Appearance Before God Here And Hereafter - Part II
Adapted from a Sermon By
When shall I come and appear before God? Psalm 42:2 ESV
This morning we come to the second and closing part of Isaac Watts’ sermon titled Appearance Before God Here And hereafter.
Our guiding verse was verse 2 of Psalm 42 where David asks: When shall I come and appear before God?
Recall that by an appearance before God, in the text, we are to understand our attendance upon him in the public ordinances of worship; and the longing desire the Psalmist had to draw near to God in his ordinances, illustrates to us the character of every sincere Christian, when he enjoys a right frame of mind, and a heavenly disposition of soul: he longs, he breathes after those seasons of divine improvement and comfort.
Now considering that all our appearances before God in this world in his sanctuary, are but means to prepare us to stand before God in the world that is to come; It seems well within the scope of our text to spend our whole time this morning, in showing the difference that is between our appearance before God on earth here, and our appearing before him in the other world hereafter; and this in order to awaken the sinner, and to encourage the true Christian.
There are two great future appearances before God: the one at judgment, and the other in glory in heaven. The one belongs to all men, the other only to the saints. And now, that this discourse might be rightly divided, and give to every one their portion, allow me to chiefly apply our general appearance before God at judgment, to those who are unconverted, and in a state of sin; for there is reason to fear that there may be some such among us: and to apply the blessed appearance before God in heaven to converted souls, to whom only it belongs: these are the persons who have faith and love, and are in some measure prepared to appear and worship there.
First then, Let us consider our appearance before God in judgment. It is true, at the moment of death our souls immediately stand before God to be judged, as well as our souls and bodies united, shall stand together there in the great day of the resurrection; yet we will not make any distinction of these seasons now, but will treat of them together, to awaken the secure and sinful worshipper, who appears before God here in the form of devotion: and to remind him that he must, before long, stand before God in another manner than he does now, and to set his thoughts at work to compare one with the other in the following
1. The sinner now appears with some degree of willingness in the presence of God; then it is under a terrible constraint.
A wicked man may be willing to come to public ordinances for many carnal reasons, as to comply with his superiors, to follow the custom of the family where he dwells, to gain reputation among men, to satisfy the cries of an awakened conscience; for his conscience, perhaps, will not be at ease without the performance of some duties; and so he makes use of divine worship; and his public appearances before God, as a kind of opiate, to numb an uneasy conscience, and therefore he has some inclination and willingness to come before God here on earth: but at death, and at the general resurrection, he must appear whether he wants to or not. Heb. 9:27. It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment. Rom. 14:10. and 2 Cor. 5:10. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. The angels will gather the elect from the four quarters of the world, and bring them near to the Judge with pleasure; but sinners will be dragged toward that awful tribunal, and be forced to stand trial.
While the believer, who walks in a living faith, says, "When shall I come into that world of spirits, and appear there before God?" the sinner wishes that day may never come, his secret thoughts are: "O that I might live forever on earth! that I might forever dwell with men, and never see the face of that God who hates me, and whom I have never loved. O that death might make an utter end of me! O that the grave would cover me forever, that I might rise no more." And when that dreadful day comes, then he will cry, "Fall on us, rocks; mountains press us down, and conceal us forever from the wrath of God and the Lamb" as in Rev. 6:15, 16. where that outcry is pictured. But, they must stand and see the terror; they are constrained to hear the glorious and dreadful sentence. Speak to yourself, and consider: “Do you believe this, O my soul! and can you be content to live unprepared for the solemnities of this day?”
2. Here, sinners appear like the saints of God, in disguise; but there, as sinners, openly guilty, and exposed to light: here, not separated from the saints in the place of worship; there, sufficiently distinguished and divided from all who love God, and that worship him in spirit; for when a sinful soul goes out of the body to appear before God, every angel in heaven knows him; he is naked without a covering of disguise, as well as without the covering of a justifying righteousness; and upon this account he appears all guilty, not only before the searching eye of God, and the terror of his anger, but also before the blessed spirits who are near the throne. Here, those who are in the same assembly, do not know whether we are the children of God, or the children of the devil; but in the world of spirits, all the children of Satan are as much distinguished from the children of God, as an angel of light is from a spirit of darkness.
