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The Provisional Character of Death

Frederick William Grant

Facts and Theories as to a Future State

We now come to look at a point of great importance in many respects, and which has been indeed already spoken of, but not fully proved or dwelt upon as it deserves. I mean the provisional and temporary character of the first death.

We have already argued that the penalty attaching to the eating of the forbidden tree was simply this, and did not at all (as so many beside Mr. Constable assume) include in it "all that God purposed to inflict upon Adam and his posterity in case of transgression"! Where is the least warrant for this? The actual result to us of that primal sin we have had the apostle state to us, and that is (so far as infliction from God is concerned) physical death as His stamp upon a fallen condition, His judgment of a race corrupted from its beginning.

Herein lay of course the possibility, nay, probability, of a final sentence But God is in no haste with judgment; and this was the beginning of the world's history, not the close of it. Who, save for the need of making a system, could imagine the beneficent Creator of man, at once, and for the personal offence of our first parents, adjudging all their descendants to eternal death? Scripture at any rate has naught of it, and we are seeking to follow Scripture in its simplest facts and statements.

It may be urged, however, that death followed as one of these facts and that that shows that Adam's posterity shared in Adam's judgment.

But that is a very different thing, as a little consideration will assure us. Death was indeed God's judgment upon the race as vitiated and corrupt, but - inasmuch as it was corrupted by another's sin and not its own, - a judgment which was a merciful discipline for it, a witness to the fallen creature of its own condition, an appeal to it by its own frailty and helplessness to look higher than itself for help, an admonition so to number its days that its heart might be applied to wisdom. What should we do without the thorns and thistles which grow out of the ground cursed for man's sake? What should we do without the need of the sweat of the brow? What, without the ministry of death itself. Surely a blessing is in this curse; it is an evil which is good; the discipline of the Father of spirits for our profit, chastening of a holy hand that we may be partakers of His holiness, and in its own nature contrasted with that final sentence which is "Depart from, me, ye cursed." The first death and the second death are contrasts and not the same.

Such is its nature, if we consider it as the fruit simply of Adam's sin, its legacy to his descendants. It was the wish and tender foresight of Him who saw the floodgates of evil pierced, and the awful outburst of iniquity before it came and ordained this as its corrective, as One who did not intend to give up His creatures to it, to perish through helplessness alone. If by one man sin was entering into the world, then "death by sin" was the Divine ordinance. And right and good every prodigal proclaims it whom the pressure of hunger causes to think of a Father's house: - very psalmist that ever was, with Israel's sweet Psalmist when he owns, " Before I was afflicted I went astray, now I have kept Thy words."

This is death as an appendage to a fallen condition; but if we left it there, there would be manifest incongruity with much of Scripture and of fact as well. In order to have the whole statement and the full harmonious truth, we must look further. We must distinguish between death as we should rightly consider it, as introduced into the world through another's sin, and, on the other hand, as brought upon us through. our own, personal transgression. The Old Testament is full of this last subject, which is found also in the New. At Corinth, where they were profaning the Lord's supper many were weak and sickly among them, and many slept (1 Cor. xi: 30). And the apostle John tells us of a "sin unto death" for which he does not say that one should pray (1 John v. 16).

But the Old Testament it is that insists ever upon death as the penalty of personal transgression, and this is just what the text means on all sides so little understood, "the soul that sinneth it shall die." Even this is not the second death which the Old Testament knows nothing of. It is a sinner dying in his sins and under judgment, and which leaves its boding shadow upon the future beyond death. But we must reserve this subject for another chapter.

Death is then a provisional, not a final, sentence. It is a corrective discipline from the Father of spirits in view of the entrance of sin into the world. It is in its own nature temporary and to pass away, as Scripture declares it will. As the separation of soul and body, it is a necessary hindrance to the full blessing of the righteous, and a hindrance also to the full judgment of the wicked. For the righteous and for the wicked alike, although with opposite effect, it is at the resurrection finally done away.

Let us look at some Scriptures which in this way get their proper significance, and in this way only.

First, the Lord's answer to the Sadducees touching the resurrection (Luke xx. 27-38). These Sadducees were consistent in their unbelief; and, as they denied resurrection, they denied the existence also of the spirit in the separate state; and it is this last that the Lord takes up and proves, in order by it to prove the resurrection.

