The Privilege Of The Living Above The Dead. Part II

(The Right Improvement Of Life.)

Adapted from a Sermon By

Isaac Watts

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

This morning we return to Issac Watt’s sermon on the privileges which the living have above the dead.

We have already considered seven graces which may be exercised on earth which can have no place in heaven.

We will go on to consider five more such astonishing graces and then close by addressing some objections which might be raised against this teaching and end with a few words of encouragement.

VIII. Repentance and godly sorrow for our past offences, belong only to this life. Converting grace works only on earth; we are called to repent, in order to be forgiven: Repent and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out; Acts 3. 19. And the exercise of this grace is not only necessary at first conversion (though it most prominent at that time), but it must run like a thread through the whole course of this mortal life, until death will put an utter end to sin. Let every known sin therefore which we are guilty of, be accompanied with some new and sensible exercise of shame, and sorrow, and holy indignation against ourselves. Let us live in a daily, constant, penitent attitude, for we are daily sinners. This painful sense of sin, this holy mourning, is an honour done to the law of our God. It is the living, the living who are called to this work; for there is no repentance in the grave: Show your hatred of sin therefore continually, and your sincere love to the law of holiness by such a humiliation as becomes an imperfect saint.

You may wonder, “Do not saints in heaven repent that they have ever sinned here on earth?"

In answer, surely, whatever regret they feel in the recollection of their past transgressions, it is not accompanied with such sensible shame and inward pain of heart, as are necessary to that duty of repentance that is required here on earth; for nothing there must break in upon their perfect peace or joy in heaven. As God is said not to remember their iniquities, because he does not remember them in order to punish, so the saints above are not said to repent of sin, because they have no such shame and grief accompanying it as when they dwelt upon earth, and which are some of the most remarkable ingredients in our repentance.

But we may suppose there is among them some sort of holy self-examination, and something of a sacred regret, that ever they offended such a God, and such a Saviour. There will surely be an inward and hearty disapproval of their former sinful ways, whenever they think of them: And, indeed, without some reflection on their former guilt and misery, they can never give due glory to Christ their Redeemer, who rescued them from their sorrows and their sins. But all the painful and shameful parts of this grace of repentance must be banished from heaven, because it is a state of perfect joy and peace.

IX. Patience and submission to the will of God under all manner of painful providences, gives glory to God here on earth, such as the saints in heaven cannot give him. We are taught indeed to say, Lord, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven: (Matthew 6:10) But it is the perceived will of God, or the will of his commands, which is here intended, not his providential will, whereby he punishes; for there is no affliction in heaven, and therefore there is no such sort of submission, no exercise of patience there: They obey the will of his commands in perfection there, and God himself has no will that they should suffer, or endure sorrow.

Show then, believers in Christ, your submission to the will of God here, as dear and obedient children, when your heavenly Father sees it needful to discipline you; Heb. 12. 6-11. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? Give him reverence therefore when he corrects you, and be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live. It is only children under age that their earthly fathers punish and discipline; such are Christians in this world, the sons of God in their infant state; but when the children are grown up to maturity, they have no more such correction; such are the saints in heaven, who are grown to the fulness of the measure of that stature which God designs for them in Christ. This life therefore is the only time when you can honour the sovereignty and the wisdom of God your Father, when he sees fit to take his rod in hand, and to instruct you in righteousness.

X. A sacred compassion for perishing sinners, and longing desire and labour for the conversion of souls, is a business that belongs to this life only. When we are past the line of time, and entered into eternity, we can add no new subjects to the kingdom of our Lord: This is a service that can be performed nowhere but in the present state: It is the living, and they alone that have this work intrusted to them. When the lips are closed in the grave, they cannot speak for God, nor exhort sinners to be saved.

Let ministers call up all their powers then to the blessed work of the gospel. Let them stir up all their gifts, and use them all for the welfare of immortal souls. What is the extent of their human learning? What are their speaking talents, their flowing language, and their art of persuasion? What are all these but weapons of warfare to fight against the kingdom of Satan among men, and instruments to build up the church of God on earth? What are they all but consecrated gifts to win souls to Christ out of the kingdom of this world? They are given only for service in the present life. Let us use them then with our utmost skill for these holy purposes: For, as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away; 1 Cor. 13. 8, 9. These poor imperfect talents are not made for heaven. Let us therefore zealously employ them to the utmost on earth.

