The Banks of the River
"Now I further saw that between the pilgrims and the gate of the city was a river; but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep. At the sight of this river the pilgrims were much stunned; but the men that went with them said, "You must go through, or you cannot come in at the gate." The pilgrims then began to despond in their minds, and looked this way and that — but no way could be found by them, by which they might escape the river."
Ah, how true and how touching is this description of the emotions which are often excited in the Christian pilgrim's heart as he stands on the banks of the river! He fears to cross its deep, dark waters; he shrinks from the strange, and, it may be, the stormy passage to eternity. Oh, if he could but reach the celestial city without having to cross the stream of death!
It cannot be. When the summons for his departure arrives, he must enter that cold flood and meet its terrors. None can disregard the call, nor choose any other mode of transit. "It is appointed unto men once to die."
Yet why should the Christian be afraid? Solemn and mysterious as the last change undoubtedly is, even to the child of God — he may rest assured that a wise and loving Savior will shield him from every danger, and guide him in safety through it. And if Christ himself is with him then — if his rod and staff support and comfort him, what evil can he fear?
Aged reader, as you gaze upon the river which rolls between you and the promised land, is your mind filled with gloom and apprehension? Is it not because you look only at death? You do not at the same time fix the eye of faith upon your Savior. You seem to think that, unaided and alone, you will have to struggle through its waves, instead of joyfully remembering his promise, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you." Oh! he who lays hold upon this sweet assurance, may safely shut his eyes, and leave himself to the entire disposal of infinite love, and faithfulness, and wisdom.
Does nature recoil from the physical suffering of the last mortal conflict? It is true that the pains of death are sometimes so severe as to occasion the deepest distress and anguish; but in the greater number of instances, how easy and tranquil are the closing moments of life! How many pass from time to eternity as calmly as an infant falling asleep on its mother's bosom!
But should it be otherwise — should your dying hour be one of extreme suffering — is not the manner as well as the time of your departure hence, appointed by your Heavenly Father? and will he allow you to be tried above that which you are able to bear? He knows your frame; he remembers that you are dust, and feels the tenderest parental compassion for those who fear him; and therefore you may be assured that the trials which his love ordains, whether in life or in death, are necessary trials, and that he will give you support under them. And if your strength is proportioned to your burden, is it not the same in effect as if that burden were removed?
Listen to the testimony of an eminent minister of Christ, whose sufferings were intense — but whose spirit was filled with rejoicing in the midst of them: "I have suffered twenty times as much as I could in being burnt at the stake; but my joy in God so abounded as to render my sufferings not only tolerable — but welcome. The sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed. God is my all. While he is present with me, no event can in the least diminish my happiness; and were the whole world at my feet trying to minister to my comfort, they could not add one drop to the cup. Death comes every night, and stands at my bedside in the form of terrible convulsions, until every bone is almost dislocated with pain; yet while the body is thus tortured, the soul is perfectly happy and peaceful — more happy than I can possibly express to you."
How easily might we multiply proofs like these — proofs of God so sustaining and elevating the soul of the believer above the pressure of physical suffering as that it was comparatively unheeded and unfelt! And can he not do the same, reader, for you? Is not his grace sufficient for you as well as for others? Oh, trust yourself to him; repose with confidence upon his promises; and believe that in a dying hour, your support shall be equal to your need. Do not test your preparedness for that hour, by the strength and comfort which you now possess — but by the solemn engagement which Christ has made never to leave nor forsake you. He is with you now, to help you to glorify him by your life; when death comes he will be with you then, and help you to glorify him by your death. Dying grace will not be given until a dying hour; you do not need it now — but it will be abundantly given then. Wait for it in faith.
"Death is somewhat dreary," said Bishop Cowper to his weeping friends, "and the streams of that Jordan which is between us and our Canaan run furiously; but they stand still when the ark comes."
