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The State of the Blessed Dead: Sermon 3

By Henry Alford

      We have traced the condition of the blessed dead, from their departure and being with Christ, to the glorious day of the resurrection. Their spirits are safe in His keeping, till that day when He shall call their bodies out of the graves, and they shall be once more complete in manhood, body, soul, and spirit. And our present consideration is, What, on that resurrection, is the next thing which shall befall them? Now the best, because the most general text on this matter, is that in Heb. ix. 27, "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this, the judgment."

      You will see that here is enounced something common to our nature. We are all to die; we are all to be judged after death. And that this is really true of all, and not merely stated generally, to be met afterwards by special exceptions, St. Paul shows, when he, speaking of things belonging entirely to his own practice, and his own justification before God, says, in 1 Cor. v., "We labour, that whether present in the body or absent from the body, we may be accepted with Him. For we must all be made manifest (there is nothing about standing in the original) before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that which he did, whether it be good or bad." You will see that here he expressly includes himself among those who are to be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ.

      Now perhaps you are wondering why I am accumulating this Scripture evidence to show a matter which seems to all so plain. But I have a sufficient reason. And that reason is, because in other passages of Scripture the blessed dead, or rather the believers in Christ, whether living or dead at that day, are spoken of as if they were not subjected to the general judgment of all, but passed into the glorious life without undergoing that judgment. Thus our Blessed Lord Himself; in John v. 24, says, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment" (for that, and not "condemnation," is the word used by our Lord),--"cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life." That would seem to mean that the faithful man has already passed over out of death, and all that belongs to death, sin, and guilt, and judgment, into life; and therefore when the judgment comes he can have no part in it, cannot come into it at all, because he is acquitted already through the faith in Him who bore his guilt and took away his sin. And similarly, again, a few verses further on, ver. 29, our Lord says, "An hour cometh in which all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of man, and shall come forth: they that have done good unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of judgment." That is, I suppose, the one shall rise into eternal life,--into the full bliss of the heavenly state, and the others into the condition, whatever it be, which the judgment shall decide. Of course I am fully aware that I have not quoted these texts as they are read in our English Bibles. The matter stands thus: the word which I have rendered "judgment" is the word always meaning judgment--the word occurring in the very next verse where our Lord says, "As I hear, I judge, and My judgment is just;" the word used also above in ver. 22, where He says, "The Father committed all judgment unto the Son." In those two places, because there was no difficulty, our translators kept the word "judgment." But in these other two which I have quoted, because there was an apparent difficulty, they changed "judgment" in one verse into "condemnation," and in the other into "damnation," without any reason or right soever. Indeed, in the latter of the two passages, not only is this so, but the whole sense is broken up by their unfaithfulness. Our Lord having mentioned the resurrection of judgment, proceeds to vindicate the justice of that judgment: "As I hear, I judge: and My judgment is just, because I seek not Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me." So that the difficulty, which man's meddling with the Bible has tried to remove, does exist in the Bible as it came from God. And we must try to see through it, not to hush it up by being unfaithful to the plain language of our Lord.

      Nor does it exist here only. Our Lord Himself has given us one great description of the final day of judgment, in His own discourses; and another by the pen of His beloved apostle. We will take the latter first, as being, for our present purpose, the fuller of the two: and we will show in what remarkable point the two agree. In Rev. xx. 4, a passage to which we made reference last Sunday, we find the first resurrection taking place, and the faithful dead rising to reign with Christ during a period known as a thousand years. And it is expressly said, "The rest of the dead lived not till the thousand years were finished." Now, I am not here taking upon me to explain the meaning of this, but merely to insist on the fact that, whatever may be the precise import, it is so stated. Well, and what then? When the thousand years are expired, and when the last great victory of the cause of God over evil has been gained, then we read, "And I saw a great white throne, and Him that sat on it; and I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them: and they were judged every man according to his works." So far the description in the Revelation. Now, in that given us by our Lord in Matt. xxv. we find the Son of man coming in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, and sitting on the throne of His glory, and all the nations gathered before Him. But there is this singular coincidence with the other account, that when the King comes to address those on the right hand and those on the left, He says, "Inasmuch as ye did it (or did it not) unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye did it (or did it not) unto Me." Now "these My brethren" cannot of course mean the angels; therefore there must be some with Christ to whom the words must refer. In other words, we have here also the risen saints in glory with the Lord, as in that other account.

