From Your Pastor: Richard Sibbes’ Affective Spirituality: “To Look to Christ”


Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) was affectionately known as the “Sweet Dropper” as a Puritan preacher.[1] He has been distinguished among the Puritans as the “Heavenly” Dr. Sibbes because he was famous for his affective spirituality.[2] Affective spirituality is a focus on the affections or the desires as they are transformed by the Spirit of God motivating believers to joyful obedience in Christ. Sibbes’[3] primary emphasis as a preacher was the interior soul, a focus on the hearts, the affections, the desires of the soul toward God in Christ rather than merely external behavior, or an outward conformity to the law of God.[4] He did not undermine the law of God, but emphasized the law as it is written by the Spirit upon the heart that was promised to believers in Christ in the context of the Covenant of Grace (cf. Heb. 8:8-13).[5] Sibbes believed that the primary attention of the Christian ought to be on the love of God as He is revealed in Christ.[6]

Sibbes emphasized the Work and Ministry of the Holy Spirit as a Christological reality in the believer’s life. His understanding of the Spirit of Christ’s work was Biblically-theologically united in his mind to the obedience and fruitfulness the Spirit would produce in every believer united to Christ. This fruitfulness would fulfill the demands of the law, which is summarized as true love for God in Christ (cf. Rom. 13:8-10). The Spirit of Christ’s primary ministry was to convict, lead to confession, comfort with forgiving love and mercy, and conform believers to Christ. This was not an undermining of God’s holy law, but a different emphasis that Sibbes “contextualized” wisely in his time due to an imbalanced moralistic emphasis that sought to awaken apathetic people living in the covenant of grace in the national church.[7]

In contrast to the much moralistic preaching in his time, Sibbes had a wonderful reputation in the 1600s as one who preached “sweet, soul-melting Gospel-sermons” that refreshed the saints, awakened the apathetic, and encouraged the troubled. He was known for his very experimental (“experiential”), or practical sermons.[8] One of Sibbes’ contemporaries, one Samuel Hartlib referred to Sibbes as “one of the most experimental divines now living”.[9] Sibbes sought to have an eminently practical theology that always was applied to men’s lives and experiences. Sibbes wanted to demonstrate that all theology about God and His salvation was relevant to all of life.[10]  Sibbes would agree with the famous statement made later by the Rev. Dr. Robert Burns that Christian truth should be brought home to “men’s business and bosoms.”[11] Sibbes understood that Christians that are truly recipients of grace in Christ through the Spirit would be particularly obedient Christians characterized by fruitfulness and thankfulness.[12] In this way, Sibbes’ practical or “experiential” emphasis was to produce the obedience of faith that should be evident in a Christian’s life.

Although Sibbes was a Triune Theologian, who had a tremendous emphasis on the Holy Spirit, he asserted strongly that the chief end of man, is “To look to Christ”, or to be “swallowed up in the love of Christ”. Ultimately, then, for Sibbes, the Father and Spirit desired to reveal Christ, and His mediating love to sinners in calling, regeneration, justification, sanctification and glorification. This goal to look to Christ has two elements, Sibbes taught: 1. That God might be glorified; 2. That believers might be happy. “And both these are attained by honoring and serving Him.[13] For Sibbes, the Triune theologian, God would be glorified through sinners believing upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the application of all of Christ’s benefits by the Holy Spirit, would enjoy Him in intimate relationship. This is a summary of what the Westminster Divines would later write (after Sibbes’ death in 1635) as the “chief end of man”, “To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”[14]

For Sibbes, looking to Christ had a transforming effect on the believers. Like John Owen (1616-1683) after him, the emphasis was “looking on Christ” (cf. Heb. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18).[15] Sibbes wrote of the transforming effect that looking to Christ has on believers. “The very beholding of Christ is a transforming sight…it is a transforming beholding. If we look upon him with the eye of faith, it will make us like Christ….When we see the love of God in the gospel, and the love of Christ giving himself for us, this will transform us to love God.”[16] Sibbes wrote that by looking to the glory of God in Christ we see Christ as our husband, and that breeds a disposition in us to have the affections of a spouse.[17] We see Christ as our head, and that breeds a disposition in us to be members like him.[18] Sibbes encouraged growth in Christ by His Spirit through meditation on His Beautiful Person. Sibbes wrote that Christ is the most beautiful person, particularly as the mediator between the Father and sinners who brings peace and reconciliation. This loveliness and beauty of Christ is “especially spiritual”, Sibbes taught, meaning that it had spiritual efficacy to stir up the graces of Christ’s Spirit.[19] Quoting a spiritual father in the faith, Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), he wrote, “When I think of Christ, I think at once of God, full of majesty and glory; and, at the same time, of man, full of meekness, gentleness, and sweetness.”[20]

In Sibbes’ rich and biblical Christology and Pneumatology there is no room for Antinomianism, or carelessness with regard to God’s law. If one is truly a believer, they will be becoming like Christ by His Spirit. The believer’s union with Christ demanded this understanding. This transformation would be one of both comfort and conformity. The Spirit’s work would comfort believers with the Father’s love in Christ, and they could boldly draw near to Him for help in their lives (cf. Acts 9:31). This confidence in the Father’s love would dispel all of their fears (1 Jo. 4:18), and they would love God as a Father (Rom. 8:15). The Spirit would also conform believers to the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Sibbes wrote that what the believers behold by faith in Christ, they would become. What a believer sees in the Savior would be a reality for them in their sanctification. Sibbes emphasized Christ as Savior first, then Christ as the believer’s example, but one could not be separated from the other any more than justification could be separated from sanctification in the true believer.

