Sermon: LORD'S DAY 16 - Rev. C. Stam
From "Living In The Joy Of Faith" with the kind permission of Inheritance Publications
Lord's Day 16
Reading: John 5:19 - 24
Colossians 3:1- 4
116: 1, 5
Hymn 24: 5
Psalm 49: 2, 4, 5
Hymn 63: 2
Hymn 49: 1, 2
CHRIST DIED TO GIVE US LIFE
Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
With no less than 5 questions and answers, Lord's Day 16 of the Heidelberg Catechism is rather lengthy. It seems hardly possible to deal in one sermon with all the rich material contained in it.
It is clear, however, that the theme of this Lord's Day is the death of Christ, and-in connection with that-our death as well. In four of the questions and answers, the matter of death and dying is a key issue, so we will have to approach matters here from that angle as well.
We first confess in this Lord's Day the necessity of Christ's death (Qu. 40, "Why was it necessary for Christ to humble Himself even unto death?"). Then we confess the reality of His death (Qu. 41: "Why was He buried?"). Christ had to die, and He really did die! That is the starting point here. That is the all-embracing truth and comfort of this Lord's Day!
Then, in the next two questions and answers, we confess the benefit of His death. More specially, we confess the benefit for us, His people. Does anything change for us now that He died in our place?
Christ's death had great consequences for himself. His death ended His earthly ministry of humiliation. True, there was still the act of the burial, but soon there would be the glory of the resurrection. Christ's death closes off an era of suffering and leads Him to a new era of glory and honour!
But what does it mean for us? Does it really make any difference for us that He died? Does His death also lead us to a new era? With these questions we may come to understand the consequences of Christ's death for our own life.
Christ died to give us Life.
1. The death of our Lord Jesus Christwhich is an atoning death-must have effect and consequence also for us! In answer 40 we find, that His death was a matter of satisfaction for our sins. We must always connect death with sin. As Paul says: the wages of sin is death. So it is Christ's death, but our sins. If by His death our sins are taken away, does this not have some bearing on our death or dying? May we not expect that since Christ died for us-for our sins-we no longer have to die?
That is the question we find in question 42: "Since Christ died for us, why do we still have to die?" This question is not as foolish as it may seem at first glance, but is a very vital and a beautiful question. The reasoning behind this question arises from the whole doctrine of atonement, and is quite sound.
Atonement or satisfaction implies that what Christ did for us we do not have to do ourselves. Christ paid for our sins, and so we are now free from that obligation. Christ suffered the unspeakable anguish and torment of hell (answer 44), and therefore we do not have to undergo this terror and agony. We have been delivered from all this! As we saw last week: He bore our curse, so that it no longer lays upon us! The rule of atonement is that what Christ has done for us, we no longer have to do.
But does the "rule of atonement" fail us here in this vital matter? The confession of Lord's Day 16 is that He died, and that He did so in our place and for our sins. But then, why must we still die? Death is still the ultimate reality for all of us. The cross apparently does not undo the grave; His death does not undo our death. In this respect the situation is just as it was before Golgotha. As we are once born, so we are set to die.
Is it not a bit strange, and even deeply disappointing? The rule of atonement applies to everything except death! Atheist scholars will at this point gladly tell us that the Christian faith, too, has not solved the "problem" of death. Sure, we preach "life after death"something which cannot be scientifically proven-but what does that benefit us now? Why can Christ's death not have as consistent consequence that we no longer have to die?
We must go to the Scriptures to find an answer to these questions. And then it quickly becomes plainly evident that the cross and the death of Christ-which do bring about a new reality for God's children-do not remove certain things, but put them in a different perspective, in a new dimension! The death of Christ has taken away the cause of our eternal hunger and misery, namely sin-as the Form for the Lord's Supper so beautifully puts it-but this does not imply that all the effects of sin have now been simultaneously removed! There is still death, and not only death, but also many related matters such as pain, sickness and strife. We still have a sinful nature and a "body of death" as Paul writes to the Romans. Many of our relationships in the world, the church, and the home show the scars of sin and so it would be quite unscriptural to suggest that because the cause is removed, the effects are also simultaneously gone. The cause can be removed at once; the effects disappear in the course of time.
It is a typical claim of sectarian "faith healers" that, because Christ died for us, effects like sickness must now be absent from our life and will be instantaneously removed by faith and prayer, as upon some miraculous command. Believers need not be sick, they argue. On the same basis one could argue that believers will never die, but even ardent faith healers have not been able to solve that problem!
The healings that are described in the Bible are designed to emphasize the underlying reality of redemption by the blood of the cross. They show the breakthrough of the kingdom of heaven, but there is no suggestion in the Scriptures that such healings will take place for all in each and every age and that all sickness together with the end-result, death, has been removed!
Death is still a reality which also the children of God must face. The apostle Paul is quite clear when he calls death "the last enemy", the last enemy to be destroyed (I Corinthians 15:26). This destruction of death will take place on the great Day of days, when also the resurrection takes place, and after that no one will ever die again! Until that time, death stays with us. It is in this world as a reality, as a last enemy which we must all face.
