Death Of Relatives Improved

Adapted from a Sermon By

Isaac Watts

Whether… life or death…all are yours. 1 Cor 3:22

We return this morning to our meditations on 1 Cor 3:22.

The emphasis will be on how, in the Christian life, even the death of close relatives is turned to our good.

Happy and immortal had Adam been, and all his children, if he had not ventured to break the command of his Creator: Life had been theirs in the most glorious sense of it; and death would have been unknown. But when sin entered into the world, death followed close behind it, according to that just and solemn threatening, In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die; Gen. 2. 17. And what dismal devastation has this enemy made amongst the inhabitants of our world! It has strewn the earth with death, and turned millions of human bodies into dust and corruption. The very name of death spreads a terror through all nature: But as dreadful and formidable as it is in itself, the grace of Christ makes a blessing of it, and sanctifies it to the advantage of his own people.

In the previous sermon on this subject, we have learned some divine lessons from death, in the widest extent of its reign. The death of all mankind yields some special advantage to a saint: He is taught to reap some benefit from the death of impenitent sinners, though it carry along with it such a fearful chain of consequences, and draw after it a long eternity of torments. He knows how to derive some advantage from the death of his fellow-Christians; and whether they die in the joy of faith, and serenity of spirit, or whether their sun sets in a cloud, and fears and doubts accompany them in that important hour, still he is taught to profit by it. In these three instances it appears that death is ours; death is, in this respect, made the treasure and property of a Christian, as he is instructed to improve it, to his own sacred interest, and to the welfare of his soul. We go on now to the

Fourth general heading, and will endeavour to show how the death of our relations and close family will turn to our benefit.

I. It shows us the emptiness and insufficiency of our dearest created comforts, of all blessings that are not immortal.

We have lost, perhaps, an inferior relation, a son, a daughter, a nephew, a pleasing enjoyment and comfort of life: But death tells us, it was a poor dying comfort, a pretty piece of brittle clay, broken and dissolved, and mouldering to the dust. Our love and our grief, it may be, join together, to recall the past days of fondness and delight, short-lived delight and empty vain fondness, that ends in tears and long mourning! We have lost a superior relation, or perhaps an equal, a father, a wife, a husband, or a brother: We have lost a guide, a support, a helper, a dear affectionate friend, entirely loving, and entirely beloved.

He was a kind and skilful guide, but death teaches us the insufficiency of his guidance, who left us midway, and lets us travel through all the remaining part of this dark wilderness alone. He has given us precious advice and direction in days past, but he can now direct us no more, we can consult him no more: Those words of advice, on which we hung, are silenced in death: That voice will be heard no more: We must walk without this counselor all the rest of our way, be it ever so long, and ever so dangerous.

He was our helper and our support under daily difficulties; but it was a weak support, that could not stand himself, when death shook him: A poor helper, and a sorry defence, that could not resist the powers of disease and mortality, nor defend himself from the assaults of death.

He was a friend, and a faithful one too; but it was a feeble, a failing friend, even in the midst of his love and faithfulness; for he was called away, and constrained to depart from us in a dark and sorrowful minute, and has left us to mourn alone. He could not stay with us a moment beyond his summons; he forsook us while we were drowned in grief, and could give us no more consolation. Our fathers, where are they? Our prophets, our instructors, our guides, and helpers, are gone down to the land of silence, they lie asleep in the dust and darkness; Zech. 1. 5.

And in this way death is made an advantage to us, even when it strikes us so closely . For it teaches us this sacred lesson, how vain and empty are all our hopes in creatures! The dart of death is like a pen of iron in his hand, and he writes emptiness and vanity on every friend, on every relative that he takes from our family, from our side, from our heart: He writes it in deep and painful characters, and holds our souls to the solemn lesson. The same truth stands written in many parts of the book of God, in divine and golden letters: but perhaps we would never have learned it, had death not touched us so close.

II. The death of our close relatives drives us to a more immediate and constant dependence on God.

When the stream is cut off, what should we do but run to the fountain? If the stars vanish, we seek the rays of the sun. And may the sun arise, and shine upon our souls with growing light and comfort as the stars disappear!

