Death A Blessing To The Saints
(The Right Improvement Of Life.)
Adapted from a Sermon By
Whether… life or death…all are yours. 1 Cor 3:22
We return this morning to Isaac Watt’s exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:22: Whether… life or death…all are yours. And we will consider in particular how death is a blessing to the saints.
We have already seen many divine comforts, and a rich variety of blessings, derived from the formidable name of death: One would scarce have thought that such a terrible word should have ever been capable of yielding so much sweetness; but the gospel of Christ is a fountain of wonders: It has consecrated all the terrible things in nature, even death itself, and every thing beside sin, to the benefit of the saint.
Death, in all its manifestations, may enrich the mind of a believer with some sacred lesson of truth or holiness. When it appears in its extensive dominion, and bringing all mankind down to the dust; when it lays hold on an impenitent sinner, and fills his flesh and soul with agonies; when it assaults a saint, and is conquered by faith; when it makes a wide ravage among our acquaintance, when it enters into our families, and takes away our near and dear relatives from the midst of us, still the Christian may reap some divine advantage by it.
But can our own death ever be turned into a blessing too? We naturally find it hard to learn such a strange lesson as this, and it is not an easy thing to be persuaded to believe it. How dismal are the things surrounding death to flesh and blood! What languishings of the body! What painful agonies! What tremblings and convulsions in nature frequently accompany the dying hour even of the best of Christians! Can that be a blessing which turns this active and beautiful engine of the body into loathsome clay; which closes these eyes in long darkness, and deprives us of every sense? Can death become a blessing to us, which cuts us off from all contact with the sun and moon, and that rich variety of sensible objects which furnish out such delightful scenes all around us, and entertain the whole animal creation? Can that be a blessing which divides those two intimate friends, the flesh and the spirit, that sends one of them to the fetid prison of the grave, and hurries away the other into unknown regions?
Yes, the gospel of Christ has power and grace enough in it to take off all these gloomy appearances from death, and to illuminate the darkest side of it with various splendor. So the sun paints the fairest colours upon the blackest cloud, and while the thick dark shower is descending, it entertains our eyes with all the beauties of the rainbow; a most glorious type and seal of the covenant of grace that can give a pleasing aspect to death itself, and spread light and pleasure over the gloomy grave.
If we are believers in Christ, death is ours as well as life. These two contrary states may each of them derive peculiar benefits from the new covenant. The Christian may be taught so to value and improve life, that he may be not only patient, but cheerful and thankful while it continues. This has been made evident in previous sermons: And yet it must be confessed, that the advantages which death brings to a believer are still greater and more glorious, and this will appear in the following particulars:
I. Death finishes our state of labour and trial, and puts us in possession of the crown and the prize. The Apostle Paul was appointed to end his labours and his race in captivity; yet he rejoices to think that his race was just at an end, and triumphs in view of the glorious recompence; 2 Tim. 4. 7, 8. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness. There is a voice from heaven that proclaims the dead happy; upon this account, that their toil and weariness is come to an end. Rev. 14. 13. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on for they rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them; that is, the prize of everlasting happiness which Christ has promised to his labouring saints. Rev. 2. 10. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. So the weary traveller counts the last hour of the day the best; for it finishes the weariness and toil of the day, and brings him to his resting-place. So the soldier rejoices in the last field of battle; he fights with the prize of glory in his eye, and ends the war with courage, pleasure, and victory.
II. Death frees us for ever from all our errors and mistakes, and brings us into a world of glorious knowledge and illumination. The vale of death is a dark passage indeed, but it leads into the regions of perfect light. Now we know but in part, says the apostle; 1 Cor. 13. 12. Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known; not in the same degree of perfection indeed, but according to our measure and capacity, we will know the Father and the Lord, in a way of vision, or immediate sight, as God knows his creatures, as one man knows his friend, whose face he beholds with his eyes; or as one spirit knows another, by some unknown ways of perception which belong to spirits.
Consider what a new and unspeakable pleasure will it be to the disciples of Christ, and the ministers of the gospel, that have been tired and worn out in tedious controversies in this world, and sorely perplexed amongst the difficult passages of Scripture, when they will arrive at that region of light and glory, where the darknesses of the mind will all be scattered, the veil will be taken off from sacred things, and doubts and difficulties will vanish for ever!
