The Lord's Day Morning
July 1, 2007
“The Gain of Death”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
I'd invite you to turn with me to Philippians, chapter one, verse 21. We've been in this verse for a month; we haven't gotten to the second half of the verse yet.
There's good reason for that. The comfort that we all look for — and surely we look for it especially in the hour of death — the comfort that we get in the second half of this verse in Paul's affirmation that to die is gain is reserved for those who know the truth of the first half of this verse. In other words, the second half of this verse makes no sense and holds no hope out to those who have not realized the grace in their experience of the first half of this verse. It is for those who to live is Christ that to die is gain. And so it's appropriate that we would spend much time thinking about what it means to live as if to live is Christ. That is in fact what we've done. We spent the first week we were together in the first part of Philippians 1:21 just asking the question, “What does it mean to live is Christ, and what does it mean to die is gain?” And then we applied that, especially the first half of the verse, the second week we were in this passage. And the third week, we simply more specifically applied and illustrated the truth of the first half of Philippians 1:21. And so we are now finally to the second half of this verse.
Before we read it and hear it explained and proclaimed and applied, let's look to God and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word, and it is powerful, and it's effective, and it's sharper than any two-edged sword. But this is a very familiar passage; protect us from our over-familiarity with it. Keep us from missing the extraordinary, encouraging, vital, important truth that is contained in it. By Your Spirit, open our eyes to behold the truth of Your word. Open our hearts to believe the truth of Your word. And grant that by Your grace we would live and die in hope and confidence because of the verity of this word. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God:
“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Thomas Boston, a very famous Scottish preacher who pastored a tiny little church in the countryside south of Edinburgh, called Ettrick, once said that as the believer's life is different from the unbeliever's life, so also the believer's death is different from the unbeliever's death. For the unbeliever, death is a loss — the greatest loss; but for the believer, death is the greatest gain.
Now how can that be true? What makes death a gain? Boston's words are wise and biblical, and they need to be listened to carefully. He is not saying that death is a gain for everyone. No, he is acknowledging that for unbelievers death is only a loss, and it is the greatest loss; but that for believers, death has in Christ Jesus become a great gain. He is not denying that especially those of us left behind in the loss of a loved one experience great grief and mourning. He is not denying that we ought to mourn in the hour of death. But what he is affirming is that despite that natural and appropriate grief and mourning and sense of loss that we experience even as believers when loved ones die, yet for believers in the Lord Jesus Christ death is the greatest gain. And that's what Paul is saying.
How can he say that? For four reasons, and you’ll find them in and around Philippians 1:21. You’ll also find them summarized in The Catechism. In fact, I ask you to take your hymnals out and turn with me to page 872, and look down the page to Question 37. Some of you… you know, if Brister Ware were here right now, he would be able to recite this one for you from heart very quickly. But in Question 37 of your Catechism, the catechism asks:
“What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?”
It's in a series of questions asking what do you gain by trusting in Jesus Christ, and then it asks what you gain in this life, what you gain immediately upon your death, and what you gain in the glory to come in the great resurrection and the coming of Jesus Christ. These are very, very encouraging catechism questions. They well reward those of us who have memorized The Catechism and forgotten it, memorizing them again.
Here's how The Catechism answers:
“The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness…”
[there's comfort No. 1];
“…and do immediately pass into glory…” [there's comfort No. 2];
“…and their bodies still united in Christ…” [there's comfort No. 3];
“…being still united in Christ do rest in their graves until the resurrection.”
[there's comfort No. 4].
Now we're going to number them just a little bit differently as we work through the passage, but The Catechism outlines precisely the comforts the Apostle Paul lists here in Philippians 1.
So what four blessings that belong to believers alone enable us, even in the valley of the shadow of death, to affirm that death is gain? What blessings make the believer's dying day not only a day of mourning, but also a day of triumph?
These are the four blessings that Paul talks about in Philippians 1:
I. To die is gain.
First of all, look at what Paul says in Philippians 1:21: “…to die is gain.” What kind of gain? Now, you remember that I asked you to take a hard look at verse 4, or stanza 4, of hymn No. 343. Why don't you take it and look at it again — Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation, the fourth stanza. You have already prayed a prayer that by gathering together in the name of Christ, believing the gospel today with God's people, that God would answer this particular prayer. Here's the prayer you prayed:
“Here vouchsafe to all thy servants what they ask of Thee to gain…”
[Lord, make secure for all those who are gathered here in the name of Jesus Christ, trusting in Him alone for their salvation as He is offered in the gospel…make secure to them what they have come here to ask You to gain.]
“…What they gain from thee forever with the blessed to retain…”
[Lord, not only make secure for them what they come here to ask You to gain, but it is a gain that is an eternal gain. Secure that gain to them forever, along with all those who are trusting in Jesus Christ, so that they’ll never ever lose it.]
“…And hereafter in Thy glory evermore with Thee to reign.”
[Lord, give them the gain that they’re going to have with You forever in glory.]