This priority or primacy on Christ first as a Savior was important for Sibbes’ doctrine and explanation of sanctification in the believer. For Sibbes, Christ is the Source of the Spirit for believers. If Christ is not understood first as Savior, then the Spirit will not sanctify. Believers only have the Sanctifying Spirit as a gift of the completed work of Christ for sinners (cf. Heb. 2:11ff; Acts 2:33-36). The Spirit that Christ had in his earthly life, He now has in fullness in his exaltation in glory. This same Spirit, the exalted Christ pours out abundantly and graciously upon His people. It is important to note that the emphasis for Sibbes is on the Spirit being particularly the Spirit “of Christ”. This again accentuates Sibbes’ pneumatology being Christological. Sibbes wrote briefly, yet deeply:

…All is first in Christ, then in us….We have not the Holy Ghost immediately from God, but we have Him as sanctifying Christ first, and then us; and whatsoever the Holy Ghost doth in us, He doth the same in Christ first, and He doth it in us because of Christ…Whatsoever the Holy Ghost works in us, He takes of Christ first (my emphasis).[21]

Sibbes wrote of this biblically rich Christological pneumatology throughout his works. He wrote elsewhere, “[The Lord Jesus Christ] hath the Spirit Himself eminently, and dispenses and gives the Spirit unto others; all receiving the Spirit from Him as the common root and fountain of all spiritual gifts.”[22] Jesus Christ is the “man of the Spirit”, and the one who pours out His Spirit on His Church.[23] “The gift of the Holy Ghost especially depends upon the glorifying (“glorification”) of Christ. When [Christ] had fulfilled the work of redemption, and was raised to glory, God being pacified gave the Holy Ghost as a gift of his favor (cf. Acts 2:32-35).[24]

For Sibbes, believers get all their rich spiritual blessings from Christ (cf. Eph. 1:3-14; 2 Pet. 1:3-4). As it was with Christ in His life, so believers can expect the same in Him by His grace. Christ was conceived by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit, and sealed by the Spirit, so are believers in the same way. In fact, Sibbes summarized this by clearly teaching that “When we [believers] are knit to Christ by His Spirit, then it works the same in us as it did in him.” As Christ was conceived, anointed and sealed by the Spirit, so those in union with Him are conceived, anointed and sealed as well. Sibbes’ Christological focus was to accentuate all of the spiritual blessings for believers, to encourage them toward a closer communion with the Triune God, and a deeper, more assured salvation and sanctification. All grace that believers have is “from His fullness” received by us by the Holy Spirit (cf. John 1:16). Sibbes wrote: “From Christ, we have grace to know God’s favor towards us, grace for Christ-conformity, and grace to know privileges and benefits towards us…both favor and grace in us, and privileges issuing from grace, we have all as they are in Christ.”[25]

All of the blessings believers have is because of Jesus Christ! All the promises of God are made to Christ first, then to us.[26] Sibbes taught that whatever privilege or blessing that believers enjoy such as justification, adoption, sanctification—any blessing from God the Father from grace to glory–should first be seen in Christ. He wrote: “Our election is in Christ first. He is chosen to be our head. Our justification is in Christ first. He is justified and freed from our sins being laid to his charge as our surety, and therefore we are freed. Our resurrection is in Christ first. We rise, because he is the ‘first-begotten from the dead.’ Our ascension is in Christ, and our sitting at the right hand of God in him first.

All things that are ours, they are first his; what he hath by nature, we have by grace (my emphasis).[27]

In fact, there is no blessing, nor immediate communion between the Father and believers except through Jesus Christ. “Christ is the Father’s, and we are the Father’s in Christ.”[28] God in our nature comes between the Father and us, and all things come from God to us in him…Out of Christ, there is no communion with God. He is a friend to both sides: to us as man, to him as God. All things come originally from the fountain of all, God.[29] All comes down from the Father through the Son to us by the Holy Spirit. “God doth all in Christ to us. He chooseth us in Christ, and sanctifies us in Christ; he bestows all spiritual blessings on us in Christ, as members of Christ. To Christ first, and through him, he conveys it to us.”[30] Christ’s human nature is the first temple wherein the Spirit dwells, and then we become temples by union with Him.”[31] Sibbes taught that if one was truly a believer in Christ then he would begin to look and act and live like Him in gentleness and humility. Sibbes would not have agreed with, nor fathomed the Antinomian way of thinking of a so-called “Savior” that did not become also the Sanctifier of the believer. If Christ was truly the Savior of the believer, then He was also the Sanctifier who transformed her.

