Blessed Are the Dead Who Die in the Lord

I recently attended the funeral of a relative whom I did not know very well. Some who knew the man well lacked assurance as to his eternal well-being, and sorrowed over the uncertainty.   The uncertainty was due to the inconsistent Christian walk and testimony of the deceased loved one. However difficult a person’s passing may be for family and friends, it would only be my desire with God’s help to speak comfort to their burdened hearts by bringing some scriptural clarity to what it means to have “died in faith” (Hebrews 11:13), or to “die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13).

The Bible does not direct us to look at the failures of Christians who die, or we might never have the assurance that a soul is merely “absent from the body” but “present with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:8). It is possible that even the godliest believer commits a sin of the flesh or spirit immediately prior to death, and if that disqualifies one from dying in the Lord, how can we have assurance for anyone in their passing?

Repentance from every sin committed, even the very last one, is sometimes put forth as a prerequisite for entrance into God’s presence upon death. However, repentance is a change of mind and heart toward God and His claims upon a person, and does not really refer to an exhaustive confession of individual sins committed throughout one’s life. How worrisome would it be to the soul if a believer lived in fear that some sin of the flesh or spirit was not discerned or properly confessed? This is not at all the will of the Father for His own dear children. When John tells us in I John 1:7 that “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all (every) sin”, it is in light of the truth that He “bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (I Peter 2:24), and those who are “in the light” are in the good of this abstract and objective guarantee. The confession of our individual sins in I John 1:9 is in view of the practical cleansing a believer needs on a daily basis for fellowship with Christ and enjoyment of Him.¹

Hebrews 11 is often called the “faith chapter”, and we are given a long list of names in that chapter who “died in faith”. How many imperfections might we find in each of these who are commended by God for their faith? Was not Abraham justified by faith before his failure in the matter of Hagar and Ishmael? Was not David assured that the Lord would not impute sin to him,² though he sinned and acted foolishly numerous times? Was not Samson guilty of a sad departure from God, as well as a suicidal death?  (Judges 16:30)  Yet he also had faith, and it saved him in spite of all his failures, because God claimed him as His own. Jephthah was harsh and hasty, Isaac was apparently given to an inordinate appetite for good food that dimmed his spiritual eyesight, but what they did for God, they did by faith, and all is recorded for us to learn from. Their failures are all hidden in the New Testament, with but one exception.³

God’s dividing line in the matter of one’s eternal destiny is not whether or not every sin committed was properly confessed, or whether or not a man exhibits faith to his family and friends in the last days of his life. He divides the human race on the basis of whether or not one is born again by grace, and consequently has faith in the testimony of God with regard to His Son. The Lord Jesus put it plainly for the comfort of the believer’s soul: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24). The Lord did not intend for this great truth to be weakened by our conditions.

For the possession of new life (the new creation – II Corinthians 5:17) is in the final analysis the determining factor in one’s eternal destiny. All who have ever had new life from God throughout history are enjoying Him now, awaiting the resurrection. New life in Christ does not guarantee sinless perfection, but neither is that new life (the new nature) affected by the believer’s failures in the flesh, when he or she stoops to heed the desires of the flesh for a time, incurring the Father’s chastisement (Hebrews 12:5-11). This teaching is shown to be true by the warning and assurance wrapped up together in one verse in Ephesians 4:  “And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption”.

If the departed soul had eternal life and sealing by the Spirit, any fleshly act in his life no doubt grieved that Spirit.  But a sin could never negate the impartation of that life, nor undo the Spirit’s seal, which is unto the day of the redemption of our bodies, at the resurrection of the just. When a loved one dies who confessed Christ as Savior and Lord, our loving Father would desire to afford us the comfort of looking in hindsight for the evidences of that new life, which is the fruit of the Spirit of God, even if much of that Christian’s work may be burned up when “the day” declares it.*   For if he was a true believer, “he himself shall be saved”, but so as through the fire.

 

¹   John 13:7-11;  Ephesians 5:26

²   Romans 4:8

³   Romans 11:2

*   Galatians 5:22-23;  I Corinthians 3:12-15

What Causes Division in the Church?

There may be no failure so evident and so pervasive in Christendom over the last 500 years since the Reformation than the splintering of the Christian testimony into hundreds of sects founded on various teachings or following competing leaders. The failure is great because both the prototype and the principle of the church’s unity on earth were so pristine and ideal. There are few things more striking in the New Testament than the unity and love by which that prototypical assembly in Jerusalem functioned, as seen in Acts 2-15. How far the testimony of the church has fallen!