Sadly! What desolation and mischief has the noise and clamour of controversy brought on the church of Christ in all ages! What quarrels and sharp disagreements has it raised among fellow-Christians, and especially, where zeal and ignorance have joined together, and brought fire and darkness into the sanctuary! This has banished charity and love out of the house of God, and made the Spirit of God himself to depart grieved. Surely death carries a considerable blessing in it, as it delivers us from these disorders, these bitter quarrels, and appoints us a place in the temple of God on high, where the axe and the hammer never sound, where the saw of contention is never drawn, where the noise of war is heard no more, but perfect light lays a foundation for perfect and everlasting love.
III. Death makes an utter end of sin, it delivers us from a state of temptation, and conveys us into a state of perfect holiness, safety, and peace. The spirits of the just are made perfect in holiness, when they leave this sinful and mortal flesh, they stand without spot or blemish, without the least fault or infirmity, and appear pure and undefiled before the throne of God; Rev. 14. 5. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb;, and they serve him day and night in his temple; Rev. 7. 14, 15. When death carries them away from this world, it carries them out of the territories of the devil; for he has no power in that land where happy souls go: And all the remaining lusts of the flesh, that had their death's wound given them by renewing grace, are now destroyed for ever; for the death of the body is the final death of sin, and the grave is, as it were, the burying-place of many troublesome iniquities, that have too often defiled and disquieted the spirit.
And as the corrupt affections which are mingled with our flesh and blood, and which are rooted deep in animal nature, are left behind us on the death bed, so when we ascend to heaven, we will find no manner of temptation to revive them. There is no malice or angry resentment to be awakened there, no incitements to envy, intemperance, or the cursed sin of pride, that clings so close to our natures here on earth. When we are surrounded by those blessed creatures, angels and saints made perfect, we will meet with no insult, no reproach, no injury, to provoke our anger, or kindle an uneasy passion. Most perfect friendship is ever practised there; it is a region of peace, a world of immortal harmony.
Nor will we find any temptation to envy, in that happy state; for though there are different ranks of glorified creatures, yet each is filled with a holy satisfaction, and has an inward relish of his own happiness suited to his own capacity and state, and they have all a general relish of the common joy, and a mutual satisfaction in each other's happiness. Envy, that fretful passion, is no more. In heaven there are no provocations to those disorderly appetites, which disrupt our self-control, and pollute our souls.
Pride and haughtiness of spirit have no room in that blessed world: The superior order of saints, which are nearest the throne, will not despise the meanest; for the nearer they approach to the perfect image of Christ, the more intense and diffusive is their love. Besides, every saint in glory will see himself in his own nothingness, and infinitely indebted to divine grace for all things: This will for ever rule out all vanity and conceit of merit. In heaven we will see God in the fulness of his glory, and will have so penetrating a sense of his saving grace, that a creature rescued from hell cannot be proud there.
Rejoice then, poor feeble Christians, that have been long wrestling with your indwelling sins, and maintaining a holy and daily fight, with strong and restless corruptions in your nature: Raise your heads at the thoughts of death, because your redemption is drawing near; Luke 21. 28. Death is your deliverer. It is like the angel that Christ sent to Peter, to knock the chains off of his hands, and release him from the prison; it may strike and surprise you, and it has indeed a dark and unattractive aspect; but its message is light and peace, holiness and salvation.
IV. Death is ours, for it takes us away from under all the threatenings of God in his word, and places us, in the actual possession of the greatest part of the blessings that God has promised us. The saints that are dead are described in this way; they are those who through faith and patience inherit the promises; Heb. 6. 12.
While we are in this life, there are many threatenings in the Bible, that belong to the saints as well as to sinners. Consider that great and general one that is annexed to the covenant of grace; Psalm 89. 30. If the children of Christ forsake my law and do not walk according to my rules, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes; but when death has translated them into the presence of their heavenly Father, they will forsake his law no more, there are no more transgressions for the rod to correct, the stripes of chastisement cease for ever; and their Father, and their God, will be angry no more.
The best part of the promises are fulfilled when a soul arrives at heaven. The promise of the resurrection of the body yet remains unaccomplished indeed; but every separate spirit in heaven waits for it with full assurance of accomplishment. "I have found," says the holy soul, "so many rich promises of the covenant fulfilled already, and I am in the possession of so many divine blessings that God once foretold, that I am well assured that my God is faithful who has promised, and the rest will be all fulfilled."
