How to Die Safely
Can we do anything to render our death, which cannot be far off — both safe and comfortable? No doubt, by God's grace, we can do much to accomplish these desirable ends if we will set about the work in good earnest. I know that there is a feeling of despondency habitually existing in the minds of some aged people of serious disposition, which leads them to conclude that, if they are not now prepared to die, they never will be. And from all the acquaintance which I have had with professors of religion, I am constrained to think that, as their near approach to the grave does not increase their impressions of the importance of eternal realities. In like manner, old age has no tendency to render the evidences of their union with Christ more clear and satisfactory. You may frequently inquire of a dozen such professors in succession, whether they have obtained a comfortable assurance of the goodness of their spiritual condition, and the probability is that four out of five, if not nine out of ten, will answer in the negative, and will express serious doubts whether they were ever the subjects of regenerating grace. It was not, I believe, always so with those who cordially received the doctrines of grace and rested their souls upon them. To say nothing about the joyful confidence and assured hope of the apostles and primitive Christians, the members of the first reformed churches seem to have derived from the pure doctrines of the Bible a high degree of peace and joy. The same was the fact among the pious Puritans of Old and New England, and the Presbyterians of Scotland in the best and purest days of the Scottish Church.
The question has often occurred, why does the belief of these doctrines afford less comfort now, than in former times. It is not my purpose, at present, to attempt to account for this fact. I adduce it merely to show that most professors among us are not actually prepared for death. Even if their state should be one of safety, they cannot view their approaching end with confidence and comfort. And while their evidences of genuine piety are so dubious, they of course cannot know that they are in a safe condition. It is, then, of the utmost importance that all professors of the above description, and especially the aged, should be importunately urged "to give diligence to make their calling and election sure". (2 Pet 1:10)
I am aware that some Christians, who enjoy very comfortable evidences of being the adopted children of God, are not willing to profess that they have arrived at full assurance. They suppose that they who have attained to this high privilege are in a state of uninterrupted joy, and that no shadow of doubt ever passes over their minds. The truth is, they do possess a solid assurance, although their frames of mind are not always equally comfortable, and although the evidence is not so great that it cannot be increased. I recollect, when very young, to have heard a judicious minister conversing with an eminently pious old lady, who had belonged to the church under the care of Samuel Davies, in the county of Hanover. In answer to some inquiry respecting the comfort which she enjoyed in the service of her Divine Master, she said, after expressing lively feelings of faith, penitence and gratitude, "but my dear friend, I have never yet attained to the faith of assurance; all I can say is, that I have the faith of reliance". "Well," said the minister, "if you know that you have the faith of reliance, that is assurance."
The degrees of evidence possessed by different Christians are various, from the feeblest hope — up to strong confidence. And the clearness of the evidence to the same person varies exceedingly. But in general there seems to be in our church a sad falling below par in respect to this matter. It has, however, often been correctly observed, that we are not to expect 'dying grace' before the dying hour arrives. God gives strength as we need it; and when the believer is called to severe trials or to difficult duties, he commonly receives aid proportioned to the urgency of his needs, and is surprised to find himself held up by a power not his own. Thus we have often seen the sincere humble Christian, who, during life, was subject to bondage through fear of death, triumphing in the dying hour. This expectation of special aid ought to be encouraged. It is, indeed, a part of that preparation which we should make; and if we confidently rely on the great Shepherd to meet us and comfort us while walking through the valley and shadow of death, He will not disappoint us.
But in dealing with professors troubled with doubts, we are too apt to proceed on the assumed principle, that notwithstanding their sad misgivings and fears, they are at bottom sincere Christians, and have the root of the matter in them; while in regard to many, this may be an entire mistake, and we are in danger of nourishing in them a fatal delusion. Here the skill and fidelity of the spiritual watchmen are put to the test; and while they should not deviate a hair's-breadth from the rule of the divine Word, it is better that the pious Christian should suffer some unnecessary pain, than that the false professor should be bolstered up with delusive hopes.
I must say, therefore, that the true reason why many professors have no comfortable evidence of their religion — is because they have no true piety. They have never experienced the new birth; and being still dead in trespasses and sins, it is no wonder that they cannot find in themselves what does not exist. I abhor a censorious spirit, which, upon slight grounds, judges this and that professor to be graceless; but all my experience and observation lead me to believe that, in our day as well as in former times, the "foolish virgins" (Matt 25:1-13) constitute a full half of the visible church.