But perhaps your anxiety respecting death is occasioned by the thought of the separation which must take place between the soul and the body. You dread the entrance upon an unknown and untried state of existence. It is not what you know — but what you do not know of the future, which causes your distress. If anyone could return from the unseen world, and tell you exactly what he experienced in the moment of his departure from earth, and clearly describe to you the sensations which he felt when he found himself absent from the body — your mind, you think, would be relieved of much of its disquietude. But it is the uncertainty, the blank, the mystery lying before, in the solemn distance, at which you tremble. Like a child in the dark, because you cannot see, you are afraid. The imaginary objects which fill you with fear and trepidation, would disappear if there were light enough to reveal to you the true state of things.
Why, then, you ask, is that light withheld? Could not God have unfolded to us in his Word the nature of our future existence, and the mode of our introduction to it? He must have foreseen the suspense and the agitation which would arise through our ignorance, and yet he has not sought to allay our fears by a clearer and fuller revelation of things to come. Why is it? The fact of God's silence upon this point, is a sufficient reply. We may be sure, since he is Love, that the knowledge which he has reserved is neither requisite nor desirable for us. It is probable that, in our present state of existence, we could not comprehend more than he has already told us about another world, or the full blaze of light which we desire, had it been granted, might have proved injurious to us. We are as yet only in the infancy of our being, and do not know what is best for us; but our Maker knows, and he has acted accordingly. He has said enough to awaken curiosity, to enkindle desire, to inspire hope, to encourage confidence and expectation; and we must wait for the rest.
God calls us to honor him by our faith, by our belief, at all times and under all circumstances — in his wisdom and goodness. It is as though we were allowed to give to the universe a proof of the firmness of our dependence upon him, such as no Heavenly spirits can give, to show that we are not afraid to trust him even when he bids us to die. Oh, shall we not willingly prove how unshaken is our reliance on his love, by resigning ourselves in the hour of death, without one fear, to his care? The way before us is dark and mysterious — but we will cheerfully follow where he leads us. And how gently, how tenderly will he lead us! The act of dying which we so greatly fear, may be a gentle and painless slumber — a quiet falling asleep in Christ; and the light of eternity will dawn upon us like the tranquil beams of the morning which now gladden our waking eyes.
There is, it is true, something strange and inexplicable in the idea of our existence without a body; we are apt to imagine that a disembodied spirit must at first feel as it were unclothed and unprotected. But it is a mistake to suppose that the soul owes its defense from external harms and hardships, to the body in the same manner as the body does to the clothes it wears. The very contrary is true. It is here exposed to many more harms and hardships by means of its union with the mortal body; and, consequently, its disunion from the body, will be its freedom from them. The operations and conceptions of the liberated soul will be inconceivably more perfect, free, and unbiased than they now are, while subject to so many impediments and interruptions from its connection with animal nature. This is evident from the fact that even now we find our soul in the best frame for thinking — when it is least affected by the body. How rapid, how strong, how clear, then, will be the flow of its thoughts when they meet with nothing from without to obstruct them!
The dread of death, however, may arise from other causes. It may result from apprehensions as to our eternal happiness. We fear, sometimes, whether our names are written in the Lamb's book of life — whether we have any warrant to look forward to a participation in everlasting joys; and therefore we cannot bear the thought of meeting our Judge face to face, and would gladly retard the moment when our everlasting destiny must be fixed. Were we sure that there was a mansion prepared for us, and a crown of glory laid up for us in Heaven — oh we would not mind passing through the river of death, even though its waters were deep and tempest-tossed. But how can we be sure?
What says the Scripture? "There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." "He who believes on the Son has everlasting life." "I am the living bread which came down from Heaven: if any man eat of this bread — he shall live forever." "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish." "I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there you may be also."
But as precious as these assertions are, they do not exactly relieve our distress. Our fear is not whether true believers are everlastingly saved — but whether we are among their number. We hope we are — but it is so easy to deceive ourselves; we may be mistaken; and how terrible to awake in eternity and find ourselves excluded from the bliss of the redeemed, beyond the possibility of change; for, what we are then — we must be forever!
