The Christian’s Work of Daily Dying: John Owen Sermon
The following was preached by John Owen on 26 September, 1680. The sermon can be found in a new Puritan Paperback, Gospel Life, and in Volume 9 of The Works of John Owen (Sermons to the Church).
‘I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.
—1 Cor. 15:31, KJV
These words express a great vehemence and emphasis, revealing a considerable urgency in the apostle’s spirit as he wrote them. In the original they carry an even greater sense of import than in our translation. ‘I die daily’ comes first in the original. Then follows, ‘Yes, I do so by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ There is no other expression used by the apostle that has a greater ardour of spirit than this.
The special reason for using it in this place is to testify to the stability of his faith with regard to the resurrection of the dead. You know that this is the issue with which he is dealing. He proves here that he was not expressing an opinion but a firm-rooted faith that carried him through all difficulties and sufferings. ‘Why am I in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”’ (ESV). ‘I testify to my faith in the resurrection,’ he says, ‘by my readiness to suffer all things in order to confirm its truth.’ It is the great duty of ministers to be ready at all times to testify to the strength of their own faith in the things which they preach to others, by a cheerful suffering because of them.
There are two things in these words: an assertion, and the confirmation of that assertion. The assertion is this: ‘I die daily.’ The confirmation: ‘I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ There are also two difficulties with the words. I will not trouble you much with the different conjectures but give what I think is the sense of the Holy Spirit in them. The first is from the ambiguous meaning of the word which is translated here (in the KJV) ‘rejoicing.’ But in other places it is rendered ‘confidence,’ ‘boasting,’ or ‘glorying’ (or ‘pride,’ ESV). ‘Gloriation’ is the word I would use, if there were such a word in our language. ‘By my gloriation’; an expression of exultant joy. There is another difficulty in the transposition of the words, which are not found elsewhere in the Scriptures: ‘I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus.’ This has produced a variety of conjectures, but plainly the sense of it is, ‘By the rejoicing which you and I have in the Lord.’ I could give instances of similar transpositions in the Greek language, from one person to another, if it were to
your benefit. There is still a third difficulty. The particle used here denotes an oath, yet sometimes it is used as a note of strong emphasis. It is translated here by the medial expression, ‘I protest.’ If it is understood as expressing an oath, then the word denotes the object: ‘I swear by your rejoicing in the Lord’; that is, ‘by the Lord in whom you rejoice.’ As we find in Genesis 31:53, ‘Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac’; that is, ‘by him whom his father Isaac feared.’ But I understand it here as a note of vehement affirmation: ‘It is as true as that you and I glory in Christ and rejoice in him, that I die daily.’
The whole phrase may have a double sense. It could mean, ‘Because I preach the gospel, I am every day exposed to death and danger.’ For Paul often wrote, before and after this time, of the dangers he underwent in his work of preaching the gospel. Or it might mean, ‘I die daily by the act of continually preparing myself to die. I am always preparing to die. Through faith in the resurrection, I am always prepared to die cheerfully and comfortably, according to the will of God.’ I shall base my remarks on this second meaning and, consequently, find in this experience of the apostle a general rule for all.
It is the duty of all believers to be preparing themselves every
day to die cheerfully, comfortably and, if it may be, triumphing
in the Lord.
Take note of this: that one may die safely without dying cheerfully and comfortably. Every believer, whoever he or she is, shall die safely. But we see many believers who do not die cheerfully and comfortably. I am not going to refer to the first truth – how all believers die safely – but to the second: how believers may die cheerfully and comfortably.
There are two ways of dying cheerfully and comfortably:
The first is in our external aspect, to the comfort of those who are around us. This depends a great deal on the nature of the disease of which men die, which may bring with it a depression of spirit and clouding of the mind. This aspect is not under our control but must be left to God’s providence.
But there is also a cheerful and comfortable death experienced in a person’s soul, which, perhaps, in their dying moments, they may not be able to testify to, though being fully prepared for it. Truly, brothers and sisters, all I can say is that I have thought much about these things for my own account, before I ever thought of presenting them to you. I will not tell you how far I have proceeded in this matter, which may be little or nothing, but only what I have aimed at, in the hope that this might be of use to us in this dying time. This seems to be especially true in the case of godly ministers, one or another dying every day*.
