The Puritans left behind a great store of wisdom—rigorously theological, warmly devotional, and always centered on Christ and his gospel. Sadly, given the diminishing attention paid to language, grammar, and the humanities, they are less accessible to modern audiences than they deserve. Still, there are a few Puritan works that are short and simple enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest every English-speaking Christian read them. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress would head the list, undoubtedly. But not far behind would be the wonderful little classic The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes.
Sibbes takes as his text Isaiah 42:1-3,
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.
and from it shows the tender, loving grace of Christ, the Lord’s servant, towards his people.
If we’re honest about the struggle—the war our flesh and the Spirit wage within us, the temptations we face, and (all too often) our falls into sin—we will soon feel discouragement and doubt. Will we ever be sanctified? Will the war ever cease? Can I be sure of my salvation when I struggle so? Hear how Sibbes describes this struggle:
Some think they have no faith at all because they have no full assurance, whereas the fairest fire that can be will have some smoke. The best actions will smell of the smoke. The mortar wherein the garlic has been stamped will always smell of it; so all our actions will savour something of the old man. (45)
But how may we know that we are truly Christians, and not hypocrites hiding behind a profession of faith? “In a gloomy day there is so much light,” Sibbes writes, “that we may know it to be day and not night; so there is something in a Christian under a cloud whereby he may be discerned a true believer and not a hypocrite” (37-38). A smoldering wick, though it show no flame at the time, nevertheless bears the mark of heavenly ignition. And once lit by heaven, according to the promise given in our text, Jesus will not suffer to see it extinguished, but will fan it into flame once more.
With this in mind, Sibbes suggests ten marks of “smoking flax,” that is, of a smoldering wick. When the marks are present, when we see these rules at work in our lives, we can be sure God’s irresistible grace is at work within us to mortify sin and raise us to newness of life. He is actively forming Christ in us.
- “If there be any fire in us, it is kindled from heaven.” The light kindled in us by the Father of lights, Sibbes reminds, is the same light as in the Word. We must have heavenly light to discern heavenly truth. If we accept the Word as true, receive it, and seek to see its truth lived out in our lives, God’s light has surely “sparked” the interest within us.
- “The least divine light has heat with it in some measure.” Sibbes goes on to say, “Light in the understanding produces heat of love in the affections.” As we grasp biblical truth, it affects more than just our intellect; slowly but surely we begin to feel the fundamental structures of our hearts changing, until our affections are in line with the truth we profess. We value supremely what is supremely valuable; we treasure Christ above all. Here Sibbes follows Augustine’s famous dictum: “As a man loves, so is he.” Our affections truly determine our nature.
- “Where this heavenly light is kindled, it directs in the right way.” The world clamors for our attention, and many forces seek to direct us: media, politics, culture, friends and family. However, a true Christian will always look to God’s light as revealed in Scripture first and foremost. Sibbes offers a helpful analogy to distinguish between those who had a moment of intrigue when hearing the gospel, and those whose hearts were truly set aflame by God’s grace: “The light which some men have is like lightning which, after a sudden flash, leaves them more in darkness. They can love the light as it shines, but hate it as it discovers and directs.” If we say we like Jesus well enough, but bristle at his teaching (or the teaching of his prophets and apostles), we hate God’s light as it discovers and directs; if, however, we trust his light to guide and direct even when we struggle to understand the why, we prove ourselves to be smoldering wicks at least.
- “Where this fire is, it will sever things of diverse natures, and show a difference between such things as gold and dross.” If God’s light is at work within us, and as we trust it to direct us, it will reveal impurities within us. We will allow it to separate flesh from spirit, to help us identify and ultimately mortify what is carnal.
- “So far as a man is spiritual, so far is light delightful to him.” When God’s light reveals uncleanness, immorality, and sin within us, we receive the rebuke with joy. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted” (Proverbs 27:6), and what better friend have we than God himself, speaking through his Word? Our affections have been changed, so we delight most in Christ, and delight to be like him in increasing measure. Whatever tends to that end, we welcome with joy. If, however, we feel the sting of rebuke and resist it—draw the shades of our heart to keep the light out—it is likely we remain unregenerate. “There is nothing in the world more uneasy than the heart of a wicked man made to listen to spiritual instruction, until, like a thief, he puts out the candle so that he may sin with less restraint.”
- “Fire, where it is present, is in some degree active.” Grace works. Even in the midst of sin, when our flesh seems to be all-conquering, there is a “contrary principle, which breaks the force of sin, so that it is not boundlessly sinful.” The true light will flicker even in our darkest moments.
- “Fire makes metals pliable and malleable.” And so grace, where it is active, makes our hearts soft and prepares us to be changed. However, “Obstinate spirits show that they are not so much as smoking flax.”
- “Fire, as much as it can, sets everything on fire.” Grace, where it is active, will make everything in us gracious. All will tend in a Godward direction, to the fame of his name. As Paul puts the same principle, whatever we do, we will do to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
- “Sparks by nature fly upwards.” Our desires and aims will mount upward, toward heaven. A person cannot desire the holy unless grace is at work, “for we cannot desire anything which we do not believe first to be, and the desire of it issues from love.” Sibbes notes these desires must be (1) constant, for this shows their supernatural origin, (2) directed to spiritual things such as faith and love, not because of a pressing need or emergency (in which case the desire is selfishly motivated), but “as a loving heart is carried to thing loved for the sake of some excellency in it,” and (3) accompanied with grief when the desire is hindered—that is, when sin masks Christ’s loveliness.
- “Fire, if it has any matter to feed on, enlarges itself and mounts higher and higher, and, the higher it rises, the purer is the flame.” Where grace is truly active, it grows in measure and purity. “Ignis, quo magis lucet, eo minus fumat (As fire gives more light, it gives less smoke).” If we are truly in Christ, we will grow more like him; when we see no growth in grace, we show we are not so much as smoldering wicks. As one contemporary pastor puts it, “It’s okay not to be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way.”