While our friends or relatives were alive, we made them our refuge in every distress; we have trusted in them perhaps too much; we have lived too much upon them, while neglecting God. A parent, a brother, or perhaps a dearer relative; these were our high tower, our defence, our sun, and our shield: These took up that position in our hearts, and that high place in our esteem, which is due to God only. But when this tower is broken down to dust, when the shield of clay is broken to pieces, and this dim and feeble sun turned into darkness, then we make God alone our sun, our shield, and our high tower of defence. Then we search out earnestly what kind and condescending characters and relations God has taken in his word; and we read and survey the gracious titles of our Lord Jesus Christ, with new and unknown delight.

Have any of you lost your earthly parents? Then you read with pleasure those words of the Psalmist, When my father and my mother have forsaken me, as they must do at the hour of death, then the LORD will take me in; Psalm 27. 10. And you rejoice in that glorious promise, Be separate from idols, says the Lord; that is, separate yourselves from the sinful practices of the world, and I will receive you, and I will be a Father to you, and you shall be my sons and my daughters, says the Lord Almighty; 2 Cor. 6, 17, 18.

Has death entered into a family, and taken the head, the husband away? The words of Isaiah grow sweeter than ever. Isaiah 54. 5. Your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name … the God of the whole earth he is called. Are the widows and the fatherless children in danger of oppression, because they have lost their defender? They run to the 68th Psalm, and live upon the 5th verse of it; Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. Is a brother summoned away by the stroke of death? But the Lord Jesus is alive still: He that took flesh and blood upon himself, that he might be made like the rest of the children of God: He is not ashamed to call them brothers; Heb. 2. 11.

This is a brother that was born for the day of our adversity; this is the friend that sticks closer than a brother, and remains with us when a brother departs, according to the expression of the wise man in the book of Proverbs; Proverbs 17. 17. and 18. 24. Thus the names, and characters, and relations of God the Father, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, take on a new sweetness, and appear with greater love and glory in them, at the death of our earthly relatives.

There is many a Christian who can speak feelingly, and say, "Never did I live so much upon my God; I never knew nor loved my Saviour so well, never conversed so much with his word, never did I find such sweetness in his names, nor his promises, nor such pleasure in secret conversation with him, as I have done since the day I lost such a friend, or such a dear relation by the stroke of death: I have learned now to put no trust in creatures; for their breath departs, and on that very day their plans perish; Psalm 146. 3-8. Now no refuge remains to me, no one seems to be concerned for me, since the death of such a friend; I say, therefore, to my God, you are my refuge;" Psalm 142. 4, 5.

III. The death of our dearest friends calls us to a noble trial of our love to God, and our submission to his sovereignty.

Human nature indeed is afraid of trials; but when the present aids of divine grace give us the victory, then blessed is the man that endures temptation; for when he is tried, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love him; James 1. 12. And on this account, he exhorts Christians in the second verse, to a very sublime and difficult practice: count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness, and if it endures the trial, it will be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 1 Pet. 1. 7.

When God sends his messenger of death, and takes a dear and beloved friend from us the divine question is like that of our Lord to Peter, Simon, do you love me? John 21. 15-17. "Christian, do you love me more than you love this creature? Are you willing to let go of this comfort at my call? Have you not given yourself to me, and does your heart refuse to give up your son, your brother, or your dearest friend? Have you not called me your sovereign? I have now come to test your sincerity. Do you resign your most beloved objects at my request? I gave up my Son over to death for you; and have you anything so dear to you as my Son was to me? What does your heart say in answer to these solemn questions? Do you love me above all things or not? Is your will entirely yielding to me? Can you now repeat from your very souls the same language in which you have often addressed me in your private prayers, and in my assemblies, 'I am yours, Lord, I am yours; all that I have is yours?" Or do you murmur and quarrel at my providence, when I send my servant death to your house, to test whether these professions of yours were sincere or not?

