internal promptings we suggest are from the Spirit and submit them to the Word of God, or do we validate the Word of God by what we feel or experience as an internal leading?

The author continues: “Cause for sorrow arose from the Quakers tendency to contrast (as it seemed) even to oppose the Spirit in themselves to the Spirit in the Word, and to treat the former, not the latter, as the criterion. One chief charge against them was the charge which had already been brought against the Grindletonians, namely, that they held ‘that their spirit is not to be tried by the Scripture, but the Scripture by their spirit.’ The Associated Ministers of Cumberland and Westmorland, for instance, complained of the Quakers that ‘the Scripture binds not them, if not set on their hearts by a present impulse” (30).

We can see here both a theological and a practical problem. The theological problem was noticed by Sibbes and will be exposed in the next couple of Puritan quotes. It is that the Spirit of God has authoritatively and infallibly spoken in the Word of God so he would not speak differently in us. Because our internal promptings are not infallible and harder to discern what is from us and what is from the Spirit we must test them by the Word of God. The Spirit and the Word are inseparable and so the Spirit will be consistent in what he says. The practical problem is this quickly tumbles into a blind approval of one’s sinful desires and actions. If the Scripture is no longer binding, and what is binding is a present impulse in my heart, than it quickly becomes easy to dismiss what God’s Word has plainly stated in favor of what my heart wants. There is always a connection between separating the Spirit and the Word and rise of Antinomianism. The same link in the Quakers was the same link in the Antinomians of the 17th century. The Puritans were not only safeguarding the connection between the Word and the Spirit but they were promoting the holiness of the Church. Here are a few quotes typical of Puritan responses.

John Owen insists on the conjunction between the two: “he that would utterly separate the Spirit from the Word had as good burn his Bible” (31). Richard Hollinworth writes: “God’s people are led by the Spirit, when they are led by the word inspired by the Spirit, and they are taught by God, when taught by His Book” (31). Richard Baxter is clear about which source to trust if we feel any discrepancy between the Spirit in the Word and the Spirit in our hearts. “We must not try the Scriptures by our most spiritual apprehensions, but our apprehensions by the Scriptures…This trying [testing] the Spirit by the Scriptures, is not a setting of the Scriptures above the Spirit itself; but is only a trying of the Spirit by the Spirit; that is, the Spirit’s operations in ourselves and his revelations to any pretenders now, by the Spirit’s operations in ourselves and his revelations to any pretenders now, by the Spirit’s operations in the apostles and by their revelations for our use. For they and not we are called foundations of the church” (32).

Finally, John Howe provides his thoughts on the matter. “It’s not that God doesn’t speak extraordinarily to people, but that this is both not what is ordinary and to be expected and even in extraordinary cases it is never against what He has already spoken in the Word. “We speak here not of what God can do, but of what he does do…Nor do we speak of what he more rarely does but of he does ordinarily, or what his more usual course and way of procedure is in dealing with the spirits of men. The supreme power binds not his own hands. We may be sure the inward testimony of the Spirit is never opposite to the outward testimony of his gospel which is the Spirit’s testimony also;…he never says anything in this matter by his Spirit to the hearts of men repugnant to what the same Spirit has said in his word” (33).

Here are a few implications from this discussion.

  • The Spirit and the Word are inseparably joined. The Spirit will speak to us by, in, and through the very same Word that He inspired and we also need the Spirit to be the one speaking to us when we open the Word. The Spirit will never speak or lead us contrary to the Word and we should not expect him to speak to us apart form the Word. Conversely, the Word is illuminated by the Spirit and so we must ask his help to take what He’s said and drive  it into our minds and hearts.
  • Test what you feel or think you experience by the Word. Any leadings, impulses, or speaking by God internally to you must be tested against and judged by the sure Word of God. God might be prompting you internally but it also might not be God, so test the internal Spirit in you by the external Spirit in the Word.
  • Be wary of modern movement that downplay the authority of the Word for life and godliness. Some of the present forms (emphasis on some) of free-grace antinomianism and “new covenant theology” tend to separate the Spirit and the Word so that we rely too much on our internal leadings and not enough on God’s fixed Word. The Spirit of adoption who speaks to us is the Spirit of sanctification that changes us. The Spirit that applies grace to our hearts is the same Spirit that leads us into making war on the flesh, pursuing conformity to Christ, and enjoying communion with Christ.