V. Death raises us above the shallow and empty pleasures of the present state, as well as delivers us from all present pains, and brings us into a world of perfect ease, and more excellent and refined delight. It divides us from the pains and pleasures, that we derive from the first Adam, and sets us in the midst of more excellent blessings, which the second Adam has purchased for us.
We will hunger no more, we will thirst no more, neither will the scorching heat of the sun oppress us, or any painful influence from the elements of this world: The Lamb which is in the midst of the throne will feed us with celestial food, suited to our purified natures, and lead us to drink full draughts of unknown pleasure, which is described by living fountains of water. We will see God himself, the original beauty, and the spring of all delight: We will see our Lord Jesus Christ, the most illustrious copy of the Father, the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and God himself will wipe away all tears from our eyes; Rev. 7. 16, 17. Though the wages of sin is death by the appointment of the law of God; Rom. 6. 23. yet this very death is constrained to serve the purposes of our great Redeemer; and it brings us into the possession of that eternal life, which is the gift of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
VI. Death not only gives us possession of promised blessings, but it banishes all our fears and doubts forever, by fixing us in a state of unchangeable happiness. They that are once entered into the temple of God on high will no more go out of it; Rev. 3. 12. For they are established in the house of God, they are as pillars there, they become a part of that vast and living temple, in which God dwells forever in all his glory.
Death is ours; because it ends our fears, it fulfils our wishes and our hopes, and leaves us no more room to fear to all eternity. When we behold the face of God in righteousness, and awake out of this world of dreams and shadows, in the world of happy spirits with the likeness of God upon us, we will find sweet satisfaction; Psalm 17. 15. When I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness. Death leaves a saint, as it were, but one thing to wish or hope for, and that is the resurrection, or the accomplishment of this text in its most complete sense, that is to say, that their bodies may awake out of the grave with the likeness of Christ upon them, and be made conformable to his glorious body, in vigour, beauty, and immortality.
VII. Death is a happiness to a Christian; because it divides him forever from the company of sinners and enemies, and places him in the society of his best friends, his God, and his Saviour, his fellow-saints, and the innumerable company of angels. How painfully has the soul of many a saint been vexed here on earth, as the soul of Lot was in Sodom, with the conversation of the wicked! How have they often complained of the hidings of the face of God, of the absence of Christ their Lord, and of feeling the withdrawing of the influences of the blessed Spirit!
There is a great partition-wall between us and the happy world, while we are in this life; the veil of flesh and blood divides us from the world of spirits, and from the glorious inhabitants of it. With what surprising joy, will a poor, humble, watchful Christian, that has long been teased, and long been tormented with the company of the wicked, enter into that illustrious and blessed society, when death will break down the partition-wall, and tear the veil of flesh and blood that divided him from them, and kept him at a painful distance!
"It is better, infinitely better,” will the departed soul say, “to see God without the means of such ordinances, as I have used on earth: It is better to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord Jesus. It is better to ascend, and worship in the midst of the heavenly Jerusalem, and amongst that blessed assembly of the first-born, than to be joined to the purest churches on earth, or to be engaged in the noblest acts of worship, which the mortal state allows. Farewell sins and sinners forever: Temptations and tempters, farewell to all eternity. And you, my dear holy friends, beloved in the Lord, my pious relatives, my companions in faith and worship, farewell but only for a short time, until you also will be released from your present bondage and imprisonment by the messenger of death: Do not fear it, for it is your Lord and my Lord, your Saviour and mine, who sends it to release you from all the evils which you have long groaned under, and to bring you to our Father's house, where the businesses, the pleasures, and the company are infinitely agreeable and entertaining."
And so we have seen in various instances, how the death of a believer in general is appointed to work for his good, and becomes an advantage to him through the grace of Christ. We go on now to consider how the death of a Christian in all the particular circumstances that attend it, has something in it that may be turned to his benefit.
Christ has the keys of Death and Hades; he was dead, and is alive, and behold he lives forevermore; Rev. 1. 18. And he knows how to manage all the circumstances of the death of his saints for their profit: He appoints the time when, the manner how, and the place where they will die, and determines all these things by rules of unsearchable wisdom, under the influence of his faithfulness and his love.
