Results tagged “Death” from Reformation21 Blog

Healing in Dayton

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Just south of central Dayton, Ohio, in the heart of one of the city's historic districts, is a stretch of road familiar to all the locals: A two block section of Fifth Avenue that is home to an eclectic mix of high-end restaurants, bars, oddity shops, tattoo parlors, a Goodwill, and an adult video store. This odd collection is the result of an ongoing gentrification process; this historic strip has been taken over by younger adults, eager to consume the wares of microbreweries, espresso bars, and farm-to-table eateries. Yet traces of the old order remain. As a result, this road is neither rich nor poor, neither high-brow nor low-brow. It's simply a representation of everything the city has to offer, both good and bad.

The official name for this neighborhood is the Oregon District. My husband and I have enjoyed many pleasant evenings there at some of our favorite restaurants--Lily's Bistro, Roost, Salar, Thai 9--and then gone home before the street becomes overwhelmed with bar patrons in various stages of sobriety (or lack thereof). Most members of our generation have enjoyed what this street has to offer, and remarked at how fortunate we are to finally have some decent food in what is, for the most part, a relatively simple Midwestern town.

Then something happened that changed the nature of this place: In the early hours of the Lord's Day, a young man came to that stretch of Fifth Avenue clothed in body armor and bearing a weapon. He opened fire on his own sister and several others enjoying the warmth of a summer evening. Within seconds, the historic road was running with the blood of fallen men and women. Many ran back into the buildings, trying desperately to escape a violent death. The gunman approached the door of one of the bars, likely intending to kill everyone inside, but he was shot dead by police officers...

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Praying for the Dead

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An individual dies and social media is flooded with sentiments about prayers for the deceased and their family members. Without doubt, it is altogether right and in keeping with a spirit of true Christian charity to pray fervently for the family members of one who has passed away. Any number of prayers can and should be offered to God on behalf of the those grieving the loss of their loved one. If the deceased and his or her family members are believers, they need other Christians to be praying for the comfort of the Gospel and the promise of the resurrection. If the family members of the deceased are unbelievers, they need us to be praying for them to come to know the saving grace of God in Christ. They may also need our prayers for their relational and material needs. However, it should strike us as strange to read statements--such as, "Praying that God will have mercy on him or her" or "May God grant that he or she may rest in peace"--made by professing Evangelicals about an individual who has recently died. It could be that such sentiments are merely tongue in cheek. However, we ought not consider this to be an insignificant matter. The Scriptures lack the slightest hint of support for any notion of intercession on the part of one believer for another postmortem. This is also a matter upon which the church has spoken early and often. 

In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck explained, 

"The Reformed rejected this intercession for the dead on the ground that their lot was unalterably decided at death. The fact is that neither the Old nor the New Testament breathes a word about such intercession...Intercession for the dead, therefore, has no basis whatever in Scripture, as Tertullian for that matter already recognized. For after he had discussed various church practices, including sacrifices for the dead (De corona militus, ch. 3), he added in chapter 4: 'If, for these and other such rules, you insist on having positive scriptural injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer"...Since, then, intercession for the dead cannot stand the test of Scripture, the question concerning its utility and comfort is no longer appropriate. All the same, these two things are hardly demonstrable. For though it seems a beautiful thing that the living can help the dead by their intercessions and make up for the wrong they have perhaps done to them during their lifetime, in fact this church practice takes Christian piety in a totally wrong direction. It gives the impression that--contrary to Matt. 8:22--caring for the dead is of greater value than love for the living; it credits one's own works and prayers with a meritorious, expiatory power that is effective even on the other side of the grave and benefits the dead; it is based on and conducive to the doctrine of purgatory, which, on the one hand, especially among the rich, fosters unconcern and, on the other hand, perpetuates the uncertainty of believers; and in the minds of Christians it weakens confidence in the sufficiency of the sacrifice and intercession of Christ."1

The Westminster Confession of Faith could also not be any clearer about the state of a person at death. In the chapter, "Of the State of Men After Death, and the Resurrection of the Dead," the Divines wrote, 

"The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption:a but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none" (WCF 32.1).

Since there is no purgatory, no holding place for the spirits of men and women upon death, and no soul sleep, there is no reason for a practice of intercession on behalf of those who have died. No amount of textual sophistry on the interpretation of passages such as Luke 16:19-31, 1 Cor. 15:29, or 1 Peter 3:18-20 can overpower the clear teaching of Scripture that when a man or woman dies, his or her spirit goes immediately to heaven or hell. Both the Old and New Testaments set forth a litany of examples of believers burying their loved ones, yet there is not the slightest intimation that any prayers were offered for them. John Calvin, in his polemics against the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding purgatory and prayers for the deceased, wrote, 

