The Privilege Of The Living Above The Dead.
(The Right Improvement Of Life.)
Adapted from a Sermon By
Whether… life or death…all are yours. 1 Cor 3:22
When these words were explained in Isaac Watts previous sermon, this doctrine was drawn out from the first part of them, that is to say that "When life is given or continued to the saints, it is for their advantage."
The first thing we looked into in our study of this truth, by considering a variety of instances, was how life is designed for the benefit of Christians. We move on now to the
Second, which is, to amplify and confirm this doctrine yet further, by representing what various graces may be exercised on earth, which can have no place in heaven; and to discover in what respects a living Christian may be said to have some advantage over the saints that are dead.
This morning we will consider seven such instances for our instruction and encouragement with more to follow in a future sermon.
I. The first grace we will consider, which belongs only to this life, is, faith of things unseen, whether present or future: for in heaven this sort of faith is ended and lost; it vanishes into sight. 1 Cor. 5. 7. Here in this world we walk by faith, and not by sight; but in the world above, we will live by sight, and not by faith. Blessed are those souls on earth who have not seen, and yet have believed; John 20. 29.
In this way the living Christian does much honour to God, and offers him a revenue of such glory, as can never be offered to him among all the saints and angels in heaven. To believe that there is a God who made all things, among a world of atheists, that deny him that made them; to behave toward an unseen God with a solemn awe of his majesty, and deep reverence and submission to his will, in the midst of thoughtless sinners who deride religion, and live without God in the world; to believe that the Bible is the word of God, notwithstanding all the difficulties contained in it, and all the bold and subtle objections that infidels have raised against it; to make this word the ground of our religion, the rule of our practice, and the foundation of our hopes, in the midst of an age of nature worshipers and heathens, that laugh at our Bible and our belief together: These are noble instances of a militant faith in a world of infidelity.
To believe that Jesus of Nazareth, who was hanged on a tree outside of Jerusalem, and died there, is the only begotten Son of God, the Maker and the Saviour of the world, to believe that he now lives and governs all things at the right-hand of his Father, and to trust in him who died on the cross to give us a crown of eternal life; these are such exercises of the grace of faith, as have no place in the world of sight, where every saint beholds him face to face: Such acts as these, are only suited to our present state of absence from the Lord, and yet they are highly honourable to God and our Redeemer, and though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory; 1 Peter 1. 8
To believe that there is a heaven of glory far above the clouds, where our Lord Jesus Christ has dwelt in his human nature more than two thousand years, and where untold thousands of his blessed saints and angels are forever enjoying divine consolations; to maintain a firm belief that there is a reward for the righteous laid up on high, while they are mistreated and abused; to believe there is a hell, an unseen world of misery and torture, where damned spirits are punished for their rebellion against the great God, and will forever suffer the weight of his indignation; and to walk through this world with a holy negligence and contempt of it under the influence of these invisible future things, these eternal joys and eternal sorrows: This is a faith that gives much glory to God, while we live, and speak, and act, while we suffer and endure, as seeing him who is invisible, and firmly believing all the joys and terrors of another world, which are hidden from us by the veil of our earthly bodies.
This was the faith of the ancient patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; this was the faith of Noah and Moses, and many other heroes, whose names shine with honour in the Epistle to the Hebrews; and the great and blessed God received daily honours from this their faith.
In heaven all these invisibles are seen, all these things of the future become present, and they are no longer matters of faith. Would that this faith might overspread the earth, in the same way that sight is found all over heaven!
II. Hope and expectation of future blessings, either here or hereafter, under all the present darkness and discouragements, is another grace which may be exercised by the living saints; but among the saints that are dead there is no room nor place for it; for in heaven our hope is turned into enjoyment; hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience; Rom. 8. 24. And this patient and cheerful expectation under discouraging difficulties, is a glorious homage paid to God, such as the saints in heaven cannot pay him.
The living Christian does not realize what honour he brings to his God, when his hope for promised mercies bears him up, while there are no visible encouragements in opposition to a thousand rising dangers; when he can live upon the naked promise, and be assured of its fulfillment, merely because his God has spoken it. Then we give honour to God, such as the souls in heaven cannot give him, when under the renewed exercise of faith and repentance we maintain a humble hope of the pardon of sin through the promises of his gospel, even though our iniquities have been exceedingly great, and though sin is every day working and striving against our best purposes, and too often bringing us under fresh guilt.
Then we glorify our blessed Redeemer so as the saints in heaven cannot glorify him, when we feel our consciences burdened with sin, and yet maintain faith and hope of acceptance with a great and holy God, through the death, righteousness, and intercession of a person whom we never saw. This is an great honour done to the name, and sacrifice, and mediation of the Son of God.