This flesh is a disguise to the soul, a thick cloud to cover a thousand hypocrisies; but at the great day the naked soul must be known; Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; Matt. 25:32. Jesus will separate the one from the other: and what will the sinner say at that day? "I have on earth appeared before God among the saints, but now I must forever dwell with my companions in iniquity, with my partners in everlasting burnings; I am so like to the spirits of hell, now I am undressed, and stripped of all disguise, that I see myself justly divided forever from the saints, and a fit companion for none but devils." And who can tell the torment that is contained in such a self-condemning reflection as this?
3. Sinners appear now, and take no notice of God as Creator, or Christ as Mediator and Saviour; but at the appearance in judgment it will be impossible to stand before God, and not take notice of him. He appears there as a God of terrible and incensed majesty, and they must see him; and Jesus Christ sits there, and must be seen, not as the Saviour to secure them, but the Judge ready to condemn them to everlasting punishment; Revelation 1 verse 7 assures us of this day, and speaks of it as already in progress; Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. I behold him, says the wretched Balaam, but not near; Num. 24:17. not as my God, near me, but as my enemy; afar from me. "Now God speaks with the voice of mercy in the church, and I turn a deaf ear to him,” may the sinner say, but then it is the language of justice and vengeance: “O that my ears and my eyes were sealed up for ever! for his looks, his words, his actions, pierce through my soul with a thousand torments."
It is impossible for the wicked to turn their eyes from God in that day, whereas now for a whole hour or two, in his worship, their hearts are not once fixed upon him. A God of holiness will be seen on his seat of judgment; and the sinner who would not see, shall see, and be confounded at the sight. Think of this, O my soul! and when you find your thoughts wandering from God in the next duty of worship, take this awful hint to recall them again.
4. Now the sinner appears before God as on a throne of grace; there on a throne of justice: now in a state of trial: there for a final sentence. He comes now to hear the general language of God to men; there to hear his own particular judgment from the same God: now the sinner stands in the church, in a general assembly; and he stands within the reach of a general promise: He that believes shall be saved; he that confesses, and forsakes his sin, shall find mercy: but then the book of all the promises is forever shut, and it is declared by the Judge, that not one of them belongs to him: he has refused all the offers of grace, and the day of grace is gone forever.
Now he stands, and hears the general threatening of the word: The soul who sins shall die; the wages of sin is death; whoever does not believe will be condemned; the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption: Ez. 18:20, Rom. 6:20, Mark 16:16, Gal. 6:8, yet he may escape all these threatenings. But in the great and last day he hears his own name, as it were, read together with each of these threatenings, and united to them all: "You are the impenitent sinner, and you must die forever; you have not believed in Christ, and you are the person who shall be for ever damned."
Now he appears before God, and though he is, as to his state, at a distance from him, yet he may be converted and brought near; he hears these blessed words; Matt. 11:28. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Isaiah 45:22. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth. But there the only word is, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire; Matt. 25:41, for I have not one word of promise, of encouragement, or of comfort for you.
Because he appears now in a state of trial, it is with some hope of obtaining pardon; but there he stands only waiting for the sentence of death, and therefore with everlasting despair: he appears there guilty in open light, and his condemnation is certain and unchangeable.
Believe this, sinner, now in this life; the wrath of God lies heavy upon you; John 3:36. but this wrath may be removed; the condemnation that is now upon you from the law, may be reversed: the gospel is ready to take it off, if you receive this gospel: but there, before the judgment seat, every soul who is found in his sins, falls under an eternal curse, and without repeal: that condemnation shall never be removed; for immediate execution follows upon the sentence.
Now the sinner appears before God, and hears such words of compassion as these are: "I delight not in the death of a sinner, I would have him turn and live; I propose the method of reconciliation and life:" Ez. 18:23, but then the Lord sits upon a throne of judgment, and he will laugh at the calamity of the wicked, and the obstinate sinner's distress; for pity and compassion are forever departed. Now, who is there among us able to bear the sight of a provoked God who is infinite in power, terrible in majesty, and has abandoned all compassion?