"When, therefore, my opponents object, that it has been the practice for thirteen hundred years to offer prayers for the dead, I, in return, ask them, by what word of God, by what revelation, by what example it was done? For here not only are passages of Scripture wanting, but in the examples of all the saints of whom we read, nothing of the kind is seen. We have numerous, and sometimes long narratives, of their mourning and sepulchral rites, but not one word is said of prayers. [Scripture relates oftentimes and at great length, how the faithful lamented the death of their relations, and how they buried them: but that they prayed for them is never hinted at.] But the more important the matter was, the more they ought to have dwelt upon it. Even those who in ancient times offered prayers for the dead, saw that they were not supported by the command of God and legitimate example. Why then did they presume to do it? I hold that herein they suffered the common lot of man, and therefore maintain, that what they did is not to be imitated. Believers ought not to engage in any work without a firm conviction of its propriety, as Paul enjoins (Rom. 14:23); and this conviction is expressly requisite in prayer. It is to be presumed, however, that they were influenced by some reason; they sought a solace for their sorrow, and it seemed cruel not to give some attestation of their love to the dead, when in the presence of God. All know by experience how natural it is for the human mind thus to feel."2

The Scriptures teach us that of all the things about which we should care the most in life, our religious practices and prayers are of utmost importance. Jesus often rebuked religious leaders for their unbiblical customs and prayers--whether on account of a lack of divine institution, truthfulness or sincerity. In keeping in step with the teaching of Scripture and the practice of biblical churches, I would strongly assert with Calvin and Bavinck that though "it seems a beautiful thing that the living can help the dead by their intercessions and make up for the wrong they have perhaps done to them during their lifetime" we "ought not to engage in any work without a firm conviction of its propriety."

1. Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 638.

2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997).

When Our Voices Fail

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Three weeks ago this past Thursday (March 21), I decided it was probably best, because of my mother's serious health situation, for me to head home to South Carolina after worship on the coming Sunday to be with her. The next day, Friday, I received a text from my brother telling me that things had suddenly declined with my father's health. Although his health had not been great, he was not on our radar as far as being our imminent family health concern.

Early the next day, a Saturday morning, I sat on a plane contemplating the sudden turn of events, determined to get as many texts out as possible before having to put my phone on airplane mode. My heart and mind were a jumble of worry, fear, and potential anticipated tasks. One minute all things had been carrying on as always--and the next minute I faced the real possibility that both of my parents might be gone, just like that. I was struck at how hard it was for me to think, much less write, anything that seemed like a sensible sentence.

As I stared out the window, without warning, the melody and words of hymns--so many, rich, precious hymns--began running through my mind. Overwhelmed with emotion, I texted a friend:

The comfort, especially in light of the Latin origin of the word, that solid hymnody brings in times like this is a beautiful, poignant irony. When I cannot find words in my heart to bring to my lips, these truth-laden, Scripturally-rich hymns rise in my spirit! It is as if they are an incarnation of the Spirit's intercession to embrace my groaning, wordless heart. Now I can voice within what cannot form in my mouth--and not only am I sure that the Father has searched and known my heart, I am strengthened by his glorious Gospel with music that carries me back to his never-failing Word.

It was suddenly so clear to me how important the great hymns I had learned had been in building up my faith and driving home the essential biblical truths I so needed to rest upon at that very moment. Hearing and feeling through song what I knew to be true from God's Word both settled my heart sent my spirit soaring, even as the tears flowed.

Within 24 hours my father was with the Lord. By his goodness I was able to be with him as he crossed that threshold, entering into the glory he had so longed to see. In the days that followed, as we began to plan his funeral, I again found that it was the comfort of the great hymns of our faith that buoyed me. Though I had planned so many funerals before, it was in pulling together my father's service that I realized that "my" funerals are hymn heavy--incorporating alongside the comfort of God's Word, three, sometimes even four hymns. I have never really articulated a pastoral philosophy of funerals, but my practice revealed to me that I believe that singing solid truth at times of mourning--or hearing that solid truth being sung when we are able only to weep--is an act of faith, hope and love.

Singing God's truth at times of mourning is an act of faith because we are proclaiming that death is not the victor--Christ Jesus is! He who is life itself by choice experienced what is inevitable for us, and by that death he dealt death itself a deathblow.

Singing God's truth at times of mourning is an act of hope because we are affirming that though we have grief we have assurance that we will again see those who have crossed into the presence of God's glory.

Singing God's truth at times of mourning is an act of love because, as we sing, our hearts rise with gratitude to the God who loved us first, making it possible for our dead, dry hearts to beat with life and love in return.

Of course, it is not merely at times of grief that the great hymns propel us in the progress and joy of our faith. In every step of our faith's journey, sound, beautiful hymns become a highway in our hearts for exhortation, encouragement, assurance and even accountability--and this is only a meager list of how tightly rich hymnody is intertwined with our sanctification. They give us a theological touchstone that speaks deeply to us, not in place of Scripture, but in support of the precious truths it reveals to us.

One week after he died, family and friends gathered and we glorified God as we honored my father's memory. His grandchildren shared their favorite memory of Papa or Granddaddy. I preached from Philippians 1 about the "gain-gain" situation my father had faced--and through Jesus, had entered into. And then some of us attempted to sing with our mouths what we shouted in our hearts:

No guilt in life, no fear in death--This is the pow'r of Christ in me; From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No pow'r of hell, no scheme of man, Can ever pluck me from His hand; Till He returns or calls me home-- Here in the pow'r of Christ I'll stand.


Rev. Rob Looper is the Senior Pastor of McIlwain Presbyterian Church in Pensacola, FL.

