2. A Vow of Praise
Now, this promise which the church makes here of praise, is a kind of vow, ‘So will we render,’ &c. To bind one’s-self is a kind of vow.
a. The Purpose of the Vow
Here Sibbes argues in the form of a chiasm. The elements of the argument, reordered, are as follows: The purpose, the end of all things is the glory of God. Human beings fulfill their purpose by giving glory to God. All other things likewise exist for this ultimate end. It is likewise the end of God that God be glorified: God is “moved” by our giving him glory. When we bind ourselves by a vow to give God glory, by giving him thanks, we make an argument which will “prevail with God” (as is explicitly stated in the next paragraph.
This presents a question of the impassibility of God: There is a false understanding of God being impassible which thinks that God must an unresponsive stone, perhaps a pure intellect with the emotional range of a computer. If God has any responsiveness whatsoever to humanity, then God cannot be impassible. This false understanding of impassibility then sets up a false dichotomy, which must contend that since God is shown repeatedly in Scripture to be relational with humanity (God shows wrath, God is love, et cetera), then God must not be impassible.
This doctrine is difficult, primarily I believe, because we start our conception of God with a false conception. A full discussion of this doctrine lies well-beyond this comment on Sibbes’ sermon. However, we can take a quick look, first, at how Sibbes understood the term, and then how of his contemporaries used the term.
He uses the term in reference to our glorified resurrection bodies, “Says he, the body is sown in corruption, but raised in incorruption. Then no more mortality, nor tribulation, nor any sense of sorrow. Some interpreters have thought good to express this by the word impassible, signifying an impossibility of feeling any more hunger, cold, thirst, sorrow, and the like; in brief, not capable of suffering any more; for at first, sin brought in corruption, but then all sin being abolished, corruption, and all things thereunto belonging, must needs cease.” Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 7 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1864), 500–501.
In a related manner, he uses it in reference to Adam (here the word “unpassable”) and in relation to Incarnation: “This should sweeten all our afflictions, that we are dying with Christ, whereby Christ hath communion with us, and whereby we are fitted for communion with Christ; as put case we have sickness or trouble, &c. Christ took upon him flesh, but what? As it was in Adam unpassible?* Christ took upon him our passible nature, as subject to suffer cold, and hunger, and pain, of weariness, and it is fit our bodies should be conformable to the body of Christ, ‘for we are predestinate to be conformed to Christ,’ Rom. 8:29, and therefore when we are put to pain in our callings, or troubled for good consciences, and thereby wear out our bodies, it is but as Christ’s body was used. He took a body that he might suffer, and going about doing good, and be put to hardship. Therefore, if we be put to hardship, it is no more than our Lord Jesus Christ did. And therefore those that be so delicate that will take no pains, endure no sickness, the wind must not blow upon them, the sun must not shine upon them, they love no saving goodness, nothing of the Spirit of Christ, who out of love took our nature upon him, obnoxious to all pain and labour; though not infirmities of our particular persons, yet of our nature. He took upon him our miserable nature, our passible nature, and then he hath our nature in heaven.”
Richard Sibbes, Tvol. 4, p. 408.
In a similar vein to Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards uses it as a reference to the divine nature, in contrast to the state of the Incarnation, “If Christ had remained only in the divine nature, he would not have been in a capacity to have purchased our salvation, not from any imperfection of the divine nature, but by reason of its absolute and infinite perfection. For Christ merely as God was not capable either of that obedience or suffering that was needful. The divine nature is not capable of suffering, for it is impassable and infinitely above all suffering; neither is it capable of obedience to that law that was given to man. ’Tis as impossible that one that is only God should obey the law that was given to man as ’tis that he should suffer man’s punishment.” Jonathan Edwards, “Sermon Fourteen,” in A History of the Work of Redemption, ed. John F. Wilson and John E. Smith, vol. 9, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1989), 295–296.
Charnock uses it to refer to the capacity to be adversely affected by the creation, to suffer, “As patience signifies suffering, so it is not in God. The divine nature is impassible, incapable of any impair; it cannot be touched by the violences of men, nor the essential glory of it be diminished by the injuries of men; but as it signifies a willingness to defer, and an unwillingness to pour forth his wrath upon sinful creatures, he moderates his provoked justice, and forbears to revenge the injuries he daily meets with in the world. He suffers no grief by men’s wronging him, but he restrains his arm from punishing them according to their merits.” Stephen Charnock, The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 2 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson; G. Herbert, 1864–1866), 504.
