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Vol. 3, Sermon 17 - VICTORY OVER DEATH

By Frederick W. Robertson


      Preached May 16, 1852.

      "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."--1 Cor. xv. 56, 57.

      On Sunday last I endeavoured to bring before you the subject of that which Scripture calls the glorious liberty of the Sons of God. The two points on which we were trying to get clear notions were these: what is meant by being under the law, and what is meant by being free from the law? When the Bible says that a man led by the Spirit is not under the law, it does not mean that he is free because he may sin without being punished for it, but it means that he is free because being taught by God's Spirit to love what His law commands he is no longer conscious of acting from restraint. The law does not drive him, because the Spirit leads him.

      There is a state brethren, when we recognize God, but do not love God in Christ. It is that state when we admire what is excellent, but are not able to perform it. It is a state when the love of good comes to nothing, dying away in a mere desire. That is the state of nature, when we are under the law, and not converted to the love of Christ. And then there is another state, when God writes His law upon our hearts by love instead of fear. The one state is this, "I cannot do the things that I would"--the other state is this, "I will walk at liberty; for I seek Thy commandments."

      Just so far therefore, as a Christian is led by the Spirit, he is a conqueror. A Christian in full possession of his privileges is a man whose very step ought to have in it all the elasticity of triumph, and whose very look ought to have in it all the brightness of victory. And just so far as a Christian suffers sin to struggle in him and overcome his resolutions, just so far he is under the law. And that is the key to the whole doctrine of the New Testament. From first to last the great truth put forward is--The law can neither save you nor sanctify you. The gospel can do both; for it is rightly and emphatically called the perfect law of liberty.

      We proceed to-day to a further illustration of this subject--of Christian victory. In the verses which I have read out, the Apostle has evidently the same subject in his mind: slavery through the law: victory through the gospel. "The strength of sin," he says, "is the law." God giveth us the victory through Christ. And when we are familiar with St. Paul's trains of thinking, we find this idea coming in perpetually. It runs like a coloured thread through embroidery, appearing on the upper surface every now and then in a different shape--a leaf, it may be, or a flower; but the same thread still, if you only trace it back with your finger. And this was the golden recurring thread in the mind of Paul. Restraint and law cannot check sin; they only gall it and make it struggle and rebel. The love of God in Christ, that, and only that can give man the victory.

      But in this passage the idea of victory is brought to bear upon the most terrible of all a Christian's enemies. It is faith here conquering in death. And the apostle brings together all the believer's antagonists--the law's power, sin, and death the chief antagonist of all; and then, as it were on a conqueror's battle field, shouts over them the hymn of triumph--"Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ." We shall take up these two points to dwell upon.

      I. The awfulness which hangs round the dying hour.
      II. Faith conquering in death.

      That which makes it peculiarly terrible to die is asserted in this passage to be, guilt. We lay a stress upon this expression--the sting. It is not said that sin is the only bitterness, but it is the sting which contains in it the venom of a most exquisite torture. And in truth brethren, it is no mark of courage to speak lightly of human dying. We may do it in bravado, or in wantonness; but no man who thinks can call it a trifling thing to die. True thoughtfulness must shrink from death without Christ. There is a world of untold sensations crowded into that moment, when a man puts his hand to his forehead and feels the damp upon it which tells him his hour is come. He has been waiting for death all his life, and now it is come. It is all over--his chance is past, and his eternity is settled. None of us know, except by guess, what that sensation is. Myriads of human beings have felt it to whom life was dear; but they never spoke out their feelings, for such things are untold. And to every individual man throughout all eternity that sensation in its fulness can come but once. It is mockery brethren, for a man to speak lightly of that which he cannot know till it comes.