The Lord Jesus first laid down the principle of unity: “That they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us” (John 17:21).  The apostle Paul provides an illustration to the Corinthians, who were perhaps the earliest to manifest divisive tendencies¹: “Now are they many members, yet but one body” (I Corinthians 12:20). Each heart that honors Christ as Head of the body cannot but be grieved on His account for the disunity of the Christian testimony. But an outward unity of the whole church of God, in testimony toward the world, is impossible for any of us to restore, no matter our love or zeal for it. Ecumenism is not the answer, for there will not be a maintenance of holiness or righteousness where the underlying reasons for the divisions and disunity are ignored and glossed over by men, since “God requires that which is past” (Eccl. 3:15; I Kings 12 & 13; Rev. 18:4-7). Neither is the solution to break away from an established group with problems in order to start our own independent assembly, perhaps with better intentions or nicer people, for it would leave us with just another division, and perhaps no more truth or unity.

So what then are the causes of the divided state of the church of God? Or what causes rifts in individual assemblies? All believers must admit in their consciences that there has been general failure in “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), and I would suggest there is a primary cause for the failure:  Reserving for oneself a right to choose one’s own religion or church. This diagnosis may sound strange to many believers, so allow me to explain further.

The words “heretic” (Titus 3:10) and “sects” or “factions” (I Corinthians 11:19, Galatians 5:20) are based on the Greek hairéomai, which means to prefer, or to choose². The sects called Pharisees and Saducees (Acts 5:17; 15:5) were results of the choices and preferences many Jews had made prior to the Lord’s first coming, and they bore similarities to denominations in our day. (Even the early Christians were called a sect, though they never considered themselves that – Acts 24:5, 15 and 28:22.) A heretic, or divisive person, is very often simply a Christian leader who draws saints after himself, perhaps by seemingly innocuous methods. Nevertheless, where pride of this sort is not judged for what it is, Corinthian sectarianism¹ bears the fruit of its disobedience just one more time in the church’s long history. Whenever we reserve for ourselves a “right to choose” our church affiliation or leader according to our preferences, we become guilty of sectarianism, and so at least tacitly approve of division in the church of God.

What is an earnest Christian to do if he or she ought not to choose a church based on preferences? The only scriptural principle of action when a believer is troubled about his religious or ecclesiastical associations is obedience. When Moses instructed Israel on the matter of acceptable worship to Jehovah when they would enter the land of Canaan, he addressed it as a matter of obedience to God, both as to the manner and location for worship. “Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest: but in the place which the Lord thy God shall choose, there shalt thou offer thy burnt offerings, and there thou shalt do all that I command thee” (Deut. 12:1-14). The ramifications of obedience or disobedience to this command are seen frequently in the rest of the Old Testament. The old forms and location of worship do not apply to Christians, but the principle of obedience to the apostles’ doctrine does apply. Faith has no other operative principle than obedience.

A powerful example of an attitude of obedience to the Holy Spirit’s direction on how and where believers should meet for worship is found in Luke 22.  The Lord Jesus asked Peter and John to go on ahead and prepare the Passover, so that He could enjoy this memorial act of worship one more time with His disciples. They instinctively knew that it would be quite inappropriate for them to act upon their own preferences in finding a place, so they evidenced their dependence on the Lord in this question: “Where wilt Thou that we prepare?” He was ready with a clear answer in response to their sincere dependence upon Him, and the answer ought to speak to the heart of a believer even now, for it has a distinctly typical meaning. “Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you, bearing a pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he entereth in.”  In other passages of scripture, we find that an unnamed servant represents the Spirit of God, and that water is a picture of the word of God,³ so it should not be difficult to understand the typical meaning of the Lord’s answer.

Does the error of partisanship and exalting leaders (whether from the recent or distant past) trouble you? It is encouraging to see the occasional individual exercised in his or her conscience to leave a religious group whose tradition, geographical or cultural limits, and sometimes its denominational or congregational name,* attests to its divisive inception. Such repentance and separation from what dishonors Christ, coupled with a desire to obey the Spirit’s leading according to the principles of the word of God, will be honored by Him.°

Choosing a church, or preferring one Christian leader above another, is not the path of obedience and faith, for it effectively perpetuates the historical failure of the church in maintaining the unity of the Spirit. If a Christian who finds the religious scene confusing is obedient to the Spirit of God (who always guides according to the word of God), blessing and satisfaction in God’s will is sure to be its pleasant fruit.

 

¹   I Corinthians 1:10-13; 3:3-6; 4:6-7; 11:17-20

²   As, for example, in Philippians 1:22, in a different context.

³    Servant: Genesis 24; Luke 14:17; John 16:13-15.  Water:  John 3:5; 13:10; Eph. 5:26

*   For example:  Lutheran, Calvinist, Mennonite, Hutterite; Zwingli, Wesley, St. Peter

°   II Timothy 2:15-22