“The Mighty Lesson of Dying” (Kuyper)

  In his devotional called To Be Near Unto God, Abraham Kuyper wrote a great meditation on Hebrews 11:21 which says, “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (NIV). The title of the meditation is “Dying He Worshiped.”  The whole devotional is very much worth reading. I won’t quote the whole thing here, but I did want to share one part where Kuyper talks about different ways to die: in faith or in unbelief.  Here’s what he says about dying “quietly and peaceably” without faith in Christ:

Of those who die without Christ it is continually said, that they died equally quietly and calmly; even perhaps with less perturbation of mind, than many a child of God that is harassed by anxiety and doubt. Nothing of a serious nature was said to them. They themselves made no reference to anything. The physician assured them that there was no need of alarm. And so the patient passed quietly away, without having known any terror of death. And others, seeing this, were impressed that there is really nothing to dying; it was all so quiet and gentle. Then came flowers to cover the bier. Visits of condolence are no longer paid. In this way nothing connected with death is spoken of. And when the funeral is over, ordinary matters form the topic of conversation, but not the things that are eternal. And thus the mighty lesson of dying is lost. Death ceases to be a preacher of deeper seriousness. And the Lord of life and of death is not remembered.

This is so true! How many of us have been to funerals where the reality of death is for the most part avoided? How many of us have been at a funeral where nothing deep, significant, or eternal is touched upon, and as Kuyper said, “the Lord of life and of death is not remembered?”  It’s true: in these situations “the mighty lesson of dying is lost.”  Here’s how Kuyper went on:

We, Christians, should not encourage this evil practice. And yet, we do it, when imitating the way of the world we say of such dead that they “peaceably passed away.” Not calmly and peacefully, but fighting and conquering in the Savior, should be the dying bed in the Christian family. He who has not the heart for this, but is careful to spare the patient all serious and disquieting thought, is not merciful, but through unbelief he is cruel.

In other words, when the Christian is talking to people in the context of death, it is cruel unbelief to avoid mentioning the Lord of life and the reality of what lies beyond the grave – eternity.  I’ll end with this next paragraph in the devotional:

In dying Jacob has worshipped. On the death bed one can pray. One can pray for help in the last struggle. Intercession can be made for those that are to be left behind and for the Kingdom of God. By itself such prayer is beautiful. On one’s deathbed to appear before the face of God. This last prayer on earth, when every veil drops away, and the latest supplication is addressed to God, who awaits us in the courts of everlasting light. Such prayer teaches those, who stand by, to pray. Such prayer exerts an overwhelming, fascinating influence.

Abraham Kuyper, To Be Near unto God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans-Sevensma Co., 1918), 286–287.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

End of Life: On Refusing Treatment (Meilaender)

 Tragically, it happens: we are diagnosed with an illness or condition that means death is inevitable sooner rather than later.  To knowingly face death is one of the hardest things in life, and it leads to some very difficult choices.  Should we undergo treatment(s) trying to prolong life?  Or should we forego them and perhaps better enjoy the short time we have left?  This isn’t a black-and-white ethical area.  There are various factors that lead Christians to different decisions in this area.

I like Gilbert Meilaeander’s wisdom here.  In chapter seven of Bioethics: A Primer for Christians he talks about refusing treatment.  The entire chapter is very much worth reading, but since I can’t put it all here, I’ll summarize:

“On the one hand, we ought not choose death or aim at death.  But on the other hand, neither should we act as if continued life were the only, or even highest good.  It is not a god, but a gift from God.  Thus, we should neither aim at death nor continue the struggle against it when its time has come.  ‘Allowing to die’ is permitted; killing is not.”

“If I commit suicide (an am of sound mind), I intend to die.  I aim at my death or choose death.  But, of course, there might be occasions when, if I refuse a certain treatment, I will also die.  Are they therefore morally equivalent?  Is treatment refusal the same as the forbidden suicide?  Although they could sometimes be morally equivalent – I could refuse treatment so that I will die – they need not be.  To see why we must think about the aim and the result of the action.”

“[For example] a soldier may charge the enemy, knowing that he faces almost certain death in so doing.  He does not thereby commit suicide.  He does not choose to die, even though he foresees that death is the likely, perhaps almost certain, result of his action.  …Dying is not part of his plan of action, just its very likely result.”

“This distinction between an act’s aim and its result is crucial to bear in mind when we consider decisions to refuse or withdraw treatment.  The result of such decisions may be that death comes more quickly than it might have.  Nevertheless, the fact that we ought not aim at death for ourself or another does not mean that we must always do everything possible to oppose it.  Life is not our god, but a gift of God; death is a great evil, but not the ultimate evil.”

