Adapted from a Sermon by J.C. Ryle
“The things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18
A subject stands out on the face of our text which is one of the most solemn and heart-searching in the Bible. That subject is eternity.
The subject is one of which the wisest man can only take in a little. We have no eyes to see it fully, no line to fathom it, no mind to grasp it; and yet we must not refuse to consider it. There are regions in the heavens above us, which the most powerful telescope cannot pierce; yet it is well to look into them and learn something, if we cannot learn everything. There are heights and depths about the subject of eternity which mortal man can never sound out; but God has spoken of it, and we have no right to turn away from it altogether.
The subject is one which we must never approach without the Bible in our hands. The moment we depart from “God’s written Word,” in considering eternity and the future state of man, we are likely to fall into error. In examining points like these we have nothing to do with preconceived notions as to what is God’s character, and what we think God ought to be, or ought to do with man after death. We have only to find out what is written. What do the Scriptures say? What does the Lord say? So called “noble thoughts about God,” independent of, and over and above, Scripture are a dangerous thing. The noblest thoughts about God which we have a right to hold are the thoughts which He has been pleased to reveal to us in His “written Word.”
I ask for your attention while I offer a few suggestive thoughts about eternity; this vast, and amazing subject.
I. The first thought which I commend your attention is this:—We live in a world where all things are temporal and passing away.
That person must be blind indeed who cannot realize this. Everything around us is decaying, dying, and coming to an end. There may be a sense in which “matter” is eternal. Once created, the Scriptures hint that there is a sense in which it will never entirely perish. But in a popular practical sense, there is nothing undying about us except our souls. No wonder the poet says
“Change and decay in all around I see:
O Thou that changest not, abide with me! “
We are all going, going, going, whether high or low, gentle or simple, rich or poor, old or young. We are all going, and shall soon be gone.
Beauty is only temporal. Sarah was once the prettiest of women, and the admiration of the Court of Egypt; yet a day came when even Abraham, her husband, said, let me “bury my dead out of my sight.” (Gen. 23:4.)—Strength of body is only temporal. David was once a mighty man of valour, the slayer of the lion and the bear, and the champion of Israel against Goliath; yet a day came when even David had to be nursed and ministered to in his old age like a child.—Wisdom and power of intellect are only temporal. Solomon was once a prodigy of knowledge, and all the kings of the earth came to hear his wisdom; yet even Solomon in his latter days played the fool exceedingly, and allowed his wives to “turn away his heart.” (1 Kings 11:2.)
Humbling and painful as these truths may sound, it is good for us all to realize them and lay them to heart. The houses we live in, the homes we love, the riches we accumulate, the professions we follow, the plans we form, the relations we enter into,—they are only for a time. “The things that are seen are transient.” (2 Cor 4:18) “For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31.)
The thought is one which ought to rouse every one who is living only for this world. If his conscience is not utterly seared, it should stir in him great searchings of heart. Do take care what you are doing! Awake to see things in their true light before it is too late. The things you live for now are all temporal and passing away. The pleasures, the amusements, the recreations, the celebrations, the profits, the earthly callings, which now absorb all your heart and drink up all your mind, will soon be over. They are poor short-lived things which cannot last. Would that you would not love them too well; Would that you would not grasp them too tightly; and make them your idols! You cannot keep them, and you must leave them. Seek first the kingdom of God, and then everything else will be added to you. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” You that love the world, be wise in time! Never, never forget that it is written, “The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (Col. 3:2; 1 John 2:17.)
The same thought ought to cheer and comfort every true Christian. Your trials, crosses, and conflicts, are all temporal. They will soon have an end; and even now they are “preparing for you an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17.) Take them patiently: bear them quietly: look upward, forward, onward, and far beyond them. Fight your daily fight under an steadfast conviction that it is only for a little time, and that rest is not far off. Carry your daily cross with a steadfast recollection that it is one of the “things seen” which are temporal. The cross will soon be exchanged for a crown, and you will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God.
II. The second thought which I commend to your attention is this:—We are all going towards a world where everything is eternal.
That great unseen state of existence which lies behind the grave, is forever. Whether it be happy or miserable, whether it be a condition of joy or sorrow, in one respect it is utterly unlike this world,—it is forever. There at any rate will be no change and decay, no end, no good-bye, no mornings and evenings, no alteration, no annihilation. Whatever there is beyond the tomb, when the last trumpet has sounded, and the dead are raised, will be endless, everlasting, and eternal. “The things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor 4:18)
We cannot fully grasp this condition. The contrast between now and then, between this world and the next, is so enormously great that our feeble minds will not take it in. The consequences it entails are so tremendous, that they almost take away our breath, and we shrink from looking at them. But when the Bible speaks plainly we have no right to turn away from a subject, and with the Bible in our hands we will do well to look at the “things that are eternal.”
i) Let us settle it then in our minds, for one thing, that the future happiness of those who are saved is eternal.
