Death, the Final Calling

R.C. Sproul
Monday, July 16th 2007
May/Jun 1999

Dare we think of death as a vocation? The author of Ecclesiastes thought so: “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die” (Eccles. 3:1-2). Likewise the author of Hebrews: “And it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgement” (Heb. 9:27). Notice the language of Scripture. It speaks of death in terms of a “purpose under heaven” and of an “appointment.” Death is a divine appointment. It is part of God’s purpose in our lives. God calls each person to die. He is sovereign over all of life, including the final experience of life.

Usually we limit the idea of vocation to our careers, but the word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning “to call.” Used in the Christian sense, vocation refers to a divine calling, a summons that comes from God himself. He calls people to teach, to preach, to sing, to make cars, and to change diapers. There are as many vocations as there are facets to human life. Though many of our vocations are not universal, we all share in the vocation of death. Every one of us is called to die, and that vocation is as much a calling from God as is a “call” to the ministry of Christ. Sometimes the call comes suddenly and without warning. Sometimes it comes with a notification in advance. But it comes to all of us. And it comes from God.

I am aware that there are teachers who tell us that God has nothing to do with death. Death is seen strictly as the fiendish device of the Devil. All pain, suffering, disease, and tragedy are blamed on the Evil One. God is absolved of any responsibility. This view is designed to make sure that God is absolved of blame for anything that goes wrong in this world. “God always wills healing,” we are told. If that healing does not happen, then the fault lies with Satan-or with ourselves. Death, they say, is not in the plan of God. It represents a victory for Satan over the realm of God. Such views may bring temporary relief to the afflicted, but they are not true, and they have nothing to do with biblical Christianity. In an effort to absolve God of any blame, such teachings do so at the expense of God’s sovereignty.

Yes, there is a Devil, and he is our archenemy. He will do anything in his power to bring misery into our lives, but he is not sovereign. Satan does not hold the keys of death. When Jesus appeared in a vision to John on the Isle of Patmos, he identified himself with these words: “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (Rev. 1:17-18). Jesus holds the keys to death, and Satan cannot snatch those keys out of his hand. The grip of Christ is firm. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. The angel of death is at his beck and call.

We remember the words of the great spiritual, “God’s Trombones.” Here the scenario is in heaven. The Lord speaks with the thunderous tones of divine authority. “Call Death!” he declares, “Send Death for sister Caroline, down in Atlanta, Georgia.” The pale horse of the Apocalypse is summoned and dispatched by God alone.

World history has witnessed the emergence of many forms of religious dualism. Dualism affirms the existence of two equal and opposite forces. These forces are variously called Good and Evil, God and Satan, Yin and Yang. The two forces are locked in eternal combat. Since they are equal as well as opposite, the conflict goes on forever, with neither side ever gaining the upper hand. The world is doomed to be forever the battleground between these hostile forces. We are the victims of their struggle, the pawns in their eternal chess game.

Dualism is on a collision course with Christianity, which has no stock in such a dualism. Satan may be opposite to God, but he is by no means equal. Satan is a creature; God is the Creator. Satan is potent; God is omnipotent. Satan is knowledgeable and crafty; God is omniscient. Satan is localized in his presence; God is omnipresent. Satan is finite; God is infinite. The list could continue. But it is clear from Scripture that Satan is not an ultimate force in any way.

We are not doomed to an ultimate conflict without hope of resolution. The message of Scripture is victory-full, final, and ultimate victory. It is not our doom that is certain, but Satan’s. His head has been crushed by the heel of Christ, the Alpha and Omega. Above all suffering and death stands the crucified and risen Lord. He has defeated the ultimate enemy of life, vanquished the power of death. He calls us to die, but that call is a call to obedience to the final transition of life. Because of Christ, death is not final; it is a passage from one world to the next.

God does not always will healing. If he did he would suffer endless frustration from the thwarting of his plans. He did not will the healing of Stephen from the wounds inflicted by stones that were hurled against him. He did not will the healing of Moses, of Joseph, of David, of Paul, of Augustine, of Luther, of Calvin. These all died in faith.