All quotations are from Geoffrey F. Nuttall. The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1947.

Philippians and Richard Baxter

This week my church begins preaching through the book of Philippians for the rest of the summer. The opening section gives a glimpse into the heart of Paul for the believers in Philippi. While the beginning of Philippians shows us more of the Apostle Paul it also shows us what hearts united in the gospel feel for one another. The love for Jesus and “partnership in the gospel” (Phil. 1:5) lead to holding one another in our hearts (1:7) and yearning for one another with the affection of Christ Jesus (1:9). As I read Geoffrey Nuttall’s The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience I stumbled upon a letter from Richard Baxter. This short snippet from Baxter’s letter (1658) to Barbara Lambe demonstrates how Baxter, maybe the most pastoral of Puritan pastors, also shared a love for other believers he never met that is created by a mutual partnership in the gospel and common bond in Jesus Christ. After Baxter received a letter from Mrs. Lambe he responded with the following.

“Dear Mrs. Lambe,
How true did I feel it in the reading of your Husband’s Lines and yours…that unacquaintedness with the face is no hindrance to the Communion of the Saints. So much of Christ and his Spirit appeared to me in both your writings, that my soul in the reading of them was drawn out into as strong a stream of love, and closing unity of Spirit, as almost ever I felt in my life. There is a connaturality [relationship created because of the same origin] of Spirit in the Saints that will work by sympathy, and by closing uniting inclinations…as a load-stone will exercise its attractive force through a stone wall. I have an inward sense in my soul, that told me so feelingly in the reading of your lines, that your husband and you and I are one in our dear Lord…”

[1] Geoffrey F. Nuttall, The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), 143.

A Framework For Understanding Puritanism

pilgrimThis famous picture by William Blake of John Bunyan’s character in The Pilgrim’s Progress highlights some key ideas in the mind of a Puritan. He’s on a pilgrimage away from the city of destruction under God’s wrath and headed towards his true home, sin and guilt are heavy on his back, and his eyes are fixed on the Word of God which is leading his path. That’s one quick snapshot of how a Puritan might have understood his spiritual journey. As almost every book and article on Puritanism explains in its first few pages, defining a Puritan or the movement of Puritanism is challenging. It wasn’t a monolithic movement, it spanned more than one hundred years and multiple countries, and the focus varied over time and in different locations. For that reason, most authors are hesitant to actually define Puritanism and instead they’ll offer characteristics.

The English Reformation essentially lasted from 1520-1558 and Puritanism essentially lasted from 1558-1689, although there is much more overlap between the two. An extended timeline on English Puritanism can be found at Christian History. Here are a few lists of characteristics and descriptions of Puritanism. They might not capture everything but they go a long way in conceptually building a framework of Puritanism.

“Puritanism must be understood in two ways: first, as the endeavor to effect thoroughgoing reforms of ecclesiastical practice, and second, as the attempt at a godly life.” [1]
“Puritansim was essentially a movement for church reform, pastoral renewal and evangelism, and spiritual revival.” [2]
“A ‘Puritan’ was one who, politically, reacted against the via media of the Elizabethan Settlement in favor of a more thorough reformation in England; who, socially, promoted evangelism, catechism, and spiritual nourishment through the preaching and teaching of the Bible; who, theologically, held the views of Luther’s doctrine of faith (sola fide), Calvin’s doctrine of grace (sola gratia), and the Reformers’ doctrine of Scripture (sola scriptura); and who, devotionally, strove for personal holiness, a practical faith, communion with God, and the glory of God in all things.” [3]