God says at the bush, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." But, if He were then in that relationship to them, they must be existent for Him to be so. He could not be the God of the dead (in the Sadducees sense of death, the non-existent), they must be sense alive: alive to Him, and so they are.

But then this apparently proves but a separate existence of the spirit in death, and that has ever been the difficulty about it. How does proving the existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the separate state prove resurrection? Very simply after all. For what is death upon this view of it? Manifestly the infringement of God's creative plan. HE had not made man a spirit merely, but a spirit embodied. A spirit disembodied could not be God's intention, for His. gifts and calling are without repentance. The body therefore must rise again.

And this is no forced argument. I doubt not it was one well understood in that day, when men were accustomed to a sort of reasoning which the clear light of the New Testament (wherein life and incorruption have been brought to light) has set aside as unnecessary to those who have it. But that this is no forced argument we have the best possible evidence; for it is Mr. Constable's own conclusion (perfect Sadducee as he is as to the separate state) as to what the separate existence of the spirit might imply. We have quoted his words already, but will cite them again to show how he considers this linked by implication with resurrection of the dead. "If the first death," he says, "is consistent with man's in fact not dying, but continuing to live in regard to his most important part, whose survival may again be supposed to imply the restoration of the body to life," etc. That is what it really does, and we may well believe it no forced or unnatural conclusion, when we find from such a quarter so decided a testimony as to its naturalness.

Take an illustration from a fact before our eyes. The preservation of the Jews as a nation after near eighteen hundred years of dispersion into all lands is one of the standing miracles whereby God rebukes the unbelief of His prophetic word. But what does it argue to those who believe in His hand as guiding surely and not doubtfully, all things according to his resistless counsels? If we must say, this is the finger of God, to what does it point? Surely to that national resurrection from the dead, which yet in His own time He will accomplish. This is the simply prompt conclusion of faith. It may serve to illustrate the connection of thought between the belief in the separate spirit and the resurrection of the body.

And we may note that the inspired historian seems in some way to connect them, when, Paul having proclaimed himself in the council a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee, he adds in explanation: "for the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees confess both."

But we must not forget that there is another way in which the words of our Lord are attempted to be explained. Indeed, we have already heard Mr. Roberts upon the subject. Let us now listen to Mr. Dobney. He has taken particular pains to establish the sense in which the passage is to be understood. He says of the explanation of it in the way we have given: "With us it would be a striking and satisfactory proof of a continuance of conscious existence after death - but no proof whatever of a resurrection; and yet it is to prove this last exclusively that our Lord, who could not have reasoned inaccurately or sophistically, adduces it." He paraphrases therefore the Lord's argument thus: -
"God is not the God of the dead [utterly and eternally perished, which was the sense in which the Sadducees used it, with whom He was disputing] but of the living.
"But he calls himself the God of the Patriarchs.
"Therefore these still live - or ‘will live again [which is the same thing with Him to whom the future is the present, and ‘who calls the things that are not, but shall be, as though they already were].

But then, as already intimated, since it was a resurrection our Lord undertook to establish, which He establishes only by proving a life after death, the life which carries with it a proof of resurrection must either be itself identical therewith, or else dependent thereupon."

The patriarchs "live" then in the purpose of God as to them, not actually, but God calling that which is not as though it were - that is how Mr. Dobney understands it. But then, when God says, "I am the God of Abraham," the present actually is everything. If otherwise, then as the past is the present also to Divine Omniscience, no less than the future, He might be Abraham's God in that sense, and no resurrection be involved at all.

But it is not true that, in the way Mr. Dobney understands it, God calls the things that are not as though they were. In the passage he quotes God does indeed speak of the "many nations" of which he had made Abraham father, with divine certainty, as being, although they were not yet. But He does not speak of their present existence, while they do not exist. So He could not assert, "I am the God of Abraham" as a matter of present relationship, when none existed. To say so is to speak deceitfully for Him. "I am the God of Abraham" to human ears necessarily inferred what God was then at the time He spoke. Nor was there here prophecy at all; no announcement of the future, nothing that could involve the thought of the future. God could no more say He was the God of Abraham while there was no Abraham to be God to, than He could say I am raising the dead, a thousand years before the resurrection. "The Lord which is, and which was, and which is to come," distinguishes between the present and the future, which Mr. Dobney would confound. But God says, "I will be" as well as "I am," and in this distinguishes, that we may understand Him; binding Himself to the forms of human speech which He adopts; speaking like one of ourselves, however little He be that, instead of hiding Himself from us in His own perfections.