5. The sinner now appears often before God; there but once, and is for ever driven from his presence: here, if you meet with no comfort from God in one ordinance, you may find it in the next; but then you will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might; 2 Thess. 1:9. How will you long for such seasons again, when you are for ever shut out from them! "O that I had but one Lord’s-day more to spend in the service of God! how would I labour and wrestle with God in prayer, that I might become a new creature!" But in hell the days are all alike, they are all dark and stormy; there is not one day of sunshine, not one sabbath, not one hour of rest. "How did I mock God on earth,” must the sinner say, “when I appeared before him! and after I had mocked him once, I trifled again and again; but now I find he is a God who will not be mocked; I see he is a terrible majesty, and I am driven for ever from all his grace and compassion, and shall see his face no more."
Carefully consider an exhortation at present to urge upon your minds a practical belief, and a lively sense of this appearance before God at judgment. Must we all stand before the judgment seat of Christ? Do we think we are ready? What answer do our own consciences give, when we ask ourselves: Am I prepared to appear before God the Judge? Have I but little hope, and yet can I satisfy myself to lie down at night, and arise in the morning, and have this hope not increased? Have I so little expectation of my appearing well there, and yet rest contented under it?
Do I worship now with that sincerity and devotion, as those who must before long come to be judged? Could we, dare we, indulge ourselves in the neglect of any duty, or commission of any sin, or careless performance of the religious services we owe to God, at the rate we now do, had this great appearance before God at judgment been often upon our thoughts? Sadly how these things vanish from our minds, many times, together with the breath and air that forms the words: business, or cares, or the diversions of this life, turn away the soul from God and judgment. We dwell in flesh, we do not see God, and we are ready, foolishly, to imagine that we will never see him: we take this hour to be at such a distance, as though it would never come; we put it afar off as an evil day.
But let us stand still here, and consider a little: this day we are come to appear before God in worship; we see ourselves here, and see each other: we are sure it is a reality, and not a dream; yet ten years ago, this day was at so vast a distance from us, that we scarce knew how to realize it to our thoughts, and make it, as it were, present: but now all that long distance is vanished, and this day is come; those days are all passed, and this hour is upon us. Thus it is in the case of death and judgment. Ten years from now, it is most likely, some one or more of us, and perhaps every one of us, will appear before the bar of God our Judge; that appointed hour will come, however far away it may seem now; and then it will be as real an appearance as this present hour is, but a much more solemn one; we will see and feel ourselves there, and know it is not a dream, but an awful reality.
Consider further, that it can be but a few more decades, before every one of us must certainly appear at the judgment-seat of God; and as far away as those years seem now, yet they will quickly fly by, and the last hour will be upon us. Think how many of your acquaintance, in ten years past, have made their appearance before God, have past their final trial, and received their everlasting sentence: and each of us may say, "Why should I not be the next? What is there in my nature, or in my circumstances, that can secure me against the summons of death and judgment?" It may be but a few days before we are called; and is everyone of us here ready? This is an infinitely important question, and let us not give rest to our souls, until we can answer it to our satisfaction.
How should we live! how should we act! how should we speak! how should we worship! if this were always upon our hearts! Would that we could but realize these awful things to our minds, and make them more familiar to our thoughts daily! Could sinners then be contented one moment without converting grace, and without a justifying righteousness? Could they any longer refuse the mercy of the gospel, and Jesus the Saviour? Could they be satisfied to appear all guilty before God, and no friend there to speak for them? no intercessor to plead for them? none to undertake their cause? Could they go on to sin with a negligent mind, if they thought the judgment-door just opening upon them, and Jesus Christ at hand? Could it be possible we should have such cold and lazy desires after a Saviour and his salvation, if we thought our everlasting happiness or misery depended upon the next day, the next hour, or the next moment? For we know not how soon the summons may come, and place us before his tribunal.