Characteristics from Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken
1) A religious movement (characterized by a strong moral consciousness)
2) A reform movement (reformation of self, church, and state)
3) A visionary movement (a vision of a reformed society)
4) A protest movement (against Roman Catholicism and at times Anglicanism)
5) A minority movement (minority of population; persecuted minority)
6) A lay movement (the lay Puritan participated in all these characteristics)
7) A biblical movement (the Bible was central to everything)
8) A political and economic movement (politics and religion were intertwined)

7 Characteristics from The Devoted life by Kapic & Gleason
1) A movement of spirituality.
2) Stressed experiencing communion with God.
3) The Bible was the sole authority and supreme source for truth and guidance in life.
4) Augustinian in their emphasis upon human sinfulness and divine grace.
5) Emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life.
6) Troubled by sacramentalism of Catholicism and its remnants in Anglicanism.
7) At least partially a revival (reform) movement.

[1] Ernest Kevan, The Grace of Law, 305.
[2] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 28.
[3] Brian Cosby, “Towards A Definition of ‘Puritan’ and ‘Puritanism,'” 307.

Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (chapters 7-8)

sibbesI’ve been blogging my way through The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. It’s only a couple of chapters a week and I’m now halfway through the short book. Books are like movies in that it’s hard not to make your most recent favorite your all-time favorite. The temptation to overstate things notwithstanding, this is quickly becoming one of my favorite books. Sibbes was known as “the sweet dropper” and throughout this book the sweetness of the gospel is thick. He wrote against the Catholic (“popish”) remains in religion such as a reliance upon external behaviors without consideration of the sincerity of the heart and ritualistic forms of penance instead of genuine repentance. Later Puritans outside a heavy Catholic context would write with other issues at the forefront.

In Chapter 7 of The Bruised Reed, Sibbes addresses two main concerns. First, he investigates some things that might hinder comfort, and secondly, he answers the question whether our weaknesses should keep us from our Christian duties. In the first section, he addresses four ways our comfort and assurance might be hindered in the person who is a “smoking flax.” Whither those hindrances come from Satan or from within the answer is the same: fly to Jesus and open up your complaints to him. As he mentions earlier in the book when discussing the bruised reed, Sibbes here mentions that remaining sin and a struggle of comfort can be an opportunity to be honest about our helpless estate and lean harder upon the mercy and supply of Christ. The realization of the weakness of the flesh can lead to a more steadfast watching and purging of the flesh, and a thirst for pardoning grace from God. The bright compassion and grace of Christ can be seen more clearly against the backdrop of our dark hearts. Furthermore, the fact that there is in us a discontent with our weak state of grace and an unhappiness to remain might conflict us in the moment but it gives comfort by its evidence that we are not happy in our sin. Such is a mark of the work of the Spirit in us.

In the second section of chapter 7 he encourages believers to keep performing their duties even when they don’t feel like it. Though their faith might be weak and they struggle to believe anything they do might actually change the situation or be pleasing to God, don’t let feelings trump the truth. Having seen the compassion of Christ to a bruised reed and smoking flax throughout the whole book, “it should encourage us to duty that Christ will not quench the smoking flax, but blow on it till it flames” (50). The image their is striking. Though there is but a spark of grace in us, Christ will stir this spark into flame by gently breathing into it. Sibbes gives the example of prayer. Although our efforts in prayer might be weak and our thoughts unclear and confused as we pray, this should not keep us from praying. Weakness in prayer is always better than not praying, and the same is true in all Christian duties. “Christ looks more at the good in them which he means to cherish than the ill in them which he means to abolish…Christ loves to taste of the good fruits that come from us, even though they will always savour of our old nature” (50). Going back to the example of prayer, Sibbes preached these words to his congregation: “There is never a holy sigh, never a tear we shed, which is lost. And as every grace increases by exercise of itself, so does the grace of prayer. By prayer we learn to pray” (51).

In chapter 8 Sibbes asks where these discouragements come from. From what he’s already said about God he reasons with us that these discouragements cannot come from the Father, the Son, or the Spirit. They cannot come from the Father because he will “pity us as a father pities his children (Psa. 103:13)” (56). They cannot come from Christ. “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” (56). And finally, they cannot come from the Spirit because he is our 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” (57). That conviction is quite different from the discouragement the author has in mind. So, if they do not come from God then what is the source? “Discouragements, then, must come from ourselves and from Satan” (57).

