The Art of Dying Well

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A year has ended and I cannot help myself but to be reminded of a verse in the Bible—Ecclesiastes 7:8. “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning.” But when I moved my eyes in reading the verses that preceded it, I was drawn into a specific text. “The day of death is better than the day that one is born” (Ecclesiastes 7:3).

Talks about death or dying seem to be a taboo nowadays. Whenever it is brought up, people will begin to put it down and try to divert the conversation away from the subject. Or, one might look you in the eye and say, “You sound morbid.” Aren’t we supposed to talk about the good life? People flock conferences and bookstores for “the art of living well.” No one will tell you that he desires to know “the art of dying well.” But, given that death is inevitable, no matter how we try to evade the fact, we should all the more think about it.

But, how could death be a good thing? Death still has its gloom in this fallen world. We experience the pain of losing someone we love. We feel afraid at the thought of dying. However, while death remains an evil in this age, God uses it to the benefit of his saints. The great Reformed catechisms speak of it in this way:

Q. Since then Christ died for us, why must we also die?

A. Our death is not a satisfaction for our sins, but only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life. (Heidelberg Catechism 42)

Q. Death being the wages of sin, why are not the righteous delivered from death, seeing all their sins are forgiven in Christ?

A. The righteous shall be delivered from death itself at the last day, and even in death are delivered from the sting and curse of it; so that, although they die, yet it is out of God’s love, to free them perfectly from sin and misery, and to make them capable of further communion with Christ in glory, which they then enter upon. (Westminster Larger Catechism 85)

Louis Berkhof aptly listed the sum of these benefits in his “Systematic Theology:”1

The very thought of death, bereavements through death, the feeling that sicknesses and sufferings are harbingers of death, and the consciousness of the approach of death, — all have a very beneficial effect on the people of God. They serve to humble the proud, to mortify carnality, to check worldliness and to foster spiritual-mindedness. In the mystical union with their Lord believers are made to share the experiences of Christ. Just as He entered upon His glory by the pathway of sufferings and death, they too can enter upon their eternal reward only through sanctification. Death is often the supreme test of the strength of the faith that is in them, and frequently calls forth striking manifestations of the consciousness of victory in the very hour of seeming defeat, I Pet. 4:12,13. It completes the sanctification of the souls of believers, so that they become at once “the spirits of just men made perfect,” Heb. 12:23; Rev. 21:27. Death is not the end for believers, but the beginning of a perfect life. They enter death with the assurance that its sting has been removed, I Cor. 15:55, and that it is for them the gateway of heaven. They fall asleep in Jesus, II Thess. 1:7, and know that even their bodies will at last be snatched out of the power of death, to be forever with the Lord, Rom. 8:11; I Thess. 4:16,17. Jesus said, “He that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live.” And Paul had the blessed consciousness that for him to live was Christ, and to die was gain. Hence he could also speak in jubilant notes at the end of his career: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give to me at that day; and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved His appearing,” II Tim. 4:7,8.

Now, this brings us to the role of death for us living in this time. In his book A Salve for a Sick Man’ (or a treatise containing the nature, differences, and kinds of death; as also the right manner of dying well), William Perkins listed five duties of the Christian with regard to dying well. He started by naming “the meditation of death in the life time” as the first duty in preparation to death “for the life of a Christian is nothing else but a meditation of death.”

“This meditation of death,” he wrote, “is of special use, brings forth many fruits in the life of man” in which are identified as follows: (1) it serves to humble us under the hand of God, (2) it is a means to further repentance, and (3) it serves to stir up contentment in every estate and condition of life that shall befall us.

The second duty is that “every man must daily endeavour to take away from his own death the power and strength thereof.” We know that the “sting of death is sin” (1 Corinthians 15:56) and in our sins, there is where the strength of death lies. This comprises two tasks, namely, (1) “to humble our selves for all our sins past, partly confessing them against our selves, partly in prayer crying to heaven for the pardon of them” and (2) “come to turn unto God, and to carry a purpose, resolution, and endeavour in all things to reform both heart and life according to God’s word.”

The third duty is to “enter into the first degree of life eternal.” What did he mean by that? Nothing else but to “rise out of the grave of [our] own sins, in which by nature [we lie] buried, and live in newness of life.” In the present life, we must begin to live that blessed and eternal life before we die if we would live eternally. We should live as bearers of God’s saving knowledge with the peace of conscience and life ordered according to His will.

The fourth duty is to “exercise and [accustom] ourselves in dying by little and little so long as we live here upon earth.” While the former duty enjoins us to live according to the word of God, here we are called to die daily and take up our crosses by mortifying our sins. We should begin to die now while we are living, so that we might die well in the end.

The fifth and last duty is “to do good while [you] have time” (Galatians 6:10). Meditating about death stimulates action. It inspires us to do all what our hands find to do in any good service to God and our neighbors all the days of our lives.