II. The second part of the discourse leads us to consider the blessed difference that there shall be between a Christian's appearing before God in heaven, and his appearance here in divine ordinances before God on earth; and by a comparison of these two, may the Spirit of God awaken our faith, our hope, our love, and our joy, and all join to promote our sanctification! The differences then between our standing before God in worship now, and our worshipping before God in heaven, are such as these:
1. Now the true Christian appears in a mixed assembly of saints and sinners: there the assembly is all holy, and not one sinner amongst them. Here sincere souls and hypocrites meet together in worship; there the hypocrite is for ever banished. In the houses of God, on earth, the wicked Canaanites will mingle with the children of Israel; but in his temple, in heaven, every one is an Israelite indeed; There shall no more be found a Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts; Zech. 14:21.
The children of God here, are under a veil of infirm and sinful flesh, and in the likeness of sinners; there they are unveiled, and acknowledged to be the sons and daughters of the Almighty; 1 John 3:1, 2. See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God! But the world does not know us; indeed, we are not many times known to ourselves; but when he comes whom we have trusted, then he will be known and distinguished from the world, as God's only begotten Son; and we will be known and distinguished as the children of God, all related and kindred to him: When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is; 1 John 3:2. and will sufficiently be distinguished from all who do not belong to Christ.
Here a child of God, in the sanctuary, is deeply humbled at the mention of the name of God; but his humility is not seen. Here his zeal lights up at the proposal of a duty, but it burns with a hidden flame: here his love is at work, his hope is arising, his joy is getting up to heaven, when he is engaged in the meditation of a comfortable promise, or some of the blessed privileges of the children of God; while those who are around him, even his next neighbour who sits close to him, knows nothing of the holy workings of his heart, and the breathings of his soul towards God: but there the whole assembly will worship with one heart, and one soul, with not one wandering worshipper, or one wandering thought in worship.
We are ready to complain here, that we ourselves do not know whether we will be accepted or not; through the weakness of faith, lack of holiness, decay of zeal in our spirits, and that degeneracy we sometimes find and feel in ourselves, we are often ready to doubt, and almost upon the borders of despair. This is the case of many a poor, trembling Christian; but there every one will worship with strength of joy, liveliest delight, and warmest zeal and affections: and be assured his graces are all true, for he will see them all in the light of glory.
This suspicion or jealousy of ourselves, often flattens our devotion here, and takes away the pleasurable sensations of religion, because we ourselves do not know whether God accepts us or not: there, a full assurance of our being beloved of God, and being forever accepted of him, will make every exercise of devotion a most agreeable and perfect pleasure. Consider, how would it quicken your race, and exalt your joy, to think how fast you are removing from this world of sinners, and from all your own doubts and fears, to a glorious assembly of holy souls, where not one doubt or fear will remain in their consciences, nor in yours!
2. In this world the saint appears among a few to worship his God, but then among millions. Now many times we have worshipped in a secret corner, for fear of men; but then it is all in public glory; for there all the worship that is paid, is the established worship of the whole country; and honours, and kingdoms, and wealth, are all on that side: all the inhabitants are made rich for ever, with the riches of heaven: and all the children of God are the sons and daughters of a king, and all heirs and possessors of glory, and reign together with the Lord Jesus; Rom. 8:17, 2 Tim. 2:12.
Here, many times the children of God are forced to separate from their neighbours and fellow-citizens, they are divided from the multitudes and crowds of mankind, they are but a little flock; but there, they will shine in the midst of the general assembly of the first-born, and a great multitude which no man can number; Rev. 7:9 that with victories and songs are for ever addressing the throne of God and the Lamb. And when shall I hear the voice from heaven say, Come up here? Rev. 4:1
3. Now, we worship in a way of preparation; there, for enjoyment and full delight. Ordinances here are but mere shadows, and very faint and imperfect resemblances, of what the worship in heaven will be. Now the word of God is spoken by a man, and it loses much of the divinity and power, by the means by which it is conveyed; there, it will be spoken by God himself to our spirits, or by our Lord Jesus Christ, to the ears of our bodies, raised, sanctified, and immortal; and our souls will receive as much of the express ideas, as God designs to convey by all his conversation with that sanctified number: nor will they miss of any of the beauty, or spirit, or perfection, of those thoughts which God himself would impress upon us.