The next chapter-“Believe Christ, Not Satan”-will continue on with this line of thought. In his last sentence Sibbes exhorts us to flee from our Accuser and run to our Advocate. “In time of temptation, believe Christ rather than the devil. Believe truth from truth itself. Hearken not to a liar, an enemy and a murderer” (61).

Stephen Charnock on God’s Eternality & Immutability: It Matters

CharnockI get it. Thinking about the attributes of God can be tough work, but it is work with a payoff. As our minds do the heavy lifting our hearts reap the benefits of bigger affections. We often think of God in small, bland, and largely insignificant terms. We bring God to our level as we construct our view of him by tiny, often misguided thoughts. Thinking biblically—i.e., theologically—quickly leads to our view of God being shattered as we see him getting larger and larger in immensity, glory, and holiness.

Thinking through God’s attributes also helps us know how God relates to us. A firmer grasp on who God is directly relates to who God is for me. Most of God’s self-revelation in Scripture is relational, or covenantal. God explains himself in the context of how he relates to his creation, especially his own people. The fact that God reveals himself not primarily in philosophical or scientific terms but in relational terms should convince us he wants our theology about him to directly influence our relationship with him.[1}

I’ve started slowly reading A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.[2] Is there any other way to read the Puritans than slowly? Chapter 4 concentrates on Stephen Charnock’s (1628-1680) Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God. Charnock, like any good theologian, doesn’t talk about God’s attributes in isolation from each other as if sometimes God is more of one attribute than the other. Instead, God is all of his attributes to their fullest extent at once. Furthermore, these attributes are actually God’s essence. God isn’t simply loving, but he is love. “For though we conceive the essence of God as the subject, and the attributes of God as faculties and qualities in that subject, according to our weak model…yet truly and really there is no distinction between his essence and attributes; one is inseparable from the other. His power and wisdom are is his essence.”[3]

God’s eternity teaches that there never was a time when he was not. There is no beginning or end to God. “His duration is as endless as his essence is boundless.”[4] Here is one description Charnock provides.

“[God] is not in his essence this day what he was not before, or will be the next day and year what he is not now. All his perfections are most perfect in him every moment; before all ages, after all ages. As he hath his whole essence undivided in every place, as well as in an immense space; so he hath all his being in one moment of time, as well as in infinite intervals of time….He is what he always was, and he is what he always will be.” [5]

As the quote indicates, there is a clear synthesis between God’s eternality and God’s immutability. God always has and will exist (eternal) and he always has and will exist in the fullness of his perfections (immutable). There is no change in God because he eternally exists as the whole essence of all his perfections which are “most perfect in him every moment.” Beeke and Jones quote Charnock to explain how these two attributes of God relate. “Immutability in God is a ‘glory belonging to all the attributes of God.’ God has attributes and perfections that are different, but ‘immutability is the center wherein they all unite.’ What God is, He is eternally and unchangeably.”[6]

Doctrine for Life
Let’s briefly consider how God’s eternality and immutability are what the subtitle of the book suggests, doctrine for life. If God is all of his perfections perfectly—all the time—then I never have to pit his attributes against one another. Nor should I worry if at any given moment he is acting out one of his attributes more than the other. Because every person I know is the opposite of this, unless I intentionally remind myself God is not like us I will think of him in finite and false terms. For example, how I treat you might depend on not only the day but the moment you run into me. If I had some great coffee and an easy drive into work, then I’ll probably be in a good mood and so I’ll act with more grace and patience than normal. However, if my morning gets off to a rough start or the day goes south quickly, then you’re more likely to get the impatient and graceless me.

