PREPARATION FOR DEATH.
A SERMON ON
Matt. xxiv. 44.
Therefore, be ye also ready.
Death is a most serious thing. It is impossible to express in words what a most serious thing Death is. Those who have thought and said the most about it, in the time of their health, have found dying to be a far more serious matter than they could before conceive. "The living know that they must die;" and yet, how few lay it to heart! How few there are who "so number their days as to apply their hearts to wisdom!" In small country villages, where death seldom comes, the people scarcely think of it; and "their inward thought seems to be, that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations:" and in large cities where the bell tolls every day, and people constantly see coffins and funerals, the commonness of death takes away the solemnity of it. And in some places, it is shocking to reflect how little seriousness attends a funeral, and that by excessive eating, drinking, and unseasonable mirth, the house of mourning is turned into the house of feasting. All this shows that the heart of man is filled with criminal vanity, and how far is it from that constant seriousness which becomes mortals, living on the borders of eternity. Yet, when death comes into our houses or our neighbourhood, we should be particularly thoughtful. When it pleases God to remove a relation, a friend, or a neighbour, we should consider him as speaking to us—speaking the solemn language of the text, "Be ye also ready." It is as if he said—"Thoughtless mortals, remember your latter end. Consider this providence. Your fellow creature is dead:—he speaks no more—he moves no more—he breathes no more: he has done with all the businesses, all the pleasures, all the relations of life: he is stripped of his former raiment, and wrapped in a shroud: he walks no more at large, but is confined to the narrow limits of the coffin; he mixes in human society no more, he is now the companion of worms: he has forsaken all his former possessions, and retains nothing but a little spot of earth, with which he will shortly mingle, so as not to be distinguished from it. This is the end of man. This will shortly be your end. Prepare for it; prepare to die; prepare to meet your God." Such is the language of Providence. He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear it.
The words of our text were spoken by Jesus Christ to his disciples, with respect to the destruction of Jerusalem, and also with respect to the end of the world. The destruction of Jerusalem was a "coming of the Son of Man," to execute terrible judgements on the unbelieving Jews. The Son of Man will also come to judge the world at the last day, but the particular time of the first event was kept secret; "the day and the hour was known to no man.'' The same may be said of the day of judgment. Our Saviour uses this as an argument with his disciples to be always ready. "Watch, therefore,'' saith he, "for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come." And this he enforces by two comparisons, taken from the common prudence of men. If any housekeeper was told, that some time or other in the night his house would be attacked by thieves, he would be sure to watch, at every hour, till the danger was over. And if a servant is ordered to sit up for his master, but knows not whether he will come home at twelve o'clock, at two, or at three, he ought to be watching, that whenever he comes he may be ready to open the door:—so, Be ye also ready, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
The hour of death is the hour of the Lord's coming to us. He comes to put a period to that life which his power had constantly supported. He comes to separate the immortal spirit from the mortal body. He comes to call the soul to his tribunal, and fix its state in endless bliss or woe. And although his coming will not be visible, attended with angels in the clouds of heaven, as his last grand coming shall be, yet it is equally important and solemn in its consequences to each individual. Jesus has "the keys of death;" he has a right to close our lives when he pleases; and he has "the keys of the unseen world,'' to open the doors of heaven to his people, and to open the doors of hell to the wicked.
But the time of his coming is a profound secret; "of that day and of that hour knoweth no man." There is, indeed, "an appointed time to man upon the earth;" "his days are determined;" "the number of his months are with God," who has fixed "bounds which he cannot pass." But where the bounds are fixed, or how many the years, and months and days—Who can tell? It is not fit for us to know. If wicked men certainly knew they should yet live many years, their hearts would be fully set in them to do evil; they would be more presumptuously wicked than they are. And if weakly and timorous people knew the time of their death, they would thereby be made unfit for any of the enjoyments or duties of life. It is therefore best as it is. Thus are we kept dependent on the God of our lives; and, if truly wise, we are kept always watchful; always desiring and endeavouring, according to our Saviour's advice in the text—to be ready, which is the subject of the present discourse. We therefore observe, that
To be always ready for death, should be the first, the grand business of our lives.