Happy the Christian that emerges with honour from this hour of trial, and who can say heartily, Lord, I resign what you demand, and am angry with myself that I should find so much reluctance in my heart to surrender anything at the call of God! What a shining evidence of our sincerity is demonstrated at such a time! What a noble proof of our supreme love to God! And it will be recorded in heaven for our honour, and brought forth in the day of the Lord Jesus!

There is nothing in all the history of Abraham, the father of the faithful, that graces his character on earth more, or perhaps in heaven, than that he gave up his son Isaac, at the command of God, and took the wood, and the fire, and the knife in his hand, and devoted his beloved, his only son to death; though it was in a way so terribly painful and so shocking to our natural sensibilities, that he himself must be the executioner. He had offered the precious sacrifice already in his heart, when the angel of the Lord came down and stopped his hand: Now I know that you fear God, and I know that you love him too, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from me; Genesis 22. 9-12.

And so the death of the dearest relation turns greatly to our advantage, when it gives us so bright an evidence of our own graces, and assures us that we are true lovers of God.

IV. The death of a beloved relative has often worked out for the good of a saint, when the long and painful sorrow which has accompanied it, has shown us how dangerous a thing it was to love a creature too well.

"O! what a wound do I feel in my heart,” says a Christian, “since the death of so near a relation: It pains me all the day: It fills my eyes with tears, and chases my rest away at night: I am so troubled that I cannot sleep: It makes me unfits for the present duties of life, and weighs me down, in the midst of the duties of religion. Surely that creature dwelt too near my heart, and was joined in too close a union, since my heart bleeds and aches so long after the sad departure. Let me watch my affections from now on, and set a guard upon my love, that it never, never tie my soul so tightly to a creature again. Come down, blessed Saviour, and take faster hold of my heart; let your own hand heal the wound that death has made, and let your mercy pardon the guilt of my excessive creature-love: Dwell in my soul, my Lord and my God, and fill up all the unhappy and painful void: Keep my affections for ever true to you, and let my love to you be supreme and unrivalled; nor let the softer passions of my nature wander and lose themselves amongst creatures again, lest they make me guilty again; lest they provoke you to repeat the same painful tragedy, and to renew these scenes of mourning."

V. The death of our close relatives is for our advantage, when it awakens us to review our own conduct toward them, whether we have behaved aright or not, and when it stirs up our duty to surviving relatives.

While they are alive, and present with us, our neglect of duty towards them does not so much strike our consciences; but when death divides them from us in this world forever, we are ready then to reconsider within ourselves, whether our behavior toward them has been just and kind: And if we find ourselves guilty, our hearts are softened and we soon yield to the conviction. "Did I pay that duty to a father which he well deserved, and which God required? Did I treat a mother with that filial affection and submissive tenderness that was appropriate for a child? Did I pay that just deference and honour to the counsels and advice of my parents as I should have done? Did I treat my sisters with that decent affection and respect that was due to her: And did I exercise brotherly love toward all my equal relatives? Or has my conduct been undutiful, unkind, and unbecoming?"

And especially if we have this to charge ourselves with, that we took no care for the welfare of the souls of those that are dead. Such thoughts as these will hang heavily on our heart, and press hard upon the conscience in that day. "Did I not see my child or my brother walk in the ways of sin: and yet did I ever give him a hint of his dreadful danger? Did I fear that he was a stranger to the grace of God, and yet did I not neglect to invite him to receive the gospel? Had I not reason to question whether he was a sincere convert or not? But how little have I done toward his conversion!

"Or if he was ever concerned about the affairs of his soul, and awakened and thoughtful about death and hell, did I direct him in the way of peace? Did I endeavour to lead him to Jesus the Saviour? Or did I let him go on without instruction, and without comfort, until death laid its cold hands upon him, and he plunged into the eternal world at a mournful uncertainty? The anguish I now feel is practically beyond what I am able to bear. O that I could recall my brother or my son from the grave! How would I follow him with advice and appeals, and neither give him nor myself any rest, until I had good hope, through grace, that he had fled for refuge to lay hold on Christ and his salvation. I would never be at ease, nor would I cease pleading for him at the throne of grace, until I had found some evidences of a new nature in him, and a change of heart from sin to repentance and holiness.”

