Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Sacred Doctrine

Nature and Grace in Richard Sibbes


With respect to the relation between nature and grace, the mainstream Christian tradition does not hold that grace obliterates or destroys nature, but rather that it works with it in some sense as its necessary substratum. The most well known formulation of the idea is found in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologiae I, Q. 1, Art. 8, ad. 2:

…gratia non tollat naturam, sed perficiat….

[G]race does not destroy nature but perfects it….

But its use is not limited to figures customarily identified with Roman Catholicism. It is widespread among Protestants as well. Thus Herman Bavinck writes, in a section in which he is arguing explicitly against the Roman Catholic view of nature and grace as he understood it, as follows:1

The covenant of grace differs from the covenant of works in method, not in its ultimate goal. It is the same treasure that was promised in the covenant of works and is granted in the covenant of grace. Grace restores nature and takes it to its highest pinnacle, but it does not add to it any new and heterogeneous constituents. (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, 577).

Earlier, he had said:

Just as the Son follows the Father, so re-creation presupposes creation, grace presupposes nature, and regeneration presupposes birth. (RD, vol. 3, 470).

Earlier still, he had said, against Cocceius:

The covenant of grace is not, as Cocceius taught, the successive abolition of the covenant of works but its fulfillment and restoration. “Grace repairs and perfects nature.”

Bro, do you even total depravity?

This post, however, is not really about Herman Bavinck. It is about Richard Sibbes. But I wish to use Bavinck to make a general comment that might help us to situate the–or at least a–Protestant use of “grace restores/perfects nature” and to illuminate its function in Sibbes’ The Bruised Reed in particular: Bavinck’s polemical aim in his use of the paradigm was against the idea that the purpose of grace was to elevate nature into supernature. That is to say, the purpose of grace is not “physical”–to change one nature into a different one, so to speak–but ethical. “Grace is not opposed to nature, only to sin” (RD, vol. 3, 577).

To understand that point in at least general terms can help us to understand how a Protestant like Richard Sibbes might use the formula to salvage the classical philosophical affirmation that human action aims at some good, while at the same time affirming what is commonly known as total depravity, or man’s state of spiritual death in sin prior to regeneration.

The former affirmation, given pithy expression by Aristotle at the beginning of the Politics (“[E]veryone always acts in order to obtain that which they think good”), seems to exclude the latter affirmation out of hand. If man is dead in sin, the argument would go, he cannot perceive the good. But if that is the case, fallen man cannot aim at the good. Therefore the nature of the redeemed man, if he is to aim at the good, must be fundamentally altered. His nature, then, must be wiped away and replaced with something new that is adequately fitted to aim at the good. If total depravity is correct, then, it seems to imply that grace obliterates nature–hence it cannot restore, repair, or perfect it, and Thomas and Bavinck must both be wrong.

A merely natural misunderstanding?

On closer inspection, however, such a move has to rely on slippage regarding the meaning of “nature.” While Bavinck claims of his opponents that nature itself must be elevated or transformed, Bavinck (and, as we shall see in a moment, Sibbes) would call the “thing” that must be transformed “nature” only accidentally and improperly, i.e. it is nature as fallen that must be transformed and made a “new creation.” But what is being removed is the accidental, ethical taint of sin, not nature itself, which continues to be the “thing” on which grace works. Sin and its effects are removed so that nature is restored to function properly.

But that claim has an important corollary: in order to be restored or repaired, it has to already be there. Therefore, even in his fallen state, something of man’s original nature is preserved and continues to function in the state of corruption. Otherwise, there would be nothing there for grace to “fix.”

A bruised reed is still a reed. For that matter, a dead reed is still a reed.2

Having said all that, we can now turn to see how Sibbes uses all of these pieces harmoniously to demonstrate the restorative transformation of fallen natural man to natural man simpliciter, or from natural man improperly speaking to natural man properly speaking. He does so by thinking of sin and grace in ethical terms, and of redemption as an ethical solution.