However little we may understand it, it is something which will have no end: it will never cease, never grow old, never decay, never die. At God’s “right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Ps. 16:11.) Once landed in paradise, the saints of God will go out no more. The inheritance is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” They will receive an “unfading crown of glory.” (1 Pet. 1:4; 5:4.) Their warfare is accomplished; their fight is over; their work is done. They will hunger no more, neither thirst any more. They are travelling on towards an “eternal weight of glory,” towards a home which will never be broken up, a meeting without a parting, a family gathering without a separation, a day without night. Faith will be swallowed up in sight, and hope in certainty. They will see as they have been seen, and know as they have been known, and “will always be with the Lord.” It is no wonder that the apostle Paul adds, “Encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thess. 4:17, 18.)
ii) Let us settle it, for another thing, in our minds, that the future misery of those who are finally lost is eternal.
This is an awful truth, and flesh and blood naturally shrink from the contemplation of it. But there is no doubt that it is plainly revealed in Scripture, and we dare not ignore and pass over it. Eternal future happiness and eternal future misery appear to stand side by side. There seems no way to distinguish the duration of one from the duration of the other. If the joy of the believer is forever, the sorrow of the unbeliever is also forever. If heaven is eternal, so likewise is hell.
There appears to be no way to reconcile the non-eternity of punishment with the language of the Bible. Its advocates talk loudly about love and charity, and say that it does not harmonize with the merciful and compassionate character of God. But what do the Scriptures say? Who ever spoke such loving and merciful words as our Lord Jesus Christ? Yet His are the lips which three times over describe the consequence of impenitence and sin, as a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” He is the Person who speaks in one sentence of the wicked going away into “eternal punishment” and the righteous into “eternal lifel.” (Mark 9:43-48; Matt. 25:46.)—Who does not remember the Apostle Paul’s words about charity? Yet he is the very Apostle who says, the wicked “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.” (2 Thess. 1:9.)—Who does not know the spirit of love which runs through all of the Apostle John’s Gospel and Epistles? Yet the beloved Apostle is the very writer in the New Testament who dwells most strongly, in the book of Revelation, on the reality and eternity of future woe. What shall we say to these things? Shall we be wise above that which is written? Shall we admit the dangerous principle that words in Scripture do not mean what they appear to mean? Is it not far better to lay our hands on our mouths and say, “Whatever God has written must be true;” and exclaim with the Apostle John “Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!” (Rev. 16:7.)
It is the solemn duty of all ministers of Christ to raise a warning voice on this subject, and try to put Christians on their guard. Six thousand years ago sin entered into the world by the devil’s daring falsehood,—“You will not surely die.” (Gen. 3:4) At the end of six thousand years the great enemy of mankind is still using his old weapon, and trying to persuade men that they may live and die in sin, and yet at some distant period may be finally saved. Let us not be ignorant of his devices. Let us walk steadily in the old paths. Let us hold fast the old truth, and believe that as the happiness of the saved is eternal, so also is the misery of the lost.
(a) Let us hold it fast in the interest of the whole system of revealed religion.
What was the use of God’s Son becoming incarnate, agonizing and dying on the cross to make atonement, if men can be finally saved without believing on Him? Where is the slightest proof that saving faith in Christ’s blood can ever begin after death? Where is the need of the Holy Spirit, if sinners are at last to enter heaven without conversion and renewal of heart? Where can we find the smallest evidence that anyone can be born again, and have a new heart, if he dies in an unregenerate state? If a man may escape eternal punishment at last, without faith in Christ or sanctification of the Spirit, sin is no longer an infinite evil, and there was no need for Christ making an atonement.
(b) Let us hold it fast for the sake of holiness and morality.
Nothing can so pleasant to flesh and blood as the baseless theory that we may live in sin, and yet escape eternal perdition; and that although we serve “various passions and pleasures” (Titus 1:3) while we are here, we will somehow or other all get to heaven in the end! Only tell the young man who is squandering “his property in reckless living” that there is heaven at last even for those who live and die in sin, and he is never likely to turn from evil. Why should he repent and take up the cross, if he can get to heaven at last without trouble?
(c) Finally, let us hold it fast, for the sake of the common hopes of all God’s saints.
Let us distinctly understand that every blow struck at the eternity of punishment is an equally heavy blow at the eternity of reward. It is impossible to separate the two things. No clever theological definition can divide them. They stand or fall together. The same language is used, the same figures of speech are employed, when the Bible speaks about either condition. Every attack on the duration of hell is also an attack on the duration of heaven. It is a deep and true saying, “With the sinner’s fear our hope departs.’’
