Rev. Stephen Steele is minister in Stranraer RPC in Scotland, a member of our Advisory Committee and a keen reader. We asked him to review his favourite book of 2021:
I spent most of the last year reading slowly through ‘The Love of Christ’ by Richard Sibbes – and it was one of the best things I did.
Of the 60+ Puritan Paperbacks, this is one of the longest, if not the longest, at 360 pages. It consists of sermons on Song of Solomon chapters 4-6, first published under the title ‘Bowels Opened’ in 1639.
I first came across the book via Mike Reeves, who writes the foreward. As Reeves points out, the standard Puritan interpretation of the Song as a parable of the love between Christ and his Church is not held by the majority of commentators today – but ‘even if Sibbes is misappropriating the Song, the wonderful truths he expounds still stand’. Yet Sibbes is both careful and convincing in his exegesis, comparing Scripture with Scripture throughout and warning of the need to be ‘wary’ in applying some of the finer details (p. 285). Above all, he warms our hearts by fixing our attention on Jesus Christ and his love for his people.
Sibbes believed that ‘it is the special office of the ministry to lay [Christ] open’ (p. 313) and he practiced what he preached. In fact, Sibbes’ sermons are a challenge to preachers today in how far short of this we sometimes fall. The consequences of a diet of sermons which major on ‘try harder’ will be tragic, because ‘our nature is such that we cannot love but where we know ourselves to be loved first’ and so ‘if the soul be not persuaded of Christ’s love it runs away from him’ (p. 340).
‘All preaching’, he says, ‘is that we may be able to say without deceiving our souls, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”’ (p. 347). Like Thomas Chalmers two centuries later, Sibbes believed in the expulsive power of a new affection: ‘One main end of our calling is to draw the affections of those who belong to God to Christ’ (p. 264).
Throughout the book, Sibbes (who died in 1635) quotes from the Geneva Bible, which results in some memorable renderings of familiar passages, eg ‘all things work together for the best’ (Romans 8:28), ‘with our eyes we saw his majesty’ (2 Peter 1:16); ‘I will not fail thee, neither forsake thee’ (Hebrews 13:5).
Unlike some of Sibbes’ other works in the Puritan Paperbacks series, the text has not been modernised; instead footnotes have been added to explain archaic words. As a purist, this is the approach that I much prefer – though a smattering of archaic or obscure words remain unexplained (eg ‘amain’, ‘tush’, ‘bane’ (in the sense of poison), ‘prevent’, ‘want’.) A typo has also crept into p. 132 where ‘loves till’ stands in place of ‘love still’.
The fact that some of the earlier sermons are significantly longer than the others might mean that some will struggle to get into the book, but it will well reward those who stick with it. Sibbes is a joyful expositor who bubbles over with the love of Christ. Lloyd-Jones could testify to the help that Sibbes’ ‘Bruised Reed’ gave him at a particularly low point, and ‘The Love of Christ’ is similarly powerful.
- It will help guard against unbalanced introspection: when recommending self-examination, Sibbes encourages us to look for good within us rather than just evil, in order that we may be joyful and thankful (p. 47).
- It will help protect against legalism: ‘Is not his obedience enough for us? Shall we need patch it up with our own righteousness?’ (p. 331)
- It will help keep from despair: ‘In the most disconsolate state of a Christian soul, there is light enough in the soul to show…that it is day with the soul and not night’ (p. 212)
- It will help us stand against Satan’s accusations: Just like a wife not liable for her own debts can say to a creditor ‘Go to my husband’, so we can tell Satan to go to Christ: ‘When we cannot answer him, send him to Christ’ (pp 333-4).
In short, it would be hard not to come away from the book rejoicing that ‘there is more righteousness in Christ than there is sin in me’ (p. 272).
Highly recommended, particularly for ministers of the gospel. We and our people need these truths!