Then we give glory to the blessed Spirit who gives us light, and sanctifies us, when in the midst of our own errors and darkness, and in the midst of difficulties and the malicious objections raised by men, we trust in his promised guidance into all necessary truth; when we walk on in the midst of temptations, waiting and hoping for fresh sanctifying influences, while we feel and groan over the deceitfulness and the weakness of our own hearts, that are too ready to skip away from God like a broken bow.
Then we honour God and his gospel indeed, when we hope for our own final salvation through the blood of the everlasting covenant, having fled for refuge to the hope that is set before us, though by the crafty deception of the devil, we have been under strong temptations to despair, and sometimes have seemed to be forsaken of God, as Christ Jesus was when hanging on the cross: It was then that he glorified his Father and his God, by the constancy and courage of his hope, in such a way as he was never capable of doing after that great and dreadful day; and in this, his poor tempted followers have been noble imitators of their Saviour and their Lord, and have held fast their confidence in divine mercy in the midst of hard temptations, and given great glory to their God and Father.
Nor is this hope a vain presuming confidence, or a bold fit of enthusiasm, for it evidences its own heavenly and divine original, by keeping the soul pure, and holy, and humble, in the midst of all this darkness, and this sad state; Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as Christ is pure; 1 John 3. 3. A false hope that carries no spring of holiness in it, can neither honour God nor profit men.
But there are other occasions also in this life, for the exercise of the grace of hope, that is, amidst huge and threatening difficulties, that relate to the public interests of religion. When the feeble and doubting Christian sees the affairs of the church of Christ sinking daily, he is almost ready to sink and die too, and to despair for Zion; and it is the language of his unbelief, How can Jacob stand? He is so small!? (Amos 7:2) But the stronger Christian, who knows how to live on a promise, can reply, that the God of Jacob is almighty, the king of Israel is the true God and everlasting king, and the interest of the church will rise again, even though it were drowning; for not all the floods on earth, nor even the gates of hell will prevail against the church that is built upon Jesus the everlasting spiritual Rock: And Jesus himself receives his special tribute of glory from his saints on earth, while they triumph in this hope.
There are also some seasons in which a living saint honours God in this world, by maintaining his hope in the midst of various trials that afflict him in his private affairs, and especially when poverty and distress overtake him like an armed man, and he has no other help nor hope left, but in some gracious words of promise, and some unknown appearances of providences in his behalf. Blessed are the poor who can live by faith!
A Christian honours God also greatly in the days of sickness, and the hour of death, when he feels nature sinking, and flesh dissolving; yet he can look upon his withering limbs without dismay, in the hope of the resurrection, and speak in the language of holy Job, After my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God: Job 19. 26
Granted that the saints who are in heaven, the spirits of the just made perfect, wait also, and hope for the resurrection of the body, and all the promised blessings of that day: but they have a bright and sure prospect of it by the light of glory, in which they read all the promises; and they have a pledge and pattern of it in the body of Jesus Christ raised from the dead, and glorified in the midst of them. Their hope lies under no darkness, no discouragement. The saints on earth therefore, in the exercise of this their hope, give a greater glory to God than those in heaven; for it struggles with mighty difficulties, and overcomes them all. It is such a hope as Abraham built on the mere promise of God, that he should have a son when he was a hundred years old, and his wife Sarah was ninety. He hoped in God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, So shall your offspring be. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God; Rom. 4. 17, 18, 20.
III. Liberality and compassion to the poor is another exercise of grace, for which this life only gives opportunity. The objects of our bounty on earth are both saints and sinners; for we are charged to imitate our heavenly Father, who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust; Matt. 5. 45. But in the world to come, the saints are raised far above the need of our compassion, and condemned sinners in their long everlasting misery are forbidden all refreshment.
It is in this life only, that we can show our love to Christ himself, by refreshing the hearts of his saints. It is here that we may treasure up matter for divine approval and solemn applause, in the great judgment-day, when the alms that have been given in a private corner, where the left-hand has not known what the right-hand did, will be published with honour before that innumerable assembly. "I remember," says our blessed Lord, "I well remember, when in the past world you fed my hungry saints, then you fed and nourished me; when you gave them water, you gave me water, and relieved my thirst; when you bestowed garments on them, it was I that was naked, and you clothed and covered me; and when you visited them in sickness or in prison, I was the prisoner, I was sick, and I take it as kindly as though you had visited and comforted me." Astonishing condescension of the Son of God! Surprising honour put on the generous Christian! But here is the only place for acquiring these honours, though they are published only later.