To be sure, there is ultimate healing that comes through death and after death. Jesus was gloriously healed of the wounds of crucifixion, but only after he died. Some argue that there is healing in the atonement of Christ, and indeed there is. Jesus bore all of our sins upon the cross. Yet none of us is free of sin in this life. None of us is free of sickness in this life. The healing that is in the cross is real. We participate in its benefits now, in this life. But the fullness of the healing of both sin and disease takes place in heaven. We still must die when it is our appointed time. Certainly God answers prayers and gives healing to our bodies during this life, but these healings are temporary. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but Lazarus died again. Jesus gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, yet every person Jesus healed eventually died. They died not because Satan finally won over Jesus, but because Jesus called them to die.

When God issues a call upon us it is always a holy call. The vocation of dying is a sacred vocation. To understand that is one of the most important lessons a Christian can ever learn. When the summons comes we can respond in many ways. We can be angry, bitter, or terrified. But if we see it as a call from God and not a threat from Satan, we are far more able to cope with its difficulties.

Finishing the Race

I will never forget the last words my father spoke to me. We were seated together on the living room sofa. His body had been ravaged by three strokes. One side of his face was distorted by paralysis. His left eye and left lip drooped uncontrollably. He spoke to me with a heavy slur. His words were difficult to understand, but their meaning was crystal clear: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” These were the last words he ever spoke to me. Hours later he suffered his fourth and final cerebral hemorrhage. I found him collapsed on the floor comatose, a trickle of blood oozing from the corner of his mouth. Mercifully, he died a day and a half later without regaining consciousness.

His last words to me were heroic. My last words to him were cowardly, rude even: “Don’t say that, Dad!” There are many things that I have said in my life that I desperately wished I had not said. None are more shameful than those. But words can no more be recalled than an arrow after the bow string has snapped. My words were a rebuke to him for I refused to allow him the dignity of a final testimony to me. He knew he was dying. I refused to accept what he had already accepted with grace.

I was seventeen. I knew nothing of the business of dying. It was not a very good year. I watched my father die an inch at a time over a period of three years. I never heard him complain. I never heard him protest. He sat in the same chair day after day, week after week, year after year. He read the Bible with a large magnifying glass. I was blind to the anxieties that must have plagued him. He could not work; there was no income, no disability insurance. He sat there, waiting to die, watching his life savings trickle away with his own life. I was angry at God, my father was angry at no one. He lived out his last days faithful to his vocation: he fought the good fight. A good fight is a fight fought without hostility, without bitterness, without self-pity. I had never been in a fight like that.

My father finished the race. I was not even in the starting blocks. He ran the race for which God had called him. He ran until his legs crumbled, but somehow he kept going. When he couldn’t walk anymore he still was at the table each night for dinner. He asked me to help him. It was a daily ritual. Each evening I went to his room where he was seated in that same chair. I stooped backward, facing away from him so that he could drape his arms around my neck and shoulders. I clasped his wrists together and lifted my body, bringing him up from the chair. Then I dragged him, fireman style, to the dining room table. He finished the race. My only consolation is that I was able to help him, to be with him at the finish line.

I carried him one last time. When I found him unconscious on the floor, somehow I managed to get him into the bed where he died. On that trip he could not help me drag him. He could not put his arms around my neck. It took effort mixed with adrenaline to get him from the floor to the bed, but I had to get him there. It was unthinkable to me that he should die on the floor.

When my father died I was not a Christian. Faith was something beyond my experience and beyond my understanding. When he said, “I have kept the faith,” I missed the weight of his words. I shut them out. I had no idea that he was quoting the apostle Paul’s final message to his beloved disciple, Timothy. His eloquent testimony was wasted on me at the time, but not now. Now I understand, now I want to persevere as he persevered. I want to run the race and finish the course as he did before me. I have no desire to suffer as he suffered, but I want to keep the faith as he kept it.

If my father taught me anything, he taught me how to die. For years after my father died I had the same recurring nightmare. I dreamed the same intense dream. I would see my father alive again. The beginning of the dream was thrilling, for in my slumber the impossible became real. He was alive! But my joy would change quickly to despair as his appearance in my dream was always the same. He was crippled, paralyzed, hopelessly and helplessly dying. The scene was never of a healthy, vibrant father, but of a father caught in the throes of death. I would wake up sweating with a sick empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. Only as I studied the Scriptures did I discover that death is not like that. Only when I discovered the content of the Christian faith did the nightmares finally cease.

