B. The second clause of the command, after taking words, “Turn to the Lord.”
‘And turn to the Lord.’ He repeats the exhortation of returning, to shew that words must not be empty, but such as are joined with a purpose of turning to God.
He provides the rationale for this observation (words must be coupled to action):
For otherwise, to turn to him with a purpose to live in any sin, is the extremity of profane impudence.
Then he provides an illustration: The illustration works by arguing from a circumstance which one could not contest. Then by analogy, the same principle works when applied to God:
To come to ask a pardon of the king, with a resolution to live still in rebellion against him, what is this but mockery, as if one should come with a dagg* to shoot him?
The proposition is in then applied:
Such is our case, when we come to ask forgiveness, with a purpose to offend. It is the extremity of profaneness, to come to ask a pardon, to the intent that we may sin still. Therefore he repeats it again, ‘Take unto you words, and turn to the Lord.’
1. Overview of the argument:
The form is—
‘Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously,’ or ‘do good to us:’ ‘so will we render the calves of our lips;’ wherein we have,
a. The Petition:
1. A petition: (1.) To take away all iniquity; (2.) To receive them graciously.
b. The Re-stipulation:
2. A re-stipulation, or promise of thankfulness back again to the Lord, ‘So will we render the calves of our lips.’
So that we may observe, hence—
i. “What God will grant us.”
He will have us ask of him. ‘Yet for all these things I will be sought unto of the house of Israel,’ Ezek. 20:31, saith God; because he will have us acknowledge our homage and dependence upon him.
Here he supplies another reason for prayer: It is to acknowledge our dependence upon God. This leads to the application:
Therefore we must ask what he hath purposed to give. ‘Take away all iniquity,’ &c., where there is an implication of a confession of their sins and great iniquities. ‘Take away iniquity,’ and ‘Take away all iniquity,’ that is, our manifold guilt. So, before petition, there must be a free and full confession, as was shewed before.
ii. The confession to God:
Now, this confession here is made to God, and to God only, saith Austin [St. Augustine] in this case.
At the time of Sibbes’ writing, the question about oral confession to a priest as a necessary element in the forgiveness of sins was a live-issue for many people even in protestant England.
a. Quote from Augustine’s Confessions
Because it is a point in controversy, it is good to hear what the ancients say. There are a curious sort of men, who are busy to search into other men’s lives, and are careless in amending their own. Saith he, ‘What have I to do with men to hear me confess, when I have offended God? We must confess to God, and to God only.’
b. When confession should be public; when private:
But in some cases there may be public and private confession to men.
Public, in public offences, for the satisfaction of the church, and the glory of God; for preventing of scandal.
Private, to ministers, for the quieting of conscience. But this is only in some cases. Men go not to the chirurgeon, as the papists would have it, for every little prick of their finger. No; but yet in some cases it is good to open the matter to a minister, ‘who hath the tongue of the learned,’ Isa. 1:4. But the sin is toward God, against him, he only being able to forgive sins, as the Pharisees confessed: ‘None can forgive sins but God,’ Mark 2:7. The papists, therefore, herein are worse than the Pharisees.
2. The first clause of commandment: pray, “Take away inquity.”
The petition is, ‘Take away iniquity,’ and ‘all iniquity.’ Why all?
a. Love of God is hatred of all sin.
First. Because where there is any true goodness in the heart, that hatred which carries the bent of the soul against one sin, is alike against all, as I shewed; and the devil carries thousands to hell by this partial obedience, because he knows at any time where to have such. God and a purpose to sin will not stand together, nor dwell in a heart that allows itself in any sin, be it never so small. He saith, Take away all, because the Spirit of God works in a man renewed, such a disposition of sincerity to hate all alike.
b. A desire to like God
Secondly, he saith, ‘Take away all iniquity,’ because the heart, which desires to be at peace with God, desires also to be like God, who hates all sin. Therefore, saith the sanctified soul, forgive all sin.
He then proves up this point with an eight-fold repetition (with slight variations) of “Take away all iniquity”. Each one of these repetitions places a slightly different variant on the rationale. The effect of this repetition is not merely provide a cogent argument, but also to create an emotional response, as figures of repetition often do (when used well).
Desire to be with the Lord:
‘Take all away,’
that I may have nothing in me displeasing unto thee. I desire to join with the Lord; to hate what he hateth, and as he hateth; to carry a perfect hatred to the whole kind.
Fulfilling the hatred of sin:
‘Take away all iniquity.’
Hatred is not satisfied, but with the utter abolishing of the thing hated. Therefore it hath this extent here.
Cleanse me from all sin:
‘Take away all sin,’
both the guilt and the reign of every sin, that none may rule in me; nay, by little and little, purge out all.
Protection from the penalty of sin:
‘Take away iniquity,’
and the train of all which it draws after it—judgments.
What it is to take away iniquity:
‘Take away iniquity,’
that is, forgive the sin, and overcome the power of it by sanctifying grace, and remit the judgments attending it.
Remove the guilt:
‘Take it away.’ That is, take away the guilt of it utterly by pardon, and the remainders thereof by sanctifying grace, so as the Spirit may rule, and be all in all in us. They see sin is an offensive thing, and therefore they say,
The pain of conscience:
‘Take it away,’ as an offensive, odious thing, and as a burden. For howsoever it be sweet as honey in the committing it, afterwards, when the conscience is thoroughly awaked, it is most offensive and bitter.
Thomas Brooks wrote, “Till we have sinned, Satan is a parasite; when we have sinned, he is a tyrant.” Hell is often described as including the pain of conscience.