When I’m not thinking rightly about God I start believing his relationship with me and how he treats me must be similar. Maybe God’s had enough of my failings and is tired of me not getting it—and so I imagine I’m in danger of God deciding to give up or lash out on me. When trials or seemingly avoidable pains are placed on my path I can quickly conclude God is not as good or caring as he used to be. Our faith operates from our theology, and unfortunately our theology often starts to err as it’s built upon false thoughts from our own minds instead of truthful thoughts from the mouth of God (Bible). This is why theology is vital for all Christians. We study the Bible so we can know God better and more rightly.

The truth is it takes work on our part to think of God rightly and not piece together a view of God based upon how fallen people act and upon my own thinking and assumptions. Studying God’s eternality and immutability does me good because it reminds me God is not like me or anyone else I’ve come across. He doesn’t relate to me according to up and down moods he’s in but according to his unchanging and perfect character. If he is perfect in all his attributes and is them perfectly all the time, then I can trust he always deals with me according to his goodness, care, and love. In the midst of either frustratingly confusing circumstances or unbearable pain I might not have answers as to the why but I know the Who. During seasons of life where things seem trivial, or where “darkness hides his lovely face,” or even when our hearts are bursting with gratitude, I can know that God has not changed and he is not being anything other than the fullness of God. As James tells us, there is no variation or shifting shadows in God (James 1:17). In you and I, yes; but not in God. That type of theology not only evokes adoration in the moment but it sustains us for a lifetime.

For Christians who tend to shrink because of weak hearts, doubting minds, troubling fears, or soft consciences, we would do well to commit ourselves to studying God’s attributes—especially his love, grace, compassion, and care. As we start to grow in our theology of what God is really like it becomes an immense encouragement to know he is all those attributes all of the time to their fullest extent. God is always all of his perfect perfections.

[1]. This of course isn’t to suggest God’s self-revelation doesn’t involve philosophy or science, and it certainly doesn’t suggest God is not accurate in his revelation. It simply conveys that God’s revelation comes in the context of relationship. He reveals Himself as Maker, Sovereign, and Redeemer.
[2]. Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).
[3]. Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God (London: Thomas Tegg, 1840), 242. Found in A Puritan Theology, 65.
[4]. Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 175-76. Found in A Puritan Theology, 63.
[5]. Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 178. Found in A Puritan Theology, 63
[6]. A Puritan Theology, 64. Emphasis mine.

The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes (ch. 3-4)


This week, I’ll combine my summary of chapters 3-4 of The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. In these two small chapters the author begins to explain what is meant by the second metaphor of the book, “the smoking flax.” To review, the book is based upon the messianic description of Jesus from Matthew 18:21.

18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (ESV)

The ESV says, “a smoldering wick he will not quench,” but Sibbes goes with the wording as “the smoking flax he will not quench.” Sibbes sees this phrase as referring to those who experiencing a “little measure of grace, and that little mixed with much corruption” (16). Or, you might think of it as the smoldering wick/smoking flax are whose faith is present but the flame is just flickering. This might be a season or it might be where they are after conversion, but Sibbes seems to be referring to those whose faith isn’t yet where they would like it to be. He then uses paragraph after paragraph to demonstrate the compassion of Christ in how he loves, cares for, and fans into flame the smallest sparks of grace in us.

In fact, Sibbes reminds all of us that there is always a mixture of grace and corruption in us (this side of heaven). Just like earlier he said God bruises us so that reeds might know they are reeds and not oaks, here also he reminds us that corruption is not taken away at conversion so we might continually see our need for Christ. “The purest actions of the purest men need Christ to perfume them” (18). We are indeed being refined, “but not so exactly as that no dross remains…Perfect refining is for another world, for the world of the souls of perfect men” (25).

Unfortunately, remaining sin robs many believers from the assurance God desires for them. In Chapter 3 Sibbes shepherds us with the caution not to look to our sanctification but to our justification to know that we are secure in Christ. Subsequently in chapter 4 he offers two reasons why Christ will not quench the smoking flax:
1) The spark is his own; kindled by the Spirit.
2) It leads to his glory in how he preserves light in the midst of darkness.