"I am the God of Abraham" then involved the fact of Abraham's existence when He spoke. He could not be the God of one who had no existence, could not be in relationship to a nonentity, could not be (in the Sadducees' thought of what the dead were) "the God of the dead." The survival thus of Abraham in his most important part implied (as Mr. Constable allows) "the restoration of the body to life."

Death is then in its own nature temporary. As the derangement of God's thought of man in his creation, it must of necessity be set aside. It is the provisional appendage of a scene into which sin has entered, but where God's mercy also abounds. In its nature it could not be final. In fact it is to be done away.

Death does not enter then into the final judgment. That is expressly stated to be "AFTER death." "It is appointed unto men ONCE to die, but AFTER this the judgment." There are men we wot of who say it is appointed unto men twice to die, - that the second death is of the same nature as the first, - and that death thus is the judgment. Let us examine carefully then this text also.

There is one fruitful cause of misapprehension of it on all sides. The sentence produced is not understood to be, what upon the face of it it is, part of a larger sentence in which the portion of the saved is distinguished from the general lot of men. "Now once in the end of the world hath He [Christ] appeared, to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment, so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time without sin unto salvation' (Heb. ix. 26-28).

There is a manifest contrast here - a designed one. The express object of the passage is to display the efficacy of the work of Christ. He had appeared to put away sin by His sacrifice. Sin had brought in death, had created a necessity of judgment. How then did Christ's work meet these effects of sin for those who believed? Were death and judgment their common portion still? Alas, the general answer has been in the affirmative, and thus the meaning has been almost taken away from this pregnant and wonderful statement. Men say still, with the woman of Tekoa of old "We must needs die," and as for judgment, to deny that a saint shall be judged would be by the mass considered heresy, if it were not lunacy. Let us seek to get "full assurance of understanding" as to this.

First, as to death, is it a "must needs" that the believer die? Did Enoch die? Did Elijah? Will the saints that are "alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord"? "We shall not all sleep," says the apostle, "but we shall all be changed." Thus death, with the apostle, is no necessity for the believer. We may die, not must. We may meet it as the providential dispensation of an infinitely wise God, - not as wrath, not as penalty, nor necessarily even as judgment, in that sense in which the Father judgeth His own children.* It is "to depart and be with Christ, which is far better," - to be "absent from the body and present with the Lord." Thus has Christ "abolished death, and brought life and incorruption to light by the gospel."

*For of course I do not speak of such cases as those of the Corinthians, or of a "sin unto death."

This, let me trust, is simple, though only to the one who refuses the unbelief of the Sadducees as to death. If it be nonentity, the blotting out of existence, no fair words about it will ever make it other than it is confessedly to Mr. Constable. But we have not now to do with him. In Scripture and for faith (but oh how little alas, faith is with us) death is no more the portion of the saint. It is abolished. And, if alive and remaining to that coming of the Lord for which we are taught daily to wait, shall never even "sleep" at all.

And now as to judgment after death. The plain unequivocal statement of our Lord has been obscured to us by an unhappy translation; but there is no question as to the, simple fact, that in John v. 24-29 the word used both for "condemnation" and "damnation" is the simple word for "judgment." Alford's and the Bible Union revisions both give "he that heareth my voice, and believeth on Him that sent me, hath everlasting life and shall not come into judgment"; and again, "they that have done evil unto the resurrection of judgment."

The common thought is, "we shall have to come into judgment, but we hope not to be condemned." The Scripture truth is; if such as we are at our best came into judgment, we could not but be condemned. hear the Psalmist express it when as a servant of the Lord he yet pleads: "Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, O Lord; for in Thy sight shall NO FLESH LIVING be justified" (Psa. cxliii. 2).

