If these things are true, then what must we do? If this is what is entailed in repentance, then we must consider how far we fall short of repentance. It is interesting that Sibbes does not ask the question, see whether you fall short. Luther says in his famous 95 Theses that the Christian life is all one of repentance. And there was a saying of the Puritans that we must repent of our repentance.
Use 1. Let us therefore enter into our own souls, and examine ourselves, how far forth we are guilty of this sin, and think we come so far short of repentance.
He draws out one element of their sin: trust, or boasting in the creature:
For the ten tribes here, the people of God, when they repented, say, ‘Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses.’ He speaks comparatively, as trusted in.
Therefore, let us take heed of that boasting, vain-glorious disposition, arising from the supply of the creature. Saith God, ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; neither let the mighty man glory in his might: let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth this, that I am the Lord, which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth,’ &c., Jer. 9:23, 24.
This is sinful, because our glory is to be elsewhere:
Let a man glory that he knows God in Christ to be his God in the covenant of grace; that he hath the God of all strength, the King of kings and Lord of lords to be his: who hath all other things at his command, who is independent and all-sufficient.
If a man will boast, let him go out of himself to God, and plant himself there; and for other things, take heed the heart be not lift up with them.
He now delineates why boasting or trust in the creature is sinful:
1. Consider what kind of thing boasting is. It is idolatry, for it sets the creature in the place and room of God.
2. And it is also spiritual adultery, whereby we fix our affections upon the creature, which should be placed on God; as it is in James, ‘Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?’ &c., James 4:4.
These last two explanations of the sinfulness of trusting in the creature draw upon a doctrine known as the “noetic effect” of sin: the way in which sin affects our thoughts and affections and perceptions.
4. And then again, it puts forth the eye of the soul. It is a kind of white, that mars the sight. When a man looks to Asshur, horses, and to outward strength, where is God all this while? These are so many clouds, that they cannot see God, but altogether pore upon the creature. He sees so much greatness there, that God seems nothing. But when a man sees God in his greatness and almightiness, then the creature is nothing, Job 42:6. But until this be, there is a mist and blindness in the eye of the soul.
When we have identified the defects and limitations of our repentance, and have come to see the extent to which we still rely upon the creature, we must seek a change:
And when we have seen our guiltiness this way (as who of us in this case may not be confounded and ashamed of relying too much on outward helps?), then let us labour to take off our souls from these outward things, whether it be strength abroad or at home.
We must not think that this reformation will come from our own devices:
Which that we may do, we must labour for that obedience which our Saviour Christ exhorts us unto in self-denial, Mat. 16:24, not to trust to our own devices, policy, or strength, wit, will, or conceits, that this or that may help us, nor anything.
He makes an observation about the relationship between justification and sanctification: in both we cannot trust in ourselves:
Make it general; for when conversion is wrought, and the heart is turned to God, it turns from the creature, only using it as subordinate to God. We see, usually, men that exalt themselves in confidence, either of strength, of wit, or whatsoever, they are successless in their issue.
It is a principle with God to thwart the creature who seeks to itself over the Creator:
For God delights to confound them, and go beyond their wit, as we have it, Isa. 30:3. They thought to go beyond God with their policy, they would have help out of Egypt, this and that way.
What then does this look like? Does this mean that we should neglect any effort of our own? Some sort of “let go and let God” transformation? No. This would be relying upon the creature by ignoring obedience to what God has directed.
Oh, saith the prophet, but for all this, God is wise to see through all your devices; secretly hereby touching them to the quick, as sottish persons, who thought by their shallow brains to go beyond God. You think religious courses, and the obedience God prescribeth to you, to be idle, needless courses; but, notwithstanding, God is wise. He will go beyond you, and catch you in your own craft.
He now proves the point with biblical examples:
‘Therefore, the strength of Pharaoh shall be your shame, and the trust in the shadow of Egypt your confusion,’ Isa. 30:3. Thus God loves to scatter Babels fabrics, Gen. 11:8, and holds that are erected in confidence of human strength against him. He delights to catch the wise in their own craft, to beat all down, lay all high imaginations and things flat before him, that no flesh may glory in his sight. There is to this purpose a notable place in Isaiah: ‘Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks,’ Isa. 50:11. For they kindled a fire, and had a light of their own, and would not borrow light from God: ‘Walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled.’ But what is the conclusion of all? ‘This shall ye have of mine hand.’ I dare assure you of this, saith the prophet. ‘You shall lie down in sorrow.’ Those that walk by the light and spark of their own fire, this they shall have at God’s hands: ‘they shall lie down in sorrow.’
He cautions against taking the counsel of your age. There is always some sort of “religious” or “spiritual” wisdom which is popular in any time or place. But we are not to trust in these things. Pilgrim’s Progress has a notable picture of this error when the smooth talking Worldly Wiseman misleads Christian and draws him out of the way.
Sibbes comes to an exhortation. There is a school of thought which counsels that such exhortations should always be addressed as “You.” I prefer the method of Sibbes here to use the “we”: Let us. He is not standing above the congregant but alongside. I know these traps and errors so well because I have wrestled with him. Come with me and I will show you through:
Let us therefore take heed of carnal confidence.
Carnal confidence is an abstraction. To say this and nothing more is to say nothing sensible. The abstraction is fine to introduce an idea, but it must be followed up with something concrete: What does that “carnal confidence” look like in practice?
You have a number who love to sleep in a whole skin, and will be sure to take the safest courses, as they think, not consulting with God, but with ‘flesh and blood.’ It might be instanced in stories of former times, how God hath crossed emperors, and great men in this kind, were it not too tedious.