Life is given to some persons for this very end! Good Dorcas was even raised from the dead, and had her life lengthened out to make more coats and garments for the poor. Ministering to the saints is a delightful labour, and a business worth living for. In this world the rich Christian has the honour of being a steward for God to feed his children; but in the world above, there are no earthly treasures to receive such a sort of consecration as this is, no alms to be offered up as an acceptable sacrifice to God the Father, or to his Son Jesus. See then that you practise this virtue as often as providence gives a proper occasion, and thus consecrate your substance to the Lord of the whole earth. Lend a little to the Lord in this way, and it will be paid with large interest: Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed; Prov. 19. 17.
Perhaps another week, or another day will separate you from all your earthly riches; no more of them can be laid out for God: Perhaps death may send you into the invisible world, and you will have no more objects of your pity forever; Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; Eccles. 9. 10. You that are rich in this world, be rich in good works, ready to distribute, ready to share, laying up in store a good foundation against the time to come, that you may lay hold on eternal life; 1 Tim. 6. 18, 19. And remember that whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully, in the great day of reward; 2 Cor. 9. 6.
IV. Another grace which only the living can exercise, is, charity to our fellow creatures under their mistakes, or infirmities, and a charitable and loving frame of spirit to our fellow-Christians who differ from us either in principle or practice.
Infirmities and mistakes belong only to the present state: This life is the only time when a fellow-saint can be overtaken in a fault, and when we are capable of restoring such a one in the spirit of meekness. It is here only that the proposed motive has any room or place; Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted; Gal. 6. 1. And though we are bound to maintain an everlasting aversion to every sin, yet we should imitate and honour the forgiving mercy of our God, by speaking peace and consolation to a returning sinner.
Do not be too severe in your reprimand, you who have been kept from temptation, but pity others who are fallen, and mourn over their fall. Do not think or say the worst things you can of those who have been taken in the snare of Satan, and been betrayed into some grosser iniquities. When you see them grieved and ashamed of their own follies, and afflicted with a heavy heart, take the opportunity then to speak a softening and a healing word. Speak for them kindly, and speak to them gently. Have compassion on them, that they may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow; 2 Cor. 2. 7.
And remember too, if you are over-critical, that you are also in the body, it is rich grace that has kept you up until now, and the same God, who for wise ends has allowed your brother to fall, may punish your severity and reproachful language, by withholding his grace from you in the next hour of temptation; and then your own fall and guilt will afflict you with inward and bitter reflections, for your sharp reprimands of your weak and tempted brother. This life is the only time when we can pity the infirmities of our brethren, and bear their burdens. This law of Christ must be fulfilled in this world, for there is no room for it in the next; which is to bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ; Gal. 6. 2
This world is the only place where different opinions and doctrines are found amongst the saints: Disagreeing forms of devotion, and sects, and parties, have no place in heaven: None of these things can interrupt the worship or the peace of heaven. See to it then, that you practise this grace of charity here, and love your brother, and receive him into your heart in holy fellowship, though he may be weak in the faith, though he may observe days and times, and may feed only on milk, and indulge some superstitious foolishness while you are strong in faith, and know well the liberty of the gospel. Do not let little things provoke you to interrupt communion on earth; but by this sort of charity, and a generous spirit, honour the Saviour and his church here in this world; for since there are no parties, nor sects, nor contrary sentiments among the church in heaven, this Christian virtue can never find any occasion for use there. This kind of charity ends at death.
V. Sympathy with mourners, and pity and relief to those that are oppressed with many sorrows, is a virtue that belongs only to the saints on earth. There are no sorrowful Christians in heaven, and the various means of comforting others, which we practise toward our suffering brethren here below, are therefore of no use in the upper world. The God of all comfort is he who comforts us in our tribulations, for this reason, that we may be able to comfort those that are oppressed with their heavy afflictions; 2 Cor. 1. 4. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world; James 1. 27. But it is the religion of the church on earth, not the religion of heaven.
Go then, and visit your brother in distress, visit poor afflicted and suffering Christians: Go mention the promises of divine grace that belong to them in a suffering state, and lead them to rest upon some happy promise: Go teach them the benefit of difficult circumstances: Let the twelfth chapter to the Hebrews be your text, and raise many a helpful inference for the support of sufferers. Tell them of the fruits of holiness that grow upon the bitter tree of earthly sorrows; and that the wood of the cross blossoms with grace and glory. Remind them of the examples of divine deliverance, when there has been no outward prospect of help and hope. Lead them to meditate on the heavenly state: Point their thoughts upward: Direct their faith and their hope there: Teach them to look at the things that are unseen and eternal, that they may be able in the language of faith to say, This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison; 2 Cor. 4. 17.