More on Richard Sibbes in weeks to come…

If your affective appetite was whet, and you want more “heavenly drippings”, you might start with these excellent books: A Heavenly Conference, The Bruised Reed, and The Love of Christ: Expositions on Song of Solomon. These are available on the KCPC booktable.


In Christ’s love,

Pastor Biggs




[1] Packer, J. I. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 179.

[2] Kapic, Kelly M. and Gleason, Randall C., Edited. The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 79.

[3] Manuals for writers are not in agreement on whether to write plural “Sibbes’” or “Sibbes’s”. In this paper, I will use “Sibbes’”; accessed on December 1, 2015.

[4] Harold Patton Shelly, Richard Sibbes: Early Stuart Preacher of Piety, Ph.D. diss. (Temple University, 1972), 55-56.

[5] “[Sibbes stressed covenant as the] ground of the entirety of the Christian life both in justification and sanctification”; Mark Dever, Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000), 2.

[6] Harold Patton Shelly, Richard Sibbes: Early Stuart Preacher of Piety, Ph.D. diss. (Temple University, 1972), 55-56. Shelly wrote: “Some earlier Puritans had emphasized the law of God and conformity to its precepts. The goal for which Sibbes strove was not external precision gained by following the law of God but an internal holiness produced by the Spirit of God (my emphasis). God’s love and mercy, not his law and judgment, ought to inspire the saint.”

[7] R. N. Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology,” PhD diss. King’s College of the Univ. of London, 1996, 174-77. Frost emphasizes that Sibbes was not an Antinomian, but was ministering in a context that was rife with moralism, and so he emphasized the ministry of the Spirit from within men’s souls. Dever wrote that modern scholarship has wrongly presented Sibbes as a central, “though unwitting, figure in the development of moralism, emphasizing sanctification at the expense of justification.” Dever, “Richard Sibbes,” 99. Dever rightly points out that “Sibbes was not…and unwitting representative of a nascent moralism. He was, rather, one of the last of the great Reformed preachers of England both to believe in theory and to know in practice an officially undivided covenant community,” 134.

[8] Kapic and Gleason, The Devoted Life, 80.

[9] Mark Dever, Richard Sibbes: Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000), 1.

[10] Bert Affleck, “Theology of Richard Sibbes (1577-1635),” PhD Diss., Drew University, 1969, 18. Affleck asserts that Sibbes’ legacy to history is a theology relevant to life, a theology for the whole of life.

[11] Cartwright, H.M. “Faith and Justification: Volume One of the Works of Thomas Halyburton.” The James Begg Society. Quote from, accessed November 21, 2015.

[12] Sibbes wrote that believers’ whole lives under the Gospel should be characterized by fruitful and thankfulness demonstrated by obedience. From Divine Meditations in The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (1862-1864); repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), VII:206. This edition of Sibbes’ complete works will be cited as Works.

[13] Sibbes, The Christian’s End in Works, V:298; Quoted in Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace,” 44.

[14] Westminster Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, Question 1: “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

[15] John Owen taught often throughout his writings that believers can grow in their communion with God and in their sanctification through the experience of gazing on Christ by faith. See especially John Owen, Mediations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, in Works, I:140; I:274-432; Also, Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, in Works, VII:344-351.

[16] Sibbes, A Description of Christ in Works, I:14

[17] Sibbes, A Description of Christ in Works, I:12; Sibbes’ preaching was clearly influenced by Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430), as well as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Sibbes had a “moderate mysticism” not an “ontological fusion” as taught by radical mystics but a “union analogous to human marriage”. Frost wrote that this covenant-marriage or mystical marriage language placed Sibbes in company with many of the central figures of the Christian-mystical tradition who used marital imagery to describe spirituality. The mystical union emphasized that Christ and believers are one. Sibbes accentuated the benefits of this mystical union: “…With the same love that God loves Christ, he loves all his. He delights in Christ and all his, with the same delight….You see what a wondrous confidence and comfort we have hence, if we labor to be in Christ, that then God loves and delights in us, because he loves and delights in Christ Jesus.” Quoted in Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace,” 115.

[18] Sibbes, Excellency of the Gospel in Works, IV:271

[19] Sibbes, Bowels Opened in Works, II:138

[20] Sibbes, Bowels Opened in Works, II:138

[21] Sibbes, A Description of Christ in Works, I:18

[22] Sibbes, Excellency of the Gospel in Works, IV:205

[23] Sibbes, Excellency of the Gospel in Works, IV:205-208

[24] Sibbes, Excellency of the Gospel in Works, IV:209

[25] Sibbes, A Description of Christ in Works, I:19

[26] Sibbes, A Christian’s Portion in Works, IV:25ff

[27] Sibbes, A Christian’s Portion in Works, IV:26

[28] Sibbes, A Christian’s Portion in Works, IV:32

[29] Sibbes, A Christian’s Portion in Works, IV:33

[30] Sibbes, A Christian’s Portion in Works, IV:33

[31] Sibbes, A Fountain Sealed in Works, V:414