The thrust of chapter 5 is that we should reciprocate to others the same mercy we’ve received. Experiencing compassion lends itself to being compassionate, but that requires we understand at the front just how gracious Christ has been to us. Richard Sibbes demonstrates his pastoral heart multiple times in this book. You read him and get the sense he lived and talked among his people in their need and weakness, so much so that he gets people.
Chapter 5 opens with another caution to pastors in particular, but it applies to all of Christ’s body. We should be careful not to make things “necessary evidences of grace which agree not to the experience of many a good Christian” (26). That is not quite the same thing as saying there will be no evidences of grace or fruit whatsoever in the life of a believer. Many have pressed undue weights upon struggling saints and thereby have crushed their spirits. Some need an exhortation and the strong teeth of Scripture but others need encouragement and the gentle touch of Scripture. Be wise in what truths you give because some truths are “unseasonable truths” when given at the wrong time or to the wrong person. Spiritual discernment might not be the easy way but it’s how we know whether to choose affirmation or rebuke. There are certainly those without any fruit who should be warned, but the focus of this book are the many burdened Christians who need encouragement for the evidences of grace they do have not discouragement for the evidences they don’t have. Sibbes says we are in fact “debtors to the weak” and should labor alongside as the crawl towards Christ. “We must supply out of our love and mercy that which we see wanting in them. The church of Christ is a common hospital, wherein all are in some measure sick of some spiritual disease or other, so all have occasion to exercise the spirit of wisdom and meekness” (34). If the church were to read and embrace the heart and content of this chapter, the spirit of unity, peace, and gentleness in the church would surely be multiplied.
In the next chapter, the author begins with a description of the smoking flax. Sibbes tells us we must have two eyes, one to see the sin in us that remains but another to see the good in us from God’s Spirit. Most of us can clearly see the former but often have a closed eye to the latter; and therein lies reason for why so many Christians feel discouraged. This chapter-like the book as a whole-proves to be a wonderful help to Christians lacking assurance. “Those who are given to quarreling with themselves always lack comfort, and through their infirmities they are prone to feed on such things as will most nourish that disease which troubles them…We must not judge of ourselves always according to present feeling” (35). Sibbes encourages us throughout this chapter not to base assurance on our feelings but on truth, and any work of the Spirit-however small-is in truth an evidence of grace. When we dismiss God’s work in us or others we rob God of his glory and assist Satan the Accuser. Instead of joining the Accuser in condemnation we should look to Christ our Advocate and to what his Spirit has in truth done in our lives.
With the remainder of the chapter, Sibbes continues with the thoughts expressed above as he sets out to argue that God doesn’t require grace in a measure, but that “a spark of fire is still fire.” “There is no mere [complete] darkness in the state of grace, but some beam of light whereby the kingdom of darkness does not wholly prevail” (38). He expands upon this with ten points, or rules, to understand why we should see and encourage the smallest spark instead of pouring water on it because it’s not a flame. Just in case this sounds like Sibbes is doing his best to lower the bar for conversion, he’s not. Instead, he’s reminding them not to base their justification on their sanctification while also pointing to the difference between no light and a beam of light. On one side, he cautions us against over analyzing our lives for fruit since we are prone to condemn ourselves and miss what God’s Spirit has done in us. But, at the same time, he does make clear that even though a believer might be in sin there will always be a contrary principle in them making them uneasy with it. God does not give up on his work of sanctifying us because of the sin that remains in us. He is not pleased by sin in us but he is still pleased with us. Our sin doesn’t negate Christ in us and a genuine work of the Spirit, and thus God continues to work in us so we might mature in our faith and experience a greater degree of evidences of grace.