      Now the first cause which makes it a solemn thing to die, is the instinctive cleaving of every thing that lives to its own existence. That unutterable thing which we call our being--the idea of parting with it is agony. It is the first and the intensest desire of living things, to be. Enjoyment, blessedness, everything we long for, is wrapped up in being. Darkness and all that the spirit recoils from, is contained in this idea, not to be. It is in virtue of this unquenchable impulse that the world, in spite of all the misery that is in it, continues to struggle on. What are war, and trade, and labour, and professions? Are they all the result of struggling to be great? No, my brethren, they are the result of struggling 'to be'. The first thing that men and nations labour for is existence. Reduce the nation or the man to their last resources, and only see what marvellous energy of contrivance the love of being arms them with. Read back the pauper's history at the end of seventy years--his strange sad history, in which scarcely a single day could ensure subsistence for the morrow--and yet learn what he has done these long years in the stern struggle with impossibility to hold his being where everything is against him, and to keep an existence, whose only conceivable charm is this, that it 'is' existence.

      Now it is with this intense passion for being, that the idea of death clashes. Let us search why it is we shrink from death. This reason brethren, we shall find, that it presents to us the idea of 'not being'. Talk as we will of immortality, there is an obstinate feeling that we cannot master, that we end in death; and 'that' may be felt together with the firmest belief of a resurrection. Brethren, our faith tells us one thing, and our sensations tell us another. When we die, we are surrendering in truth all that with which we have associated existence. All that we know of life is connected with a shape, a form, a body of materialism; and now that that is palpably melting away into nothingness, the boldest heart may be excused a shudder, when there is forced upon it, in spite of itself, the idea of ceasing for ever.

      The second reason is not one of imagination at all, but most sober reality. It is a solemn thing to die, because it is the parting with all round which the heart's best affections have twined themselves. There are some men who have not the capacity for keen enjoyment. Their affections have nothing in them of intensity, and so they pass through life without ever so uniting themselves with what they meet, that there would be anything of pain in the severance. Of course, with them the bitterness of death does not attach so much to the idea of parting. But my brethren, how is it with human nature generally? Our feelings do not weaken as we go on in life; emotions are less shown, and we get a command over our features and our expressions; but the man's feelings are deeper than the boy's. It is length of time that makes attachment. We become wedded to the sights and sounds of this lovely world more closely as years go on.

      Young men, with nothing rooted deep, are prodigal of life. It is an adventure to them, rather than a misfortune, to leave their country for ever. With the old man it is like tearing his own heart from him. And so it was that when Lot quitted Sodom, the younger members of his family went on gladly. It is a touching truth; it was the aged one who looked behind to the home which had so many recollections connected with it. And therefore it is, that when men approach that period of existence when they must go, there is an instinctive lingering over things which they shall never see again. Every time the sun sets, every time the old man sees his children gathering round him, there is a filling of the eye with an emotion that we can understand. There is upon his soul the thought of parting, that strange wrench from all we love which makes death (say what moralists will of it) a bitter thing.

      Another pang which belongs to death, we find in the sensation of loneliness which attaches to it. Have we ever seen a ship preparing to sail with its load of pauper emigrants to a distant colony? If we have we know what that desolation is which comes from feeling unfriended on a new and untried excursion. All beyond the seas, to the ignorant poor man, is a strange land. They are going away from the helps and the friendships and the companionships of life, scarcely knowing what is before them. And it is in such a moment, when a man stands upon a deck, taking his last look of his fatherland, that there comes upon him a sensation new, strange, and inexpressibly miserable--the feeling of being alone in the world.

      Brethren, with all the bitterness of such a moment, it is but a feeble image when placed by the side of the loneliness of death. We die alone. We go on our dark mysterious journey for the first time in all our existence, without one to accompany us. Friends are beside our bed, they must stay behind. Grant that a Christian has something like familiarity with the Most High, 'that' breaks this solitary feeling; but what is it with the mass of men? It is a question full of loneliness to them. What is it they are to see? What are they to meet? Is it not true, that, to the larger number of this congregation, there is no one point in all eternity on which the eye can fix distinctly and rest gladly--nothing beyond the grave, except a dark space into which they must plunge alone?