"Or suppose my departed relative was a true Christian, what did I do toward the increase of his faith? Did I ever allure him to holy conversation? Did I take occasion now and then to talk about religion? Did I ever speak with him about the matters of our common salvation, that, as iron sharpens iron, so we might have stirred up each other's zeal and love, and helped each other onward in our way to heaven.”

"Surely I have found myself too guilty in some of these instances. Forgive my criminal negligence, O my God, and through your grace I will apply myself to double diligence, with regard to my relatives that yet survive: I will enquire, as far as it is proper, into the state of their souls: I will seek the most powerful and the kindest methods to awaken the thoughtless sinners amongst them; and I will study, and pray, and ask God what I will say to make a deep impression upon their hearts: And though I have no office in the church, yet what I have learned there, I will talk over at home: I will preach Christ crucified, and all his gospel to them, as God will give me proper opportunity. I will converse more freely with my pious relatives about the things of God, and learn their inward sentiments of religion and experimental godliness. Thus will I bring holy conversation into the dining room and into the living room; and every soul in my house will be a witness of my endeavours to promote the eternal welfare of those that are near me."

Now when the death of a near relation achieves such an end as this, and raises our repentance and holy zeal at this rate, we cannot doubt but that we receive appreciable advantage by it.

VI. The death of our friends, who were truly religious, inclines us to review their instructions and their virtues, and sets them before our eyes, in a fresh and vivid manner, to influence our own practice.

We are too ready to forget their advice while they are living and with us day by day, and we take too little notice of those virtues in which they were eminent. We beheld their humility toward God and men, their condescension to their inferiors, their love and hearty friendship toward their equals, and their gentleness of character toward all around them. We beheld it, and perhaps we loved and honoured them for it; but we made but little effort to copy them. We saw their pity to the poor and the miserable, their charity to persons of different sects and sentiments in religion; their readiness to forgive those that offended them, and their good-will and kind conduct towards all men. There was a beauty and loveliness in this conduct, that made them amiable indeed; but how little have we transcribed of their example, either into our hearts or our lives! We observed their constant tenderness of conscience, their devotion toward God, and their zeal for the honour of Christ, and his gospel in the world. Would that we had made these graces the matter of our imitation! What can we do now more to honour their memory, than to speak and live, and act like them?

It may be we have got their likeness captured in a cherished photograph, placed in a special place at home, as tender memorials of what we once enjoyed, to give us now and then a mournful delight, and awaken in us the pleasing sadness of love. These we call our most precious pieces of furniture, and they hold a special place in our hearts. But it would be much richer furniture for our souls to have the best likeness of our pious predecessors and kindred copied out there. Let us now and then reflect what were their peculiar virtues, and the remarkable graces that adorned them; and if we could imagine the spirit of each of them to look down upon us, each of them would say, in the language of the softest and most sacred affection, Be followers of me as dear children, so far as I was a follower of Christ.

And this thought ought to be especially impressed on those who were most unhappily negligent of the pious counsel of their ancestors, or ran counter to their holy advice and example in their life-time. "I was too careless,” may a young Christian say, “of the wise and weighty sayings of my deceased father, they come back to me now with a fresh and living influence. I have been too ready to neglect what a kind mother taught me; but the instructions that I received from her dying lips, had such an air of solemnity and tenderness in them, that they have made a deep impression on my heart; and I hope I will never forget them. The prudent and pious rules that my elder relations have often set before me, come back to my thoughts with double the strength1 since their death: I will no longer hear them speak, I will no longer see their holy examples: I will gather up the fragments of their religious advice, and make them the rule of my conduct: I am well assured their souls are happy, and by the grace of God I will walk in their footsteps, until I arrive at those blessed regions, where I hope to meet them."

This thought leads us on to the last instance of benefit which we derive from the death of our close relatives.