 

What Will They Do When I'm Gone?

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This morning I was reading a well-written and edifying article about cancer, the sovereignty of God and facing the reality of an uncertain future (humanly speaking). I think most parents have, at some time, gone through this thought process: what will happen to my children if something happens to me?

We can plan, and we should plan, for such eventualities, both spiritually and materially. I have life insurance for myself and my wife; we are working on finding guardians for our children should both of us die. Our financial plans are in place, more or less. Material planning is so very important. It is not, however, as important as spiritual planning for our children and loved ones.

I frequently speak of death and resurrection to our children, indeed in family worship last night, the subject came up again. I hope, by the drip-drip of teaching on death, resurrection and eternal life my children will become accustomed to the idea of all three realities. My third son, already, tells me he wants to be in heaven already. I also prepare my boys for the eventuality of my passing, or my wife's passing. We have told them about both material and spiritual needs and how they will be met by God.

I do wonder how they will fair if God calls me and or my wife home. I have fears for them. Will the be looked after? Will they walk with the Lord? Will they trust him all their days? Will they be spared the sins and mistake I made? How will they cope with the loss of a parent?

The above article caused me to realize this important truth: my children's need for God is greater than their need for me. That's right. How could it not be? We believe in an almighty and sovereign God who "ordains whatsoever shall come to pass" - of course their need for God as their Heavenly Father, for Christ as their Savior and the Spirit as their Comforter is greater than their need for me! They need to see and believe that God, should He take me or my wife, is simply enacting a just, wise and righteous plan. They need to know and believe that the God who they all profess to love is able and more willing to care for them than I ever could. They need to know, in a real and true sense, they will be better off without me, simply because that is the perfect will of God. (Jesus said the same to his disciples, John 16:7).

Is that not one of my great tasks in life? To teach them, by example and by the Word, that they are to long for God more than for me? To teach them that their need for God and reliance upon his grace and mercy is more than an earthly parent could ever give them? Yes, I believe my children need to know that we are made for eternity, and they must know this truth in the days of their youth. They must know, that to be with the Lord is better (Phil. 1:23), even if that means separation in this life.

Yes, they need to learn that their need for God is greater than their need for me.

But what if the shoe is on the other foot? Frankly, for myself, this is even more fearful option than the earlier one, if I am honest. What will happen to me if something happens to them? How will I cope with the sorrow and brokenness that some of us know and live with daily - the death of a child?

I would suggest that we can also reverse the principle above. Not only is my children's need for God greater than their need for me, my need for God is greater than my need for my children.

Should God take one or all of my children from me, it would most assuredly break my heart, but not my faith. I would have to learn, experientially, the truth of my own belief - I need God more than I need my children. If it were God's will to take those whom he has given to me, that will remains good, just and wise. I know it is for my good because God is good (Rom. 8:28). I know it is tailored for me perfectly because God is wise (Rom. 16:27). I know it is just, because God only does what is right (Gen. 18.25). I could go on...

The reality is that while God has given us many, many, great blessing, we ought always remember two things: first, he gives and he takes away, and both actions are perfectly consonant with his excellent character. Second, his blessing is in both giving and taking away: he gives to show us his great love for us, and he take to reveal our great need for his excellent character and provision.

And so, in days of blessing, let us situate these truths in our hearts, to be ready for the day of hardship: we need God more than we need anything or anyone on this earth. It is the same God who gives and takes away and His name is always to be blessed.


Matthew Holst is the Pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC. 

The Consequences of Ideas in New York

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By now, most Christians in America have seen the images: thunderous applause at the New York State Assembly and a festively decorated World Trade Center spire. And what is the great deliverance celebrated by this applause? The legal freedom to terminate babies until the moment they are born. One wonders how such a large segment of society - in New York and across America - could embrace such a diabolical legislation, against all scientific proof of sustainable human life within the womb?

One essential answer is that attitudes and behaviors are formed from ideas. And behind the gleeful celebration of the slaughter of pre-born babies is the idea that there is no God. The chief doctrine of secular humanism - embedded in the very expression - is that life does not originate as the creation of a personal and moral deity. The consequence of this denial of God is not only the rebellious egocentricity by which men and women would terminate their own children for the sake of convenience but also the loss of the very idea of humanity. Francis Schaeffer pointed out the consequences of atheistic naturalism forty-five years ago: "if we begin with an impersonal universe, there is no explanation of personality." His point was that our conception of human experience is tied to our conception of God: "when men try to explain man on the basis of an original impersonal, man soon disappears."1 Thus a society founded on the "no God" idea cannot fail to descend into a culture of death, so that life becomes a pawn in calculations of utility and contests of power.

Proof of Schaeffer's prediction is seen all around us. Not only do our fellow citizens rejoice in the slaughter of infants, but the language of violence and murder increasingly fills our political debate. In service of this dehumanizing of society we find not only the ultimate idea in the denial of God, but supporting ideas that buttress an ungodly worldview. Political violence is supported by identity politics and the ideas of cultural Marxism. The standard argument for abortion is the claim that women must have the right over their own body - a claim rendered illogical by the reality that a baby inside her is the body of another person. So it is that not only ultimate ideas but also supporting doctrines have deadly consequences. Out of ideas flow results, and by the pen the savage scalpel is unleashed.

