Sibbes: “The outward is easy…”

1 October 2015 by Wes Bredenhof


I’ve been reading Richard Sibbes’ book Josiah’s Reformationone of two theological books not in our container steaming over from North America.   Sibbes was an English Puritan and this book was first published in 1629.  While not quite as easy to read as Thomas Watson, I reckon that Sibbes is still quite accessible for modern readers.  This particular book is a quite edifying look at what Scripture says of King Josiah in 2 Chronicles 34.  Sibbes’ focus is not on the reformation of the kingdom, but on what God was doing in the heart of the king.

In chapter 3, Sibbes notes that Josiah’s inward repentance had an outward expression.  Second Chronicles 34:27 says that Josiah humbled himself and tore his robes.  Sibbes explains that the inward and outward are complementary and both are necessary.  Then he adds this helpful insight:

The outward is easy, and subject to hypocrisy.  It is an easy matter to rend clothes and to force tears, but it is a hard matter to afflict the soul.  The heart of man takes the easiest ways, and leaves the hardest alone, thinking to please God with that.  But God will not be served so; for he must have the inward affection, or else he abhors the outward actions.  Therefore, let us as well labour for humble hearts as humble gestures.  We must rend our hearts and not our clothes, when we come into the presence of God.  We must labour, not only to show humility, but to have humility, so that we will not be like hypocrites who make a show of a great deal of devotion in their conduct of life, but yet have none in their heart; a great deal of outward humiliation, whereas they have none within.  (88-89, slightly modernized)

In every area of spiritual life, not only repentance, it is easy to go through the motions.  However, the motions without the heart ultimately do little good.  Dear reader, we need to pray earnestly for the tender heart of a saint like Josiah.