      And yet my brethren, with all these ideas no doubt vividly before his mind, it was none of them that the apostle selected as the crowning bitterness of dying. It was not the thought of surrendering existence. It was not the parting from all bright and lovely things. It was not the shudder of sinking into the sepulchre alone. "The sting of death is 'sin'."

      Now there are two ways in which this deep truth applies itself. There is something that appals in death when there are distinct separate acts of guilt resting on the memory; and there is something too in the possession of a guilty heart, which is quite another thing from acts of sin, that makes it an awful thing to die. There are some who carry about with them the dreadful secret of sin that has been done; guilt that has a name. A man has injured some one; he has made money, or got on by unfair means; he has been unchaste; he has done some of those thousand things of life which leave upon the heart the dark spot that will not come out. All these are sins which you can count up and number. And the recollection of things like these is that agony which we call remorse. Many of us have remembrances of this kind which are fatal to serenity. We shut them out, but it will not do. They bide their time, and then suddenly present themselves, together with the thought of a judgment-seat. When a guilty man begins to think of dying, it is like a vision of the Son of Man presenting itself and calling out the voices of all the unclean spirits in the man--"Art thou come to torment us before the time?"

      But my brethren, it is a mistake if we suppose that is the common way in which sin stings at the thought of death. Men who have lived the career of passionate life have distinct and accumulated acts of guilt before their eyes. But with most men it is not guilty acts, but guiltiness of heart that weighs the heaviest. Only take yesterday as a specimen of life. What was it with most of us? A day of sin. Was it sin palpable and dark, such as we shall remember painfully this day year? Nay my brethren, unkindness, petulance, wasted time, opportunities lost, frivolous conversation, 'that' was our chief guilt. And yet with all that trifling as it may be, when it comes to be the history of life, does it not leave behind a restless undefinable sense of fault, a vague idea of debt, but to what extent we know not, perhaps the more wretched just because it is uncertain?

      My Christian brethren, this is the sting of sinfulness, the wretched consciousness of an unclean heart. It is just this feeling, "God is not my friend; I am going on to the grave, and no 'man' can say aught against me, but my heart is not right; I want a river like that which the ancients fabled--the river of forgetfulness--that I might go down into it and bathe, and come up a new man. It is not so much what I have done; it is what I am. Who shall save me from myself?" Oh, it is a desolate thing to think of the coffin when that thought is in all its misery before the soul. It is the sting of death.

      And now let us bear one thing in mind, the sting of sin is not a constant pressure. It may be that we live many years in the world before a death in our own family forces the thought personally home. Many years before all those sensations which are so often the precursors of the tomb--the quick short cough, lassitude, emaciation, pain--come in startling suddenness upon us in our young vigour, and make us feel what it is to be here with death inevitable to ourselves. And when those things become habitual, habit makes delicacy the same forgetful thing as health, so that neither in sickness, nor in health, is the thought of death a constant pressure. It is only now and then; but so often as death is a reality, the sting of death is sin.

      Once more we remark, that all this power of sin to agonize, is traced by the Apostle to the law--"the strength of sin is the law;" by which he means to say that sin would not be so violent if it were not for the attempt of God's law to restrain it. It is the law which makes sin strong. And he does not mean particularly the law of Moses. He means any law, and all law. Law is what forbids and threatens; law bears gallingly on those who want to break it. And St. Paul declares this, that no law, not even God's law, can make men righteous in heart, unless the Spirit has taught men's hearts to acquiesce in the law. It can only force out into rebellion the sin that is in them.

      It is so, brethren, with a nation's law. The voice of the nation must go along with it. It must be the expression of their own feeling, and then they will have it obeyed. But if it is only the law of a government, a law which is against the whole spirit of the people, there is first the murmur of a nation's disapprobation, and then there is transgression, and then, if the law be vindicated with a high hand, the next step is the bursting that law asunder in national revolution. And so it is with God's law. It will never control a man long who does not from his heart love it. First comes a sensation of restraint, and then comes a murmuring of the heart; and last, there comes the rising of passion in its giant might, made desperate by restraint. That is the law giving strength to sin.

