by Archibald Alexander



There is one remaining subject, my dear friends, to which I wish to call your attention. I refer to the solemn event of our departure out of life. Whatever may be uncertain in the future, concerning this there cannot exist the shadow of a doubt. "It is appointed unto men once to die." (Heb 9:27) "I know that you will bring me to the house appointed for all living." (Job 30:23) "The grave is my house." (Job 17:13) But we do not need the voice of revelation to assure us of our mortality: the evidence is daily before our eyes. Hundreds of our race close their eyes in death every day. The grave is never satisfied, nor says, 'It is enough.' Of the thousands of millions who have inhabited this globe, no more than two have escaped the dissolution of the body.

And we are as certain as we can be of anything, that all future generations shall go the same way, until Christ shall suddenly make His glorious appearance, coming in the clouds of heaven, with all His mighty angels. The men who shall then be found upon the earth shall not die—but they shall undergo a transformation equivalent to the death and resurrection of the body. "Behold," says Paul, "Let me tell you a secret. Not all of us will die, but all of us will be changed—in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet. Indeed, that trumpet will sound, and then the dead will be raised never to decay, and we will be changed." (1 Cor 15:51-52) If then the second coming of Christ should occur before our departure from life, we should, indeed, escape a literal death; but we can scarcely cherish the faintest hope of this kind. Prophecy leads us to believe that many ages of the world are still future, and that the most glorious period of the church is to come; when the Gospel shall not only be preached to all nations—but shall be embraced by all; "when the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea". (Isa 11:9)

Death, when viewed merely by the light of nature, is truly an appalling event! It is commonly preceded by disease, or the decrepitude of old age. The separation between the soul and body is usually accompanied with a convulsive struggle, and the appearance of extreme agony; so that "the pangs of death", and "the agonies of death", are familiar phrases among all people. It is manifestly an unnatural event; that is, these constituent parts of human nature do not seem willing to part—but the severance of the one from the other is brought about by the operation of some violent cause. That the soul instinctively and strongly cleaves to its tenement as long as it can, and by every possible means resists the separation, requires no proof. That in some instances this adherence to life is counteracted, so that people voluntarily put an end to this union of soul and body, or desire to leave the body, furnishes no evidence to the contrary: it only shows that it is possible for causes to be put into operation which are even stronger than our attachment to this life.

Besides the pains and agonies of dissolution, there are other circumstances which render death an object abhorrent to human feelings. It is a forcible and everlasting separation from all people and things with which we have been conversant on earth. In it, we take a final leave of our dearest friends and beloved relatives, dear to our hearts as our own lives. Husbands are removed from their wives, parents separated from their children, brothers and sisters must part, friends—who often stick closer than brothers (Prov 18:24)—here have the tenderest bonds sundered. The scenes to which we have long been accustomed, the houses in which we have long dwelt, the churches where we have met the solemn assembly of God's people, must all be left behind. The old man's armchair is left vacant; his place in the house of God is empty; the social circle of which he formed a part is broken; and the work which he was accustomed to perform stands still, or falls into other hands.

And he who departs, leaving behind him numerous attached friends, cannot avoid the foresight of the deep affliction. Already, before his eyes are closed, he sees the mournful group crowding around his dying bed, to catch the last look of affection, to hear the last broken tones of a voice soon to be silent in death. The heartbreaking and tears of affectionate relatives often form one of the most painful circumstances attending the death of a godly man. He might well express his feelings in the language of Paul, on another occasion: "What do you mean by crying and breaking my heart?" (Acts 21:13) But if the dearest friends which the dying man has, attempt to save themselves and him from the almost intolerable pang of separation, by withdrawing from the mournful scene, this, in a very small degree, if at all, mitigates the dreaded pang.

The imagination often paints the scene in more vivid colors than the reality. When the husband, gasping for his last breath, observes the absence of the beloved partner of his joys and sorrows, he knows that she is gone into some secret chamber "to weep there". (John 11:31) And she cannot withdraw into any recess so secluded, as not to seem to hear the deep-drawn sighs and heavy groans, to see the ghastly looks and contortions of him on whom all her earthly reliance has been long placed. I would say then, take her not away from the bedside of the dying husband. Let he hold his trembling cold hand to the last. Let him have the comfort of casting his last look on the object of his tenderest affections.