So as in this case, a sinner would gladly run from his own conscience, and from himself; run anywhere from the tormenting and racking thoughts of conscience awaked, and withal hates the place where it was committed, and the company with whom, yea, the thoughts of them.
As Absalom**[this is an error: Absalom’s sister was Tamar. The perpetrator was Amnon] hated Tamar after he had lien with her, so a sinner awaked from sin hates what he formerly loved. As good men love the circumstances of anything which puts them in mind of any good they have done, loving both place and person. So it is with a sinner. When his conscience is awaked, he hates all things which puts him in mind of his sins.
‘Take it away,’
forgive it, cast it into the bottom of the sea, blot it out of thy remembrance, cover it, impute it not; all which phrases shew a taking away.
Again Brooks, “Surely if it be such an honour to man, ‘to pass over a transgression,’ it cannot be a dishonour to Christ to pass over the transgressions of his people, he having already buried them in the sea of his blood. Again, saith Solomon, ‘It is the glory of God to conceal a thing,’ Prov. 25:2
Therefore, I beseech you, let us examine ourselves hereby, whether our desire of forgiveness be sound or not.
c. How the desire to be freed from sin becomes controls
i. He begins with this observation of human psychology:
If we desire sin should be taken away, we cannot think of it with comfort.
It is interesting in how Sibbes discusses sin and one’s internal life: it is not the outwar conduct which is determinative, but the inward desire which is determinative – particularly on this point. If the Spirit has worked: “soundly touched with a saving sense of sin”, then the response is a hatred of sin. He is a good enough pastor not to reduce sin to behavior. One may stop some behavior for any number of reasons.
The cry “take it away” is a sovereign work of God.
For in that many think with delight of their old sins, what do they else, but repeat them over again and again? But where the heart is soundly touched with a saving sense of sin, O then he cries, ‘Take it away;’ take it out of my conscience, that it cause not despair there; and out of thy remembrance, that no advantage be taken against me for it. ‘Take it away.’
But it is no otherwise taken away than by satisfying of divine justice.
ii. This is a cause for thanksgiving
How much are we beholden to Christ, therefore, who hath borne and taken away our sins, and as the scape-goat, gone away with the burden of all into the wilderness of oblivion. Blessed be God, and the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world! We can never bless God too much, nor sufficiently, for Christ. ‘Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ Eph. 1:3. Now we may think of sin without shame and despair. O blessed state, when a man can think of his former odious, and filthy, loathsome sins, and yet not despair! Because, when he believes in Christ, the blood of Christ purgeth all away, takes away all sin. He hath taken them away.
iii. The end sought by the prayer, “take away all iniquity”
You see here, in the first place, they pray for the taking away of their iniquity.
We receive God’s favor:
For, take away this, and all other mercies follow after, because this only is it which stops the current of God’s favours, which removed, the current of his mercies run amain. As when the clouds are gone, the sun shines out; so let our sins be removed, and God’s favour immediately shines upon us.
Our relationship to God is as loving Father:
Therefore, first ‘Take away all iniquity,’ and then we shall see nothing but thy fatherly face in Christ. You see what the care of God’s children is, to seek mercy and favour in the first place; as David, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord!’ Ps. 51:1. This he begs first of all.
By commanding our prayer “take away all iniquity” it is as if God “begs” that we should pray to receive his mercy. This is a remarkable thing: God is the offended party in our sin; and here, God is commanding, wooing Ephraim to repent and receive mercy:
Whereas God had threatened other terrible judgments, as that the sword should never depart from his house, &c., yet he neglects all, as it were, and begs only for mercy, ‘to take away iniquity.’ For a sinner is never in such a blessed condition as he should be in, until he prize and desire mercy above all; because, though we be in misery, until then, with sinful Ephraim, Hos. 7:14, we howl upon our beds for corn and wine, preferring earthly, sensual things before all.
The blessing of repentance: goodness, grace, mercy:
But that soul and conscience which is acquainted with God, and the odiousness of sin, that soul God intends to speak peace unto in the end, desires pardon of sin and mercy above all. For it knows that God is goodness itself, and that, when the interposing clouds are vanished, God cannot shew himself otherwise than in goodness, grace, and mercy. ‘Take away all iniquity.’
3. How should we think of forgiven sins?
Quest. Before I go further, let me answer one question. Ought we not to think of our former sins? Shall God take them away altogether out of the soul?
Sibbes distinguishes between ways in which we could have knowledge of our sin. First, we could think of sin in terms of being presently guilty for sin. That we should not do: It would be to deny the goodness and fact of God’s forgiveness. While he does not elaborate on this point, it would be sinful toward God because we would deny the truth of God’s promises in this respect.
Second, we do have continual remembrance of our sins that have been forgiven so that we stay in mind of God’s goodness. When we think of God and the work of Christ, we think of such in light of God’s goodness and forgiveness of our sin.
Ans. Oh no! Take them away out of the conscience, O Lord, that it do not accuse for them; but not out of the memory. It is good that sin be remembered, to humble us, to make us more thankful, pitiful, and tender-hearted unto others, to abase us and keep us low all the days of our life, and to make us deal gently and mercifully with others, being sensible of our own frailties.
As they are naught in the conscience, so they are good to the memory.
Therefore, let us think often of this, what the chief desire of our souls to God should be for—mercy, to have sin taken away. In all the articles of our creed, that of chiefest comfort is, that of ‘remission of sins.’*
Wherefore are all the other articles of Christ, his birth, death, and crucifying, but that he might get the church? and that the privileges thereof might be, ‘forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body, and life everlasting;’ but forgiveness of sins is in the first place.