Yet another way ideas have consequences is that there is, in truth, a God. Moreover, this God inflicts righteous judgment on those who deny him. This consequence of ideas - the wrath of God on idolatrous rebellion - also is necessary to account for the spectacle of a great city and state rejoicing for the right to slay innocents. Romans 1:21 says that "although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened." Here is an explanation for the irrationality inherent to the pro-abortion position. More than the mere moral consequence of unbelief, Scripture shows that in judgment "God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false" (2 Thess. 2:11). Is this not a likely explanation for the moral insanity of the New York pro-abortion law and its adoring applause? After all, here are secularists who claim science for their beliefs, while the overwhelming consensus of science declares the full humanity of preborn infants. Thus, as Christians watch bewildered, we should realize that the consequences of ideas involve a spiritual dimension of cursing and bondage. The apostle John reminds that there is more than one spirit in the world, so that to turn from God in faith is to secure a dark enslavement to the personal spirit of evil that is at work in this world (1 John 4:1-3).

Because ideas have consequences, it is as important as ever that Christians learn how to discern truth from error and that we become again a people of truth from God's Word. But discernment is not enough - there must be courage as well. Now is not the time for cultural accommodation and dreading fears that our tone might be thought unkind. As we witness the brutalization of our culture and tearfully wonder how our fellow citizens can celebrate such slaughter, the Christian response must include a commitment to speak truth fearlessly from God's Word. We are staring the consequences of ideas in the face. And while a spirit of evil is at work through the ideas of death and darkness, the Bible reminds us of the great power at work through the ideas of biblical truth: "he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4).

1. Francis A. Schaeffer, Collected Works (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1982), 2:11.

Trying Not to Remember

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I've been thinking a lot about self-deception and the lies we tell ourselves. Sometimes we lie to others so that we can advance ourselves. Sometimes we lie to others so that we can gain a foothold to a place where the truth wouldn't, perhaps, get us. But self-deception is odd. Self-deception is something that doesn't get us anything tangible. Self-deception is something that we do because we cannot bear the truth about ourselves and would rather believe a lie.

As I have been preaching a series through the book of Revelation, I've noticed something of a pattern of deception that existed in several of the churches in chapters 2 and 3. The church in Sardis had one major problem--it had deceived others. That particular church had a reputation they had created and needed to uphold. There were appearances to keep up in Sardis. Laodicea had a similar problem--there was deception and false appearances in that church as well. It was different, however, in the sense that the church in Laodicea wasn't deceiving others without; rather, they themselves were the object of self-deception.

Men lie to themselves about all kinds of things. They lie to themselves about their weight (e.g. my weight on my driver's license may or may not be accurate). They lie to themselves about how disciplined they are (studies show that people under-report how much food they actually eat). And they lie to themselves about other things too (for example, why did you really get married?).

But one of the greatest lies that modern men and women tell themselves is that they are going to make it...that they aren't going to die; that they have a long life ahead of themselves; that they're going to be fine. I felt this was well illustrated this weekend when I watched the movie Passengers with my wife.

[Warning: some light spoilers to follow]

One of the conceits of the movie Passengers is that a space ship is on a very long flight to a habitable planet. 90 years before the ship reaches its destination (which is way too early in the narrative), one of the hibernation pods on the ship opens up and a single man is woken up. A good chunk of the movie is spent with this man wrestling with the reality that he will die alone before reaching the destination. Wrestling with the reality that he has to learn to live alone in isolation while this ship continues on its happy course, he instead opts to wake another passenger so that he doesn't have to spend the rest of his life alone. In doing so, of course, he condemns her to also die a similarly lonely death. When she finds out what he has done she says, "You've murdered me!" Personally, I would have waxed philosophical at that point and reminded her that we're all dying; but, hey, I'm not quite a hollywood hunk like Chris Pratt, so what do I know?

At this point, the movie had an opportunity to wade into some heavy meditations upon death and dying. Unfortunately, the morose theme of the story ends there as some larger conflict and resolution occupies the remainder of the story.

Passengers did remind me that human beings do, in fact, know that they are dying. We do know that the ship is sinking (faster for some than others). But we deceive ourselves with drink and sex and play, hoping to forget the thing that we know to be true. Rather than motivating ourselves to seek life and joy in the God who made us, the majority of humanity would rather content themselves with distractions than face these truths head-on.