However, one might be thrown of the scent at first by the language he uses in Chapter 20 of The Bruised Reed, “The Spiritual Government of Christ Is Joined with Judgment and Wisdom,” to discuss man’s end and its relation to the supernatural. In this chapter, he treats of Christ’s government in the soul through the Holy Spirit by means of “judgment,” which is “the life and soul of wisdom.” When he comes to the “use” of this teaching, the first thing he says is this:

Hence we learn the necessity, that the understanding be principled with supernatural knowledge, for the well managing of a Christian conversation.

There must be light to discover a further end than nature, for which we are Christians, and a rule suitable directing to that end, which is the will of God in Christ, discovering his good pleasure toward us, and our duty toward him….

Prima facie, this perhaps sounds exactly like what Bavinck sets himself in opposition to: nature over against supernature, in which conflict nature must be overcome and transcended.

But Sibbes’ meaning is in fact in precise accordance with Bavinck’s, as his further explanation demonstrates:

This order of Christ’s government by judgment is agreeable unto the soul, and God delighteth to preserve the manner of working peculiar unto man, that is, to do what he doth out of judgment: as grace supposeth nature as founded upon it, so the frame of grace preserveth the frame of nature in man. And, therefore, Christ bringeth all that is good in the soul through judgment, and that so sweetly, that many out of a dangerous error think, that that good which is in them and issueth from them is from themselves, and not from the powerful work of grace.

In the redeemed, Christ works by “judgment,” yes–but why? Because “judgment” is founded in the very nature of man itself. Christ’s mode of working in redeemed man preserves the mode of working in man as created, even when in a fallen state.

And because that is the case, Sibbes can maintain, almost word for word, the Aristotelian dictum that “everyone always acts in order to obtain that which they think good”:

As in evil, the devil so subtilly leadeth us according to the stream of our own nature, that men think that Satan had no hand in their sin; but here a mistake is with little peril, because we are ill of ourselves, and the devil doth promote what ill he findeth in us. But there are no seeds of supernatural goodness at all in us. God findeth in us nothing but enmity; only he hath engraven this in our nature to incline in general to that which we judge to be good. Now when he shall clearly discover what is good in particular, we are carried to it; and when convincingly he shall discover that which is ill, we abhor it as freely as we embraced it before.

(In this quotation, Sibbes is describing fallen, unsaved man. This is important to note when interpreting his statement that “there are no seeds of supernatural goodness at all in us,” for this is the case only for man when dead in sin. In other words, when God comes to raise us to new life, he does not find his grace there, as it were, impatiently awaiting him. “Oh, you’re here already? Sorry I’m late.” It isn’t there until he puts it there. As Sibbes makes abundantly clear in the rest of the work, it is not the case for man as regenerated, who, by the Spirit, is capable of genuine good that is pleasing to God.)

Even when we are enemies of God, Sibbes says, our natures “incline in general to that which we judge to be good.” Again, graces restores nature; it does not destroy it. If Christ sets up his government to incline the soul toward the good, it must work upon the foundation that is already there, even when fallen man is in a state of hatred toward God. This “foundation” is distinguishable from a thing that in its current state is pleasing to God, although it is a thing that can be made pleasing to God.

The point is this: Christ governs in the redeemed soul by way of judgment, making the soul to approve of and incline toward the good. But if that is so, the soul itself must work by way of judgment, approving of and inclining toward what it judges to be good. Christ’s government in the regenerated does not alter that basic propensity of the soul, or replace it with something different in kind. Instead, God takes that basic propensity and “discover[s]” to it “what is good in particular,” that is, shows it the goods that are pleasing to God in particular situations so that man can act in accordance with genuine goodness coram Deo, doing those things from the heart that bring delight to the Father in heaven.

Last two sentences

For Sibbes, then, as for Bavinck, all these threads (what nature and grace are, and how they are complementary) hang together and are mutually dependent. Not only is the principle that grace restores nature not incidental to Protestantism; it is integral to it.

  1. Not all Protestants are happy about this overlap. Despite Bavinck’s partially polemical intent vis-a-vis Roman Catholicism in the following passage, David VanDrunen sees little difference between what he refers to as “Thomistic” and “neo-Calvinist” paradigms.
  2. Obviously, Sibbes uses “reed” to mean “Christian,” whereas, in the second sentence, I use it to mean “man,” i.e. a man dead in sin is still a man. I don’t mean “a non-Christian is still a Christian.” So settle down.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.