      And therefore brethren, if all we know of God be this, that He has made laws, and that it is terrible to break them; if all our idea of religion be this, that it is a thing of commands and hindrances--Thou shalt, and thou shalt not; we are under the law, and there is no help for it. We 'must' shrink from the encounter with death.

      We pass to our second subject--Faith conquering in death.

      And, before we enter upon this topic, there are two general remarks that we have to make. The first is, The elevating power of faith. There is nothing in all this world that ever led man on to real victory but faith. Faith is that looking forward to a future with something like certainty, that raises man above the narrow feelings of the present. Even in this life he is a greater man, a man of more elevated character, who is steadily pursuing a plan that requires some years to accomplish, than he who is living by the day. Look forward but ten years, and plan for it, live for it; there is something of manhood, something of courage required to conquer the thousand things that stand in your way. And therefore it is, that faith, and nothing but faith, gives victory in death. It is that elevation of character which we get from looking steadily and for ever forward, till eternity becomes a real home to us, that enables us to look down upon the last struggle, and the funeral, and the grave, not as the great end of all, but only as something that stands between us and the end. We are conquerors of death when we are able to look beyond it.

      Our second remark is for the purpose of fixing special attention upon this, that ours is not merely to be victory, it is to be victory through Christ "Thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." Victory brethren, mere victory over death is no unearthly thing. You may get it by infidelity. Only let a man sin long enough, and desperately enough to shut judgment altogether out of his creed, and then you have a man who can bid defiance to the grave. It was so that our country's greatest infidel historian met death. He quitted the world without parade and without display. If we want a specimen of victory apart from Christ, we have it on his death-bed. He left all this strange world of restlessness, calmly, like an unreal show that must go to pieces, and he himself an unreality departing from it. A sceptic can be a conqueror in death.

      Or again, mere manhood may give us a victory. He who has only learned not to be afraid to die, has not learned much. We have steel and nerve enough in our hearts to dare anything. And after all, it is a triumph so common as scarcely to deserve the name. Felons die on the scaffold like men; soldiers can be hired by tens of thousands, for a few pence a day, to front death in its worst form. Every minute that we live sixty of the human race are passing away, and the greater part with courage--the weak, and the timid, as well as the resolute. Courage is a very different thing from the Christian's victory.

      Once more brethren, necessity can make man conqueror over death. We can make up our minds to anything when it once becomes inevitable. It is the agony of suspense that makes danger dreadful. History can tell us that men can look with desperate calmness upon hell itself when once it has become a certainty. And it is this after all, that commonly makes the dying hour so quiet a thing. It is more dreadful in the distance than in the reality. When a man feels that there is no help, and he must go, he lays him down to die, as quietly as a tired traveller wraps himself in his cloak to sleep. It is quite another thing from all this that Paul meant by victory.

      In the first place, it is the prerogative of a Christian to be conqueror over Doubt. Brethren, do we all know what doubt means? Perchance not. There are some men who have never believed enough to doubt. There are some who have never thrown their hopes with such earnestness on the world to come, as to feel anxiety for fear it should not all be true. But every one who knows what Faith is, knows too, what is the desolation of Doubt. We pray till we begin to ask, Is there one who hears, or am I whispering to myself?--We hear the consolation administered to the bereaved, and we see the coffin lowered into the grave, and the thought comes, What if all this doctrine of a life to come be but the dream of man's imaginative mind, carried on from age to age, and so believed, because it is a venerable superstition? Mow Christ gives us victory over that terrible suspicion in two ways--first, He does it by His own resurrection. We have got a fact there that all the metaphysics about impossibility cannot rob us of. In moments of perplexity we look back to this. The grave has once, and more than once, at the Redeemer's bidding, given up its dead. It is a world fact. It tells us what the Bible means by our resurrection--not a spiritual rising into new holiness merely--that, but also something more. It means that in our own proper identity, we shall live again. Make that thought real, and God has given you, so far, victory over the grave through Christ.