“There may come a time, then, when it is proper to acknowledge death and cease to oppose it.  Our aim in such circumstances is to care for the dying person as best we can.  …Because life is not our god, we need not accept all burdens – no matter how great – in order to stay alive.  …Treatment may be refused or withdrawn when it is either useless or excessively burdensome.  In either of those instances, refusal of treatment is not the forbidden suicide or euthanasia.”

These are just a few highlights of an excellent chapter that gives some ethical Christian wisdom on when to accept treatment and when to refuse it.  If you have – or are – wrestling with this difficult decision, I very much recommend Meilaender’s contribution in Bioethics.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Dear Christian: Do Not Fear Death

Thomas Brooks (d. 1680) wrote a booklet in 1657 called A String of Pearls.  This booklet is based on a funeral message he gave and it contains some reflections on the death of a saint (based on 1 Peter 1:4).  Below is a brief section of this booklet where Brooks gives reasons why Christians do not need to fear death.  This section – which has much to do with the perseverance of the saints – can be found on pages 451 and following of Brooks’ Works, volume 1.  (I’ve reworded these a bit to keep them brief and more readable for this blog post).

Why don’t you, dear Christian, need to fear death?

1) Because death cannot dissolve that glorious union that is between you and Christ (Rom. 8:35-39).  As it is impossible for the leaven that is in the dough to be separated from the dough after it is once mixed…so it is impossible, either in life or death, for the saints ever to be separated from Christ.

2) Because death cannot dissolve or untie that marriage-knot that is knit by the Spirit on Christ’s side, and by faith on your side, between Christ and your soul (Hos. 2:19-20).  Sin cannot dissolve that marriage-knot that is knit between Christ and a believer; and if sin cannot, then certainly death, which came in by sin, cannot.

3) Because death cannot dissolve that glorious covenant that God has taken you into.  No, death can never dissolve that covenant (Jer. 32:40).  Dear hearts!  The covenant remains firm and good between you and the Lord both in life and in death.

4) Because death cannot dissolve that love between the Lord and your soul (Ps. 116:15, Deut. 7:7-8).  Death cannot dissolve the bond of love, for his love is not founded upon any worth or excellency in me, nor upon any work or service done by me, but his love is free; he loves because he will love.  His love is everlasting; it is like himself (Jer. 31:3).

5) Because death cannot dissolve those gracious grants (those grants of grace) that the Lord has vouchsafed to you: the grant of reconciliation, the grant of acceptance, the grant of justification, the grant of adoption, the grant of forgiveness, etc.  No, death cannot dissolve any of these gracious grants (2 Cor. 3:21-23, Rom. 11:29).

This echoes the biblical truth captured by the Heidelberg Catechism in answer 42: “Our death does not pay the debt of our sins.  Rather, it puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life.”

rev shane lems
hammond, WI
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)

Death: Not A Passing Away

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way Though I don’t want to become a word nazi, I believe the term “passing away” is neither a good nor helpful way to speak of death.  Because of its use in Eastern mystical religions and because of its checkered religious  history in Western culture, I try to avoid the term and simply say “death” or “died” instead.  Here’s how Michael Horton explains it.

“…Death is not ‘passing away,’ and it is certainly not an illusion.  For believers, it is ‘the last enemy’ that must be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26).  We share in Christ’s death and therefore also in his life (Rom. 6:1-12; Phil. 3:10).  Therefore, by looking to our head, we already know the outcome of this struggle, and so there is no reason for believers to fear death’s ultimate triumph (Ps. 23:4, Heb. 2:15, Rom. 8:38-39, etc.).  For unbelievers, this death is merely the harbinger of ‘the second death’: everlasting judgment (Rev. 20:14).

“Part of the curse is the separation of soul from body (Gen. 2:17, 3:19, 22; Rom. 5:12, 8:10, 1 Cor. 15:21).  Death is an enemy, not a friend (1 Cor. 15:26) and a terror (Heb. 2:15), so horrible that even the one who would triumph over it was overcome with grief, fear, and anger at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:33-36).  Jesus did not see death as a benign deliverer, the sunset that is as beautiful as the sunrise, or as a portal to ‘a better life.’  Looking death in the eye, he saw it for what it was, and his disciples followed his example.  After the deacon’s martyrdom, we read, ‘Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him’ (Acts 8:2).”

“The reason that believers do not mourn as those who have no hope (1 Thes. 4:13) is not that they know that death is good, but that they know that God’s love and life are far more powerful than the jaws of death.  Although believers, too, feel its bite, Christ has removed the sting of death (Jn 14:2-4, Phil. 1:21, 1 Cor. 15:54-57, etc.).  That is because ‘the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to god, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 15:56-57).  Downplaying the seriousness of the foe only trivializes the debt that was paid and the conquest that was achieved at the cross and empty tomb” (p. 911).