Several examples are given of how Jesus patiently loved and even sought out those with but a little spark: Thomas in his doubt, the two wavering disciples on Emmaus, Peter in his denials, and the churches in Revelation. Using the example in Matthew 15:32, he writes, “Christ’s heart yearned…when he saw the people without meat, ‘lest they faint in the way;’ much more will have regard for the preventing of our spiritual fainting” (21). Sibbes knows the heart of man all too well and admits we do not often treat others with such grace, and in fact our natural tendency is to quench the smoldering wick. It should not be so, which is why he sets for the example of Jesus and calls us to mirror him our grace and kindness to Christians in their weaknesses. This proves difficult, because some are need of the rod, but we must be careful not to give the rod to those who need us coming in meekness.

Sibbes doesn’t simply move from the perceived “problem” of a smoking wick to the “solution” of a strong flame. Many of us, like me, are too quick to see sin as a problem needing fixed and the ultimate goal being our maturity as disciples. While sin does need eradicated and we do need to grow like “oaks in righteousness”, it is even more important that we meet Christ in our sin as the one who draws near and helps us out. Richard Sibbes tells us in plain words that even our sin must not be missed as an opportunity to experience our need for Christ and his unrivaled sufficiency. “Where Christ shows his great power in weakness, he does it by letting men understand themselves so far as to breed humility, and magnify God’s love to such as they are” (23). Later he echoes the sentiment that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. “Christ refuses none for weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged, but accepts none for greatness, that none should be lifted up with that which is of so little reckoning with God” (23). In all four chapters this theme has been sounded loud and clear. God is not impressed and attracted to us when we think we’ve performed well, nor is he disappointed and driven away when we think we’ve been utter failures. Our greatest problem remains our sin, and yet when we confess our sin to God it can be used as our greatest comfort, God’s grace. “Nothing in the world is of so good use as the least grain of grace” (18).

Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (chapter 2)

sibbesChapter 1 of The Bruised Reed was short and sweet. It stated that commission or calling Jesus received (Servant-Messiah) and the manner in which he carried that calling out (i.e., so as not to break a bruised reed). It also briefly outlined two foundational points: (1) we are reeds (and not oaks), and (2) bruising has many good intended effects.

Chapter 2 is titled “Christ Will Not Break the Bruised Reed.” Whole paragraphs deserve quoting so my challenge here is what to leave out. Some have complained about the weightiness of Puritan writings. If your goal is to simply finish books quickly then yeah, you should probably stick with 21st century writings. But, one of the things I appreciate about Puritan Paperbacks (or Puritans in general) is that every page contains weighty ideas that stretch the mind and stir the heart. You can pick up the book and read one or two pages and then put it down and just mull over what you’ve just read. My advice would be to read Puritan Paperbacks like this, not like a story where you read long narratives at a time and not like most contemporary Christian literature where you need to dig through whole chapters to find a gem.

This chapter opens with an encouragement to “see” the grace of Christ in the following:
1) The “comfortable relationships” Jesus has taken upon himself: husband, shepherd, brother.
2) The gentle names used to describe himself: lamb, hen, dove, savior.
3) The gracious way he executes his offices: inviting the poor in spirit, asking us to cast our cares on him, interceding for us with tears, and a meek king.
This is not to say that Jesus is only meek and mild, since he most assuredly possesses incomparable strength and dignity, but it is to say “he will not show his strength against those who prostrate themselves before him” (9).

In the next section he provides three points (one paragraph each) of what we should learn from this.
1) Come boldly to the throne of grace. Do not hide or shy away, as if God is harsh to bruised reeds, but come knowing God is full of gentleness and grace to the humble. “Are you bruised? Be of good comfort, he calls you. Conceal not your wounds, open all before him and take not Satan’s counsel” (9, emphasis mine). That phrase has echoed in my mind, “conceal not your wounds, open all before him.”
2) Take support in this when bruised: “Christ’s way is first to wound, then to heal” (10). We can take comfort not only in the promise that we will not be broken in our bruising, but we can also rejoice that “according to my trials will be my graces and comforts” (10). Almost none of us would choose to walk through that door were the choice left to us but God does have good effects planned for the hard circumstances we enter upon.
3) Notice the different dispositions and intent between Christ and Satan. Satan sets upon us in our weakest to attach and destroy, whereas Christ comes to bind up the broken-hearted.