No man, remaining in his natural state of sin, is, or can be, ready for death. "The wages of sin is death," and he who dies "in his sins" must receive the wages of them. "The wicked is driven away in his wickedness;" " chased out of the world," forced away in anger, and against his will, like a malefactor to the dungeon, or a criminal to the gibbet. The natural man cleaves to the dust; his head and heart are full of worldly schemes and projects of happiness; but death unexpectedly arrives, and stops him short. "In that very day his thoughts perish;" and " while he saith, peace and safety, sudden destruction cometh upon him, as travail upon a woman with child, and he cannot escape." He is perhaps saying to himself, "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years, take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry:" but God saith unto him, "Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee."
It is unspeakably awful for a person to die in his sins; his guilt unpardoned; his heart unrenewed; under the power of that carnal mind which is enmity against God. "Guilt," says one, "is a bad companion in life, but how terrible will it be in death! It lies now, perhaps, like cold brimstone upon their benumbed consciences; but when death opens the way for the sparks of divine vengeance to fall on it, it will make dreadful flames in the conscience, in which the soul will be wrapt up for ever."
Vain are the hopes of ungodly men with respect to death. They do not like to think of dying; but when they do, they flatter themselves in their iniquity, and hope they shall do very well at last; they think they have good hearts, or that their good deeds will make amends for their bad ones; or that they shall have time to repent and make their peace with God, receive the sacrament, and so get the priest's passport to heaven. O vain and delusive hope! Such men generally die as they live; and "what is the hope of the hypocrite, though he hath gained, when God taketh away his soul?" These foolish hopes, not being founded on the word of God, are like a house built upon the sand; and when the rain shall descend, the floods come, and the winds blow, and beat upon the house, down it must fall, and great will be the fall of it.
Only "the pure in heart shall see God." How can the profane man, who blasphemes his Maker every day, and with almost every breath calls for damnation, expect to meet God with safety? How can the unclean, the whoremonger, the adulterer, or the lascivious expect to be admitted into the presence of a pure and holy God? How can the Sabbath-breaker imagine he shall be permitted to keep perpetual Sabbath in heaven, who could not endure the work of a short Sabbath once a week on earth? Shall the wilfully ignorant dream of a share in the inheritance of the saints in light? the dishonest man think to rank with the righteous?—the self-righteous with those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb? Alas! all such hopes will be disappointed —"their hope shall be cut off, and their trust shall be as the spider's web."
What then is it to be ready for death? In what does a real preparation for it consist?
1. The foundation of the whole is, an interest in Christ. "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord." Sin and death came by Adam; righteousness and life come by Christ. "By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin: and so death hath passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned." —"Through the offence of one many are dead; yea, by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation." Now as our being in Adam is the cause of death, being in Christ is the cause of life. Our union with the first man has subjected us to sin, misery, death, and hell; union with the second can alone afford us righteousness, happiness, life, and glory. "I am," said Jesus, "the life.— I am come that they may have life; and he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth, and believeth in me, shall never die."
There is no security against the fatal consequences of death, but by believing in Jesus. The soul that is truly convinced of sin, that sees its danger, that is sensible of its helplessness, that is enlightened in the knowledge of Christ, will fly for refuge to him, will trust alone in his perfect righteousness; and in doing so is secure. "The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runneth into it, and is safe." This, therefore, was the summit of St. Paul's wish—"that I may be found in him;" that is, as he explains it, not having on his own righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ, by faith. Phil. iii. 8. He saw that his own righteousness was insufficient. In the days of his ignorance he trusted to it; but, being taught of God, he discarded it; he despised it, as to the thought of appearing in it, or being justified by it. He now longs to be found in Christ, that is, in his righteousness; to be found in it as a safe refuge, in which the avenger of blood cannot reach him; to be found in it as the wedding-garment, in which the master of the feast would accept him. There is no living happily, nor dying safely, but as we are in Christ; and some who have vainly trusted in their own works, in the secure hour of prosperity, have wisely thought better of it when they came to die, and confessed "it was safer to trust to the righteousness of Christ."