      But we may go even further yet, and may discover more from Scripture respecting the position and employment of these the saints who are with the Lord. When St. Paul in 1 Cor. vi. is dissuading the Corinthians from taking their disputes before the heathen courts to be settled, he says, "Know ye not that the saints shall judge the world?" and again, "Know ye not that we shall judge angels?" Such expressions as these can bear but one meaning, and that is that the saints of Christ are actually to bear part in the judgment, as His assessors. Further than this we now not. It is not our duty to be wise above that which is written; but it is our duty to be wise up to that which is written: otherwise it was written in vain. What, then, are we to say respecting this apparent discrepancy in the statements of Holy Scripture concerning the dead in Christ? If it be true that it is appointed unto all men once to die, but after that the judgment; if it be true that we all, including even the apostles themselves, shall be manifested, laid open, before the judgment-seat of Christ, how can it be also true that the believer in Christ has already passed from death into life, and therefore cometh not into judgment at all? How can it be true that while others shall rise to a resurrection of judgment, he shall rise to a resurrection of life? How can those descriptions be correct which we have been quoting, of these living and reigning with Christ long before the general judgment, and even taking part in it with Him?

      I believe the answer is not difficult, and perhaps may best be found by remembering another variety of expression in Scripture respecting a kindred matter; I mean the way in which the saints of God are spoken of in relation to death itself. On the one hand we know that it is appointed unto all men to die; and that the faith and service of the Lord bring with them no exemption from the common lot of all mankind. Not only is this proved every day before our eyes, but Scripture gives us its most direct testimony that those who believe in Christ must expect it. The very expressions, "the dead in Christ," "those who through Jesus have fallen asleep," show that this is so. Yet again, on the other hand, some passages would almost look as if death itself for the Christian man did not exist. Christ is said to have abolished death; we learn from His own lips that "if a man keep His word he shall never taste of death;" He has said again, "He that liveth and believeth in Me shall never die." Now in this case there is no practical difficulty, yet the variety of expression is very instructive. We all know what lies beneath it; namely, the fact, that though the believer in Christ must undergo the physical suffering of death like other men, yet death has become to him so altogether without terror and curse, that it has been for him deprived of real existence and power. The apostle in Rom. viii. gives the full explanation: "the body indeed is dead because of sin, but the spirit is life because of righteousness."

      Well, now let us apply this to the case before us. Let us take the same solution, and see whether it will not suffice. The Christian shall, like other men, undergo the judgment after death; thus one set of Scripture declarations shall be fulfilled. But to the believer, who has died in the Lord, what is the judgment? He stands before the judgment-seat perfect in the righteousness of Him to whom he is united, and from whom death has not separated him. His sentence of acquittal has been long ago pronounced; he cometh not into judgment, so that it should have any substantial effect in changing or determining his condition. The resurrection is for him not a resurrection of judgment, not one in which the judgment is the leading feature and characteristic, but it is only and purely a resurrection of, and unto life: one in which life is the leading feature and idea.

      Thus for the blessed dead, the judgment has no dark side: "there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus." But though it has no dark side, it has a bright one. Never for a moment do the Christian Scriptures lose sight of the Christian reward. Those who die in the Lord, like the rest of men, shall be laid open before the tribunal of Christ. Their sins have been purged away in His atoning blood; they have been washed and justified and sanctified in the name of Jesus and by the spirit of their God.

      But to what end? for what purpose? Was it merely that they might be saved? No indeed, but that God might be glorified in them by the fruits of their faith and love.