Therefore let us be ready in season and out of season, (2 Timothy 4:2) and proclaim the terrors of the law to awaken the senseless and impenitent, to make them run from the wrath to come. Let us publish the good news of the gospel, and by all the methods of compassion and tenderness, let us beseech and entreat sinners to be reconciled to God. Let us set the unsearchable riches of Christ before them, the all-sufficiency of his righteousness, and the power of his grace; and study and work out how we may address their consciences in the most successful manner, until we have won their hearts over to Christ and salvation.

Let parents that are concerned for the eternal welfare of their children, and love their sons and daughters as their own souls, let them seize the present opportunity for this sort of work. Let them make use of all the language of gentle authority, and of constraining love, to win the hearts of their children to God, to persuade them to accept of the grace of Christ, and snatch them as brands out of the burning. Let friends and dearest relatives lay hold of every just occasion to speak of the things of God to those that are near them. Life is the only time to express our zeal for God, and love to souls, in such a manner as this. When we pray, Your kingdom come, we should awaken our endeavours to gain some new subjects to Christ.

And so, let us all engage our own consciences in this sacred and compassionate work, while we consider, that now is the favorable time; now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2) God may put an end to our own lives, or the lives of our friends tomorrow; and either their death or ours will prevent this sort of work forever. Then we can speak no more, or they can hear us no more: They will be forever out of the reach of our earnest desires to save them. We may send our bitter sighs, and our fruitless groans, after them, when they are gone down to darkness without hope; and we may feel the inward anguish of a sharp and painful repentance, while, through our neglect, and their own folly and wickedness, they are cursing the day of their birth, and crying out, in full despair, under the torture of divine vengeance.

XI. Another grace, which can be exercised only in this life, is, holy zeal, and boldness in the profession of Christianity, with courage in suffering for Christ. These are virtues that belong only to our mortal state; these are made necessary to the saints, by the opposition that is raised against true religion by the men of this world. Here in this world, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted; 2 Tim. 3. 12. Our Saviour himself, in the first publication of his own gospel, endured the contradiction of sinners against himself; he sealed his doctrine with his own blood, and has given his followers a glorious example of a suffering zeal and holy perseverance. May we imitate him who endured the cross, and despised the shame; Heb. 12. 2, 3.

These sort of virtues do not belong to the heavenly state; for no opposition to truth and holiness is ever made there: There are no such trials of our zeal and courage in heaven; courage to speak boldly for Christ, and zeal to give him public glory, by maintaining his gospel in the face of terror and death; for there are no infidels, no sinners, no enemies in all the heavenly regions. There are no threatening tyrants, no persecuting powers, no penal laws in the upper world: No prisons, no fires, no axes there for the followers of the Lamb; no cruel mockings, nor so much as a reproachful word: But the greater our zeal is for the service of God and our Saviour in the heavenly state, the greater shall be our honour and applause among the inhabitants of that country.

Endure then for a time, disciples of Christ, grow bold in the profession of his name, and exult with holy joy, that you are counted worthy to suffer shame for his sake; Acts 5. 41. It is here on earth only, that it is in your power to show, how much you love your Saviour more than your life, and that your love to your Lord is stronger than death with all its terrors. Upon this account are we exhorted to practise what the apostle James expresses; James 1. 2. Count it all joy, my brethren, when you fall into divers temptations; so that the tested genuineness of your faith may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 1 Pet. 1. 7. It was a frequent and sacred ambition among the primitive Christians, to contend for the crown of martyrdom. This world is the only stage for such bloody conflicts, and this life is the only time in which we can obtain the addition of this ornament to our crown of glory.

XII. In the last place, consider how a calm and cheerful readiness for a removal out of this world, is an honour done to Christ and his gospel here on earth, which does not belongs the heavenly state. Death, in the course of nature, as well as by the hands of violence, has always had something awful and formidable in it. Flesh and blood shrinks and trembles at the appearance of its dissolution, and Christ delights to see the grace that he has formed in his saints, triumph over flesh and blood, and conquer the terrors of death and the grave.

He loves to see his followers maintain a serene soul, and venture into the invisible world upon the merit of his blood, with holy courage and a cheerful faith. It is only the living Christian that can die, and glorify God his Saviour in that great and important hour. The saints, who are arrived at heaven, dwell in the temple of God, and will go no more out of it; Rev. 3. 12. They are forever possessed of life and immortality. There are no more deaths or dangers for them to encounter, no more terrors to engage their conflict. Death is the last enemy of the saints; and when the Christian meets it with sacred courage, he gives that honour to the Captain of his salvation, which the saints in glory can never give, and which he himself can never repeat. Dying with faith and courage, is a noble conclusion of a life of zeal and service. It is the very last duty on earth; when that is done, then heaven begins.