If we are united to Christ, and are interested in his righteousness, death cannot hurt us; it is like a serpent that has lost its sting. So the apostle beautifully speaks, 1 Cor. xv. 56, "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ." Death is compared to a venomous serpent, that pierces and poisons. Sin is the sting of this deadly serpent. It is sin that makes death so terrible to nature; were it not for sin, death would be of little consequence, considering what a vain and vexatious world this is. And the strength of sin is the law—that which gives such a formidable power to sin, whereby it subjects us to the death of the body, and to everlasting misery, is the holy and righteous law of God, armed with its fearful curse, and binding the sinner under the guilt of his sin to the destruction of both body and soul. But thanks be to God, Jesus Christ has taken away the sins of his people by the sacrifice of himself; redeemed us from the curse of the law, by becoming a curse for us; and thus he hath deprived death of its sting. "Death shot its sting into our Saviour's side; there left it; there lost it."
This is the true and only foundation of our preparation for death. It is sin that makes death terrible; but Christ hath taken away sin, and so taken away the sting of death. If therefore, we believe in him, death cannot hurt us; for "there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus," the gospel having freed them from the law of sin and death. "He that hath the Son hath life," "he shall never perish, but shall have everlasting life."
How much to be pitied are those poor ignorant creatures, who, in the prospect of death, comfort themselves with the thoughts of having done no harm; having paid every one his own; having been good livers; having kept church and sacrament; having been good to the poor, and so on. All these are refuges of lies, and will leave the sinner exposed to the curse of the law, and to the sting of death. As no man can keep the law, no man can be saved by the law. Only Christ our surety could keep the law perfectly; he did so; and by so doing has "brought in an everlasting righteousness, which is to and upon all who believe." Blessed then are they, and they only who die in the Lord. To be in Christ, then, is the ground-work of our readiness for death; to have Christ in us, by his Spirit, sanctifying our nature, is equally necessary: and these blessings are always connected. "He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit;" for "if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his."
2. We cannot be prepared for death, unless we are prepared for heaven; and no man is prepared for heaven but by the Holy Ghost. Our Lord has most solemnly declared that "except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven." Natural men think little of heaven; they have little other notion of it than that it is not hell. But if they had any just conception of that holy and happy state, their reason would convince them that without an inward change they could never attain or enjoy it. Heaven would be a burden to a graceless soul. As well might a swine that wallows in filthy mire, be delighted with the splendours of a palace; or a stupid ass be enchanted with the harmony of a concert, as a sensual carnal man be satisfied with the joys of the heavenly world. There must be a new heart, a new nature, and new affections, or there can be no relish for a better world. The more any thing, or person, on earth is like heaven, the more the sinner hates it; and the more resemblance it bears to hell, the more he loves it. His carnality of soul, his love of sensual pleasures, with all the wicked passions of his mind, are daily fitting him for another place, and another sort of company. He is treasuring up food for the worm that never dies, and fuel for the fire that shall never be quenched.
But, by regenerating grace, the believer is formed for glory. God has given a new bias to his affections. He sees the evil of sin, and sincerely hates it. He sees the beauty of holiness, and ardently desires it. He sees the excellency of the dear Redeemer, and cordially loves him. He delights in the law of the Lord, after the inward man. He loves the truth, the day, the ordinances, the people of God. He sees the vanity of the world, and is in some degree weaned from it. He has a glimpse of the glory that shall be revealed, and longs to behold it; and in this experience he enjoys a foretaste of heaven. He is not altogether a stranger to the joys of that celestial place. "He who hath wrought us for the self same thing is God;" and this experience is a blessed earnest of future possession. The believer's title to heaven is in the righteousness of Christ alone; but his fitness for it is by these gracious operations of the Holy Spirit; and he who enjoys them in the greatest degree is the person best prepared for the great change.
In these blessed dispositions consists the believer's habitual readiness for death; but it is usual also to speak of his actual readiness. Our Lord has illustrated the difference between habitual and actual preparation, by the similes employed in the text. "A house-keeper is habitually ready for the thief, when he has taken all proper measures to secure his habitation, by doors, and bars, and bolts; but he is actually ready when he stands armed to oppose his entrance. So the faithful servant is habitually ready to serve his master at any hour of the day, in any work to which he may be called: he is actually ready for his Lord's return, when he keeps waking, with the light in his hand."