We turn from this painful and sobering part of our subject this morning. As one who worked hard for the salvation of souls once said “it is a hard subject to handle lovingly.” But nonetheless we ought to turn from it with an equally deep conviction that if we believe the Bible we must never give up anything which it contains. May the Lord deliver us from hard, austere, and unmerciful theology! If men are not saved it is because they “refuse to come to” Christ.” (John 5:40.) But we must not be wise above that which is written. No misplaced love of liberality, so called, must induce us to reject anything which God has revealed about eternity.
Men sometimes talk exclusively about God’s mercy and love and compassion, as if He had no other attributes, and leave out of sight entirely His holiness and His purity, His justice and His un-changeableness, and His hatred of sin. Let us beware of falling into this delusion. It is a growing evil in these latter days. Low and inadequate views of the unutterable vileness and filthiness of sin, and of the unutterable purity of the eternal God, are fertile sources of error about man’s future state. Let us think of the mighty Being with whom we have to do, as he Himself declared His character to Moses, saying, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” But let us not forget the solemn clause which concludes the sentence: “but who will by no means clear the guilty.” (Exod. 34:6, 7.) Unrepented sin is an eternal evil, and can never cease to be sin; and He with whom we have to do is an eternal God.
The words of Psalm 145 are strikingly beautiful: “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made. —The LORD upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.—The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works. The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.—The LORD preserves all who love him.” Nothing can exceed the mercifulness of this language! But what a striking fact it is that the passage goes on to add the following solemn conclusion, “all the wicked he will destroy.” (Psalm 145:8-20.)
III. The third thought which I commend to your attention is this:—Our state in the unseen world of eternity depends entirely on what we are in time.
The life that we live on earth is short at the very best, and soon gone. “We bring our years to an end like a sigh.”—“What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (Psalm 90:9; James 4:14.) The life that is before us when we leave this world is an endless eternity, a sea without a bottom, and an ocean without a shore. One day in your sight, eternal God, “is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Pet. 3:8.) In that world, time will be no more.—But short as our life is here, and endless as it will be hereafter, it is a tremendous thought that eternity hinges upon time. Our lot after death depends, humanly speaking, on what we are while we are alive. It is written, God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Rom.2:6, 7.)
We ought never to forget, that we are all, while we live, in a state of probation. We are constantly sowing seeds which will spring up and bear fruit, every day and hour in our lives. There are eternal consequences resulting from all our thoughts and words and actions, of which we take far too little account. “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” (Matt. 12:36.) Our thoughts are all numbered, our actions are weighed. No wonder that the apostle Paul says, “The one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” (Gal. 6:8.) In a word, what we sow in life we shall reap after death, and reap to all eternity.
There is no greater delusion than the common idea that it is possible to live wickedly, and yet rise again gloriously; to be without religion in this world, and yet to be a saint in the next. When the famous Whitefield revived the doctrine of conversion in the seventeen hundreds, it was reported that one of his hearers came to him after a sermon and said,—“It is all quite true, sir. I hope I shall be converted and born again one day, but not till after I am dead.” It is to be feared that there are many like him; That the false doctrine of the Roman Catholic purgatory has many secret friends even within the pale of the Evangelical Church! However carelessly men may go on while they live, they secretly cling to the hope that they will be found among the saints when they die. They seem to hug the idea that there is some cleansing, purifying effect produced by death, and that, whatever they may be in this life, they will be found “qualified … to share in the inheritance of the saints” (Col 1:12) in the life to come. But it is all a delusion.
The Bible teaches plainly, that as we die, whether converted or unconverted, whether believers or unbelievers, whether godly or ungodly, so shall we rise again when the last trumpet sounds. There is no repentance in the grave: there is no conversion after the last breath is drawn. Now is the time to believe in Christ, and to lay hold on eternal life. Now is the time to turn from darkness to light, and to make our calling and election sure. The night is coming when no man can work. As the tree falls, there it will lie. If we leave this world impenitent and unbelieving, we will rise the same in the resurrection morning, and find it had been “better for us if we had never been born.” (Matt 26:24)
I ask you all to remember this, and to make a good use of time. Regard it as the stuff of which life is made, and never waste it or throw it away. Your hours and days and weeks and months and years have all something to say to an eternal condition beyond the grave. What you sow in life you are sure to reap in a life to come. As Richard Baxter says, it is “now or never.” Whatever we do in religion must be done now.
