This is an exposition of 2 Cor 3:17-18 by the Puritan Richard Sibbes. Unlike some others in the Puritan Paperbacks series, this one has not been abridged, and has only had minimal editing. His method is to explain the meaning of a few words, and follow it up with some application (which he calls “uses”). Like all the Puritans, he is very thorough, seeking to mine the Scriptures for all the riches he can find. It does require a bit more focus than reading a modern book due to the sometimes dated use of language, but it is well worth persevering. Here’s my brief summary of the contents of his exposition.
Sibbes starts off contrasting the law and the gospel. The law cannot change our hearts, nor can it remove our blindness to the gospel. The ceremonial law aimed at Christ, and the moral law is meant to drive us to Christ. Interestingly, he sees Psalm 119 as referring not to the law on its own, but to the law plus the Spirit.
He argues that it is Christ, not the Holy Spirit that the phrase “the Spirit of Lord” refers to. Jesus is given this name because as a man he was filled with the Spirit without measure. To have more of the Spirit, we must go to Christ. More Spirit means more Christ and vice versa.
There is then a substantial section on liberty. Gospel freedom is freedom from sin and its consequences, it is freedom to do good. He criticises the idea that the Spirit works by simply persuading us. Rather, he works internally, changing us from the inside. The Word of God is the charter of our liberty and without the Spirit, we have no liberty. If we have the Spirit, we can enjoy freedom from the dominion of any particular sin.
A man till he is in Christ is a slave, not of one man or one lord over him, but he has as many lords as he has lusts.
More than victory over sin, Christian liberty gives us freedom to “fulfil all our duties with a full heart”, courage to overcome opposition, and boldness to approach God. It also frees us from the fear of man.
The next major section is on “our communion and fellowship with God in Christ”. He explores the meaning of glory, and highlights various aspects of the glory of the gospel, the glory of God, and the glory of Christ. God is especially glorified in displaying his mercy.
When Satan tempts us to run from God and discourages us, as he will do at such times, then keep this in mind: God has set himself to be glorious in mercy above all other attributes. … Though sins after conversion stain our profession more than sins before conversion, go still to the glorious mercy of God. … Let us never be discouraged from going to Christ.
The gospel, or Christ, is the “glass” referred to in the verse (KJV). We could not look directly at God, for without Christ, God is a terrifying sight. And the best way to see Christ, is to look at the Word.
The final, and largest section of the book, deals with our conformity to the image of Christ. He emphasises the vital importance of being made completely new. You cannot accept the gospel in the first place if you do not desire to be completely changed.
We must have new judgments and new desires, new esteem, new affections, new joys and delights, new company.
There is also a double change – “real” and gradual. The first refers to the new birth, while the second refers to the inevitable growth in holiness that must take place in the life of a believer. He says that we cannot come to Christ just wanting pardon for sin, but not change of lifestyle:
Some weak notions would place all the change in justification. They separate Christ’s offices, as if he were all priest but not a governing king; or as if he were righteousness but not sanctification; or as if he had merit to die for us and to give us his righteousness, but no efficacy to change our natures; or as if in the covenant of grace God only forgave our sins but did not write his law in our hearts. But in the covenant of grace he does both.
He also rejects the idea that God doesn’t interfere with our will. No, “grace works on the will most of all. … If the will is not inclined and bent to go the best way, there is no work of grace at all”.
What we are being changed into is the image of Christ. Christ is God’s masterpiece, the prototype. Previously we bore the image of Satan, and the image of Adam, and have a natural tendency to let ourselves be transformed into the image of the world.
God has ordained that we should be like [Christ] in a threefold degree: in suffering, in grace, and in glory.
Sibbes reflects on many aspects of the life of Christ that we should meditate on, and emulate. His resolution to do the Father’s will. His zeal and goodness. The things he loved and enjoyed. His wonderful love and wonderful hatred of sin displayed at the cross. But we do not work up the power to be like him in ourselves. “Nothing can change us but the gospel.”
He warns that if you are not changing then you have not had the new birth, but does acknowledge that sometimes growth is slow, or imperceptible. He even sees occasional fallings into sin as a sovereign way that God humbles us and causes us to grow further.
wherever the knowledge of God in Christ is real, there is a change and conversion of the whole person. There is a new judgment and new affections. The bent and bias is another way than they were before.
He looks at how being transformed into the image of Christ makes us more and more glorious. A person who is like Jesus shines. The key to this transformation is the work of the Spirit. All change comes from the Spirit. Even Jesus himself did everything by the power of the Spirit.
All his grace as a man was from the Holy Ghost. He was conceived, anointed, sealed and led by the Holy Ghost into the wilderness; he offered himself by the Spirit, he was raised by the Spirit; he was full of the Spirit.
Therefore, we need to test ourselves to see whether we have the Spirit (i.e. are we changing?). And we need to “beg” God to grant us more of the Spirit, as we recognise our complete need of him.