Now I ask you a question: What gain is the hymn writer talking about? It is the gain that the Apostle Paul is talking about in Philippians 1:21. And you say to me, “What is that gain?” And I say to you, “Look at verse 23!” What does Paul say? “…To depart and to be with Christ.” There's the gain. The gain is to be with Christ, because here's the blessing that enables you to be able to say that death is gain: In death, believers are with Christ, whom they prize more than all things. In death, believers are with Christ, whom they prize more than all things; and therefore, for believers death is gain. The greatest gain because our greatest prize is Christ and being with Him, and in death we are united with Him. We are brought into fellowship with Him. I love the way the Apostle Paul puts this in II Corinthians 5:8. “I prefer,” he says, “…I prefer to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” You see, the prime longing of every Christian to be with Christ, to fellowship with Christ because we prize Christ more than anything else…the prime longing of every believer is fulfilled instantaneously in death. We immediately enjoy fellowship with Christ.
2. Made perfect in holiness.
Secondly, why is it that believers approach death as gain? Because in death believers are made perfect in holiness. Believers are made perfect in holiness…the Apostle Paul wrestled all his life with the reality of total depravity — the truth that sin has worked its way into every part of us because of Adam's original sin. You know, some people like to argue against the biblical teaching of total depravity, but think of it, friends: it's the only doctrine that can be empirically proven! You don't have to be around other human beings very long to see the absolute irrefutable truth of total depravity. You know it deeply grieved the Apostle Paul that though he was redeemed by the blood of Christ and had been called into His service, that nevertheless Paul still struggled with sin. He was unfaithful to his Savior, he let others down. He continued to struggle with sin, and he writes about it in Romans 7:24. He says:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”
And he answers that question in Philippians 1:20. In Philippians 1:20, he says:
“I will not be put to shame in anything, but with all boldness Christ will even now as always be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Paul knew that in death Christ was going to be exalted in his perfecting of the Apostle Paul so that he would never ever sin again. That's why Paul will say in Romans 7:25, “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ!” He would be made perfect.
Now a lot of times we don't feel our sin. Other people may feel our sin, but we ourselves don't feel our sin and its effects. Let me ask it to you this way, to try and bring home to you something of this truth of sin. Have you ever deeply hurt, wounded, betrayed, let down someone whom you deeply love? You've cut them to the quick. You've done it. Nobody else — you. If you've lived very long, you know what it is by your own actions — whether they were thoughts or words or deeds — to hurt the ones that you love the most. The Apostle Paul is saying, in the hour of death, never again. Your heart will never wander from your Lord; you’ll never yield to the temptation of Satan; you’ll never again hurt the ones that you care about the most. Never again. I cannot imagine a greater rest than that, than to rest from sin that we will be given in death. And for this reason, my friends, death is gain.
III. Pass into glory.
But there's a third reason why death is gain: In death believers pass into glory. Notice what Paul says in Philippians 1:23. He's hard pressed from both directions. He has a desire to depart and be with Christ. Why? Because “it is very much better.” Why is it much better? Because when a believer passes through death, he passes into a place of glory, and into a company of glory, and into a state of glory.
What did Jesus say in John 14:2? ‘I go to prepare a place for you. In My Father's house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you.’ It is a glorious place, and it's a glorious company…there we will be with all the saints. We sang about that last Lord's Day — with all the saints, including those loved ones in Christ for whom you are awaiting a reunion. And there will be the angels… above all, the Lord Jesus Christ. Think of it, my friends. You have served Him all your life, since He saved you by His precious blood…and you have never laid eyes on Him. But then you will see Him as He is, for you will be like Him. And it's a glorious state! “Rest,” Hebrews 4:9 says. Rest! In this overly busy life that we live, running around chasing our own tails, there is no lasting rest. But there, everlasting rest.
You see, in death we begin to taste for the first time the fullness of the glory to come. Though in our death we do not immediately taste all of the fullness of the glory to come — that awaits the great resurrection — but in death, more than we have ever tasted it before, we will taste glory.
You know, in this life from time to time there are these few fleeting moments where we feel as if we could reach out and touch the suburbs of heaven themselves. It may have been in that moment when God drew you to Himself savingly and there was such glory and such a sense of forgiveness and peace, and nearness to God; it may have been in the context of the funeral of a loved one. It may have been in the context of the regular worship of the people of God, or it may have been in some other special time in which God made an extraordinary visitation of His love upon your heart. And in those times you just wish that it wouldn't end. But in death, the believer is ushered into a time of such great glory that the believer will say, “I wish this wouldn't end,” and it won't.
IV. United to Christ
And in death, believers are united to Christ. That's the fourth blessing that enables us to say, “To die is gain.”
What does the Apostle Paul say in Philippians 1:23? That to depart is to be with Christ. Our Catechism reminds us that even the bodies of believers are at their death still united to Christ. Our souls are feasting on fellowship with Him. We are enjoying being with Christ because we are united to Him. This is the fulfillment of what the Apostle Paul says in those so familiar and beautiful words in Romans 8. Turn with me there. Verse 35:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
And then look at verse 37:
“In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And then the Apostle Paul, when he says that to depart is to be with Christ…when he says that to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord…is affirming the truth of Romans 8 for believers. Even though our bodies are still in the grave, we're united to our Savior and our souls fellowship with Him. That's why one Christian said, “Christians outlive and out die pagans.”
Are you prepared for your dying day? Only if you understand the first part of Philippians 1:21 can you know the comfort of the second part of Philippians 1:21. May God grant that you are prepared now by the gospel for that great day. We’re going to sing about that in just a few moments, and I'd like to suggest that we sing the last stanza without accompaniment.
So let's pray right now.
Heavenly Father, prepare us for our dying day by the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We ask this in His name. Amen.
[Congregational Hymn: A Few More Years Shall Roll]
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.