“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

“I AM”

I appreciate the following words from Ravi Zacharias (emphasis his):

“At the heart of every major religion is a leading exponent.  As the exposition is studied, something very significant emerges.  There comes a bifurcation, or a distinction, between the person and the teaching.  Mohammed, to the Koran.  Buddha, to the Noble Path.  Krishna, to his philosophizing.  Zoroaster, to his ethics.”

“Whatever we make of their claims, one reality is inescapable.  They are teachers who point to their teaching or show some particular way.  In all of these, there emerges an instruction, a way of living.  It is not Zoroaster to whom you turn.  It is Zoroaster to whom you listen.  It is not Buddha who delivers you; it is his Noble Truths that instruct you.  It is not Mohammed who transforms you; it is the beauty of the Koran that woos you.”

“By contrast, Jesus did not only teach or expound his message.  He was identical with his message.  ‘In Him,’ say the Scriptures, ‘dwelt the fullness of the Godhead bodily.’  He did not just proclaim the truth.  He said, ‘I am the truth.’  He did not just show a way.  He said, ‘I am the way.’  He did not just open up vistas.  He said, ‘I am the door.”  ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’  ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’  ‘I am the I AM.’

“In Him is not just an offer of life’s bread.  He is the bread.  This is why being a Christian is not just a way of feeding and living.  Following Christ begins with a way of relating and being.”

Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), 89-90.

shane lems

Only the Gospel…

In a sermon on Proverbs 11:30, in 1787, John Newton explained the power of the gospel – the good news that Jesus died and rose to save sinners.  While the law commands, the gospel comforts:

“The Gospel removes difficulties insuperable to human power.  It causes the blind to see, the deaf to hear; it softens the heart of stone and raises the dead in trespasses and sins to a life of righteousness.  No force but that of the Gospel is sufficient to remove the mountainous load of guilt from an awakened conscience, to calm the violence of tumultuous passions, to raise an earthly soul from groveling in the mire of sensuality or greed, to a spiritual and divine life, a life of communion with God.”

“No system but the Gospel can communicate motives, encouragements, and prospects, sufficient to withstand and counteract all the snares and temptations with which the spirit of this world, by its frowns or its smiles, will endeavor either to intimidate or to bribe us from the path of duty.  But the Gospel, rightly understood and cordially embraced, will inspire the slothful with energy and the fearful with courage.  It will make the miser generous, melt the churl [rude person] into kindness, tame the raging tiger in the breast, and, in a word, expand the narrow selfish heart and fill it with a spirit of love to God, a cheerful and unreserved obedience to his will, and benevolence to mankind.”

“…The Gospel, then, is a message from God.  It stains the pride of human glory, and, without regarding the petty distinctions which obtain among men, with respect to character or ranks, it treats them all as sinners in the sight of God, and under the power of depravity strengthened by habit.  As such, it points them to a Savior; it invites and enjoins them to apply to him, to submit to him, and to put their whole trust in him, to renounce all pleas of their own, and to plead his name and his atonement for their pardon and acceptance.  It promises to all who thus plead, that the Holy Spirit of God will visit them, dwell in them, and abide with them, to enable them, by his gracious influence, both to will and to do according to his good pleasure.”

Therefore, we should never be ashamed of the gospel, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

The above quotes are found on pages 198-199 & 202 of volume 5 in Newton’s Works.

rev shane lems

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

Preaching: Faith and Repentance

Do you hear the clear call to faith in Christ and repentance from sin frequently in your church’s preaching?  If not, why not?  Christian preaching should have frequent and clear calls to faith in Jesus as well as repentance from the wickedness in our hearts.  I love how Herman Bavinck said this.  Notice how he says the call to faith and repentance has everything to do with the covenant of grace.

“For this reason [the truth of the covenant of grace] congregational preaching ought never to omit the serious summons to faith and repentance.  Proceeding on the basis of the covenant [of grace] does not exempt the preacher from that, but rather it is precisely this that obligates him to issue such a summons.  That obligation is derived not first of all from the presumption that all elect persons already in their first days of life even before baptism have been regenerated, and this obligation applies not only with reference to those who in their childhood are supposedly regenerate.  But this obligation is grounded in the covenant of grace, as it has spread historically throughout the human race under God’s leading, and includes all Christians and their children, and it applies with reference to them all together, whether or not they were already regenerated in the earliest days of life.”

“For no matter how inestimably great the blessings already are that God bestows upon us when from our birth we are included in the covenant, born in a Christian church to Christian parents, baptized with holy baptism, and nurtured in a Christian family – all these blessings are still not enough.  Each person is confronted with the obligation of personal, saving faith; only one who believes in the Son has eternal life.”