Now, in the letters of the Bible we read the good-will and mercy of God to sinners; but there, in a far brighter manner; in your light do we see light; Psalm 36:9. Here, we seek the Father and the Son; the one as our happiness, the other as the way to the enjoyment of that happiness, as they are usually represented in the word of God: there, we will say, We have found him whom our souls desire and love, and will be for ever happy in his presence. Our business now in this world is to get a right attitude and disposition: there to practise and indulge the joy. Happy souls, who are in this way prepared in the outer courts to draw near and worship within the veil!
Now we appear with imperfect services, and poor improvements, there with glorious and complete worship: for here we see God but as in a mirror dimly; there face to face; 1 Cor. 13:12. Now we can have his glory, or his grace represented to us but in part, in a small measure, and according to our poor capacities of receiving; there we will see him as he is, and know as we are known.
What are our prayers, what are our praises here? our praises when offered up in a song, or in plainer language, in comparison with those that are paid to God above? Now, we speak of him whom we have not seen, therefore we speak in so imperfect a manner: there, we will hear and speak of him whom we see and know more intimately: now, we appear before God, and bring too much of the world with us: there, we leave the world, and go to the Father.
God and Christ are too much forgotten, or they are too often thrust out of our minds by vain thoughts, even when we ourselves are ever so eager to spend an hour or two with God; what interruptions do we find! What long blanks divide the several petitions of our prayer, and break off the meditation while we stand before God to worship him! We have many enemies within and without, who stand ready to seize away our souls from God, and to rob him of our devotion: vain imaginations call us aside, and our senses turn off our minds from heaven. There will be everlasting worship above, without one hindrance in the way; no trifles there to divert us, and separate one part of our worship from the other: there all the powers and faculties of nature will perpetually be engaged in the business and blessedness of that state. Glorious worship, and blessed worshippers! fit for the presence of the Majesty of heaven!
5. It might be rightly said that we come with very little comfort, and many discouragements, to appear before God on earth; but there, with everlasting consolation. We come now to the word, and we go away again, hardly hearing the voice of God in his word, or seeing his face, but there we will be forever near him; no wall of flesh, or of sin, to divide us.
Now we are defiled with guilt, and ashamed to lift up our faces towards heaven, and blush even when our hearts are their most sincere; but there, we will come near to God, even to God in glory, and not be afraid of him; there we will see a God undefiled, ourselves also being undefiled; a God of spotless purity, and ourselves without blemish before the throne; our garments washed white in the blood of the Lamb, and never, never to be defiled again; that is the glory and pleasure of a Christian.
Then, we will appear without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; without deceit in our mouths, or vanity in our hearts; without fault before God, and therefore without pain; without sorrow, and without fear forever, even though we stand before God in all his majesty; for we are assured of his mercy. Now, we worship with prayers and tears, because of many and heavy burdens, sorrows, and sins; but then with everlasting songs and joy on our heads; Isaiah 35:10. If we had a painful and living sense of these things, of the wanderings, temptations, burdens, and defilements that mingle with our worship here, we would cry aloud, and say, How long, O Lord, how long!
6. Lastly. Now, we appear and depart again, but then, we will remain with God forever. Now we go down from the mount of communion with God, into the world of temptation, and sin, and business, and care: we appear upon mount Horeb, or Pisgah, and we take a little view of the promised land; but we go down again, as the children of Israel did, to fight with the Canaanites, the giants that are in the valley, our mighty sins, our strong corruptions. In this valley of tears we must have a conflict before we get to the promised land;
There every worshipper has in his hand a palm of complete victory; Rev. 7:9. and he is forever discharged from fighting: He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more; Rev. 3:12. So necessary is the presence of the saints in heaven, that our Lord Jesus Christ has represented them as pillars of that building.