The remainder of the chapter falls under the heading “Who are the bruised reeds?” It’s here that Sibbes enters into the typical Puritan style of raising perceived questions and then offering answers. It’s a straight-forward and helpful approach to thinking through tough issues. Here are three nuggets of wisdom. First, Christians are quite different and so we must be careful not to treat all bruised reeds the same. To say it differently, Sibbes insists some people are of such sensitive consciences or have a temperament where they are prone to being crushed under condemnation, whereas others are prone to excusing themselves and might be pressed with more force. “It is dangerous, I confess, in some cases, with some spirits, to press too much and too long this bruising, because they may die under the wound and burden before they be raised up again. Therefore it is good in mixed assemblies to mingle comfort that every soul may have its due portion.” (12). Second, the physical and emotional affect the spiritual, and vice versa, because we are both physical and spiritual beings.”Sometimes our grief from outward grievances may lie heavier upon the soul than grief for God’s displeasure, because, in such cases, the grief works upon the whole man, both outward and inward…especially bodily sicknesses which, by reason of the sympathy between the soul and the body, work upon the soul so far as to hinder not only the spiritual, but often the natural acts” (13). Third, we should be gracious with those in the midst of suffering by giving them some freedom in how they deal with their emotions through their words. “And therefore we ought to judge charitably of the complaints of God’s people which are wrung from them in some cases” (14). He uses Job as an example of someone who vented with God in a way that might make us feel uncomfortable, and yet the Bible says he remained blameless. Good advice indeed so we are careful not to always fact-check those who are speaking out of their pain.

Since sets of three have been the pattern for this post, here are three short quotes that should always stay in our mind.
1) “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us” (13). Rehearse this to yourself over and over.
2) “…let all know that none are fitter for comfort than those that think themselves furthest off” (14).
3) “Christ’s sheep are weak sheep, and lacking in something or other; he therefore applies himself to the necessities of every sheep” (14). Not as quotable as the other two, but if we ourselves as weak sheep in need than we might better grasp the goodness of Jesus as a gracious and sufficient Shepherd.

Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (chapter 1)


I’m part of a group who meet weekly with one of our pastors to discuss a number of things related to our lives and ministries. A part of that time each week goes to discussing a book we slowly read together. The book on deck is the The Bruised Reed by the Puritan Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). Despite an occasional moment of guilt for reading an abridged book and not the original, these small Puritan Paperbacks are gems.

Maybe it’s a me problem, but I often read books–sometimes even marking the thing up–but I don’t digest and notate the book well enough. I thought I’d remedy this in part by employing this blog for something more noble than witty comments and enticing food pics. So, my goal as I read this book will be to summarize the main points of each chapter alongside some of the tastiest quotes I come across.

Chapter 1 “The Reed and the Bruising”
The title and message of the book come from two biblical texts, the prophetic word in Isaiah 42:1-3 and its noted fulfillment in the person of Jesus in Matthew 12:18-21. In Isaiah 42 God promises the coming Servant, the Spirit-filled Messiah who will be the hope of all nations. After one of Jesus’ many moments of compassion on the people, Matthew locates the fulfillment of Isaiah 42 in the person of Jesus. Both passages provide the following description of the Servant: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.”

