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Richard Sibbes on the Difference Between the Law and the Gospel

"The apostle more largely illustrates the transcendent glory of the gospel, and how far it exceedeth the glory of the law; although it be granted the law be glorious."

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[1.] If that which was but a ministration of the letter written and engraven in stone was glorious, verse the seventh; that is, if the literal notions and bare knowledge of the law, which (like so many dead words or characters) maketh no alteration at all, but leaveth their hearts hard and stony, like the tables on which the law was written, which remained stones still; if this was glorious, even the literal knowledge of the law: as it was, both in the Jews’ own account of themselves and in the judgment of the nations amongst whom they lived: ‘how shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious? verse the eighth; the meaning whereof is largely explained in the third verse; where the Corinthians are said to be an ‘epistle written not with ink’ (or dead letters), ‘but with the Spirit of the living God’; which kind of writing leaveth not the heart a heart of stone, as the dead writing of the law did, but changeth it into a ‘heart of flesh,’ and maketh such a thorough alteration in the whole man, as the writing within, ‘in the tables of their hearts,’ is ‘known and read of all men. So that their lives and conversations being answerable to that spiritual and gracious writing of Christ in their hearts, they are ‘manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ.’ And therefore such a ministry as this is, by which the Spirit of the living God is received (and not by the law, Gal. 3:2), which is a Spirit of glory, and worketh glorious things both in the hearts and lives of men, must needs be ‘rather glorious.’

[2.] Another inference we have in the ninth verse; ‘If the ministration of condemnation be glorious;’ that is, if that word which ‘concluded men under sin,’ Gal. 3:22, and pronounced the sentence of death upon them, ‘be glorious, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For it is more glorious to pardon than to condemn; to give life, than to destroy.

"For it is more glorious to pardon than to condemn; to give life, than to destroy."

It is the glory of a man to pass over an offence, Prov. 19:11, and in God it is called the ‘riches of his glory,’ Rom. 9:23. ‘The law, which was made glorious,’ in terrifying, condemning, and stoping the mouths of men, insomuch as they had not a word to say for themselves, ‘hath no glory, by reason of the glory’ of the gospel ‘that excelleth,’ even in this respect, that it bringeth such a righteousness, as by the merit whereof and satisfaction given by it, we are justified and have peace towards God, notwithstanding the utmost rigour of the law.

[3.] The apostle argueth further, ver. 11, ‘If that which is done away was glorious,’ as the old covenant is, which was made old by the coming of the new, Heb. 8:8, and by it removed as a thing grown weak and shaken, Heb. 12:27, ‘much more that which remaineth,’ which is the new covenant, which cannot be shaken, but shall remain, and is ‘the everlasting gospel,’ Rev. 14:6, ‘is more glorious,’ as God’s last works exceed the former, and taketh away the remembrance of them in comparison. As when he createth ‘new heavens and a new earth,’ the former shall not be remembered nor come into mind, Isa. 65:17.

[4.] There is another excellency of the gospel above the law, which the apostle addeth, and insisteth upon it more largely than upon all the rest, and that is, the comfortable plainness and perspicuity of the doctrine and ministry of it: verse the 12th, ‘Seeing we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech.’ In which it excelled the ministry of Moses, which was in much difficulty and obscurity, and that in a threefold respect, laid down in the 13th, 14th, and 15th verses.

(1.) The matter of it was terrible, tending to the shame, confusion of face, and condemnation of the hearers; insomuch as they were not able to stand before him, nor stedfastly to behold his face, it was such a dazzling and amazing light that shined in his ministry.

(2.) The manner of delivery was in obscure and dark expressions, that ‘the children of Israel could not see to the end of that which is abolished;’ that is, they could not see the drift and scope of his ministry, by reason of the types and shadows, which was ‘the veil he put upon his face.’

(3.) Their minds were blinded. There was ‘a veil upon their hearts,’ which is evident by experience in the Jews at this day, who so cleave in their affection to Moses, and to the shadows and ceremonies of his ministry, that they reject the scope and end of it, which is Jesus Christ crucified. And they can do no other. For although the veil that was upon Moses’s face he removed, as it is by the doctrine of the gospel, which sheweth us in all possible plainness what the drift and meaning of Moses was in all those types and ceremonies, yet until the gospel in the spirit and efficacy of it cometh home to their hearts, and taketh off ‘the veil that is upon their hearts’ also; that is, until their natural blindness and obstinacy be taken away, which cannot be, but is rather increased, by the law—‘For although Moses be read, yet until this day remaineth the same veil untaken away,’ 2 Cor. 3:14—the Jews will unavoidably abide in their ignorance and bondage.

"the light of it [i.e., the gospel] is not terrifying and amazing, but sweet and comfortable."

Now, in opposition to this darkness and obscurity of the law in all those respects, the apostle exalteth the gospel in this high and excellent privilege of it, that it is plain, and evident, and full of demonstration, and that the light of it is not terrifying and amazing, but sweet and comfortable. So that we may with much liberty and boldness of spirit look constantly upon the great and glorious things set before us in it, although it be no other but the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.

[5.] And there is, moreover, such an efficacy and working power in this ministry of the gospel, as it will not suffer men to remain the same without alteration, as they did under Moses’s ministry, though he was read daily, but it will ‘change’ them even ‘into the image of Jesus Christ, and carry them on still in that image and likeness, from one degree of glory to another,’ after a most admirable and spiritual manner of working.

 

Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, "The Excellency of the Gospel Above the Law." 4:203–205.