What I would urge, therefore, on you, my aged friends, and on myself, is a more serious, impartial, and thorough examination into the foundation of our hope of heaven, than perhaps we have ever yet made. Let us go back to the commencement of our religious course, and see whether, in our present more mature judgment, we can conclude that we were then the subjects of a saving change. I do not ask you whether you had an increase of serious feelings, or whether your sympathies were strongly excited and experienced some change from a state of terror or distress to comfort; for all these things may be experienced, and have been experienced by unregenerate people. Let us carefully inquire whether the habitual tenor of our lives has been such as to satisfy us that a new nature was received.
If we have fallen into sin, have we deeply and sincerely repented of it? Have we wept bitterly for our sin, like Peter? or have we mourned in deep sorrow, like David? Not such repentance as some experience, who, after all their convictions and confessions, return again to the same course of iniquity. But after all examinations of past experience, the main point is — what is the present, habitual state of our hearts? Do we now love God as His character is exhibited in His word? Do we hunger and thirst after holiness, or a complete conformity to the law of God? Would we be willing that that law should be relaxed in its demands, to afford us some indulgence? Do we seek our chief happiness in the favor of God, and in communion with Him in His Word and ordinances? Is His glory uppermost in our desires, and do we sincerely wish and determine to do all that we can to promote the kingdom of the Redeemer? Do we sincerely love the people of God, of every sect and name, because they bear His image, and are the redeemed children of God?
Again: what is the ground on which we expect the pardon of sin and the favor of God? Is it because we are better than many others? Is it because we have had what we esteem great experiences? Is it on account of our moral demeanor, or charitable benefactions? Dare we trust in any measure to our own goodness and righteousness? If we build on any of these, or on any similar grounds, then are we on a sandy foundation, and all our towering hopes must fall.
But, methinks, I hear the humble penitent saying, "All these things I count loss for Christ (Phil 3:7) — I feel that I deserve to die — I never was more convinced of anything, than that it would have been perfectly just for God to send me to hell. And now, all my trust and all my hope, if I know my own heart, is in the Lord Jesus Christ, and in His perfect righteousness and intercession; and all my confidence of being able to serve God hereafter, or to persevere for a single day, is in the grace of the Holy Spirit." The whole evidence of Christian character may be reduced to two particulars — entire trust in Christ for justification; and a sincere and universal love of holiness, with a dependence on the Holy Spirit for its existence, continuance and increase.
If, my friend, you have these evidences now, you need not perplex yourself by a multitude of scruples. You may dismiss your doubts. God's Word will never deceive any who rely upon its guidance. You may not know the day nor even the year, when spiritual life commenced in your soul; and yet, if you now feel its warm pulsations — if you breathe its genuine aspirations — if your heart's treasures are in heaven, and if the cause of God is dearer to you than any other interest — if His people are dearer to you than any other people — if your most constant and supreme desire is to glorify God your Redeemer, whether by living or dying — then may you welcome death. He is no king of terrors to you. You may say, "Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!" (Rev 22:20)
Perhaps some of you are afraid of the pangs of death. You have heard of the convulsive struggle, the dying groans, the difficult breathing, and the ghastly countenance! Well, it must be confessed, the scene is appalling; but it is soon over, forever! I am of opinion, however, that often, there is the appearance of dreadful suffering where the patient is unconscious of any very acute pain; and very frequently, the departure of the immortal spirit is, at the last, like falling into a gentle sleep. And not infrequently, while the body is racked with pain, or with what would produce pain in other circumstances, the soul is so supported and comforted by the sweet peace of God poured into it, that the disorders and convulsions of the body are scarcely thought of. And in many instances, God takes His people away by a sudden stroke; they know nothing about it, until they awake in heaven. O! what a transition! Or, if it be necessary to let in the light of glory gradually, God, who knows our constitution, will order all things well.
But I would advise you to meditate much on death. Collect, and have in memory, a number of precious promises for the occasion. Put up many prayers for grace and strength for a dying hour. Beg an interest in the intercessions of your Christian friends. Keep your minds calm, and yield not to perturbing cares. Be found at your post when the summons comes — with your loins girded and lights burning. Settle beforehand all your worldly affairs.