Thus it has been made evident, in many instances, that there is a rich variety of virtues and graces to be exercised in this life, which have no place after death; and upon this account the living Christian may be said to have some advantage beyond the dead.

In closing, we will consider and answer a few objections that may come to mind.

Objection I. But is not heaven always represented as a state of perfection? Is not grace and holiness more complete there than ever they have been, or can be in the time of our mortal life? And yet, how can it be a state of greater perfection, if so many graces are lacking there?

Answer.—These graces which belong to the living saint, and have no place among the happy dead, are but the various exercises of a sanctified mind, arising from some imperfections in our present state. Faith is owing to our lack of sight; Hope is owing to our lack of enjoyment: Patience, courage, compassion, forbearance, forgiveness, repentance, and such-like graces, are owing to the sins, the sorrows, or the temptations that are found in this world only. The follies, the mistakes, the infirmities of ourselves, or our fellow-Christians, or the wickedness of the world in which we live, are the only things that give occasion for the exercise of such graces as have now been mentioned, therefore in a perfect state there is no room for them.

Yet every saint in heaven has a sanctified nature, which is the root and spring of all these graces, and they would spring to action again, if there were any objects, or occasions, or seasons proper to excite them. Therefore the saints above are not defective in any virtue or grace, though they have no opportunity to use several of them in heaven. So God himself would not be in himself less merciful, if he appeared in any province of his dominion where there was no creature in misery, and consequently no proper object for mercy. He is a God of infinite compassion and forgiveness still, though he has no immediate new opportunity to show them in heaven, in a world where there are no sinners; for sin and misery are the only proper occasions of forgiveness and mercy. Thus the saints in heaven are perfect in grace and holiness, even though there are no proper objects or occasions for this holiness or this grace to manifest itself in such peculiar instances as have been described in this sermon.

II. How can it be said, that a living Christian has any advantage above the dead? Is not heaven better than earth? And on that account, is not death often represented to us under most pleasing colours in the gospel, as it is an escape from the sins and sorrows of this present state, and as it conveys us into the world of blessed spirits, where there are infinite advantages above anything to be enjoyed in this life?

Answer.—Though the living saint has some advantages which the dead cannot partake of, yet it is very true, that the honours, the pleasures, the joys, the perfections, and the advantages of heaven, when summed up together, are far more and greater, and are infinitely preferable to those on earth; but they are not all of the same kind. When we compare the state of grace and the state of glory together, we may boldly say, the state of glory is vastly preferable; and the apostle Paul himself thought so, Phil. 1. 21, 23. To be dissolved, and to be with Christ, is far better than to dwell in this sinful world. He asserts it, that death would be his own gain; yet still he allows there are some advantages of this life, which death would deprive him of; for, says he, for me to live in the flesh, will be for the honour of Christ in his churches; and I will have this fruit of my life, even the advancement of your faith and joy; verses 22, 25.

When we are encouraging Christians to live above the fear of death, we remind them of all the glories and happiness of the future world, which are infinitely superior to all things we can enjoy in this life. But while we continue here on earth, under the difficulties and hardships of the present state, we are in need of patience, that when we have done the will of God, we may receive the promises; Heb. 10. 36. And we need all those peculiar advantages to be set before us, which can belong to our stations here on earth, on purpose to support our patience, to bear us up under present burdens, and make us active in present duties: Although it must be still confessed, that all those advantages of this life, joined with our present sins and sorrows, are much inferior to the actual taste and attainment of the joys of heaven, where sin and sorrow are never again to be known.

Which brings us to the improvement and conclusion of this sermon, which will be wound up briefly in these four practical inferences:

Inference I. Since there are many virtues and duties which belong only to this present life, let us lose no opportunity to practice them; for the next day, or the next hour, may put it forever out of our power to practise them.

Eternity is a long duration indeed, but it will never give us one opportunity for visiting the sick, for feeding the hungry, or for charity and meekness towards those who injure us: Eternity itself will never give us one opportunity for the pious labours of love toward the conversion of sinful acquaintances and relatives.

Let us then not allow this precious lamp of life to burn for nothing, or weeks, and days, and hours, to slide away unemployed and useless. Let us remember, that while we are here, we work for a long hereafter; that we think, and speak, and act with regard to an eternal state, and that in time we live for eternity. Let us call up all our powers to action and diligence, that not a day of our short lives may pass away, but what may turn to our account in the years of eternity.