And that this is the fact Scripture everywhere bears witness. The solemn final scene, as Rev. xx pictures it, before the great white throne, we shall look at in detail at a future time. But the second chapter of Romans is sufficiently plain as to the issue of judgment for those who come into it. Let us look briefly at the apostle's words.

Mark then, in the first place, it is "the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ" (ver. 16). The principle, too, of the judgment is clearly stated. God "will render to every man according to his deeds; to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality (incorruption) eternal life: but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first and also of the Gentile; but glory, honour and peace to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: for there is no respect of persons with God."

These are the principles of judgment; what is the actual result? Who of all the sons of men can advance his claim to eternal life upon this ground, before a holy and heart. searching God? The issue is this: -

"For as many as have sinned without law" - and these are the least guilty and the least responsible - "shall also PERISH without law; and as many as have sinned in the law shall be JUDGED BY THE LAW." Does any one think he can escape, when judged by the law? The apostle's words elsewhere exclude absolutely so vain a hope. "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them" (Gal. iii, 10). This then is the law's judgment; and this the patient continuance in well doing which the law requires. Judged then by this rule, who can escape? Not one, assuredly. As it is written again: "Whatsoever the law saith, it saith to them that are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and ALL THE WORLD become guilty before God" (Rom. iii. 19).

If then God enters into judgment with a saint and servant of His, be cannot be justified. The Old Testament and the New unite in this assurance. And God's way of deliverance from condemnation is by deliverance from the judgment that would involve it. The believer does not "come into judgment": the "resurrection of judgment" is the portion of the wicked alone.

Let any one consider, with the fifteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians, and the fourth of the first of Thessalonians, before his eyes, the order and connection of what is detailed there, and he will see how clearly and satisfactorily Scripture deals with this question. When "the Lord himself shall .descend from heaven with a shout," not yet visible to men, as we shall see directly, "first the dead in Christ shall rise." They rise "in power," "in incorruption," "in glory," "in the image of the Heavenly" - of Christ Himself. Could there be a question of trying for their life these perfected and glorious saints? They have been already, for a longer or shorter time, every one of them absent from the body, and present with the Lord. Can it be now a question of whether they had title to the blessed place they have been in? Assuredly it can never be: the case has been abundantly settled before this. And can it be other for those who, remaining alive, without dying change their mortality for immortality, and are caught up with the risen saints in one glorious company, "to meet the Lord in the air," and "be forever with the Lord"?

It is after this that the Lord appears to judgment, for we are assured that "when Christ (who is our life) shall appear, then shall we also appear with Him in glory" (Col. iii. 3). And not till after this is there judgment, personal judgment. "He shall judge. the quick and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom."

Details, as to the judgment will come afterwards. It is very evident there is here no putting upon trial to see who they are, and whether worthy or not to enter into life. Christ's call, which makes no mistake, summons forth His saints to meet Him. Not one is forgotten; not one unknown. Blessed be His name! it could not be. And thus the whole matter is definitely settled, and can never come up again.

That we should give account of ourselves to God, is another matter, and should not be confounded with this. As a question of reward, we shall receive for the deeds done in the body, and "suffer loss" or find gracious recompense accordingly. That is not denied but affirmed. But we are not judged according to our works: we do not come into judgment, if our works do. There is a very manifest distinction between these things.

Having seen then the Scripture testimony as to death and judgment, let us return to look at these as the portion of men, from which Christ's work delivers His own. "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" For the saint on the other hand, "Christ was once offered, to bear the sins of many, and unto them that look for Him shall He appear without sin," - or rather "apart from sin," as having no more to settle that question - "apart from sin unto salvation."

"Once death," then, and "after this, judgment" is the lot of the unsaved. How clear this makes the distinction between the two! Death temporary and to give place to judgment, which is not in death but afterwards. Thus Scripture. How feeble then again all Mr. Constable's arguments as to the primary sense of words; and that death and nothing but death in its primary sense is the final judgment! Twice death, in effect, is his argument: once before, and then again in the judgment. Once death says Scripture, but after this the judgment. That judgment is indeed the second death. But therefore the second death is not the repetition of the first: it is cancelled forever when the judgment of the second death begins. Is it so ill-named "a death that never dies"? a death in which they who suffer it also never die? How vain to dispute the unspeakably solemn fact!

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