Our dread, then, of death — or rather of the consequences of death — may be traced to the weakness of our faith or to imperfect views of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It cannot, therefore, be removed until our faith becomes stronger and our views clearer. We must study the Word which God has given us, and ask for the teaching of his Spirit, that we may be enabled to understand and to apply to ourselves the heart-cheering truth, "Christ is all, and in all!" "You are complete in him!" We must strive to lay aside the reasonings, the prejudices, and the unbelief of our own hearts, and receive with simplicity and thankfulness the full and free promises of our Savior. As we become better acquainted with that loving Savior, and understand more perfectly the design of his all-sufficient atonement — our anxious forebodings about the future will gradually pass away as the gloom of midnight fades before the rising sun, and the God of hope will fill us with all joy and peace in believing.
It will tend to mitigate the alarm with which we regard the solemn change of death, if we look at it in its true character, as a continuance of the present, rather than as the commencement of a new state of existence. Heaven and Hell are not so much the reward (using the word in its scriptural sense) of our past life — as the necessary consequence of it. It will be what we are, not where we are, which will constitute our felicity or our woe; and therefore if we are conscious now that we love the Savior and trust in him, and follow after holiness, or even that we heartily desire and strive to do this — is it not plain that we have within us the germ of true happiness — a heart that is touched with the love of Christ, and longs for conformity to his likeness? With this principle implanted in our hearts, how could we be forever miserable? It is impossible! not only because God will never falsify his own Word, nor condemn those who put their trust in his Son — but because the elements of lasting peace and joy are already ours. "He who believes on the Son has — not shall have — everlasting life." Meditate on this declaration, dear reader, and take the consolation which it is calculated to impart to all who are placing their reliance upon the atonement of Christ.
But in the contemplation of a dying hour, a tender and affectionate spirit is sometimes deeply affected at the prospect of parting with beloved relatives and friends. There are some, perhaps, to whom we are a solace and a support, who have always been accustomed to lean upon us in their weary march of life, and to look to us for counsel and sympathy; how will they do without us? how can we leave them to struggle on alone and sorrowful? Or there are others for whose salvation we are deeply concerned, and over whose wanderings we often shed bitter tears; how shall we bear to take our farewell — it may be our last farewell — of them? How keen will be the anguish of our dying hour as we reflect that they are still unchanged, unsaved, and that we dare not cherish the hope of meeting them again!
Oh how painful are the separations of the grave! How hard it is to sever, if only for a few years, the ties which bind us so closely to the dear ones around us! Many Christians, aged Christians too — for old age does not quench the ardency of the affections — can respond to the touching desire of a youthful disciple of the Savior: "Oh, mamma! I wish we could all die and go to Heaven together!"
Yet why should you dwell only on the dark side of the picture? It may never be presented to you. Your Heavenly Father, in his compassion for your weakness, may spare you the sorrow which you anticipate. You may pass away from this life as in a quiet slumber.
"Nor bear a single pang at parting;
Nor see the tear of sorrow starting;
Nor hear the quivering lips that bless you;
Nor feel the hands of love that press you."
Or, if not — if fully conscious in your last moments that you are parting from those whom you love — God will so strengthen and animate your dying spirit, as that you shall be enabled with calmness, nay, with cheerfulness, to resign the objects of your affection to his merciful guidance and protection. You will feel that he who has watched over you so many years in the wilderness, and brought you safely through every danger, can surely do as much for those whom you are leaving behind; that he who has taught you to pray so earnestly and so perseveringly for their spiritual welfare, will not allow your prayers to remain unanswered, although he calls you home before you have witnessed their fulfillment. And you will also realize your happy and speedy re-union with your dear friends in another world. Death will not long divide you; the remainder of their appointed time on earth will pass rapidly away as a tale that is told, and then you will meet them again — meet to part no more!
"With the prospect of meeting forever,
With the bright gates of Heaven in view,
From the dearest on earth we may sever,
And smile a delightful adieu."