Just as Satan is an enemy, as the world and our own sinful flesh are enemies, so also death is an enemy. After we have struggled with Satan, the world and our own flesh, we must face death, our final enemy. This is one of the most difficult experiences for every living being, also for Christian believers.
Perhaps that is one reason why we should never speak lightly about death and dying. When a Dutch theologian in the 1950's and the 1960's, wrote that when we die our "soul" does not immediately go to Christ its head (as we confess in Lord's Day 22), this was indeed a terrible heresy because it denies the effects of the cross. But some reacted wrongly by saying that death is overcome, that it is nothing for believers! This was not a very scriptural reaction, for we read that death will finally be overcome and undone on the day of the resurrection! Until then death remains an enemy, and we must not make light of it in any way. Those who make light of it may have the greatest difficulty with it when it does come.
An enemy, says the Bible. You can face it, yes, and even overcome it, but only through faith, through courage and strength in the Holy Spirit! If ever we need the grace of God, it is certainly in the hour of death. To face death we need a lifetime of spiritual growth, faith and divine grace!
So we go back to our initial conclusion: death has not yet been removed. This will indeed happen, but only on the day of the great resurrection. But meanwhile the function of death and the power of death have been altered and changed and are now bound to God's decree of salvation! This is the promise already in the Old Testament and this becomes immediately clear in the New Testament. In its initial, devastating and annihilating capacity death no longer has a grip on the children of God- neither on Abraham nor on us.
Let me say it this way: death which comes to us as a last enemy, now in virtue of the cross becomes an ally. Although it was intended to break all communion with God and the living, death now serves as a passageway to greater communion with God and the living!
On the cross, our Lord Jesus Christ paid for our sins. We need not do this anymore. That is indeed the law of atonement. The Catechism says, "Our death is not a payment for our sins". This means that we cannot die a death like His! As our Mediator, He was under the law of sin, and His death was the terrible, all-consuming penalty for sin. In a way, He was in the state of death through His whole life. Especially on the cross and in the grave, He faced the utter breakdown of communion with His Father, and He did all this for us. This means that we are past that stage. We have been placed into an eternal communion with God. We are in the state of life and have passed out of the state of death!
I am tempted to quote many texts to prove this important point, but let me direct you simply to what we read in John 5:24: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My Word and believes Him Who sent Me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life". Christ is speaking here to those who must yet die, but still He says: you have (not: will get, but have) eternal life; you have passed (not: one day will pass, but have passed) from death to life. There is a new "status" for those who believe, the state of life.
By faith in Christ and in virtue of His atoning death on the cross, we have eternal life. What does this mean? Life is communion and contact. Only the living can see, hear, smell, touch, breathe, give and receive. Life is that which binds us to each other, to God. What does eternal mean? It means both ongoing and without end! So when Christ says that we have eternal life, it means that we have uninterrupted communion with God and His children. Communion without end or interruption-that is eternal life!
Death as damnation, as breakdown of communion, is what Christ experienced and is therefore something which those who believe in Christ cannot experience. You see, also in this case the rule of atonement does fully apply. Our death is not a payment for sins. We do not die because of our sins, but we die unto sin, to get away from sins and our sinful nature. The Catechism puts it this way: our death . . . "puts an end to sin". Death is not an end to life, but an end to sin!
In His death Christ took away the guilt of our sin. And when we die, we are freed from all the effects of sin. We leave behind the sinful flesh, the body of death, and we go out of this corrupt world. We leave behind all that is part of this sinful life, even our earthly relationships and possessions, and we enter the sinless, heavenly reality of Christ. That is what happens when we die.
Again, let us not minimize this in any way. Death is traumatic in the sense what we are tom away from and must tear ourselves away from what is known and dear to us. That is not easy to do! It is not normal to yearn for death. It is not truly Christian either, for we must work in the kingdom rather than dream about heaven. Death is a serious separation from all that we know and love, and therefore we need the grace of God to face it.
But it is clear that we must leave all this behind. In our present state-sinful, corrupt, and weak-we cannot see God. We must either die, or, as Paul says to the Corinthians, be changed in an instant. We must leave this body behind in order to receive the incorruptible body. We must leave this world behind for the new world. We leave these relationships behind for new relationships. The "old" is making way for the "new".
Death now serves as an "entrance", says the Catechism. Death is not a closed door, a dead end street, but a gateway. It's something through which we pass in order to arrive at another place, a better destination. For Christ died to give us life, life that never ends. He gives us a new life, a life that already now shows a different style and content. We come to the second point.
2. We have now looked at the significance of dying. We have looked at the life to come and how we enter it, but we should also see that this new life does not merely begin on the new earth or in heaven with Christ. Instead, it begins already now in this life.
I am saying that the death of Christ does not only determine our future life, but also our present life. Sure, the great benefit is entering into eternal life, leaving sin and sinfulness behind. But that is a future perspective. What about now? Does life go on here as before?
