GRACE FOR DYING
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow;
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
A number of years ago, a book entitled The Denial of Death won a Pulitzer Prize. The author chronicled the increasing efforts being made in American culture to mask and evade the inevitable that awaits us all. Keeping that youthful look and sidestepping any serious discussion of death may produce the impression that we will elude our final appointment.
Not withstanding plastic surgery and a regimen of high potency vitamins, we all know that death will eventually overtake us all. Like an unwelcome visitor at our door, it will arrive, expected or not. It is an invitation we will not be able to decline. We know that birth itself confirms our mortality. There is a time to live and a time to die. And each of us will reach that time.
Death has been labeled “the king of terrors.” But does it really have to be that way? It’s true that no one has any desire for a drawn out and painful meeting with our final antagonist. If the silence of death would come in the midst of sleep, that is the passage we all desire. The fear we want to address, however, is not about the mode of death. It has to do with the threshold we cross and what is on the other side of that door.
John Newton’s crossing of the North Atlantic during that terrifying storm caused him to consider his eternal destiny. What would he face on the other side? He could not escape the reality that the cold waters surrounding him might make this his final voyage. Why should he be spared the fate which had claimed so many others?
An Uncertain Destiny
One thing Newton knew for certain: If the ship went down, he was unprepared. If he were to cross over from life to death, the storm of the sea would have been replaced with a more appalling and uncertain destiny. That was the terror in his soul. As the writer of the book of Hebrews explained it, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” Hebrews 10:26, 27.
However, in his song, John Newton does not leave us with fear. Neither does God. Jesus tells us clearly what He came to do: “I am come that they might have life and have it to the full.” “I am the Good Shepherd – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10:10, 14, 15. Just as He provides grace for living, He provides grace for dying. The very same Person who can give us life has resolved that we will have it to its fullest extent–eternal life.
Jesus was once confronted by a dear friend who believed that if He had been present when her brother lay critically ill, Jesus would have prevented his death. She did not understand that her brother’s death would be a beacon of light for generations to come. Lazarus’ death, coming a few days before Jesus’ crucifixion, pointed to God’s will for humankind. Listen to Jesus’ assuring words to Martha. “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will live again.’” How did Jesus know that? “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” John 10:23-26.
Prepared for Dying
This is the good news found in John Newton’s hymn, Amazing Grace. Having God’s grace in our living provides us with God’s grace for dying. To put it in different words, if you are prepared for dying, you are ready to live.
Let’s check how one New Testament writer explained the connection between living and dying. The Apostle Paul wrote, “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20. And in another place, “For to me — to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21. Capture the meaning of what Paul is saying. Jesus declared that He came to give us life (grace for living), and that we would have it abundantly (grace for dying).
Paul, and all who have joined with him in placing Jesus as Master of their lives, can no longer look at death as the terminator of life. Rather, death becomes the great emancipator into abundant life. Death opens the door to the eternal possibilities that God has, in Jesus Christ. This has been prepared for those who have accepted His amazing grace–grace for salvation, grace for living and, yes, grace for dying! Jesus said there is a reality that is more powerful and full of life than anything you have seen on this earth. Paul saw it. John Newton saw it. Millions of others have seen it and so can you.
In this verse of his song, John Newton is acknowledg-ing the eventual end of our existence on earth. Yet, it seems that we hang on to the material of our living as if it will last forever. Not so, says Newton. Like the winter snow that dissolves under the sun’s rays, so the seeming permanence of this life will evaporate some day; it will melt away. But is that the end of everything? Is this all there is?
Is this Life the End?
That question is asked by every generation. In the first book written in Scripture, the Patriarch Job expressed the futility he felt about his own life:
“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle,
and they come to an end without hope.
Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath;
my eyes will never see happiness again.
The eye that now sees me will see me no longer;
you will look for me, but I will be no more.
As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes
down to the grave does not return.
He will never come to his house again;
his place will know him no more.”
Do you sense the futility of life as Job sees it? Yet, he is not alone. Even the person regarded as the wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon the Teacher, ex-pressed thoughts that are strikingly similar:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
“What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.”
Even Solomon’s father, King David, understood the brief and transitory nature of life.
“Show me, O Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life.
Each man’s life is but a breath.”
Psalm 39:4, 5 In the New Testament, we have the statement of James, Jesus’ half-brother, expressing the same viewpoint (James 4:13, 14).
These writers are proclaiming the truth that when life itself becomes the center of our attention and affection, there is not much to carry us through. We concentrate on the edge of the horizon. Like the mariners of Columbus’ day, there is nothing beyond as far as we are concerned.
Yet, in each case, these people from Scripture concluded that there was something else beyond that horizon. -There is no denying the sense of frustration with life, but what else has God revealed? Listen to how Job later lays claim to the abundant life that rises out of earth’s calamities, and the eager-ness with which he anticipates it:
“I know that my ‘Redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him with my own eyes –
I and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!”
Can you imagine how that effected his living?
What about Solomon? Was there a change from his initial perspective? While he described life with words such as “folly, meaningless and chasing after the wind”, he later recognized that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men.” As he concludes his treatise on life, he leaves us with counsel for the ages: Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or bad.”
Ecclesiastes 3:11; 12:13, 14.
The Final Testimony of David
While David was growing up around the hills of Bethlehem, he tended to his father’s sheep. Even in those days, being a shepherd was not a career-building occupation, But since he was the youngest son of Jesse, the onerous job became his. He was not even considered by the family when Samuel, Israel’s prophet, asked Jesse to bring his sons before him as one was to become king of Israel.
What were some things David learned as he was out on the hills, perhaps for weeks at a time? There was the regularity of the sunrise and the certainty of the snow melting. He also watched on clear nights as the stars and their constellations made their regular rounds in the darkened heavens. He would observe how after the rains the fields came into new and vigorous growth.
Even though it is a well kept theological secret, David wrote much about the grace of God. Yes, as we have noted, God revealed His grace in the Old Testament. David knew that God would take care of him, both in life and in death. Listen to his reasoning:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want . . . He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Psalm 23:1, 3. As a shepherd, he had cared well for his father’s flock. He was secure in his soul that his living was watched over by a God of grace.
Because David had received of God’s grace in his life, he was supremely confident of God’s grace in his dying. As he faced death, he was fearless. It was not the empty rhetoric of a false hope. It was the assurance gained from a lifetime of encountering God’s grace. So he could write with certainty:
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Psalm 23:4, 6
Looking Ahead to God’s Grace
Yes, there will be meaningless days and the folly of life that sometimes circle around us. In the end, what is important? John Newton declared that something more certain than the sun rising or the snow melting awaits us. It is God’s grace in heaven. God promised that we will be with Him forever. Because of that promise, death is not the end. It is the beginning of everything. Do you know where you are going when that happens?
When John Newton died on December 21, 1807, he was looking beyond the grave into the future of everlasting life with the Savior he came to know. There was no shadow of fear or guilt that could cloud the glorious sunrise that he was waiting for.
The inscription on John Newton’s tombstone expressed the truth of God’s grace through his entire life:
John Newton, Clerk
Once an infidel and libertine,
A servant of slaves in Africa
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord
And Saviour Jesus Christ,
Preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed
To preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.*
John Newton knew who he was and what he had been. He also knew where he was going.
*Courtesy, Christian Articles Archive, the Internet.