Finally, Thomas Watson uses it in parallel with “impenetrable” and says plainly, the wicked cannot hurt God, “If God be a spirit, then he is impassible,—he is not capable of being hurt. Wicked men set up their banners, and bend their forces against God; they are said to fight against God, Acts 5:39. But what will this fighting avail? What hurt can they do to the Deity? God is a spirit, and therefore cannot receive any hurtful impression; wicked men may imagine evil against the Lord, Nahum 1:9., “What do ye imagine against the Lord?” But God, being a spirit, is impenetrable. The wicked may eclipse his glory, but cannot touch his essence. God can hurt his enemies, but they cannot hurt him. Julian might throw up his dagger into the air against heaven, but could not touch the Deity. God is a spirit, invisible.” Thomas Watson, The Select Works of the Rev. Thomas Watson, Comprising His Celebrated Body of Divinity, in a Series of Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, and Various Sermons and Treatises (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 35.
But saying that God cannot be injured by the creation, does not mean that God is unknowledgeable concerning, nor that God will not act with respect to the creation. That God has said he will hear is an act of promise by God. When Sibbes says that God is “bound” by a vow of thankfulness, it cannot mean that God is unwillingly subjected to the power of the Creature. If the Creature had control over the Creator, then God would be passible.
The nature of the binding is explained in the next paragraph where it says such a vow of praise “prevails” with God: it is a prayer which God has said he will hear. As it says in Ephesians 1:6, God has covenanted and graciously provided for blessed the descendants of Adam “to the praise of his glorious grace.”
The paragraph has been broken out into clauses so that the building up of the argument can be seen more clearly.
Here is the proposition which he will develop:
The church therefore binds herself, that she may bind God; for binding herself by vow to thankfulness, she thereby binds God;
Here he states that God is “moved” – but not in way of suffering:
who is moved with nothing we can do so much as with setting forth of his praise, which was his end in all the creation, the setting forth of his glory.
This explains the rationale upon which he can state that God is moved: God created the cosmos for his glory: that is the end of all things. Thus, when God receives glory from the creation, he is merely receiving the end of what he did in the first instance:
The end of the new creature is the end of all things both in nature and grace; the end whereof is God’s glory, from whence all things come and wherein all things end: as we say of a circle, all things begin and end in it.
He summarizes the rationale in a sentence:
All other things are for man, and man for God’s glory.
There is a mountain of theology in that sentence. One thing to briefly note is how this very sentence runs wildly contrary to non-Christian understandings of the world. It revolts against any understanding which detracts from God’s glory. It revolts against any understanding which denigrates humanity to a level of the remainder of the creation: there is a distinct hierarchy here.
When the soul can say, ‘Lord, this shall be for thy honour, to set forth thy praise,’ it binds God.
Hence, that they might move God to yield to their prayers, they bind themselves by a kind of vow.
Do thus, O Lord, and thou shalt not lose by it, thou shalt have praise; ‘so will we render thee the calves of our lips.’
b. The use of vows
This is a topic which I don’t know I have ever heard a sermon preached upon. Perhaps there was a brief mention here and there – with caveat that this is being noted merely to explain this ancient custom. But a sermon which ever encouraged a vow by a living saint, that I do not recall.
But here, Sibbes explains that we do vow and that we should consciously make certain vows to God:
So promises and vows of praise are alleged as an argument to prevail with God, for the obtaining of that the church begs for: ‘So will we render,’ &c. Not to enter into the commonplace of vows, only thus much I say, that there is a good use of them, to vow and promise thankfulness when we would obtain blessings from God. That which a promise is to men, that a vow is to God; and usually they go together in Scripture, as it is said of David, that ‘he vowed unto God, and sware unto the mighty God of Jacob,’ Ps. 132:2. So we have all in baptism vowed a vow. So that it is good to renew our vows often, especially that of new obedience; and in this particular to vow unto him that we will praise him, and strive that his glory be no loser by us.