There are no sorrows among the inhabitants of heaven, no sufferings there, no pain, no complaint; nor is there any need of your consolations: This is a work you cannot do in paradise, but God delights to see his children here comfort one another in their travels through this valley of tears, this tiresome wilderness; 1 Thess. 4. 18. Then let us give our fellow-Christians their due of consolation, and offer to our God this sacrifice which is pleasing to him.
VI. Forbearance and forgiveness of real or supposed injuries, is a grace to be practised only by the living Christian. Christ Jesus our Lord demands it, and puts a check on your hopes of the forgiveness of God, if you refuse it to your fellow-creatures; Matt. 6. 14, 15. And the great apostle entreats you to practise it. Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive; Col. 3. 12,13. Love suffers long, bears all things, and hopes all things; and though considered in the general notion of love to the saints, it lives for ever in heaven; yet these special exercises of it belong to this world. Love is not easily provoked, it thinks no evil, gives everything the best turn that it will bear, and puts the best sense upon all things that are spoken. Would that every living Christian might grace his profession with the exercise of this virtue! 1 Cor. 13. 4-8.
Meekness is a grace which has no place in the upper world, in this respect, that it has no trials there. Glorify God your Saviour therefore in the days of your trial here below, and be meek and lowly as he was; be slow to anger, and swift to forgive, as God your Father is. When you hear a word of offence or reproach spoken, and feel your blood pressure rising, watch against it, subdue it: This is the hour of battle, see that you come off conquerors. When there is a word of bitterness on your tongue, stifle it, and keep silence, subdue the temptation, and prevent that sin; give glory to God in this way, which the saints in heaven cannot do. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good; Rom. 12. 19, 21.
Love is a virtue that flourishes in heaven, it grows high, it spreads wide, and it shines bright in the upper world. Love is a grace that out-lives faith and hope, and endures forever. There is no such union of hearts, no such sacred bonds of affection, as are found among the saints in heaven. Heaven is the very element and region of love; but it is all love to God, love to Christ, and to our fellow-saints: For love to enemies is not known in that country, because there is no enemy there. To love them that hate us, to bless them that curse us; to pity, and forgive, and pray for those that injure us; these are not only noble distinctions of the Christian religion, which are practically unknown amongst all the catalogues of heathen virtues, but neither are they practised in the heavenly world. As glorious and sublime as they are, yet they are never found among the spirits of the just made perfect: Those holy souls are all far above the reach of malice, hatred, and enmity; there are no objects there for them to exercise these divine virtues upon. Love to enemies therefore dwells only amongst the living saints: To forgive injuries, is the glory that is peculiar to Christians in this mortal state, and our blessed Saviour receives a special revenue of honour from it.
But besides the honour that Christ and his gospel receive from such a kind and charitable conduct, there is a pleasure in this victory over resentment, that far exceeds the pleasure of revenge, which is the delight of the wicked: And it is a pleasure also, which the saints above cannot experience; for there are no offences, no injuries, no provocations there: This life alone is the time to forgive, and to be forgiven. Now who is there among us, that would not seize the opportunity of every injury and offence, to practise a glorious duty, and enjoy a pleasure which the blessed in heaven cannot taste?
VII. Self-denial and mortification of sin, belongs also to this life alone. It is the first lesson in the school of Christ, to deny ourselves daily, if we will be his disciples; Luke 9. 23. but it is the lesson of the school, and not of the palace; a lesson for earth, and not for heaven; for in the world above, our duty is all delight, and there is no need of contradicting our own pleasure, or our interest, in order to please or serve our God, or our brother. In those holy regions, every part of our work is pleasing to our sanctified natures, and with resistless appetite and inclination we will pursue all the duties that belong to that happy state.
Nor are there any sins to be mortified there: The body of death is buried with the body of flesh in the grave, and earth is the place where the members of it must be put to death. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry; Col. 3. 5. Let us be daily engaged in the zealous practice of this duty, and subdue all the unruly appetites that make an assault upon our virtue, that defile our consciences, and subdue our peace. Now, now is the time to set ourselves at work to fight against our vicious inclinations, and our corrupt desires: Now let us multiply our victories over sin and self.
Earth is the field of battle with sin: In heaven our desires will all be pure and holy, there is no sinful wandering appetite, no perverse affection; no irregular thought or wish amongst all the saints above: There is no contest with indwelling corruptions, no such conquests are to be gained in all that holy and happy world. There are no new honours of this kind to be given to Jesus, the Captain of our salvation, nor any new triumphs to be obtained over sin, to the glory of divine grace.
Come then, let us rouse ourselves, and take to the battle; let us bravely resist the workings of flesh and blood, with the help of the Holy Spirit; let us be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and maintain the glorious warfare, like soldiers who fight for the honour of their general, and who hope for a crown of immortality.
For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.