Pastor Samuel Davies—a name so deservedly loved and revered in Virginia—has a poem, in which he describes the feelings of a husband and wife, tenderly attached in the prospect of the dissolution of either first. But there is not much to choose between the two cases, as far as relates to the parting scene. Those, however, who are left behind are most deserving of compassion. Those who die in the Lord (Rev 14:13) are at once blessed, because they rest from their labors; but they who survive are often burdened with sorrow, and with a desolate heart go mourning all the day, enveloped in the somber weeds of grief, and their heads hang down as the bulrush. It seems to me, however, that the mourning on account of the decease of pious friends ought to be very moderate, and our tears soon dried up. What better can we ask for our friends, than that they might be safely lodged in the bosom of Abraham; where they will enjoy to the full, such "good things" as they could never hope to enjoy in this world?

There is, however, one case of the death of dear relatives, to which the aged especially are liable. This is the departure from life of those in whose end there is no ground for scriptural hope. At the prospect of this judgment my soul has often trembled. May a merciful God avert it from every pious parent! If we were persuaded that we had uniformly done our duty towards our deceased friends, the stroke would not be so heavy; but when remorse for unfaithfulness mingles its bitter streams with the sorrow occasioned by bereavement, the cup must be bitter beyond conception.

On this subject I have met, among professing Christians, with what I consider a fault on both extremes. A venerable clergyman who had lost a beloved son, who never gave any evidence of genuine repentance or faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, was unable to bear up under the reflection that his dear child was in a state of hopeless misery; he therefore sought relief to his agonized mind by cherishing an error contrary to the analogy of his whole system of theology. He said to me, "I cannot bring myself to think that a moral and amiable person, brought up under the Gospel, and assenting to its doctrines, will, by a gracious God, be made eternally miserable in hell, although he may not have experienced the new birth."

O sad necessity, which drives a good man to such a false hope for support and comfort! But this is the practical belief of multitudes of professors. They hold the doctrine of regeneration and its necessity as a matter of creed and theory—but in fact, they believe otherwise. A mirthful young lady, who probably had never spent one half hour in serious thought, was suddenly carried off by an acute disease, which was so rapid and violent in its progress, that little or no opportunity was afforded for conversation with the pastor or pious friends. When some serious person lamented the unprepared state of the deceased, the suggestion was received in a Christian congregation and by nominal Christians with a sort of indignation; as though it was an evidence of uncharitable bigotry to believe one of the plainest doctrines of the Bible.

The other extreme is that of peremptorily deciding upon the case of those who die without having given evidence of a change of heart. This case I will also illustrate by an anecdote which I know to be true. The brother of a zealous preacher of the Gospel came to his end suddenly by being thrown from his horse, by which his brains were knocked out; and it was thought that the young man had been drunk at the time. When the brother above mentioned came to the house, where the corpse was laid out, he raised the covering from the face, and, after a solemn pause, said, with an audible voice, "There lies the senseless body—but the soul is burning in hell!" And this, too, when the room was full of people.

The true doctrine on this subject is that friends may indulge hope in relation to these deceased friends as far as they can consistently with the truth of God; but let no one seek healing for his wounded spirit by "denying the faith". Even when there is no positive evidence of a change, we may resort to the slim possibility that it might have taken place in the last moments; for who has a right to set limits to the mercy of God, when He has not limited Himself? There is great danger, however, of expressing opinions or hopes which may lead careless sinners to indulge in carnal security. It is much better, in such cases, to be silent.

Some ministers, whom I have known, have been so solicitous to keep sinners from delaying repentance that they have inculcated the opinion that a deathbed repentance is not only uncertain—but absolutely ineffectual, and that no hope can be justly entertained for those who never repented until the last hour. It is true that many who on a sickbed appear penitent, when they recover soon lose all their serious impressions and return with renewed avidity to the pursuits of the world. Their repentance is thus proved to have been spurious. But every fit of fear, produced by the near prospect of death, ought not to be called repentance; or at any rate, that repentance which, in Scripture, is connected with the pardon of sin—which is a real change of the views and tempers of the mind—by which a man becomes a new creature, old things having passed away, and all things having become new.

