Sibbes argues from the structure of the text that: “God answers all those desires which formerly he had stirred up in his people.” Which leads to this observation, “Where God doth give a spirit of prayer, he will answer.” To support this position, begins with the contention that it needs no proof, “It needs no proof, the point is so clear and experimental [that is a matter of experience].” He then provides Scriptural examples, such as Ps. 50:15, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.”
Why is this so? Because the motivation to pray is a motivation which comes from God himself. “The reason is strong, because they are the motions of his own Spirit, which he stirs up in us. For he dictates this prayer unto them, ‘Take with you words,’ &c., ‘and say unto the Lord, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously.’”
What then of prayers which are not well-formed, which may not even amount to clear words due to our distress?
‘the Spirit also helps our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us, with groanings which cannot be uttered,’ Rom. 8:26. Therefore there cannot a groan be lost, nor a darting of a sigh. Whatsoever is spiritual must be effectual, though it cannot be vented in words. For God hath an ear, not only near a man’s tongue, to know what he saith; but also in a man’s heart, to know what he desires, or would have.
Thus, prayer begins and ends with God, “God, he first prepares the heart to pray, then his ear to hear their prayers and desires.” This should be a strong encouragement to prayer:
a Christian hath the ear of God and heaven open upon him; such credit in heaven, that his desires and groans are respected and heard. And undoubtedly a man may know that he shall be heard when he hath a spirit of prayer; in one kind or other, though not in the particulars or kinds we ask, hear he will for our good. God will not lose the incense of his own Spirit, of a spirit of prayer which he stirs up, it is so precious. Therefore let us labour to have a spirit of prayer,
He raises the question of how God answered their prayer. The prayer was “take away all mine iniquity.” Yet God anwers that he will “heal their backsliding”. Backsliding being a more serious crime than mere sin.
Ans. To shew that he would answer them fully; that is, that he would heal all sins whatsoever, not only of ignorance and of infirmity, but also sins willingly committed, their rebellions and backslidings. For, indeed, they were backsliding.
He recounts the gravity of Israel’s sin and idolatry. It was such as to seem a hopeless case. But God offers to cure this hopeless case. Here, the rhetorical form of Sibbes’ sermon becomes objection and answer:
So that we see, God, when he will comfort, will comfort to purpose, and take away all objections that the soul can make, a guilty soul being full of objections. Oh! my sins are many, great, rebellions and apostasies. But, be they what they will, God’s mercy in Christ is greater and more. ‘I will heal their backsliding,’ or their rebellion. God is above conscience. Let Satan terrify the conscience as he will, and let conscience speak the worst it can against itself, yet God is greater. Therefore, let the sin be what it will, God will pardon all manner of sins. As they pray to pardon all, so he will ‘take away all iniquity, heal their backsliding.’
By putting this into the form of objection-answer, Sibbes can deal with the objections which will naturally cause one to hesitate: I am simply too evil to be forgiven.
Another practical preaching point: Rather than ask, perhaps one someone here may feel, someone here may thing; which is the common way of presenting objections: Sibbes merely states the objections. To ask, “Maybe you feel, maybe you have experienced” is to give the hearer a ground to create a distance. We have a natural tendency to wish to not be drawn in. But to merely state the objection allows us to listen and respond. We are lead to consider our own hearts by this indirect approach.
Why then does God use the word “heal” (“I will heal their backsliding”) rather than forgive and sanctify? To heal implies a wound, disease. From this we have:
- The malignity and venom of it; and then,
- The wound itself, so festered and rankled.
Now, pardoning grace in justification takes away the anguish and malice of the wound, so that it ceaseth to be so malignant and deadly as to kill or infect. And then sanctification purgeth and cleanseth the wound and heals it up.
Here, Sibbes again speaks with utter frankness at the horror of sin and the guilty of humanity. But in all of this there is no condemning tone of I am better than you sinful congregation! He is both plain and sympathetic. It is a tone I have rarely seen preachers achieve.
First, he states the general proposition: God heals sin:
Now, God through Christ doth both. The blood of Christ doth heal the guilt of sin, which is the anger and malignity of it; and by the Spirit of Christ he heals the wound itself, and purgeth out the sick and peccant humour by little and little through sanctification. God is a perfect healer. ‘I will heal their backsliding.’
He then notes our weakness generally, by referring to the “church” being prone to backsliding:
See here the state of the church and children of God. They are prone to backsliding and turning away. We are naturally prone to decline further and further from God. So the church of God, planted in a family in the beginning of the world, how soon was it prone to backsliding. This is one weakness since the fall.
He then develops the general idea by making it more personal: it is not the abstract “church” but our very nature which is subject to this weakness:
It is incident to our nature to be unsettled and unsteady in our holy resolutions. And whilst we live in the midst of temptations, the world, together with the fickleness of our own nature, evil examples, and Satan’s perpetual malice against God and the poor church, are ill pilots to lead us out of the way.
He now turns to the matter of healing a “wound and disease.” This again is a move which is not common in most contemporary preaching. Sibbes is chasing down the understanding of the metaphor: If we must be healed, then we must have a wound or disease. If we have a wound or disease, what does that entail? It the second move, what is inherent in a wound or disease which goes beyond most preaching.
It is not necessarily bad that most preachers do not make this move, because the secondary move can easily lead to idea wholly unsupported and purely speculative. But as we shall see, Sibbes avoids the error or rank speculation. Another fault other than speculation is that the preacher could easily be led off into nonsense or matters well beyond the task at hand.
However, when this second move is handled with great care and wisdom, a sound theology and constant Scriptural application, the result can be something quite profound.