      There is another way in which we get the victory over doubt, and that is by living in Christ. All doubt comes from living out of habits of affectionate obedience to God. By idleness, by neglected prayer, we lose our power of realizing things not seen. Let a man be religious and irreligious at intervals--irregular, inconsistent, without some distinct thing to live for--it is a matter of impossibility that he can be free from doubts. He must make up his mind for a dark life. Doubts can only be dispelled by that kind of active life that realizes Christ. And there is no faith that gives a victory so steadily triumphant as that. When such a man comes near the opening of the vault, it is no world of sorrows he is entering upon. He is only going to see things that he has felt, for he has been living in heaven. He has his grasp on things that other men are only groping after and touching now and then. Live above this world, Brethren, and then the powers of the world to come are so upon you that there is no room for doubt.

      Besides all this, it is a Christian's privilege to have victory over the fear of death. And here it is exceedingly easy to paint what after all is only the image-picture of a dying hour. It is the easiest thing to represent the dying Christian as a man who always sinks into the grave full of hope, full of triumph, in the certain hope of a blessed resurrection. Brethren, we must paint things in the sober colours of truth; not as they might be supposed to be, but as they are. Often that is only a picture. Either very few death-beds are Christian ones, or else triumph is a very different thing from what the word generally implies. Solemn, subdued, full of awe and full of solemnity, is the dying hour generally of the holiest men: sometimes almost darkness.--Rapture is a rare thing, except in books and scenes.

      Let us understand what really is the victory over fear. It may be rapture or it may not. All that depends very much on temperament; and after all, the broken words of a dying man are a very poor index of his real state before God. Rapturous hope has been granted to martyrs in peculiar moments. It is on record of a minister of our own Church, that his expectation of seeing God in Christ became so intense as his last hour drew near, that his physician was compelled to bid him calm his transports, because in so excited a state he could not die. A strange unnatural energy was imparted to his muscular frame by his nerves overstrung with triumph. But brethren, it fosters a dangerous feeling to take cases like those as precedents. It leads to that most terrible of all unrealities--the acting of a death-bed scene. A Christian conqueror dies calmly. Brave men in battle do not boast that they are not afraid. Courage is so natural to them that they are not conscious they are doing anything out of the common way--Christian bravery is a deep, calm thing, unconscious of itself. There are more triumphant death-beds than we count, if we only remember this--true fearlessness makes no parade.

      Oh, it is not only in those passionate effusions in which the ancient martyrs spoke sometimes of panting for the crushing of their limbs by the lions in the amphitheatre, or of holding out their arms to embrace the flames that were to curl round them--it is not then only that Christ has stood by His servants, and made them more than conquerors:--there may be something of earthly excitement in all that. Every day His servants are dying modestly and peacefully--not a word of victory on their lips; but Christ's deep triumph in their hearts--watching the slow progress of their own decay, and yet so far emancipated from personal anxiety that they are still able to think and to plan for others, not knowing that they are doing any great thing. They die, and the world hears nothing of them; and yet theirs was the completest victory. They came to the battle field, the field to which they had been looking forward all their lives, and the enemy was not to be found. There was no Foe to fight with.

      The last form in which a Christian gets the victory over death is by means of his resurrection. It seems to have been this which was chiefly alluded to by the Apostle here; for he says, "when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption ... 'then' shall come to pass the saying which is written, Death is swallowed up in victory." And to say the truth, brethren, it is a rhetorical expression rather than a sober truth when we call anything, except the resurrection, victory over death. We may conquer doubt and fear when we are dying, but that is not conquering death. It is like a warrior crushed to death by a superior antagonist refusing to yield a groan, and bearing the glance of defiance to the last. You feel that he is an unconquerable spirit, but he is not the conqueror. And when you see flesh melting away, and mental power becoming infantine in its feebleness, and lips scarcely able to articulate, is there left one moment a doubt upon the mind, as to 'who' is the conqueror in spite of all the unshaken fortitude there may be? The victory is on the side of Death, not on the side of the dying.