We are happy to think upon death in small doses. In what is one of my favorite quotes , John Calvin touches on this point:

"That human life is like smoke or shadow is not only obvious to the learned, but even ordinary folk have no proverb more commonplace than this...But there is almost nothing that we regard more negligently or remember less. For we undertake all things as if we were establishing immortality for ourselves on earth. If some corpse is being buried, or we walk among graves, because the likeness of death then meets our eyes, we, I confess, philosophize brilliantly concerning the vanity of this life. Yet even this we do not do consistently, for often all these things affect us not one bit. But when it happens, our philosophy is for the moment; it vanishes as soon as we turn our backs, and leaves not a trace of remembrance behind it. In the end, like applause in the theater for some pleasing spectacle, it evaporates. Forgetful not only of death but also of mortality itself, as if no inkling of it had ever reached us, we return to our thoughtless assurance of earthly immortality." (Institutes 1:714)

Is there anything that contemporary man is better at than "thoughtless assurance of earthly immortality"? Distraction, amusement, false assurances, and self-deception motivate and drive almost his every waking thought and effort. These amusements are absolutely necessary because, in the face of the modern nihilistic tendency to believe that all is meaningless (unless we choose, somehow to infuse it with meaning all our own, of course), there is no answer to the truth that is the bedrock of man's despair - apart from God in Christ, all of this doesn't mean anything. And a thousand years from now nobody will remember you, or me, or anything that we do. The universe will die a cold death as every star burns out and every rock eventually floats away into empty nothingness. If the soul is not immortal and we are not redeemed, then there is no hope. And if you believe that, then distraction is ultimately all that you have.

Massive swaths of humanity have no answer to this problem. And so in the face of such a catastrophic reality, they choose to divert, to amuse, and to forget. They choose self-deception. They choose to lie to themselves. They try not to remember that there is a Creator. That he is holy. That he demands our soul, our life, our all.

Those of us who are in Christ have a firm basis for telling ourselves that we are going to make it. That our inevitable deaths will not be the end. Unlike the rest of humanity, we do not have to create our own tolerable existence through self-deception. For everyone else, the only option is trying not to remember.

Adam Parker is the Pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church in Pearl, MS. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson and the Associate Editor of Reformation 21.

Death, The New Year And The Hope of Christ

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2016 was a sobering year for our celebrity-driven culture. A recent CNN article reminded us of the many well known individuals that we lost over the course of the last year. More names have been added just in this past week. More than usual, it seems that many of these celebrities and artists lost in 2016 were icons of culture--a part of people's personal identities and memories. Social media has provided an unprecedented forum for shared grief and lament. (On a humorous note, one man even started a Go Fund Me page to "protect Betty White from 2016".)

From a biblical perspective, these social laments don't go far enough; and, sadly they seem to miss the point altogether. 2016 has not been all that unusual of a year--although it may have been more providentially jarring for some. People are shocked by tragedy and tragedies are supposed to be shocking. But tragedies are not surprises. They are reminders. Tragedies help to awaken us out of an illusion of what is not to what is actually the norm in this world. There is nothing more normal to history than evil and death. It is not strange. It is tragically normal.

I heard someone once say that people in this world are like people in prison who pretend most of their lives that they are not in prison. And every once in a while when tragedy strikes, they are forced to come out and stare at the bars and be reminded of what is real.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a Christmas letter from prison during WWII in which he said, "A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent. One waits, hopes, does this or that--ultimately negligible things--the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside."

So what is the biblical lesson and answer in the face of a tragic reality? Can Christianity offer any hope in the New Year in the face of death? To the surprise of many, the Christian answer does not sugar-coat reality. The Christian Gospel has always been set in the midst of tragedy--from the cradle to the cross.

Matthew's Gospel shockingly records how Jesus' birth led to the slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18). Why would the Lord want such a story associated with Christ's coming? How could God warn Joseph while allowing those little boys to be killed? Why would He allow any things like that in the first place?

It's not an easy question. And the Bible doesn't candy-coat the response. This is the reality of a fallen world. This was the reality of Jesus' birth, the kind of world He came to--a world where tragedies are not surprises, where 152,000 people die every day around the world, where 21,000 children die every day, where the U.S. alone averages 5 child murders a day. And this is actually what the Gospel story is about--not a shallow joy and peace, but a deep joy and peace in the face of a tragic world because of a Savior has come to redeem us.

The fact that an angel had to warn Joseph tells us that the incarnation was real. God really became man, which means his life was truly threatened. God really and truly came into the reality of a fallen world, into the valley of the shadow of death, and became exposed and vulnerable.

The fact that Jesus got away and survived the slaughter of Bethlehem was actually for the comfort of Bethlehem; it gives us the only answer and comfort possible in the face of tragedy.

One got away. And because of the one who got away, there is hope. Like Moses before him, Jesus got away at his birth to provide a greater salvation. Jesus survived as an infant so that he could later do something no one else could do for His people. When the dragon of death sought to devour Him and his brethren (Rev.12:1-17), He was rescued for the proper time in order to go under the waters of death, and to destroy death once for all, and to crush the serpent's head (Gen.3:15, Heb.2:14). He became the firstborn from the dead (Col.1:18), the one who truly got away, and the one who goes before us to lead us all the way to the promised land.

So what is the real answer to death and the New Year? As we face the reality of a fallen world and the fact that "a few more years shall roll, a few more seasons come and we shall be with those that rest asleep within the tomb" (Horatius Bonar), we must recognize that what Bonhoeffer said is true: "The door is locked and can only be opened from the outside." There is one real hope in all this world. And it's not a sentimental movie answer, that we all become "one with the Force and live on in all things". It's a very real, gritty, tragic, hope-filled answer - that God gave his only Son, that he came into this fallen world, that he came to be with us, to touch all of our uncleanness, even death itself - to break our chains and to lead us out.