All repentance on a deathbed is not, however, by these instances proved to be spurious, any more than all conversions of people in health are proved to be counterfeit because a great many such are to be met with. I have seen cases of repentance on a deathbed, as satisfactory, and in which I had as much confidence as in any that I have known among those in health, prior to the evidence of a good life. And why should it be supposed that a gracious God will never manifest His power and grace in the conversion of a sinner on a sickbed? If this should once be admitted as a principle, it would be worse than useless for a minister of the Gospel, or any other pious person, to visit an unconverted sinner when on a sickbed, or to give any answer to his most anxious inquiry, "What shall I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30)

I recollect to have heard a preacher solemnly aver from the pulpit, that there was no instance in the Bible of the conversion of an aged sinner. This is another extreme which has no good foundation. One of the most remarkable cases of the conversion of an exceeding great sinner, recorded in the sacred Scriptures, is of an aged man. I refer to the late repentance of king Manasseh. There is no man, of whom mention is made in the sacred volume, to whom a worse character is given, as one that exceeded the worst of the heathen in his abominable idolatries: "Moreover, Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, until he had filled Jerusalem from one end to the other." (2 Kings 21:16) It is true, it is not expressly said that his repentance occurred in his old age—but it may, with strong probability, be inferred from the history. (2 Chron 33:11-20.)

If, among my readers, there should be any aged people who are still impenitent, I would earnestly and affectionately exhort them not to despair of God's mercy; there still may be hope in their case. My dear fellow-sinners, there is nothing in God's Word which excludes you from salvation, unless you voluntarily and obstinately exclude yourselves, by a rejection of the overture of reconciliation. Christ says to you, as much as to others, "You will not come unto me—that you may have life." (John 5:40)

I find that I shall be under the necessity of claiming the old man's privilege of rambling from one subject to another and, in writing to the aged, I hope I shall be excused for my great length of this letter. I have not fulfilled my own purpose, either as to the subject matter or length; and the consequence will be the infliction of another epistle. But before I conclude this, I wish to say that death, viewed in the light of Scripture, exhibits a very different aspect from what it does when viewed by the light of nature, both as it relates to the sinner and the saint. In regard to the former, we are taught in the volume of truth, "that death was introduced by the transgression of man". The penalty of the original law given to man was, "In the day that you eat thereof (that is, of the forbidden fruit) you shall surely die." (Gen 2:17) And when man became guilty, the sentence was pronounced, "Dust you are, and unto dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19) The execution of which penalty has been going on from that day to this, sweeping off generation after generation, until almost every part of the earth is filled with dust which once constituted the bodies of men. Even reason, when soberly consulted, would indicate that death comes as the punishment of sin; for otherwise the transition from one state of existence to another would not, under the government of a good God, be attended with so much pain and fear. But, what reason discovers only in dim perspective, revelation writes as with a sunbeam: "The wages of sin is death." (Rom 6:23) "As by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, so death has passed on all men, for that all have sinned."

On the other hand, true believers are now delivered from the curse of the law, and consequently from death as it is a curse. We may say, therefore, that the righteous shall never taste death; for Christ, the Lord, has solemnly averred, "If a man keeps my words, he shall never see death." (John 8:51) Accordingly, the inspired writers of the New Testament commonly speak of the decease of Christians as a "sleep". "those who sleep in Jesus will God bring with him." (1 Thess 4:14) "We shall not all sleep—but we shall all be changed." (1 Cor 15:51) And of Stephen, it is said, when he "kneeled down, and said with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge, he fell asleep". (Acts 7:60)

But when the word death is retained, it must be understood to have a new sense in relation to the children of God. It is death despoiled of its sting. It is the outward appearance of death, while its nature is entirely changed—so changed, that the curse is converted into a blessing. That which is a rich gain cannot be a curse; but to the sincere follower of Christ, "to die is gain". (Phil 1:21) That which may be lawfully an object of ardent desire, cannot be of the nature of a penalty or curse; but Paul had a desire to depart and be with Christ, and the same desire has been felt by thousands since.

But to cut the matter short, death is placed in the category of the richest blessings. "For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come, all are yours." (1 Cor 3:22) The true Christian, then, has no reason to be appalled at the necessity of entering this darkly shaded valley. Dear friends, if we only approach, holding up the torch of revelation by faith, the dismal gloom which has gathered over the tomb will be immediately dissipated. Faith looks beyond this darkness and across this valley, and beholds a celestial city, the new Jerusalem. Though much indebted to John Bunyan—one of the most prolific geniuses the world ever produced—I cannot easily forgive him for making the passage over Jordan to Canaan so very difficult for Christian. If he had carried out the allegory, he would have turned the swelling waves backward, and have shown a dry path across the stream; for no sooner had the priests, who carried the ark of the testimony, dipped their feet in the brim of the river than—"all the Israelites passed over on dry ground". (Josh 3:17) But, after all, perhaps, the honest tinker drew his picture from the fact; for as Christians seldom enjoy in life the comfort provided for them, so it is analogous that in death they should lack that comfort to which in Christ they are entitled.