I shall mention three things that, in my judgment, are necessary for every believer wishing to die cheerfully and to come, in the full and proper time, into the presence of God.
I. The constant exercise of faith with respect to the resigning of a departing soul into the hand and sovereign will of God. ‘I die daily.’ How? Exercising faith constantly in the resigning of a departing soul, when the time comes, to the sovereign grace, good pleasure, power and faithfulness of God. The soul is now taking its leave of all its concerns in this world; all that it sees, all that it knows by its senses, all its relationships, everything with which it has been acquainted up till now. From now on it will be absolutely, eternally unconcerned with them. It is entering into an invisible world of which it knows nothing, except what it has by faith. When Paul was taken up into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4) we would have been glad to have heard some description from the invisible world of how things were there. He saw nothing; he only heard words. May we not hear those words, blessed Paul? No. ‘They cannot be told.’ God does not wish us to know anything about the invisible world while we are here, except what is revealed in the word. Therefore, I am sure that the souls of those who have departed – who have died, but then lived again, such as the soul of Lazarus – were supported in their being by God, but that he restrained all their operation. For if a departed soul had one natural immediate view of God it would be the greatest misery in the world to be sent back into a dying body. God keeps those things to be the objects of faith. Lazarus could tell nothing of what was done in heaven; his soul was kept in existence, but all its operations were restrained. I bless God I have exercised my thoughts regarding the invisible world only on what is revealed in the word. Of this, perhaps, in due time, you may hear something; but in the meantime, I know that we have no notion of it except from pure revelation.
Where now is my soul going? What will be the end in a short while? Will it be annihilated? Does death not only separate the body and soul but also destroy our being, so that to all eternity we will be no more? That is how some will have it; it is in their interest that it should be so. Or is the soul passing into a state of wandering in the air, under the influence of more powerful spirits? That was the opinion of the old pagan world, who understood it as the reason for the frequent appearances of the dead upon earth. And this pagan belief was developed by the Papists into the idea of purgatory, from which they concluded that there were continual appearances on earth of those who had departed. There followed therefore a thousand stories of such appearances, which we all know to be the actions and deceits of evil spirits. And such is our darkness with regard to the invisible world that the majority of Christians have invented this third state of purgatory; one which is entirely the fruit of superstition and idolatry. This is indeed the nature of superstition: the inventing of things in religion which are suited to men’s natural feelings, or to the gratification of their lusts for their own profit. Both motives were at work in this case. For, when people thought that the souls of those who had passed into an eternal state were for ever lost, ‘No,’ they said, ‘there is another chance for them.’ And so they reassured themselves that, even if they were the worst of men, yet there might be hope for them after death. The belief does not in any way decrease any tendency in them to gratify their lusts or dissuade them from living at their pleasure. All this its devisors turned to their own profit. This is mentioned in passing only as one example of the darkness which mankind is in with respect to the invisible world.
But does the soul go to a state in which it is incapable of joy or consolation? Brothers and sisters, let men pretend what they will, those who never received any joy or comfort in this world except by their senses, or by their reason being exercised about the objects of sense, do not know, or can ever believe, that the soul itself is capable of consolation in another world. Only someone who has received spiritual comfort immediately into his soul in this world can believe that his soul is capable of it in another. But still, this is certain: no man can be assured of anything about the life of the soul in another world. What is your path forward, then, in this state and condition? What is the wise approach? Truly, to resign this departing soul to the sovereign wisdom, pleasure, faithfulness and power of God (the duty under consideration) by the continual exercise of faith. The apostle tells us, ‘I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me’ (2 Tim. 1:12). It is a mighty thing to keep an individual soul until the day of resurrection. ‘I know to whom I have trusted it,’ says Paul. ‘I have trusted it to almighty power.’
May the Lord help us to believe that there will be an act of almighty power put forth on behalf of our poor souls when departed into the invisible world, to keep them until that day when body and soul shall be united and proceed to enjoy God. We have a glorious example of this duty and exercise of faith. Our Lord Jesus Christ died in the exercise of it. It was the last act of faith that Christ demonstrated in this world: ‘Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice (that was the voice of nature), said (he now comes to the words of faith), “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (my departing soul).” And having said this he breathed his last’ (Luke 23:46). This was the last exercise of the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ in this world: the committing of his departing soul into the hands of God. And for what purpose did he do it? We are told in Psalm 16:8-11:
I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my
right hand, I shall not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
my flesh also dwells secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your
holy one see corruption.