Today the gate is open, and all who enter in, 
Will find a Father's welcome, and pardon for their sin. 
The past shall be forgotten, a present joy be given, 
A future grace be promised, a glorious crown in heaven. (Oswald Allen, 1861)

Matt Foreman is the pastor of Faith Reformed Baptist Church.  Matt is a graduate of Furman University and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He currently serves as the Chairman of the General Assembly for the Reformed Baptist Network, as secretary for the RBN Missions Committee, and as lecturer in Practical Theology at Reformed Baptist Seminary. Matt also writes music for worship; some of which be found here. Matt and his wife, MaryScott, have four children: Katy (2002), Darsie (2004), Liam (2007), and Molly (2010).

Laying R.I.P. to Rest

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I have great admiration for non-Christians who have contributed to the improvement of society through their inventions, production, leadership, literature and art. My wife and I were recently reflecting on the remarkable ways in which Steve Jobs' labors helped changed the world in which we live. I love so many of the beautiful works of art and music that have been the product of secular artists; and, I do not, for one second, believe that we should sequester ourselves from the use and enjoyment of the contributions of self-avowed unbelievers in the world arounds us; otherwise, as the Apostle Paul wrote, "you would need to go out of this world" (1 Cor. 5:10). There is a common grace principle at work in the world by which God allows men to benefit their neighbors, making life in this fallen world a little less painful than it would otherwise be.

That being said, I've noticed something of a concerning trend over the past several years. It is the way in which believers speak about culture-impacting individuals at their deaths. Instead of simply expressing appreciation for their life and achievements, it has become commonplace for Christians to use the shorthand R.I.P. ("rest in peace") on social media when speaking of individuals--in whose lives there was no evidence of saving grace--at their death. At the risk of sounding ill-tempered, I wish to set out several reasons why I am troubled by this occurrence.

First, when we employ the abbreviation R.I.P. we are inevitably admitting a state or condition inseparably linked to the idea of the afterlife. We are not speaking of something indifferent to the truth of the hereafter. Someone might push back at this point, suggesting that R.I.P. is nothing other than a way of expressing appreciation for an individual's life and achievements. However, while certain words and phrases can be fluid in their meaning (e.g. "goodbye" has taken on a different meaning than its Old English sense, "God be with you"), "rest in peace" gives the sense that the deceased are "in a better place"--a place of rest and peace. If we care about the eternal salvation of men, and whether or not they are trusting in Christ alone for eternal life, then we should painstakingly avoid giving the sense that we believe in any form of universalism whatsoever.

Second, as Christians we should revolt at the idea of "praying for the dead," since there is not a single ounce of biblical support for such an idea. By saying "rest in peace," we necessarily run the risk of giving the impression that we are saying a prayer for the deceased--whether for self-professed unbelievers or self-professed believers. This alone ought to give us pause as to whether we should seek to abandon the practice.

Third, the Scriptures teach very clearly the costly nature of both rest and peace. The biblical narrative is one of the redemptive rest that God has promised to provide through the life, death, resurrection, ascension, intercession and return of Christ (Matt. 11:28-30; Hebrews 4:1-10). The eschatological rest that Jesus has purchased for believers comes at the costly price of His blood (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Peter 1:19). Additionally, the Scriptures are clear that there is "no peace for the wicked" (Isaiah 48:22; 57:21). The LORD warned, through the prophets, of the false prophets' message of "Peace, Peace!" when there was no peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that God has purchased peace only "through the blood of the cross" (Col. 1:20). The rest and peace for which we should long--both for ourselves and for those around us--is grounded on the nature of the Person and atoning death of Jesus. If men have spent their lives rejecting the Gospel and have not professed faith in Jesus, we should not be offering them posthumous well wishes. It puts the nature of the exclusivity of Jesus and the Gospel in jeopardy--even if that is not our intention.

This does not mean that believers are to be hasty or uncharitable in the way in which we speak of the death of those who most likely died in unbelief--or that we are to speak in such a way as to indicate that we know with certainty where someone has gone when they have died. Surely, we have comfort and joy when someone who has professed faith in Christ--and in whose life there was fruit that they are in Christ (Matt. 7:16, 20)--departs from this life. It is the great comfort of believers to know that their fellow believers are now "resting in peace," as they "rest in Jesus" (1 Thess. 4:14). The Old Testament speaks of believers as being "gathered to their people" at their death (Gen. 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:29, 33). This is reserved only for believers. It is set in contrast with how the Scriptures speak of unbelievers at their deaths. However, when asked about those who never professed faith in Christ--someone who has spent the better part of his or her life adhering to some particular false religion--we should remember that none of us knows what God the Holy Spirit has done in the hearts of men and women moments prior to their death. None of us knows whether the regenerating grace of God has come at the final moment; and, therefore, we should only now be seeking to warn the living of the wrath to come in order to hold out the hope of redeeming grace in Christ.

In a day when the biblical doctrine of Hell has virtually disappeared from pulpits across the land, and the social conventions of the time demand more seemingly congenial speech than the Scriptures exemplify and require, we should give great personal examination to what we are saying and why we are saying what we are saying. We should weigh the implications of our speech, both in verbal and written form, remembering that the same Jesus who said, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matt. 1:28-29) also said, "for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment" (Matt. 12:36).