“Whether the church already presumes that all its members are believers, or, being unable to judge the human heart, the church must be satisfied with an outward confession and walk and base its response on all these – all of this in no way detracts from the truth that each must examine and test himself, and that no one, whether inside or outside the church, will enter the kingdom of heaven unless he is born again of water and Spirit.  Not the church, and not the minister of the Word, but only God in heaven brings about salvation.”

“[A pastor’s] sermons should continue…warning of the need for self-examination, so that people do not deceive themselves for eternity.  Biblical sermons seriously summon church members to faith and conversion both initially and continually, for only those who believe will be saved.”

I realize such preaching can sound offensive so many American churches will not preach it.  The rationale is that telling people they are hell worthy sinners who must repent of the deep sins in their heart and flee to Jesus in faith – telling people harsh things like that will certainly anger the larger donors and make quite a few people leave.  But the truth of the matter is this: if a church doesn’t preach repentance and faith, she is not a loving church, for she does not care enough about people to tell them life-and-death truth.  If a church doesn’t preach repentance and faith, she can call herself many things, but she cannot call herself an apostolic, biblical church.  Please, if your church doesn’t preach clear and consistent calls to repentance and faith, prayerfully approach the leadership.  If that doesn’t work over time, you really need to find a church that preaches these things clearly and consistently.  It is not about preferences and likes; it is not a matter of putting up with some church deficiencies for denominational reasons; it is a matter of eternal life or death.  If your pastor cannot look his congregation in the eye and tell them that they will go to hell if they do not repent and believe in Jesus, he is not worthy of the title “pastor.”

(The great quote from Bavinck is found in his excellent book, Saved by Grace, pages 126-7.)

shane lems

sunnyside wa

The Suffering of Christ

 Here’s a small section of William Ames’ (d. 1633) commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 15.

“The Lord Christ suffered all the evil penalties that were owed to us on account of sins.”

“He suffered every kind of evil, as much spiritually as corporeally [bodily], in agony and horror of soul.”

“He suffered from all the people by whom any kind of evil can be inflicted.”

“He suffered from the powers of darkness and of hell, which were murderers from the beginning and authors of all the evils that Christ suffered by their instruments.”

“He suffered from God personally, whose full chalice of wrath he drained.”

“He suffered in every part of his person and in every way he could suffer.  He suffered spiritual horrors and indescribable sorrows.  In his body, he suffered hunger, thirst, nudity, wounds, being spat on, being striken, and whatever ingenious wickedness and cruelty could be invented.”

What is the practical application of Christ’s sufferings?

“For direction, so that by meditating on the suffering of Christ continuously we may not pass by God’s singular and incomprehensible goodness, grace, love, mercy, justice, and wisdom, by which he sent his own eternal Son to suffer such things for us and for our salvation, and, likewise, so that we may not pass by the abundant grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered so many great things for our sake.”

Though this commentary is a bit different from you’d expect, it is an outstanding resource on the Heidelberg Catechism.  My many thanks go out to Reformation Heritage Books for publishing these solid books in a day where most publishers only publish the latest cash-cow fads and trends of evangelicalism.  Speaking of RHB, I have my eye on the Witsius set (Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, Apostle’s Creed, and The Economy of the Covenants).  In case you’re interested, it is only $70 right now.  I also contacted RHB and they informed me that the set is not a new typecast, but a re-publication of the older fonts/typecast.  Still, it is a treasure trove of Christian theology.

shane lems

shane lems

The Happiness of Heaven

Here’s a great little booklet that summarizes the biblical teaching of heaven in a readable and edifying manner: The Happiness of Heaven by Maurice Roberts (Darlington: EP Books, 2009). In just over 100 pages, Roberts discusses the following: belief in heaven/hell, heaven’s creation, heaven and sin/salvation, children and heaven, heaven after death, the glorified body, the ‘place’ of heaven, and the beauty of heaven.  Thankfully, there’s also a handy Scripture reference at the end (which far too many books leave out!).  Here’s a nice excerpt that summarizes the main thrust of the book (from p. 41).

“We are told by many modern scholars that preaching the blood of Christ is old-fashioned and unappealing.  It is the theology of the slaughter-market, they say.  But let us be certain that there is no other way back to heaven for sinful men than the one that God has provided through the death of his Son.”

“Those who do not enter by this door but try to climb up some other way will be regarded as thieves and robbers.  They will find heaven’s door shut to them.  Only those who humbly glory in Christ’s cross will come home to God in heaven and be saved to sin no more.”

This is a perfect little book to give to older Christians who need a brief ‘primer’ on what the Bible says about heaven.  It isn’t too dense and difficult; in some ways it is like a summary of Cornelis Venema’s Promise of the Future (another outstanding resource, by the way!).  As a pastor, I get quite a few questions about heaven from the older saints – this is one book I give out to help answer many of those questions.

Many thanks to the kind folks at EP for this review copy.

shane lems