This quote was taken from Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

shane lems

Go to Hell, Death!

  There are few things I hate worse than death.  Though the thought of it doesn’t fill me with terror, I hate it with every fiber of my Christian being.  Death is just not right; it is not the way things should be.  I can’t wait for the day when Jesus comes back to destroy death once-and-for-all (1 Cor. 15.54-57).  I’ll sing that death-taunting hymn with all my might: “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?!”  On this topic of death, I trust you’ll appreciate these words by R. C. Sproul as he comments on Rev. 1.17-18.

“Yes, there is a Devil.  He is our archenemy.  He will do anything in his power to bring misery into our lives.  But Satan is not sovereign.  Satan does not hold the keys of death.” … Jesus holds the keys to death, and Satan cannot snatch those keys out of his hand.  Christ’s grip is firm.  He holds the keys because he owns the keys.  All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.  That includes all authority over life and death.  The angel of death is at his beck and call.”

Sproul moves on by talking about dualism – the teaching that there is an eternal battle between good (or God) and evil (or Satan).  He then explains that,

“Dualism is on a collision course with Christianity.  The Christian faith has no stock in dualism.  Satan may be opposed to God, but he is by no means equal to God.  Satan is a creature; God is the Creator.  Satan is potent; God is omnipotent.  Satan is knowledgeable and crafty; God is omniscient.  Satan is localized in his presence, God is omnipresent.  Satan is finite; God is infinite.  The list could go on.  But it is clear in Scripture that Satan is not an ultimate force in any sense.”

“We are not doomed to an ultimate conflict with no hope of resolution.  The message of Scripture is one of victory – full, final, and ultimate victory.  It is not our doom that is certain, but Satan’s.  His head has been crushed by the heel of Christ, who is the Alpha and the Omega.”

“Above all suffering and death stands the crucified and risen Lord.  He has defeated the ultimate enemy of life.  He has vanquished the power of death.  He calls us to die, a call to obedience in the final transition of life.  Because of Christ, death is not final.  It is a passage from one world to the next.”

Well said, Amen, and maranatha! 

FYI, Sproul’s quote can be found on pages 50-51 of Surprised by Suffering: The Role of Pain and Death in the Christian Life.

shane lems

Hauerwas on Death

Cross-Shattered Church, A, Stanley Hauerwas, 978-1-58743-258-3

“We live in a death-denying world that seems determined to develop technologies that will enable us to get out of life alive.  Yet the more we strive to be free of death the more we are shaped by the death-determined means we create to try to free ourselves of death.  Even more paradoxical, the means we use to free ourselves from death only serve to increase our isolation from one another.  We fear the loneliness we think death entails, but it turns out that the loneliness we fear death entails is the expression of the loneliness made unavoidable by our attempts to avoid death.”

“Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead.  But Lazarus is still to die.  We are still to die.  Jesus, by contrast, has been raised never again to die.  His death makes possible a communion that overwhelms the loneliness our sin creates.  Our God has made his home among the mortals by assuming our deadly flesh so that we might be made friends of Jesus and even one another.  Such friendship means we rightly mourn the loss of friends, yet we can rejoice in the knowledge that the living and the dead share the common reality of this new city, a city of the martyrs, the New Jerusalem.”

Stanley Hauerwas, A Cross Shattered Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009), 87.

shane lems

New Books of Note

Next week I’ll be on a short sabbatical, so along with enjoying family time and a hike in the Snoqualmie national forest (fighting the snow?), I’ll be spending time reading Bernard of Clairvaux, Blaise Pascal, Ralph Venning, and Marva Dawn; I’ll probably just do a few blogs on Bernard and Blaise.  For now, I want to point out a some newer books that I’m interested in.  (Sorry for the horrible formatting…I tried to fix it a few times, but finally gave up.)

 This biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxes looks great.

This one on dying well looks solid as well; it’s by Rob Moll.

Based on John Fesko’s other books, this brief commentary on Ecclesiastes looks like a good one to have if you’re studying or preaching through Qoheleth. 


Though it isn’t a new release, I saw that Westminster Seminary California now has Concordia in stock.  This is an essential book if you want to learn what Lutherans confess. 

If you liked “Why Johnny Can’t Preach,” you’ll probably like this one by Gordon that is coming out soon. 


Finally, since I deeply appreciate Don Carson’s work, this new one by him will be on my shelves in the next few months. 

Stay tuned for some Bernard and Pascal!

shane lems

sunnyside wa