Richard Sibbes and the Centrality of the Heart
By Mark Dever of Ligonier Ministries
For Richard Sibbes, Christianity is a love story: God is essentially a husband to His people: “with the same love that God loves Christ, he loves all his.” “You see how full of love he was. What drew him from heaven to earth, and so to his cross and to his grave, but love to mankind?”
In fact, “Religion,” Sibbes said, “is mainly in the affections.” God is the affectionate, loving sovereign, with every “sincere Christian… a favourite.” Given this understanding of Christianity, it is not surprising that Sibbes published sermons on the Song of Solomon; the book’s erotic poetry expressed well “the mutual joys and mutual praises of Christ and his church.” Sibbes realized that sensual language is a powerful metaphor for the love between God and the soul.
“The putting of lively colours upon common truths hath oft a strong working both upon the fancy and our will and affections,” and it was the will and affections, Sibbes said, that must be reached by the preacher.
“By heart, I mean, especially, the will and affections.” As the understanding is in the brain, so the will, affections, and desires are in the heart. Thus Sibbes often used the four words interchangeably.
The heart is the faculty to which the understanding gives its thoughts and reasons “as a prince doth his wiser subjects, and as counsellors do a well-ordered state.”
The heart, in turn, affects the understanding. Sibbes spoke of the heart as essentially revealing the person. Though the heart, or will, always chooses “with the advisement of reason,” it is the heart, not reason, that is the determining (not judging) faculty of the soul, particularly in the unregenerate man. It is the “fountain of life,” the “inward motion,” the “feet,” the “wind” of the soul.
Therefore, Sibbes said, “Love is the weight and wing of the soul, which carries it where it goes.”
Sibbes presented even depravity in affectionate terms. All non-Christians, he said, are “hard-hearted”; before conversion, all are “full of malice and base affections.” The carnal heart, overcast with passion and strong affections to the world, hates God naturally and cherishes corruption and rebellion against Him.
According to Sibbes, the heart’s preeminence is not a result of the fall but is central to God’s design. Yet, Sibbes recognized that problems occur where the heart or will is unsubdued; in such souls, the will usurps the rightful role of the understanding, where “the heart being corrupt sets the wit a work, to satisfy corrupt will.”
Thus, both the heart and the understanding are dealt with in conversion and sanctification, the heart being the goal but judgment always being the entry point. As a result, the role of the understanding is to “breed” and “lead,” to “work upon,” to “warm” and “kindle” and even “inflame” the affections. Reason, Sibbes said, “is a beam of God.”
On the other hand, Sibbes was not content with religion contained entirely in the brain; he scorned men that “never see spiritual things experimentally… though they know these things in the brain.” “A man knows no more in religion than he loves and embraceth with the affections of his soul.”
To embrace something in one’s affections was to know it experimentally because the “will is the carriage of the soul.” If the grace of Christ were effectually working in the heart, one would do good; on the other hand, to be warned about evil desires and yet persist in pursuing them is “atheism” in the heart.
Conversion must, then, take place in the heart. Though it must include sanctification of judgment, it must also include the subduing of the will. “For it is not knowledge that will bring to heaven, for the devil hath that, but it is knowledge sanctified, seizing upon the affections.” In the unconverted man, the heart or will runs roughshod over the understanding, bribing it and bringing it along with its carnal desires.
In conversion, both the mind and the heart need to be changed—the mind is enlightened, and the very desires and tastes of the heart are altered. God must come in to the heart to rule it, seizing on the powers of the soul, subduing the inward rising of the heart and the innate rebellion against the truth of God; He must “bring the heart down” by opening the heart to believe and working in it to cause repentance. God “turns” the heart to Himself and “frees the will” to serve Him.
Though the whole man remains touched by the fall, the enlightened understanding will increasingly judge correctly and will be obeyed rather than coerced, allowing man to show his distinction from the beasts. In Sibbes, then, both depravity and conversion find their core in the heart, but neither in such a way as to deny the essential role of the understanding.
Therefore, while Sibbes taught that the will or heart is the most powerful faculty in the soul, that it must be changed at conversion, and that the understanding will never move the soul without the will, he never presented religion as essentially a rationale: “All grace comes in through the understanding enlightened.” The mind is “the most excellent part of the soul.” The purpose of regeneration is to “reestablish” the “ideal supremacy of reason over will.” In the regenerate man, the Spirit of God subdues the will to His Word coming through the understanding: “All comfort cometh into the soul by knowledge…. Indeed, all graces are nothing but knowledge digested.”
Given the centrality of the heart in Sibbes’ presentations of depravity and conversion, it is no surprise to find him speaking of the Christian life as one driven by holy loves and desires. “The gospel breeds love in us to God,” he said. Though this love may first be simply for the salvation Christ has brought, “when she [the soul] is brought to him, and finds that sweetness that is in him, then she loves him for himself.”
God becomes the one thing the soul most desires. Echoing Augustine’s Confessions, Sibbes wrote, “The soul is never quiet till it comes to God… and that is the one thing the soul desireth.” Only those who so love God, preferring Him to carnal pleasures, riches, and honors, find Him. A desire to do all to honor God and love Him typifies the life of the Christian. “Whatsoever we do else, if it be not stirred by the Spirit, apprehending the love of God in Christ, it is but morality. What are all our performances if they be not out of love to God?”
For the Christian, to be in this world means separation from what he most desires. Christ Himself underwent this during the incarnation. Therefore, Christians, too, must expect this life to be marked by longing. Like David, the Christian will desire “to see the beauty of God in his house, that his soul might be ravished in the excellency of the object, and that the hightest powers of his soul, his understanding, will, and affections might be fully satisfied, that he might have full contentment.”
“Therefore, we should press the heart forward to God” because the Christian will only find rest in heaven, “where all desires shall be accomplished.” Affectionately stated, the point of the Christian life is “to grow in nearer communion with God by his Spirit, to have more knowledge and affection, more love and joy and delight in the best things daily.” Therefore, Christians are to “labour to have great affections” for God, and subsequently, for other, lesser goods, particularly His ordinances through which His presence is enjoyed. Whereas the worldling must always finally lose that which he desires, the Christian never does.
Preeminently, the affection God uses is love. Once one is converted, this love becomes the driving force of the soul to God. As the “prime and leading affection of the soul,” the “firstborn affection of the soul,” love motivates the soul to action. “Love is an affection full of inventions,” zealously pursuing the pleasure of the beloved. Thus, love “will constrain us to obedience” because “it studies to please the person loved as much as it can every way.”
That is why Sibbes exhorted: “Beloved, get love…. It melts us into the likeness of Christ. It constrains, it hath a kind of holy violence in it. No water can quench it. We shall glory in sufferings for that we love. Nothing can quench that holy fire that is kindled from heaven. It is a glorious grace.” Similarly, love performs a “sweet kind of tyranny” making a man willing even to die. “Nothing is hard to love; it carries all the powers of the soul with it.” Thus, since one who loves will do anything for “the continuation of the person beloved,” “one should “labour for a spirit of love… Nothing is grievous to the person that loves.”
This excerpt is adapted from The Affectionate Theology of Richard Sibbes by Mark Dever.