You will realize that after the death of Christ, life cannot now go on as before. The Catechism explains this clearly when it asks, "What further benefit do we receive from Christ's sacrifice and death on the cross?" The greatest benefit is that our life never ends. But there is also a further benefit. We receive a new life that begins now!
For we discover that not only has the guilt of sin been removed by Christ on the cross, but also the power of sin in our lives has been broken. The Catechism says that "Through Christ's death, our old nature is crucified, put to death and buried with Him . . ."
I said earlier that our old nature is still with us. But does this answer not teach the opposite, namely that our old nature is gone, dead, and buried? Is this answer not a bit perfectionistic? Is this real? Does not experience teach us that our old nature is not dead and buried, but very much alive and active?
Our old nature is crucified, slain, and buried. This is indeed powerful language in the Catechism. But it is true. We cannot accept Christ's death for us and then go on living our old life of sin! The new life does not begin in heaven. No, it begins now, here on earth.
Notice that the Catechism does not say that we have crucified our old nature, but rather that "our old nature is crucified and buried with Him." He took our weakened nature to the cross. In the flesh He overcame all sin and fulfilled all righteousness. And this now has consequences for us. The present text [as revised in 1983] is actually incorrect here, for the original German text reads, "Through Christ's power ["durch seine krafft"] our old nature is crucified . . ." It is by His power that He already now gives us new life, for He has overcome the weaknesses of our flesh!
The Catechism does not imply that these weaknesses are no longer with us. Again, our weaknesses are removed only when we die. But the great difference is that the power of Christ is manifest in our lives, so that "the evil desires of the flesh may no longer reign in us".
"To reign" means to have absolute control. The Catechism has taken here the language of Romans 6 where we can read that Christ has destroyed the body of sin, so that we might no longer be enslaved by sin.
The benefit of Christ's death is that we are no longer in the state of death and under the power of sin, but rather live in the renewing power of Christ our Lord! We have been set free to a new service. That is the big difference. True, Satan still has power, and he will be bound fully only on the day of judgment. Sin still has effect, it will be removed only on the great day of judgment. Our weak flesh still influences us more than we may like, and we lose it only through death. The world still fights us, and it will be destroyed only when Christ returns! All this is true, and we must reckon with it every day, and we may never let our guard down for one instant, lest we come to a terrible fall.
But nevertheless, because of Christ's death, Satan, sin, the world, and our own flesh have no absolute power over us anymore. Now Christ is in full charge of our lives! Now He urges us on to our glorious destination. He protects and preserves us in the salvation obtained for us. When we falter, He admonishes us. When we go astray, He calls us back. When we fear, He comforts us. When we fall, He lifts us up. When we despair, He restores to us the joy the of faith.
The effects of sin are still with us, and ultimately we must all face the breakdown of the sinful body. But sin and death have no final say, no decisive influence over us! The power of Christ is manifest in us. Already now, in this life we live with Christ. The power of Christ is manifest in the lives of God's children. This was so already in the Old Testament. Think, for example, of Abraham and David. Although they were indeed sinful people, God's sovereign grace was triumphant in their lives. This is true also today in even richer measure.
How do we know whether the power of sin is indeed broken in our lives? The Catechism says that when sin no longer reigns in us, "we may offer ourselves to Him as a sacrifice of thankfulness". Christ's sacrifice was payment., our sacrifice is gratitude.
We find-O wonder of grace-that despite all our weaknesses, there is something new in our lives. We find that we do live for Christ, and the many sins which we still find with ourselves are sins against our will (do you remember these words from the Form for the Celebration of the Lord's Suppers? We strive to do His will, and our weaknesses and sins greatly bother us. Time and again we begin anew in the service of the Lord, raised up by His power. For Christ died that we may have life, new life that begins now on this earth!
Unbelieving people have only this world and they live only for their earthly wealth, treasures, and relationships. And they exhaust it all to the bitter end. But with us it is different. We are not slaves of this world, of the flesh and its passions. We receive and use all things in the Lord's service and for His glory.
For Christ died to give us life, life that never ends. Life that begins now. And life means communion with God and His people. Life means new relationships with God and one another. It all starts here in this life, and it just carries on in perfection for ever and ever.
Death is living in sin, dedicated to oneself and the world. And it means having to face an eternal damnation. Life does not start after death. No, it starts now, and it flows to us from the cross. It is fed by the power of the risen Christ.
If we do not live for God in this life, we will not live with Him in the life to come. The power of sin is broken here in this life, or it is not broken at all.
We have to face so many enemies: sin, Satan, the world, our flesh. Let us always be on guard. And one day we must face the final enemy: death. But if we have faced all the others in the power and victory of Christ, we can face also the last enemy in the same power and victory! And in that hour of death, we will and experience, as throughout our life,
I know in whom my hope is founded,
Thou art my Rock, I trust Thy might.
When once life's evening's veils enshroud me
I'll bring, though worn by ill and strife
For every day Thou hast allowed me,
Thee higher praise, 0 God of Life". AMEN.