He then sets forth two reasons we should vow: We are forgetful; we are inconstant.
i. We should vow, because we forget
Take the time to look through Deuteronomy and search for the uses of the words: ‘forget’ and ‘remember’. Over and again, Moses warns them, “Lest you forget” and fall into sin. Therefore, “remember”. The same danger faces us today:
1. It is good thus to vow, if it were but to excite and quicken our dullness and forgetfulness of our general vow; to put us in mind of our duty, the more to oblige us to God and refresh our memories. This bond, that having promised, now I must do it, provokes the soul to it. As it helps the memory, so it quickens the affections.
ii. We should vow, because we are inconstant:
2. Besides, as by nature we are forgetful, so we are inconstant; in which respect it is a tie to our inconstant and unsteady natures.
He makes a point here about conscience: A well-informed conscience has an effect upon us. To vow is to make our relationship with God a matter of conscious conscience. Our inconstancy and forgetfulness make it necessary for us to use means. The use of means is not sinful, but rather a recognition of our status as creatures.
For there are none who have the Spirit of God at all, with any tenderness of heart, but will thus think: I have vowed to God. If it be a heinous thing to break with men, what is it wittingly and willingly to break with the great God? A vow is a kind of oath. This is the sacrifice of fools, to come to God, and yet neither to make good our vows, nor endeavour to do it.
Sibbes here makes an application to the congregation before him, based upon the fact that they had already taken communion. It has been my experience that communion comes at the end of the service and the mediation upon communion comes only before it is received. Here is says, you have taken and this is what this now imposes upon you:
Let us consider therefore what we have done in this case. By permission of authority, there was a fast lately, when we all renewed our vows (we mocked God else), [and] received the communion. Will God be mocked, think you? No; but howsoever man may forget, God will not, but will come upon us for non-payment of our vows and covenants.
He then expands the point and makes a broader application: What else have you done with God? What prayers, what promises?
Lay we it to heart therefore what covenants we have made with God of late. And then, for the time to come, be not discouraged if you have been faulty in it. There is a general vow, wherein, though we have failed (if we be his children, and break not with God in the main, cleaving to him in purpose of heart, occasionally renewing our purposes and covenants), yet let not Satan discourage us for our unfaithfulness therein.
And what if you have failed:
But be ashamed of it, watch more, look better to it for the time to come, and make use of the gracious covenant; and, upon recovery, say with the church, ‘So will we render the calves of our lips.’
Look carefully at how Sibbes makes this point: (1) see your sin and feel the remorse for your sin; (2) repent and look forward; (3) make gracious use of the covenant: God has not rejected. The covenant of grace is still in place. God sits upon a throne of grace for those, like you, who have sinned. You are qualified to receive grace because you need grace and you seek grace. (4) Therefore, give thanks. Our stumbling should become the occasion of our renewing our pilgrimage.
He now presses the point by first a reference to the sacrificial system of Israel:
It was the custom under the Jewish policy, you know, to offer sacrifices of all sorts. But the Spirit of God speaks here of the church of the Jews under the New Testament; especially what they should be after their conversion, having reference to the Jews in Christ’s time, and to the believing Jews in all times, implying thus much; howsoever, not legal sacrifices of calves, bullocks, sheep, and lambs, yet the ‘calves of the lips,’ which God likes better, are acceptable to him.
He moves this to the Church:
And it likewise implies some humiliation of the church.
He then leads the congregation in a prayer on this point: Note that the final application of this point is not: go and do this later. Sibbes does it right then with them. He prays and teaches them how and what to pray:
Lord, whatsoever else we could offer unto thee, it is thine own, though it were the beasts upon a thousand mountains; but this, by thy grace, we can do, to ‘praise thee,’ Ps. 50:23. For God must open and circumcise our lips and hearts before we can offer him the ‘calves of our lips.’ Thus much the poorest creature in the world may say to God, Lord, ‘I will render thee the calves of my lips.’ Other things I have not. This I have by thy gracious Spirit, a heart somewhat touched by the sense of thy favour. Therefore ‘I will render thee the calves of my lips;’ that is, praise, as the apostle hath it, ‘By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually; that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name,’ Heb. 13:15. ‘So will we render thee the calves of our lips.’