In Sibbes’ day there was great and often violent conflict over religious disputes: At this time, one’s religion and one’s political allegiance were not easily separable. The religious disputes had very tangible political consequences. Thus, some would seek to be of no firm religious position so as to avoid any political difficulty. The same would be one now who religious convictions drift with the latest popular conceit. The rapid change in doctrinal statements beginning in the early 20th century would be this same process in modern garb:
But for present instance, you have many who will be of no settled religion. Oh, they cannot tell, there may be a change. Therefore they will be sure to offend neither part. This is their policy, and if they be in place, they will reform nothing. Oh, I shall lay myself open to advantages, and stir up enemies against me. And so they will not trust God, but have carnal devices to turn off all duty whatsoever. It is an ordinary speech, but very true, policy overthrows policy. It is true of carnal policy.
But to do this is not a way to safety:
When a man goes by carnal rules to be governed by God’s enemy and his own, with his own wit and understanding, which leads him to outward things, this kind of policy overthrows all policy, and outward government at length. Those that walk religiously and by rule, they walk most confidently and securely, as the issue will shew. Therefore, consider that, set God aside, all is but vanity. And that,
First, In regard they do not yield that which we expect they should yield. There is a falsehood in the things. They promise this and that in shows, but when we possess them, they yield it not. As they have no strength indeed, so they deceive.
2. Then, also, there is a mutability in them; for there is nothing in the world but changes. There is a vanity of corruption in them. All things at last come to an end, save God, who is unchangeable.
He will conclude here with the vanity of the creature. This final section is a plea to not trust in the creature, because the creature will disappoint us. The repentance concerned a trust in the creature and not God. In this section, he is pleading with us to avoid the sin in the first place.
To bring us to this point he uses a combination of logical argument and emotional persuasion.
3. Then again, besides the intrinsical vanity in all outward things, and whatsoever carnal reason leads unto, they are snares and baits unto us, to draw us away from God, by reason of the vanity of our nature, vainer than the things themselves.
Consider the sentence just quoted: The danger of the vanity is that it is a “snare and bait.” This sort of language may seem a bit distant from our experience, but physical traps to catch animals. These images would have brought to mind crushed limbs, blood, death.
Therefore take heed of confidence in anything, or else this will be the issue: we shall be worse than the things we trust.
This is an interesting observation: If I trust in this creature, I will become worse than the creature I have trusted. How can he prove this up?
‘Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity,’ Eccles. 1:1; and man himself is lighter than vanity, saith the psalmist, Ps. 62:9. He that trusts to vanity, is worse than vanity. A man cannot stand on a thing that cannot stand itself,—stare non stante. A man cannot stand on a thing that is mutable and changeable. If he doth, he is vain with the thing.
The argument here is quite similar to the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” A human being who has been corrupted by trusting in a vain creature has become worse than even the creature.
Even as a picture drawn upon ice, as the ice dissolves, so the picture vanisheth away. So it is with all confidence in the creature whatsoever. It is like a picture upon ice, which vanisheth with the things themselves. He that stands upon a slippery thing, slips with the thing he stands on.
Here again he relies upon a very common experience to prove his point. At this time, Europe was moving into what was know as the “Little Ice Age.” Sibbes readers or hearers would have been intimately acquainted with ice.
He then argues that this proposition is so obvious to all that one does not revelation to know that it is true. It is a point which cannot be avoided:
If there were no word of God against it, yet thus much may be sufficient out of the principles of reason, to shew the folly of trusting to Asshur, and horses, and the like.
He ends with a conclusion and a series of six exhortations in the form of “let us”:
Let this be the end of all, then, touching this carnal confidence: to beware that we do not fasten our affections too much upon any earthly thing, at home or abroad, within or without ourselves. For ‘God will destroy the wisdom of the wise,’ 1 Cor. 1:19.
Let us take heed, therefore, of all false confidence whatsoever.
Let us use all outward helps, yet so as to rely upon God for his blessing in the use of all. And when they all fail, be of Jehoshaphat’s mind: ‘Lord, we know not what to do,’ 2 Chron. 20:12.
The creature fails us, our helps fail us; ‘but our eyes are upon thee.’ So when all outward Asshurs, and horses, and helps fail, despair not; for the less help there is in the creature, the more there is in God. As Gideon with his army, when he thought to carry it away with multitudes, God told him there were too many of them to get the victory by, lest Israel should vaunt themselves of their number, and so lessened the army to three hundred, Jud. 7:2; so it is not the means, but the blessing on the means which helps us. If we be never so low, despair not.
Let us make God ours, who is all-sufficient and almighty, and then if we were brought a hundred times lower than we are, God will help and raise us. Those who labour not to have God, the Lord of hosts, to go out with their armies, if they had all the Asshurs and horses in the world, all were in vain. It was therefore a good resolution of Moses. Saith he to God, ‘If thy presence go not with us, carry us not hence,’ Exod. 33:15. He would not go one step forward without God.
This last line if a fine aphorism:
So, if we cannot make God our friend to go out before us, in vain it is to go one step forward.
Let us therefore double our care in holy duties, renewing our covenant with God, before the decree come out against us. The more religious, the more secure we shall be. If we had all the creatures in the world to help us, what are they but vanity and nothing, if God be our enemy! These things we know well enough for notion; but let us labour to bring them home for use, in these dangerous times abroad.
Let us begin where we should, that our work may be especially in heaven.
Let us reform our lives, being moderately careful, as Christians should, without tempting God’s providence, using rightly all civil supports and helps seasonably, and to the best advantage; for, as was said, the carelessness herein for defence may prove as dangerous and fatal to a State, as the too much confidence and trust in them.