      And these fruits shall then be made known. The Father who saw them in secret shall then reward them openly. The acts done and the sacrifices made for the name of Christ shall then meet with glorious retribution; yea, even to the least and most insignificant of them,--even according to our Lord's own words,--to the cup of cold water given to one of His little ones.

      It is much the fashion, I know, in our days, to put aside and to depreciate this doctrine of the Christian reward. It looks to some people like a sort of reliance on our own works and attainments; and so, though they may in the abstract profess a belief in it because it is in Scripture, they shrink from applying it in their own cases or in those of others. Now, nothing can justify such a course. We have no right to discard a motive held up for our adoption and guidance in Scripture. And that this is so held up, who that knows his Bible can for a moment doubt? Think of that saying of our Lord about the cup of cold water just quoted,--think of the series of sayings of which it is the end--"He that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward," etc. Think, again, of that series of commands, to do our alms, our prayers, our abstinences, in secret, each ending with--"and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." Think, again, of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, where the great final blessing at the hand of the Lord is throughout represented to us as reward, or rather--for so the word used properly means--wages for work done. And it is in vain in this case to try to escape from the cogency of our Lord's sayings by alleging that the doctrines of the Cross were not manifested till after His death and glorification. For if this were so, then the apostles themselves had never learned those doctrines. For the apostles constantly and persistently set before us the aiming at the Christian reward as their own motive, and as that which ought to be ours. Hear St. Paul saying that, if he preached the gospel as matter of duty only, it was the stewardship committed to him; but if freely and without pay, a reward, or wages, would be due to him. Hear him again, in expectation of his departure, glorying in the certainty of his reward: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous judge shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but to all them also that love His appearing." Listen to St. John, whom we are accustomed to regard as the most lofty and heavenly of all the apostles in his thoughts and motives. What does he say to his well-beloved Gaius? "Look to yourselves, that we lose not the things which we have wrought, but that we receive the full reward." Listen, again, to the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that apostolic man, eloquent and mighty in the Scriptures, and hear him describing the very qualities and attributes of faith, that he who cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him, and saying of one of the first and brightest examples of faith, that he had respect unto the recompence of reward.

      So, then, these holy dead who have died in the Lord will in that judgment have each his reward allotted him according to his service and according to his measure. Then the good that has been done in secret will all come to light. All mere profession, all that has been artificial and put on, will drop off as though it had never been; and the real kernel of the character, the fair dealing and charity and love of the inner soul, will be made manifest before men and angels. Then, not even the least work done for God and for good will be forgotten.

      How such an estimate of all holy men will be or can be made and published, utterly surpasses our present powers to imagine. We have no faculties now whereby to deal thus truly and fairly with all men: our organs of sense in this present state, and the minds themselves to which those organs convey impressions, are too feeble and limited for the effort required to apprehend all respecting all, as we shall then apprehend it. But this need not form any difficulty in our way to believe that such a thing shall be. The power to understand it and the power to receive it surely do not dwell farther off from our matured powers now, than the full powers of a grownup man from the faculties and conceptions of a child. In all such matters, we are children now. Think we then of the blessed dead at that day of the resurrection, as rising sure of bliss and of their perfection in Him to whom they were united; being as though there were no judgment, seeing that they have One who shall answer for them at the tribunal: judged notwithstanding before the bar of God, and passing not to condemnation, but to their exceeding great and eternal reward.

      One more thing only now is left us: to ask what we know of that last and perfected state of man--that highest development and dignity of our race, when body, soul, and spirit, freed from sin and sorrow, shall reign with Christ in light.

      With that question, and its answer, we hope to conclude this course of sermons next Sunday.

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See Also:
   The State of the Blessed Dead: Sermon 1
   The State of the Blessed Dead: Sermon 2
   The State of the Blessed Dead: Sermon 3
   The State of the Blessed Dead: Sermon 4


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