Here are some of the select quotes from the book:

“Objection [against Ecclesiastes 7:3]: Death is the wages of sin, Rom. 6. 23. it is an enemy of Christ, 1. Cor. 15. and the curse of the law. Hence it seems to follow, that in and by death, men receive their wages and payment for their sins: that the day of death is the doleful day in which the enemy prevails against us: that he which dieth is cursed.

Answer: We must distinguish of death: it must be considered two ways: first, as it is by itself in his own nature: secondly, as it is altered and changed by Christ. Now death by itself considered, is indeed the wages of sin, and enemy of Christ and of all his members, and the curse of the law, yea the very suburbs and gates of hell: yet in the second respect, it is not so: for by the virtue of the death of Christ, it ceaseth to be a plague or punishment, and of a curse it is made a blessing, and is become unto us a passage or midway between this life and eternal life, and as it were a new wicket or door whereby we pass out of this world, and enter into heaven. And in this respect the saying of Solomon is most true: for in the day of birth, men are born and brought forth into the vale of misery, but afterward when they go hence, having death altered unto them by the death of Christ, they enter into eternal joy and happiness with all the Saints of God for ever.”

“. . .indeed, it is a very hell for a man that hath but a spark of grace to be exercised, turmoiled, and tempted with the inborn corruptions and rebellions of his own heart: and if a man would devise a torment for such as fear God, and desire to walk in newness of life, he cannot devise a greater than this. For this cause, blessed is the day of death which brings with it a freedom from all sin whatsoever. For when we die, the corruption of nature is quite abolished, and sanctification is accomplished.”
“God both in the beginning, and in the continuance of his grace, doth greater things unto to his servants then they do commonly ask or think, because he hath promised aid and strength unto them, therefore in wonderful wisdom he casteth upon them this heavy burden of death, that they might make experience what is the exceeding might and power of his grace in their weakness.”
“Thus much of freedom from misery, which is the first benefit that comes by death, the first steep to life: now follows the second, which is, that death gives an entrance to the soul, that it may come into the presence of the everlasting God, of Christ, and of all the Angels and Saints in heaven. The worthiness of this benefit makes the death of the righteous to be no death but rather a blessing to be wished of all men. The consideration of this made Paul to say, Phil. 1. 23. I desire to be dissolved: but what is the cause of this desire? that follows in the next words, namely, that by this dissolution he might come to be with Christ. . . O then, what happiness is this, to see the glory and Majesty of God face to face, and to have eternal fellowship with God our father, Christ our Redeemer, and the holy Ghost our comforter, and to live with the blessed Saints and Angels in heaven for ever?”
“Now then considering our conjunction with Christ is the foundation of all our joy and comfort in life and death; we are in the fear of God to learn this one lesson, namely, that while we have time in this world, we must labour to be united to Christ, that we may be bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. This very point is as it were a flagon of wine to revive our souls when they be in a swoon at any instant. And that we may be assured that we are certainly joined to Christ, we must show ourselves to be members of his mystical body by the daily fruits of righteousness and true repentance. And being once certainly assured in conscience of our being in Christ, let death come when it will, and let it cruelly part asunder both body and soul, yet shall they both remain in the covenant, and by mean thereof be reunited and taken up to life eternal.”
“[We] are not to fear death, but to be glad of it, and that for many causes. First of all, in it we have occasion to show our subjection obedience which we owe unto God, when he calls us out of this world, as Christ said, Father, not my will but thy will be done.

Secondly, all sin is abolished by death, and we then cease to offend God any more as we have done.

Thirdly, the dead body is brought into a better condition then ever it was in this life, for by death it is made insensible, and by that means it is freed from all the miseries calamities of this life; and it ceaseth to be either an active or passive instrument of sin, whereas in the life time it is both.

Fourthly, it gives the soul passage to rest, life, celestial glory in which we shall see God as he is, perfectly know him, and praise his name forever, keeping without intermission an eternal sabbath; therefore Paul saith, I desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, for that is best of all.

Fifthly, God executes his judgements upon the wicked, purgeth his Church by death. Now in all these respects godly men have cause not to fear and sorrow, but to rejoice in their own death, and the death of others.”

“… [The apostle] Paul saith, Rom. 14. 7, 8. None of us liveth to himself, neither doth any die to himself: for whether we live, we live unto the Lord, or whether we die, we die unto the Lord, whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lords. For this cause we may not do with our lives as we will, but we must refer the whole disposition thereof unto God, for whose glory we are to live and die. . . Life is not bestowed on us, that we should spend our days in our lusts and vain pleasures, but that we might have liberty to come out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of grace, from the bondage of sin into the glorious liberty of the sons of God: and in this respect special care must be had of preservation of life, till God do call us hence.”

You may download a free copy of this book in the Digital Puritan website.

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Banner of Truth), pp. 670-671

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