VII. The death of dear and near relations calls our thoughts in a more powerful and sober manner, to dwell upon the grave and eternity.

When our neighbours, or our casual acquaintance die, we attend the funeral, and cast an eye into the grave; we spend a thought or two on the dark pit, and the dust to which we return: We awaken a meditation or two on things heavenly and the world to come; and we return quickly, and busily to this world again: But when God sends death into our homes, and it makes a slaughter there, it awakens us more effectively from a drowsy frame of mind, and it nails our thoughts down to our most important and everlasting concerns.

"Part of me is gone to the dust already, it is not long before the surviving part will go also. Death has taken away the desire of my eyes, and the partner of my joys, it will strike me before long, and am I ready?" This thought dwells upon the heart of a true Christian at such a time as this, and while the Spirit of God assists the work, it is not in the power of all the trifles in this earth to banish the holy thought, and bring the mind down to earthly things again. As when a man is seized with a fast advancing cancer, or has a limb cut off, and buried in the dust, how forcibly does this awaken in him the thought of death and the future eternity! "The sentence of death is begun to be executed on me already, and the whole execution will be quickly fulfilled; it is time now to be ready, for death has taken hold in earnest, and has begun his work."

And if our departed relative were a Christian indeed, and gave us comfortable hope in his death, then it leads our thoughts naturally to heaven, and most powerfully kindles our heavenly hopes. It raises our pious wishes to the upper world; and we say, as Thomas did at the death of Lazarus, Let us also go, that we may die with him; John 11. 16. Let us go to our God and our holy relatives, and enjoy their better presence there. Let us not grieve for the dead as others do who have no hope; 1 Thess. 4. 13. but look upward to things unseen, and forward to the great rising-day, and rejoice in the promised and future glories that are beyond life and time.

Every dear relative that dies and leaves us, gives us one more motive to be willing to die: Their death provides us with one new allurement toward heaven, and breaks off one of the shackles and bonds that tied us down to this earth. Sadly! we are tied too securely to these earthly bodies, these prisons of flesh and blood. We are too much attached to flesh and blood still, though we find them such painful and such sinful companions. We love to linger in this world too well, though we meet with so many helpful strokes to divide our hearts from it. How good it is to live more detached from earth, that we may be ready for the parting hour: Let us not be angry with the sovereign hand of God that breaks one bond after another; though the strokes may be painful, yet they loosen our spirits from this body of dust; they teach us to practise heaven-ward, holy meditations and devout longings; and we learn to say, How long, O Lord, how long?

The Recollection.—Have any of us lately felt such parting strokes as these? Have we lost any of our beloved relatives? God calls upon us now, and asks, "What have you learned of these divine lessons?" And so ask yourself this day, “Have I seen the emptiness and the insufficiency of creatures, and removed my hope and confidence from everything beneath and beside God? Have I passed through this solemn hour of trial well, and shown my supreme love to God, and my most entire submission to his sovereignty, by resigning so dear a comfort at his demand? Have I been taught by the inward pain which I felt at parting, and by the pain which still remains, how dangerous a thing it is to love a creature too well? Have I duly considered my past conduct toward my deceased relations, and does this review receive my conscience’s approval? Or have I found matter for self-condemnation and repentance? Have I treasured up the memory of their virtues in my heart, and set them before me as the copy of my life? Have my thoughts followed the soul of my dear departed friend, and traced it with pleasure to the world of blessed spirits; and does my own soul seem to fix its hope and joy there, and to dwell there above? Are my thoughts become more spiritual and heavenly; Do I live more as always on the border of the other world, since a piece of me is already gone there? And am I ready for the summons, if it should come before tomorrow?

Happy is the Christian, who has been taught by the Spirit of grace to improve the death even of the dearest relative to so divine an advantage. The words of our text are then fulfilled experimentally in you: Death is yours: Death itself is made a part of your treasures. The parting stroke is painful indeed, but it carries a blessing in it too; for it has promoted your heavenly and eternal interest.