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence
there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures
These are the words of David, which our Lord Jesus Christ applied to himself when he said, ‘Into your hands I commit my spirit,’ and the psalmist adds, ‘You have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God’ (Psa. 31:5). An experience of the work of redemption communicated to us by the truth of the promise is the greatest encouragement to commend a departing soul into God’s hands. When we consider the vanishing of all these shadows and appearances and the eternal dissolution of all relationships with things here below, and the existence of the soul in a separate condition with which we are quite unfamiliar, here is one of the first things to consider if we are to die cheerfully and comfortably: how we must resign a departing soul into the hand and sovereign disposal of God. It is both a great and eminent act of faith and also the last, victorious, act of faith:
1. It is a great and eminent act of faith. The great efficacy and success of faith is spoken of in Hebrews 11. The phrase ‘These all died in faith’ is central for many of those mentioned in the chapter. It was a great thing to die in faith under the Old Testament, when they were surrounded by so many shadows and so much darkness, and when their view of invisible things, within the veil, was so much less than that which God has shown us. In fact, the state of things within the veil was not the same then as it is now. Christ was not then upon the throne, administering his office. Yet, faith carried them through all this darkness and caused them to trust their souls to God, to his faithfulness, mercy and grace.
To think of these things is to lay all things in the balance. In the one scale: our being, our walk and life in this world; our sins and their guilt; our fears, uncertainties and the darkness of a future state; our abhorrence of a dissolution, and the thought of everything around us. In the other scale: the power, faithfulness and mercy of God, and his ability to receive, preserve and keep us to that day, and to be more to us than all earthly things. ‘This will be my choice,’ says faith. ‘Everything in the first scale is of no value, no weight, compared to the exceeding weight of the power and goodness of God.’ This is a glorious exercise of faith. Have you tried it, brothers and sisters? Lay things on one side or the other in a balance and see which way the scale will fall, what faith will do in your case.
2. It is the last victorious act of faith, in which it has its final conquest over all its adversaries. Faith is the leading grace in all our spiritual warfare and conflict, but throughout life it has faithful company that adhere to it and help it. Love works, and hope works, and all the other graces – self-denial, readiness for the cross – they all work and help faith. But when we come to die, faith is left alone. Now faith is tested. The exercise of the other graces ceases. Only faith comes to this close conflict with the last adversary, in which the whole is to be tried. And, by this one act of resigning all into the hands of God, faith triumphs over death and cries, ‘“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Come, give me an entry into immortality and glory; the everlasting hand of God is ready to receive me!’ This is the victory by which we overcome all our spiritual enemies.
I had thought of making use of what I have said, of examining whether we do live in the exercise of this grace or not, and of what benefit we receive from doing so. And I would have mentioned one particular benefit, namely, that it will keep us from all surprise at death. Not to be surprised by anything in this life is the core of human wisdom; not to be surprised at death is a major part of the core of spiritual wisdom.
At this time many eminent servants of Christ, who had been associated with Owen in the Christian ministry and in important public duties during the eventful times of the Protectorate, were passing into their eternal rest. In 1679, Thomas Goodwin, President of Magdalene College [sic – this should be Magdalen College, Oxford], a member of the Westminster Assembly, a happy expositor of Scripture, and, according to Anthony Wood, ‘one of the Atlases and Patriarchs of Independency,’ was removed from this world, and became, in the highest sense of his own phrase, ‘a child of light.’ It was but two months before this sermon was preached that Stephen Charnock died. He had been a Senior Proctor in the University of Oxford during the Protectorate and had left behind him manuscripts from which two large folios of posthumous works have been published; works held in such estimation that, besides the detached issue of particular treatises, they have been, in their collected form, four times reprinted. Others might be mentioned who died about this period, such as Matthew Poole, author of the ‘Synopsis Criticorum’; and Theophilus Gale, author of ‘The Court of the Gentiles.’ Such facts may help to account for the touching and solemn tone of these discourses on preparation for death, as well as for the particular allusion in the paragraph above. — W. H. Goold
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