Calvin apparently lived with a profound awareness of the potential for death that constantly accompanies us as human beings. In 1.17.10 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Reformer provided a rather sobering catalog of the "innumerable ... deaths that threaten" us in our day to day existence. It's intriguing, and perhaps profitable, to explore that catalog and reflect upon the ways in which our modern (sense of) vulnerability to death measures up to at least one man's (sense of) the same five hundred years ago.

"We need not," Calvin begins, "go beyond ourselves [to discern danger of death]. Since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases ... a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction and without [living] a life enveloped, as it were, with death." No doubt the bubonic plague, which by some accounts destroyed nearly half of Europe's population in the 14th century, figured among the "thousand diseases" Calvin has in mind, even if in his day the plague appeared only in regional outbreaks. Of course, vaccines and antibiotics have recently given humankind the edge over this and many other diseases, but fatal diseases (for example, various forms of cancer) persist, as most of us know only too well.

"For what else would you call it [but 'life enveloped, as it were, with death']," Calvin continues, "when [man] neither freezes nor sweats without danger?"  It's easy to forget, living in our climate controlled environments, how susceptible we actually are as human beings to cold and heat. Apparently humans must retain a body temperature between 70 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit to stay alive, and this requires avoiding any protracted exposure to external temperatures below 40 degrees or above 95, a rather alarming truth given temperatures nearly everywhere on earth that regularly transgress those boundaries. However talented we've become, at least in developed portions of the world, at shielding ourselves from fatal temperatures, we've not discovered ways of making our bodies per se less vulnerable to heat or cold. Extreme temperatures still take lives.

"Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs." Calvin perceived every mode of early modern transport to pose at least some danger of death. I suspect that we as modern folk are more vulnerable to transport-related death than our early modern counterparts. For one thing, we're much more mobile. For another, we've employed our God-given intelligence to develop modes of transport that are surely expedient but only relatively safe, especially when compared with the slow but steady art of walking to one's destination. We insist, for example, in hurtling past one another at insane speeds in small metal boxes, trusting in a pair of thin yellow lines and one another's eyesight and sanity to keep us from fatal collision. Or in launching ourselves 30,000 plus feet in the air, trusting not only in the skill of engineers and pilots (whom we've never met) but also in the ability of mechanics to slow the inevitable progress of the larger metal boxes we fly in towards mechanical failure and (mid-flight) breakdown. And so on. Travel is fatally dangerous, as -- again -- many of us know only too well.

"If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend's, harm awaits." It's intriguing that Calvin anticipates harm -- and especially death -- from a weapon in "your hand" or "a friend's" to the exclusion of other potential weapon-bearers. The danger posed by a weapon in the hand of an enemy is ostensibly so obvious it doesn't even merit mention. Calvin clearly can't be marshalled in defense of that opinion expressed by so many that more guns equals greater safety for everyone. I'm sure many modern Americans will wish to take exception -- whether on the basis of political persuasion, a particular interpretation of the second amendment, or sheer enthusiasm for weapons -- to Calvin's claim that arming one's self equals greater danger than safety, but the reality that legalized, private weapons in America (at least) are much more commonly employed in suicides and accidental deaths than self-defense lends some support to his perspective.

"All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden." I appreciate Calvin's singling out of snakes as particularly dangerous to human beings. It makes me think he might have shared something of my own admittedly neurotic fear of even the most harmless of snakes (just ask my wife). Nothing baffles me more than the choice some people make to keep snakes as pets within their homes. Surely that kind of insanity must be wholly modern in origin.

"Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you." What home owner hasn't experienced this sentiment? Perhaps our modern homes are more structurally sound than early modern buildings were. And, best case scenario, fire alarms alert us to the danger that flames pose to us in our places of residence. But even the most solid of our homes are susceptible to destruction from a number of elements and/or natural disasters. And, thus, so too are we within them.

"I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad." Actually, Calvin, you've not passed over these things. You've just mentioned them. And rightly so. Few realities pose as much danger to us in this fallen world as one another. Historical research into crime and murder in pre-modern times is a fairly recent academic phenomenon, and the initial results may surprise some. The medieval and early modern periods were apparently much more violent than our own modern age. In fact, the western world's overall homicide rate declined rather significantly in the seventeenth-century, and (thankfully) hasn't rebounded. The jury is still out on exactly why, but most scholars believe it was a product of stronger, more centralized states possessing the machinery to deal more effectively with perpetrators of violent crime. On the other hand, aggravated assault and robbery rates did climb significantly during the last several decades of the last century in America (even if the homicide rate remained more or less constant). Whatever the numbers ultimately mean, we're still rather obviously a threat to one another.

"Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck?" Calvin rarely receives criticism for being too cheery. But his real point in highlighting the dangers that folk in his day (and ours) face is not to induce despair. It is, rather, to make us grateful for God's providential care that keeps us from any number of disasters, and permits those (and only those) to reach us which are ultimately for our good. Herein lays great comfort and joy. When "a godly man" comes to understand God's providence, "he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. [...] His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it."