God dwelling in the midst of his saints, counts himself dwelling in one of his glorious heavens; and every saint there, is, as it were, a pillar, and a support of it: we are living stones in that building in which God will forever inhabit. Now, we come to the house of God as visitors; but there, as inhabitants, as the children of God, who remain forever in the house: there, every saint obtains what holy David wished for, and that, in the literal perfection of it, that he might dwell in the house of the Lord forever; Psalm 27:4. and 23:6.
As a closing reflection on this part of the sermon, consider how we should raise our hope, our consolation, and our joy, by a meditation of such future worship in heaven, as this is, when we lie under many weaknesses, restraints, and defilements, in our best worship on earth. How would this hope rejoice our hearts, if we could but live upon it! What secret comfort would it be to a poor humble soul, who is hindered from drawing near to God in worship now, because his affections are perpetually ready to wander, to think that he will come and appear before God before long, and see him without ceasing, and his thoughts will never wander from his God!
When he complains under the temptations of Satan, and absence of God from his ordinances, what a pleasure to think he is going above to worship at the general assembly, where Satan never enters, and where God never conceals himself; but appears universally gracious, and without a frown; where the God of glory and mercy appears unchangeably and forever the same!
Those of us who have been long restrained from all the pleasure and profit of public ordinances, what a blessed release will it be to our souls, when we will be dismissed from the bonds of flesh, into that great and holy society of spirits, and will feel no more restraints forever! We who have been detained from the house of God, by the uncharitable laws of men, or the painful providence of God, with what a divine relish will we embrace our liberty in that day, and be eternally free from all forbidding laws, and all imprisoning providences!
O how heartily should it engage our affections to one another, and increase the pleasure of our worship, when we come to wait on God together here below, to think that we will worship God together in the upper world! How should it unite the hearts of our congregations one to another in divine love, and make Christians forever forbear wrath and anger here, since they must be everlasting fellow-worshippers above!
What a glorious joy will it be to you who are the heads and rulers of families, who have so often joined in sweet devotions here on earth, when you will meet each other there, and worship together before the throne in heaven! What a mutual endearment, and mutual delight does such a prospect raise between the nearest relations! How does it exalt the sweetest passion, heighten and refine the warmest love! What a blessed transport will it be to the parents, to find their children there, engaged in the same work! And what a joyful meeting will it be to the children, to find each other in that company, and to see your pious parents with you! With what a glorious and unspeakable joy will parents render up their accounts to God in this language, "Lord, here am I, and the children that you have given me;" imitating the words of the Lord Jesus, giving up his account to his Father; Heb. 2:13.
How will our gladness increase, and our souls enlarge themselves in holy joy, to behold our Christian friends, and our dear relatives, standing in the same assembly, as fellow-worshippers at the throne! How will the heads families rejoice, if their whole household should be found there, whom they have endeavoured to encourage in their way to heaven, by a religious care to maintain household worship! how will the joy of faithful ministers be advanced by every one of their hearers, whom they shall find in that blessed church above! They are their crown, and their glory, and their rejoicing in that day; 1 Thess.2:19, 20.
Now should not each of us maintain a holy jealousy within ourselves, and say, "Which of us will be missing?" May not every one of us so far suspect ourselves, as to say, "Lord, is it I?" Will I be absent there, when all the rest of this little assembly will be worshipping with the saints in heaven? Will I be separated from them with whom I have so often appeared before God, and bowed the knee together on earth?
What a dreadfully sorrowful thought! Which of us all has so much hardness of heart, or such impious courage, as to bear the terrible prospect? To be divided forever from the family of God, and shut out of his upper sanctuary! May these words make a proper impression on every heart, to keep our jealousy awake, and spur us onward in our Christian course of duty and devotion!
May such thoughts as these excite us to give all diligence to make our calling and election sure, and in every act of worship here in this world, to get some clearer evidence of an interest in the favour of God, some further fitness for glory; that when the great assembly will join together in that heavenly worship, we may assist with our praises, and mingle our joy with theirs.