1. The time when we will die is appointed by Christ: If he calls us away in the days of our youth, he secures us in this way from many a temptation, and many a sin; for our life on earth is subject to daily defilements. He prevents also many a sorrow and distress of mind, many an agony and sharp pain to which our flesh is subject, and saves us from all the languishing weaknesses of old age, and from tasting the bitterness of mortality.
When our blessed Lord foresees some huge and heavy sorrows ready to fall upon us, or some mighty temptations approaching towards us, he lays his hand upon us in the midst of life, and hides us in the grave. This has been the sweet hiding-place of many a saint of God, from a day of public temptation and overspreading misery.
If he lengthens out our life to many years, we have a fair opportunity of doing much more service for our God, and our Redeemer; and we also enjoy the longer experience of his power, his wisdom, and his faithful mercy, in guiding us through many a dark difficulty, in supporting us under many a heavy burden, and delivering our souls from many a threatening temptation. Oftentimes he sweetens the passage of his aged saints through the dark valley, with nearer and brighter views of the heavenly world: He gives them a strong and earnest expectation of glory, and some sweet foretastes of it, to bear them up under the languor of old age and sickness: The haven of rest becomes sweeter to them, when they have passed through many tedious storms: The hour of release into the world of light, is more exquisitely pleasing, after a tedious imprisonment in the flesh, and long years of darkness.
2. The way in which we will die, is appointed also by Christ our Lord, for the benefit of his saints. If death meets us with a sudden and unexpected stroke, then we are surprised into the world of pleasure at once, and, before we are aware, our souls find themselves in the midst of the paradise of God, surrounded with unspeakable joy. If our mortal nature decay by slow degrees, we have a precious opportunity for the more lively exercises of faith; we may then converse with death beforehand, and daily grow in preparation for our departure. We see ourselves launching down the stream of time, and if our faith is awake and vigorous, we rejoice in the sensible and hourly approaches of heaven and eternity. We may speak many useful dying sentences for the glory of our Lord, and make happy impressions upon the souls of those we leave behind: We may invite and require, we may allure and charge our dear relatives to follow us in the same path, and to meet us before the throne.
3. Our Lord also designs our benefit, when he appoints the place of our death, whether we will leave the body at home or abroad; for some of us he sees it best, that our friends should stand round us and close our eyes, and, as it were, see our spirits take their flight into the invisible world, that they may assist and support us with divine words of consolation, or that they themselves may learn, and dare to die, and be animated by our example to encounter the last enemy. Our Lord sees it proper, for others of his saints, to die in the midst of strangers, or perhaps, amongst enemies, and by a violent death, that he may thereby give a glorious testimony to their faith and piety, as well as to the power of his own gospel. Whether we breathe our last at land or at sea, in our native country, or in a foreign climate, all will work together for the final welfare of those that love God, and are called and justified, and sanctified according to his holy purpose; Rom. 8. 28.
There are, doubtless, some peculiar and secret reasons, in the grand comprehensive scheme of the counsels and decrees of God, why the death of every saint is appointed at this season, and not at another; why some young seedlings are cropped before they blossom on earth, and transplanted to open and unfold themselves, and shine in the garden of God on high, while others are brought home into the heavenly garner, like well-grown fruit, or like a shock of corn fully ripe.
There is a divine reason why some are hurried away by a violent death, and others are permitted naturally to dissolve into their dust: Why some must die on this spot of ground, and others on that; for the vast scheme of his counsels has a glorious consistency in it with the covenant of his grace: And indeed, the covenant of grace runs through the whole scheme of divine counsels, and mingles itself with them all. We rejoice in this meditation, while we believe the truth of it. We are persuaded, that we will know, in the world to come, the various and admirable designs of divine providence and love, in all the infinite variety of the deaths of his saints; and this will make part of our songs in the upper world, and give a joyful accent to our hallelujahs there.
Let us maintain therefore, a blessed assurance of the wise and gracious designs of our Lord in all the circumstances of the death of his people. Let us learn to say with that aged saint, and eminent servant of Christ, Richard Baxter, when under many weaknesses of nature, and long and sore agonies of pain, he spoke concerning his death, "Lord, when you will, what you will, how you will."
Let us commit our souls to his hands for eternity, and not be overly concerned about the circumstances of our death, about the place, the manner, or the hour when we will take our leave of life and time.