Aged believer, you are standing now on the banks of the river; fear not, only believe. Remember that one of the reasons why Jesus Christ manifested himself in human nature, was for the express purpose of dispelling that gloom which naturally overspreads the mind as we look upon the dark waters of death. "Forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." Then seek deliverance from that fear, and expect deliverance. Christ suffered not in vain; all the purposes of his death have been fully accomplished; and he would have his people even now to participate in his triumph; and without waiting for the actual encounter, to join in the ascription of the apostle, "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!" Then
"Shudder not to pass the stream,
Venture all your care on him —
Him whose dying love and power
Still'd its tossing, hushed its roar.
Not one object of his care
Ever suffered shipwreck there;
See the haven full in view;
Love divine shall bear you through!"
Is it granted to you to possess that strong faith, that calm assurance which elevates the mind above the fear of death? Can you say with gladness, "The time of my departure is at hand: I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord the righteous Judge shall give me at that day!" Thank your Savior for this glorious hope — this hope which is as an anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast — for he is its author and its bestower. It is because he has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, that you are now enabled to look forward with composure to your conflict with the last foe, and triumphantly to ask, "O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?"
Well may you rejoice, for your life is hid with Christ in God, and you are safe forever — safe amidst the infirmities and perils of old age; safe in the swelling waters of Jordan; safe when you stand before the solemn judgment-seat; yes, safe throughout eternity.
Nothing in earth or Hell can separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, or pluck you from the grasp of your ever-living Savior! He upholds and comforts you now in the evening of life; and by-and-by, leaning upon his arm, you shall come down to the river. Not a ripple shall be on its bosom; its clear waters shining in Heaven's own light shall allure to the crossing. His feet shall but touch the stream, and, lo, a way for the ransomed to pass over. "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord!" "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints!"
But our remarks about the river of death have been addressed to true Christians; are you, reader, one of their number? If not, you have no right to appropriate to yourself the consolations which are designed only for them. There is no sight more painful than that of an aged individual on the borders of the grave, on the threshold of eternity — unrenewed, unsanctified, and yet undismayed by the terrors of the future, and confident of the joys of Heaven. May God preserve us from so fearful a delusion! "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap!" A life of carelessness, of worldliness, or of self-righteousness — cannot prepare us for a life of glory.
"Except a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." "He who believes not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abides on him!" "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord!" A change of heart, faith in Christ, the fruits of holiness — are the precursors of the believer's assurance of eternal felicity; what do you know of them in your own experience? Examine yourself, whether you are in the faith, or whether you have only a name to live, while you are dead.
The absence of alarm, or even the possession of joy, as you draw near to death and eternity — is not of itself an indication of safety. It may be but the deadly calm before an awful tempest; a fatal slumber on the edge of a frightful precipice. 'Ignorance' trembled not when he came to the river-side and prepared to cross it; he got over it with less difficulty than Christian, for one 'Vain Hope' helped him with his boat; but when he reached the other side, the King commanded his servants to bind him hand and foot, and to cast him into outer darkness!
Yet while this should warn the presumptuous and the self-confident, it should not discourage the awakened sinner who feels that life is receding beneath his tread, and that his feet have as yet found no sure resting-place. The language of the gospel is language of peace to all who really desire salvation from the peril and the dominion of sin. "Come unto me," says the Savior whom it proclaims, "all you that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." It is never too late to turn to him, to seek forgiveness at his cross. God's promises of salvation are made without exception of time; for whenever a sinner repents of his sins, he has promised to put away his wickedness out of remembrance. They are made without exception of sins; for, "The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin;" and, "All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men." They are made without exception of persons; for, "Whoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved;" "Whoever will, let him take the water of life freely;" "Him that comes to me I will never out."
Aged reader! "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the word." Look unto him and be saved. How else will you pass through the swellings of Jordan? how else will you stand at the judgment-seat of Christ?