While God is pleased to delay our heaven, let our continuance on earth be filled up with the various exercises of such graces as are suited to our present stations. Let this be a new spring and motive to our zeal, that we are doing such honours to God and our Saviour here on earth, of which none of the saints above are capable, and for which this life is the only season: And let it appear in the day of retribution, that the length of our life here on earth, has been a great, and real, and everlasting advantage to us, by preparing us for a higher station after death, and a fairer inheritance in that world which is everlasting.

II. Though your hopes of heaven be never so well grounded, yet do not be too impatient of dwelling longer on the earth: And though your burdens and sorrows may be very great in life, yet do not be too hasty and eager in your desires for death.

Support yourself under all the fatigues, trials, and difficulties of the present state, with this consideration, that you are now employed in such service for God, and paying such a tribute of honour to him in your suffering circumstances, as all the saints in heaven cannot do. Some of the children of God in this world have been too impatient of life, and too eager in their pleading for death and the grave. Job and Elijah were great favorites of heaven, but they failed a little in this point: And God, in the course of his providence, afterward made it appear what eminent service he had for them both to do before they left this world. Elijah was designed to reform the whole nation of Israel from idolatry, and Job to be the parent of a new large family, and give the world an example of God's rewarding providence. If life is yours, believer in Christ, and is numbered among your possessions, do not be too hasty to part with it, nor to throw away that talent which may yet, in days to come, be put to use for the great honour of your God and Saviour.

III. If life be almost spent, and you have done little for God, see that in your last, your dying hours, if possible, you speak and act for his glory.

Let not the whole season of life quite pass away, and be turned over like a blank leaf which has none of the praises of God written upon it. A word of warning from a death-bed may make a deep and happy impression on those that hear it, and through divine grace may save a soul; and if so, you will hear of it again with honour and applause in the great day. The thief that was converted on the cross, spoke a word for Christ in his last moments, and it has been blessed to rescue many from the jaws of despair: That dying creature had done nothing for God in his life; a vicious life, and a wicked creature! But the profession of sincere faith and repentance which he made at his death, has been richly honoured in the kingdom of grace; and has surely helped many a fearful Christian on toward the kingdom of glory.

IV. If so many valuable works are done, and so many graces are exercised on earth, which have no place in heaven, then the lives of the saints are worth praying for.

Precious in the eye of God is the life of his saints, and they should be precious in the eye of man too. When an active, useful Christian, when a pious judge, when a zealous and faithful minister goes down to the dust, sadly! how much good ceases from the earth forever. The world has no idea what it loses by such a death.

Let not children be impatient at the length of life which their holy parents enjoy: You know not, children, what benefit you may reap from their example, their counsel, their earnest prayers, and secret interventions with God for your souls: Let us have a care that we do nothing, that we may break the spirits of our pious friends, or that may hasten the departure of holy persons from this lower world, whose virtues and graces are of eminent use among us. Let us rather pray earnestly, that God would lengthen out the days of those who speak and act with a useful zeal for the honour of Christ, and for the welfare of the souls of men. When death once has put an end to their days, all this sort of service is finished forever; and we ourselves may suffer unknown losses by their hasty departure out of this world.

As we close, let us consider what we has been set before us. Is not this a strange doctrine which we have heard today, that a Christian on earth has many privileges which can never belong to the saints in heaven? Is it not strange news to hear, that there are many graces to be exercised in this life, which neither saints nor angels can practise in the holy and heavenly world? And yet the evidence is so strong, and the truth is so plain and certain, that we cannot but see it, and believe it.

Remember then, that we have one more motive to diligence in all the duties of life, than ever we had before. And we have also one more support under all our sorrows, beyond what has been our support in former days. A delightful support it is under sufferings, and a noble motive to duty. Awake, then, all your active powers, let every grace be put to use, and every talent be employed to bring this revenue of honour to your God and your Saviour in this life, which the saints above cannot give him, and which, at the moment of death, must forever cease.

By the help of the Holy Spirit, may you be led to the practice of the most useful duties, that your service may be extensive both to God and man. Earnestly study how you may best promote the interest of Christ and his gospel here on earth. Endeavor to bear the burdens of life with a holy satisfaction: Endure the weariness of hard work with a sacred pleasure: Resist the temptations, sustain the sorrows of life like a good soldier of Christ in the present field of battle.

Heaven will have other business for you, and proper work of its own: That is the place of joy and triumph where the righteous will delight themselves in abundant peace.