From these words, Sibbes sees two things put forward: “first, the calling of Christ to his office; secondly, the manner in which he carries it out” (1).
In this brief first section, Sibbes highlights the commission the Son receives from the Father. He notes the joint agreement all three persons of the Trinity enter into: “the Father gives a commission to Christ; the Spirit furnishes and sanctifies to it, and Christ himself executes the office of a Mediator” (2). Like a good Puritan, Sibbes makes it clear that where one person of the Trinity is mentioned all are present and active. In one of the subtle but significant emphases of this section, Sibbes pushes us to not only see the beauty of Jesus in taking the commission, but also to “see the sweet love of God [the Father] to us,” in commissioning his Son for the work of our salvation. In chapter 1 it’s already clear the author wrote this book to be a soothing salve to the wearied reader. “This saving object [Jesus] has a special influence of comfort to the soul, especially if we look not only on Christ, but upon the Father’s authority and love in him” (2). Right away there’s a lesson to be learned. We lift our eyes away from ourselves and up to Jesus, the Servant who takes our sin. And, as we look to Jesus we find not only relief from our guilt but we see the love of a Father, graciously bringing us back to himself. The Father doesn’t get stuck with us because we believed in his Son; the Father actually pursues us at the cost of his Son because he loves us. The application for us: “Let us therefore, embrace Christ, and in him God’s love, and build our faith safely on such a Saviour that is furnished with so high a commission” (2).

As a reader, I’m already getting a gospel soaking from wave after wave of sweet truths…and I’m only on page 2. This bodes well for the rest of the book!

Having seen the calling Christ takes as the Servant, the author moves to how Christ actually fulfills this commission. The rest of the chapter largely deals with what the metaphor “bruised reed’ conveys. In the previously mentioned texts from Isaiah and Matthew, Sibbes notes the condition of those the Servant deals with: weakness. This is true both prior to conversion, as the awareness of sin and insufficiency to atone for it lead to seeking out Jesus for his help, but it remains true in part after conversion. One thing I found interesting was that he suggests the degree to which people might be “bruised reeds” varies, depending on not only what God sees fit but also varying based upon “differences with regard to temperament, gifts and manner of life” (3). We’ll see this again shortly, but it’s worth noting here that those crusty ole’ Puritans might not have been as myopic as some suggest. Sibbes recognizes differences in temperament, circumstances, and providence might all affect the degree and consistency with which some might be more “bruised” than others.

Anyways, back to clarifying what a bruised reed might actually mean. “The bruised reed is a man [or woman] that for the most part is in some misery,” and this misery brought about sin–whether personal or otherwise–leads to brokenness or despair. In other words, “a bruised reed and a smoking flax, make up the state of a poor distressed man” (4). Sibbes quickly moves to the good effects of this bruising, namely, that it leads us to find our supply in Christ. “This bruising makes us set a high price upon Christ. Then the gospel becomes the gospel indeed; then the fig-leaves of morality will do us no good” (4). You might want to read that quote one more time, nice and slow. He continues: “And it makes us more thankful, and, from thankfulness, more fruitful in our lives” (4). The formula seems to be: bruising –> gospel –> gratitude –> fruitfulness.

Not only can bruising lead to gratitude and fruitfulness, but it’s necessary for Christians because of the way we gravitate towards pride and self-sufficiency. When things are going well, most of us coast in life. This often leads to a couple false conclusions slowly creeping into our minds. First, we start to think this world is our home and things are so good now who needs a restored kingdom. Second, we assume things are good because we’re pretty good, and because we got ourselves here. “After conversion, we need bruising so that reeds may know themselves to be reeds, and not oaks. Even reeds need bruising, by reason of the remainder of pride in our nature, and to let us see that we live by mercy” (5).

This isn’t to say that bruising always comes becomes of pride, but it is to say that the cultivation of brokenness and humility comes through bruising. This then leads Sibbes to close chapter 1 with a caution not to wrongly judge or pass harsh judgment on others experiencing bruising. There might be any number of reasons why someone is in the state they are, and we honestly don’t know the causes or purposes of God. Often, foolish people assume all Christians must always be happy Christians. This explains why Sunday mornings are full of people doing their best to put on their crispest clothes and shiniest smiles. But, thankfully, there is a time for brokenness and often the bruised reeds are not those farthest from God, but those being drawn to him. “Ungodly spirits [people], ignorant of God’s ways in bringing his children to heaven, censure broken-hearted Christians as miserable persons, whereas God is going a gracious, good work with them” (6). That last sentence resonates with me and I’d love to unpack it more, but I’ll let it speak for itself and simply ask the extroverted, overly-happy majority not to assume bubbliness is next to godliness.