Passing through the Valley of the Shadow

I met a young lady whose mother had recently died. She had been grieving deeply, assaulted by attacks of despair. She had a morbid preoccupation with her mother’s death. Then, one evening, she had a profound spiritual experience. She was alone, meditating on the words of Scripture when suddenly she experienced a profound sense of the presence of God. As she prayed, some words thrust themselves forcibly into her mind. They were emphatic words: “Leslie! Death’s not like that!” The grief was over. Leslie was delivered from her morbid spirit. A flash of understanding rescued her soul. A new view of death was born in her understanding.

When God gives us a vocation to die, he sends us on a mission. We have indeed entered into a race. The course may be frightening, like an obstacle course with pitfalls. We wonder if we will have the courage to make our way to the finish line, for the trail takes us through the valley of the shadow of death.

It is a valley where the sun’s rays often seem to be blotted out. We approach it trembling, preferring to seek a safe bypass. But men and women of faith can enter that valley without fear. David tells how: “Yea, 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” (Psalm 23:4). David was a shepherd, and in this psalm he identifies with the sheep. He sees himself as a lamb under the care of the Great Shepherd. He enters the valley without fear for one overarching reason: the Shepherd goes with him. He trusts himself to the care and the protection of the Shepherd. The lamb finds comfort in the Shepherd’s weapons, the rod and the staff. The ancient shepherd was armed. He would use the crook of his staff to rescue a fallen lamb from a pit. He would wield his rod against hostile beasts that sought to devour his sheep. Without the shepherd the sheep would be helpless in the shadowy valley, but as long as the shepherd was present the lamb had nothing to fear. If a bear or lion attacked the shepherd and killed the shepherd, the sheep would scatter. They would be vulnerable to the lion’s jaws. If the shepherd fell, all would be lost for the sheep.

But we have a Shepherd who cannot fall. We have a Shepherd who cannot die. He is no hireling who abandons his flock at the first sign of trouble. Our Shepherd is armed with omnipotent force. He is not threatened by the valley of shadows. He created the valley, he redeems the valley.

David’s confidence was rooted in the absolute certainty of the presence of God. He understood that with a divine vocation comes divine assistance and the absolute promise of divine presence. God will not send us where he refuses to go himself.

My best friend in college and seminary was a man named Don McClure. Don was the son of pioneer missionaries. He had grown up in the remote interior of Africa. Don personally discovered several tribes of primitive natives for whom he was the first white man they had ever seen. He had killed spitting cobras in his bedroom. He had a close encounter with a crocodile that had jumped into his small canoe with him. He had been rescued by his father at the last minute when he was surrounded by a hungry pride of lions. I called Don “Tarzan” because his life mirrored the exploits of Johnny Weismuller. He was the most fearless person I ever met. If I were trapped in a foxhole behind enemy lines in combat, the one man I would want with me is Don McClure.

I keep a newspaper clipping in my Bible that reports the martyrdom of Don’s father. Don and his father were camped in a remote area of Ethiopia. During the night they were awakened by a surprise attack from Communist guerrillas. Don and his father were captured and dragged before a firing squad. Don stood next to his father when the guerrillas opened fire. First they shot Don’s dad, killing him instantly. Don heard the shot and saw the flame from the rifle that was pointed at him from six feet away. He fell next to his father, shocked to realize he was still alive.

In the confusion of the night, the guerrillas fled as quickly as they had appeared. Don hugged the ground, feigning death until all was quiet. He had suffered only minor flesh wounds though he was covered with powder burns. Fighting the impulse to flee, Don remained long enough to dig a shallow grave with his bare hands. There he committed his father’s body to the ground. I still would be proud to have Don McClure at my side in the valley of the shadow. But I have one greater than Don who promises to go with me.

The presence of God is our refuge and our strength in times of trouble. His promise is not only to go with us into the valley. Even more important is his promise to guide us to what lies beyond. The valley of the shadow of death is not a box canyon, but a passageway to a better country. The valley leads to life-life far more abundant than anything we can imagine. The goal of our vocation is heaven. But there is no route to heaven except through the valley.

David understood that. Though he lived before Christ, before the Resurrection, before the New Testament revelation of glory, nevertheless God had not been altogether silent on the matter. Already there was the hope of the bosom of Abraham. David confessed his faith: “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13). The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of the living. The God of David is the God of the living. The God of Jesus is the God of the living. There is life beyond the shadow of death.

My father ran a race because God called him to run the race. He finished the course because God was with him through every obstacle. He kept the faith because the faith kept him. This powerful legacy is the legacy the risen Christ gives to his sheep.

Monday, July 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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