Remember this in your use of all the means of grace, from the least to the greatest. Never be careless about them. They are given to be your helps toward an eternal world, and not one of them ought to be thoughtlessly treated or lightly and irreverently handled. Your daily prayers and Bible-reading, your weekly behaviour on the Lord’s day, your manner of going through public worship,—all, all these things are important. Use them all as one who remembers eternity.
Remember it, not least, whenever you are tempted to do evil. When sinners entice you, and say, “It is only a little one,”—when Satan whispers in your heart, “Never mind: where is the mighty harm? Everybody does it,”—then look beyond time to an unseen world, and place in the face of the temptation the thought of eternity.
IV. The last thought which I commend to your attention is this:—The Lord Jesus Christ is the great Friend to whom we must all look for help, both for time and eternity.
The purpose for which the eternal Son of God came into the world can never be declared too fully, or proclaimed too loudly. He came to give us hope and peace while we live among the “things that are seen which are transient” and glory and blessedness when we go into the “the things that are unseen which are eternal.” (2 Cor 4:18) He came to bring “life and immortality to light,” and to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (2 Tim. 1:10; Heb.2:15.) He saw our lost and bankrupt condition, and had compassion on us. And now, praise be to God, a mortal man may pass through “transient things” with comfort, and look forward to “eternal things ” without fear.
These mighty privileges our Lord Jesus Christ has purchased for us at the cost of His own precious blood. He became our Substitute, and bore our sins in His own body on the cross, and then rose again for our justification. He “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” He was made sin for us who knew no sin, that we poor sinful creatures might have pardon and justification while we live, and glory and blessedness when we die. (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18; 2 Cor. 5:21.)
And all that our Lord Jesus Christ has purchased for us He offers freely to every one who will turn from his sins, come to Him, and believe. “I am the light of the world,” He says: “whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”—“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”—“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”—“Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”—And the terms are as simple as the offer is free: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”—“Whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 8:12; Matt. 11:28 John 7:37; 6:37; Acts 16:31; John 3:16. NASB)
He that has Christ, has life. He can look round him on the “transient things,” and see change and decay on every side without dismay. He has got treasure in heaven, which neither rust nor moth can corrupt, nor thieves break through and steal. He can look forward to the “eternal things,” and feel calm and composed. His Saviour has risen, and gone to prepare a place for him. When he leaves this world he will have a crown of glory, and be for ever with his Lord. He can look down even into the grave, as the wisest Greeks and Romans could never do, and say, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55) Oh, eternity, where are your terrors?
Let us all settle it firmly in our minds that the only way to pass through “things seen” with comfort, and look forward to “things unseen” without fear, is to have Christ for our Saviour and Friend, to lay hold on Christ by faith, to become one with Christ and Christ in us, and while we live in the flesh to live the life of faith in the Son of God. (Gal.2:20.) How vast is the difference between the state of him who has faith in Christ, and the state of him who has none? Blessed indeed is that man or woman or child who can say, with truth, “I trust in Jesus: I believe.”
Blessed indeed is he that believes! He alone is rich, independent, and beyond the reach of harm. If you and I have no comfort amidst temporal things, and no hope for the eternal things, the fault is all our own. It is because we “refuse come to Christ, that we may have life.” (John 5:40.)
We leave the subject of eternity here. May God may bless it to our souls this morning. In conclusion, I offer to every one present some food for thought, and matter for self-examination.
(1) First of all, how are you using your time? Life is short and very uncertain. You never know what a day may bring. Business and pleasure, money-getting and money-spending, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,—all, all will soon be over and done with forever. And you, what are you doing for your immortal soul? Are you wasting time, or turning it to good account? Are you preparing to meet God?
(2) Secondly, where shall you be in eternity? It is coming, coming, coming very fast upon us. You are going, going, going very fast into it. But where will you be? On the right hand or on the left, in the day of judgment? Among the lost or among the saved? I can only urge you not to rest until your soul is insured! Make sure of your work: leave nothing uncertain. It is a fearful thing to die unprepared, and fall into the hands of the living God.
(3) Thirdly, would you be safe for time and eternity? Then seek Christ, and believe in Him. Come to Him just as you are. Seek Him while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. There is still a throne of grace. It is not too late. Christ waits to be gracious: He invites you to come to Him. Before the door is shut and the judgment begins, repent, believe, and be saved.
(4) Lastly, would you be happy? Cling to Christ, and live the life of faith in Him. Remain in Him, and live near to Him. Follow Him with heart and soul and mind and strength, and seek to know Him better every day. In so doing you will have great peace while you pass through the “transient things,” and in the midst of a dying world will “never die.” (John 11:26.) So doing, you will be able to look forward to the “eternal things” with unfailing confidence, and to feel and “know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor. 5:1.)