      And my brethren, if we would enter into the full feeling of triumph contained in this verse, we must just try to bear in mind what this world would be without the thought of a resurrection. If we could conceive an unselfish man looking upon this world of desolation with that infinite compassion which all the brave and good feel, what conception could he have but that of defeat, and failure, and sadness--the sons of man mounting into a bright existence, and one after another falling back into darkness and nothingness, like soldiers trying to mount an impracticable breach, and falling back crushed and mangled into the ditch before the bayonets and the rattling fire of their conquerors. Misery and guilt, look which way you will, till the heart gets sick with looking at it.

      Brethren, until a man looks on evil till it seems to him almost like a real personal enemy rejoicing over the destruction that it has made, he can scarcely conceive the deep rapture which rushed into the mind of the Apostle Paul when he remembered that a day was coming when all this was to be reversed. A day was coming, and it was the day of reality for which he lived, ever present and ever certain, when this sad world was to put 'off for ever' its changefulness and its misery, and the grave was to be robbed of its victory, and the bodies were to come forth purified by their long sleep. He called all this a victory, because he felt that it was a real battle that has to be fought and won before that can be secured. One battle has been fought by Christ, and another battle, most real and difficult, but yet a conquering one, is to be fought by us. He hath imparted to us the virtue of His wrestlings, and the strength of His victory. So that, when the body shall rise again, the power of the law to condemn is gone, because we have learned to love the law.

      And now to conclude all this, there are but two things which remain to say. In the first place, brethren, if we would be conquerors, we must realize God's love in Christ. Take care not to be under the law. Constraint never yet made a conqueror: the utmost it can do is to make either a rebel or a slave. Believe that God loves you. He gave a triumphant demonstration of it in the Cross. Never shall we conquer self till we have learned 'to love'. My Christian brethren, let us remember our high privilege. Christian life, so far as it deserves the name, is victory. We are not going forth to mere battle--we are going forth to conquer. To gain mastery over self, and sin, and doubt, and fear: till the last coldness, coming across the brow, tells us that all is over, and our warfare accomplished--that we are safe, the everlasting arms beneath us--'that' is our calling. Brethren beloved, do not be content with a slothful, dreamy, uncertain struggle. You are to conquer, and the banner under which we are to win is not Fear, but Love. "The strength of sin is the law;" the victory is by keeping before us God in Christ.

      Lastly, there is need of encouragement for those of us whose faith is not of the conquering, but the timid kind. There are some whose hearts will reply to all this, Surely victory is not always a Christian's portion. Is there no cold dark watching in Christian life--no struggle when victory seems a mockery to speak of--no times when light and life seem feeble, and Christ is to us but a name, and death a reality? "Perfect love casteth out fear," but who has it? Victory is by faith, but, oh God, who will tell us what this faith 'is' that men speak of as a thing so easy; and how we are to get it! You tell us to pray for faith, but how shall we pray in earnest unless we first have the very faith we pray for?

      My Christian brethren, it is just to this deepest cry of the human heart that it is impossible to return a full answer. All that is true. To feel Faith is the grand difficulty of life. Faith is a deep impression of God and God's love, and personal trust in it. It is easy to say "Believe and thou shalt be saved," but well we know it is easier said than done. We cannot say how men are to 'get' faith. It is God's gift, almost in the same way that genius is. You cannot work 'for' faith; you must have it first, and then work 'from' it.

      But brethren beloved, we can say, Look up, though we know not how the mechanism of the will which directs the eye is to be put in motion; we can say, Look to God in Christ, though we know not how men are to obtain faith to do it. Let us be in earnest. Our polar star is the love of the Cross. Take the eye off that, and you are in darkness and bewilderment at once. Let us not mind what is past. Perhaps it is all failure, and useless struggle, and broken resolves. What then? Settle this first, brethren, Are you in earnest? If so, though your faith be weak and your struggles unsatisfactory, you may begin the hymn of triumph 'now', for victory is pledged. "Thanks be to God, which" not 'shall' give, but "'giveth' us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."

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