The believer is actually ready for death, when the graces of the Spirit in his soul are in their lively exercise. When faith is strong triumphing over doubt and uncertainty; when hope is firm, subduing painful fear; when love to God, and Christ, and heavenly things, is ardent; when he is actually employed in performing the proper duties of his station, or when calmly submitting to the afflicting hand of God; when he is guarding against excessive cares, or undue indulgence of the flesh; and especially when the thoughts of death become familiar and pleasant, and the views of glory bright and enchanting—then, with the world under his feet, heaven in his eye, and Christ in his arms, he may say with pious Simeon, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation."
How important is readiness for death! Remember, death will come at its appointed hour, whether you are ready or not; And O how often at an unexpected hour! Not seldom, death comes suddenly. How often do we hear of sudden deaths! How many go to bed well, and never rise more! or go out from home well, and never return!—Some are snatched away in the midst of their amusements, and others whilst engaged in their callings. How necessary then to be always ready, to be ready now. Delay in this case is dangerous indeed. Almost all men talk of preparing at some future time; when sickness shakes them over the grave, or when the Lord removes a relation or a neighbour by some alarming stroke, they promise themselves they will repent and reform: but the impression soon dies away; the world, like the returning tide, fills their hearts with its cares and pleasures, and the writing on the sand is all erased.—"So dies in human hearts the thoughts of death."
But, O consider the unspeakably dreadful consequence of dying unprepared. We can die but once; and if we die in our sins we are lost, lost for ever. There is no repentance in the grave, no pardon in the grave, no regeneration in the grave. Now then is the time; it may be the only time; certainly the best time. It may be—Now or Never.
How happy is the life of that man who has "a good hope through grace;" "the full assurance of hope;" a solid, scriptural persuasion of his interest in Christ. He truly enjoys life, and he may smile at death. He may say with St. Paul, "for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." While I live here, Christ is with me; when I die, I shall be with Christ. How contented and cheerful may he be in the humblest lot, who knows that he is an heir of God, and a joint heir with Christ. O happy, happy, happy man! Do not you wish to be like him?
But what is your present course? If you are living in sin, gratifying the lusts of the flesh, and departing from the living God, you cannot have this assurance. If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; and he walks not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. If you are living in sin, you cannot be happy. You know you are not. You try to be happy by forgetting death; but you cannot forget it. The tolling of the bell, the sight of a funeral, or the news of another's decease, will force the recollection of it, and it makes you miserable. You are like the man at the banquet, with a drawn sword hung over his head by a hair.—You cannot enjoy life for fear of death. O that you were wise! for religion is true wisdom. Forsake the foolish and live. Let the wicked forsake his way, and turn unto the Lord: Let him cry to God for the help of his Holy Spirit, without which no efforts of nature to get rid of sin will prove effectual; but with which the strongest corruptions may be subdued, and the sinner prepared for death and heaven.
Let Christians remember their Lord's advice—"Be ye also ready, for ye know not the hour when your Lord cometh." Remember even the "wise virgins" slumbered and slept. Guard against this slothful temper. Cannot ye watch one hour? Be sober; be vigilant. The judge is at the door. Be diligent, believer in Jesus, and, like your Master, "work while it is called to-day; the night cometh, in which no man can work." Many have, on a dying-bed, repented of their negligence—none of their diligence. Now is the time for activity; there will be rest enough in the grave. And O, daily guard against every obstruction to actual readiness. Conform not to the world in its levities and vanities. Be much alone—be much with God. Make conscience of redeeming precious time, and employing all your talents for the glory of God, the welfare of your family, the church, and the world. In a word —die daily.
When God removes any one who is dear to us, what cordial consolation does it afford, if we have reason to believe he was ready for death. We must not sorrow as men without hope. The change is his great advantage. It would be selfish to wish him out of heaven, to reside again in this vale of tears. "We should scarcely dare to weep," said one, "if Christ had evidently taken the body along with the soul of our friend to heaven;" and why weep now? Absent from the body, he is present with the Lord; and though the body must see corruption, it shall not always be the prisoner of the grave. Jesus has engaged to raise it up at the last day, and to fashion it like his own glorious body. O let us prepare to follow our pious friends, favoured with an earlier call to glory; while we remain below, let us be active for God; and soon shall we join our kindred spirits before the throne, unite in the song of the redeemed, and "so be for ever with the Lord."