Perhaps, then, regular and sober estimation of the dangers of death surrounding us is in order. Such should finally lead us to grateful and confident reliance upon our Father, who has, after all, wisely determined the boundaries of our existence. And God's providence in our lives, we must remember, is wholly informed by his tender love for us, love evidenced by the fact that he gave us his very Son to suffer true death, alienation from Him, in our stead, and on the basis of the same extends to us the ultimate gift of eternal safety in his own presence.

Andrew Fuller (1754-1815)

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Two hundred years ago today, on the morning of Sunday 7th May 1815 dawned, the sixty one year old Andrew Fuller was grieved that he had not the strength to go and worship his God with his people. As his end approached, so his faith had increased. When his dear friend John Ryland Jr. heard that Fuller had testified to a brother minister, "My hope is such that I am not afraid to plunge into eternity," he declared it the most characteristic expression his friend might have uttered.

Fuller spent his last half-hour seemingly engaged in prayer, though the only words which could be distinctly heard were, "Help me!" He died, said his friend Mr Toller, an Independent minister, "as a penitent sinner at the foot of the cross."

Just a few days before going home, as Fuller considered his approaching death, he was able to write this to Ryland:
I know whom I have believed, and that he is able to keep that which I have committed to him against that day. I am a poor guilty creature; but Christ is an almighty Saviour. I have preached and written much against the abuse of the doctrine of grace; but that doctrine is all my salvation and all my desire. I have no other hope, than from salvation by mere sovereign, efficacious grace, through the atonement of my Lord and Saviour. With this hope, I can go into eternity with composure. Come, Lord Jesus! come when thou wilt! Here I am; let him do with me as seemeth him good!

Smiling through the tears

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There seems to be a growing appetite for funerals that seek to avoid the fact of death. This tendency is developing not only outside but within the church. Typically, the day's business begins with the burial (or, indeed, the cremation), getting the bit in which death cannot be avoided out of the way, and often the bit in which 'religion' might be obliged to intrude at least a little. Then the gathering is able to ditch the serious element and move on to a 'celebration of life' followed not so much by a reception as by a continuation of the celebration in something more like full-on party mode.

I wonder if, for the world, this is just a desperate attempt to avoid the horror and finality of death, a way of not having to face the fact of departure, or of swamping the sorrow of the last goodbye in a wave of sentimental remembrance in which assurances that these memories will never die and that the departed will always be with us figure prominently. Is it an attempt to sentimentalise death and anaesthetise the heart against the miseries of the grave?

When this model intrudes into the church it is even more out of place. Of all people, believers in God through Christ ought to be able to face the facts of death soberly, honestly and joyfully. There is, of course, legitimate scope for the glad remembrance of the one who has gone home, an offering of thanks to God for the blessings received by the departed friend or family member and for the blessings bestowed through him or her. It is a time for facing - often painfully - the sorrows of loss, and the reality that we will not see that face or enjoy that relationship again in this life, and recalling the delights of the friendship we have enjoyed. Yet, at the same time, our sorrow is tempered with the joy that the one lost to us is not lost to God, but has gained Christ in a particular way and has been gained by him in a distinctive sense. We are those who sorrow because we recognise the ravages of sin and its cruel impact, as our Lord did at the grave of Lazarus, but we are those whose hope cannot be dented by death itself, for we know that Christ has triumphed over the grave.

In recent days it has been my privilege to attend Christian funerals that were true to this spirit: they were sober, sorrowful, joyful, hopeful occasions. They were fitting testimonies to the character and priorities of those who have gone before us, they were full of Christ as the Saviour of those who call upon him and from whom not even death can separate his people, and they were opportunities for the saints to express their sorrow and testify to their hope. The death of the saints is precious in the eyes of the Lord, and we ought to make as much of him in our passing as we have in our going. It is the best testimony we can offer to those who are not yet in the kingdom of God.

Let us not, then, as Christians, slide into that sappy sentimentality which looks at anything but the tomb as if we can make it all go away. Let us rather be marked by that sanctified realism and vibrant faith that can look into the grave, mourning over the one who lies there but confident that it will one day be empty, and so smile through the tears.

Hold on Loosely

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The body of my friend Tim Eimer is weakened by what may be a fatal cancer.  His spirit is finding strength in the gospel.  Recently he wrote this practical exhortation:

"In recent years, God has taught me not to hold on to my life so dearly. For what we cling so desperately to, we soon begin to fret and worry about. Fretting and worry lead to fear; fear results in poverty--poverty of spirit and heart and hope. I have been struck this week with the thought of living life generously, of spending my life like the wealthy man that I am because we cannot hoard our days in a bank account or investment. This week I have been writing letters of encouragement, writing furiously in the journals I am leaving to my boys (I'm up to page 115 for each), and pretty much praying without ceasing. As always, I have lavished attention on my sons, but I've looked for every opportunity to praise or give hope to those around me.

"I encourage you to do the same. Spend life generously. If you're a child of God, you are wealthy. Don't grip your life so tightly that you shrink inward and become impoverished and a miser of your days. Move forward today and every day with boldness and laughter and generosity and hope and the power of God's Spirit."