The Lord’s Day
July 1, 2007
“The Gain of Death”
Dr. J. Ligon
I’d invite you to turn with me to Philippians, chapter one,
verse 21. We’ve been in this verse for a month; we haven’t gotten to the second
half of the verse yet.
There’s good reason for that. The comfort that we all
look for — and surely we look for it especially in the hour of death — the
comfort that we get in the second half of this verse in Paul’s affirmation that
to die is gain is reserved for those who know the truth of the first half
of this verse. In other words, the second half of this verse makes no sense and
holds no hope out to those who have not realized the grace in their experience
of the first half of this verse. It is for those who to live is Christ
that to die is gain. And so it’s appropriate that we would spend much
time thinking about what it means to live as if to live is Christ. That
is in fact what we’ve done. We spent the first week we were together in the
first part of Philippians 1:21 just asking the question, “What does it mean
to live is Christ, and what does it mean to die is gain?” And then we
applied that, especially the first half of the verse, the second week we were in
this passage. And the third week, we simply more specifically applied and
illustrated the truth of the first half of Philippians 1:21. And so we are now
finally to the second half of this verse.
Before we read it and hear it explained and
proclaimed and applied, let’s look to God and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word, and it is
powerful, and it’s effective, and it’s sharper than any two-edged sword. But
this is a very familiar passage; protect us from our over-familiarity with it.
Keep us from missing the extraordinary, encouraging, vital, important truth that
is contained in it. By Your Spirit, open our eyes to behold the truth of Your
word. Open our hearts to believe the truth of Your word. And grant that by Your
grace we would live and die in hope and confidence because of the verity of this
word. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God:
“For to me, to live is Christ, and
to die is gain.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and
inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Thomas Boston, a very famous Scottish preacher who
pastored a tiny little church in the countryside south of Edinburgh, called
Ettrick, once said that as the believer’s life is different from the
unbeliever’s life, so also the believer’s death is different from the
unbeliever’s death. For the unbeliever, death is a loss — the greatest loss; but
for the believer, death is the greatest gain.
Now how can that be true? What makes death a gain?
Boston’s words are wise and biblical, and they need to be listened to carefully.
He is not saying that death is a gain for everyone. No, he is acknowledging that
for unbelievers death is only a loss, and it is the greatest loss; but that for
believers, death has in Christ Jesus become a great gain. He is not denying that
especially those of us left behind in the loss of a loved one experience great
grief and mourning. He is not denying that we ought to mourn in the hour of
death. But what he is affirming is that despite that natural and appropriate
grief and mourning and sense of loss that we experience even as believers when
loved ones die, yet for believers in the Lord Jesus Christ death is the greatest
gain. And that’s what Paul is saying.
How can he say that? For four reasons, and
you’ll find them in and around Philippians 1:21. You’ll also find them
summarized in The Catechism. In fact, I ask you to take your hymnals out
and turn with me to page 872, and look down the page to Question 37. Some of
you… you know, if Brister Ware were here right now, he would be able to recite
this one for you from heart very quickly. But in Question 37 of your
Catechism, the catechism asks:
“What benefits do believers receive from
Christ at death?”
It’s in a series of questions asking what do you gain
by trusting in Jesus Christ, and then it asks what you gain in this life, what
you gain immediately upon your death, and what you gain in the glory to come in
the great resurrection and the coming of Jesus Christ. These are very, very
encouraging catechism questions. They well reward those of us who have memorized
The Catechism and forgotten it, memorizing them again.
Here’s how The Catechism answers:
“The souls of believers are at
their death made perfect in holiness…”
[there’s comfort No.
“…and do immediately pass into
glory…” [there’s comfort No. 2];
“…and their bodies still united
in Christ…” [there’s comfort No. 3];
“…being still united in Christ do
rest in their graves until the resurrection.”
[there’s comfort No.
Now we’re going to number them just a little bit
differently as we work through the passage, but The Catechism outlines
precisely the comforts the Apostle Paul lists here in Philippians 1.
So what four blessings that belong to believers alone
enable us, even in the valley of the shadow of death, to affirm that death is
gain? What blessings make the believer’s dying day not only a day of mourning,
but also a day of triumph?
These are the four blessings that Paul talks about in
I. To die is gain.
First of all, look at what Paul says in
Philippians 1:21: “…to die is gain.” What kind of gain? Now, you remember
that I asked you to take a hard look at verse 4, or stanza 4, of hymn No. 343.
Why don’t you take it and look at it again — Christ Is Made the Sure
Foundation, the fourth stanza. You have already prayed a prayer that by
gathering together in the name of Christ, believing the gospel today with God’s
people, that God would answer this particular prayer. Here’s the prayer you
“Here vouchsafe to all thy servants what they ask of Thee to gain…”
[Lord, make secure for all those who are gathered here in the name of Jesus
Christ, trusting in Him alone for their salvation as He is offered in the
gospel…make secure to them what they have come here to ask You to gain.]
“…What they gain from thee forever with the blessed to retain…”
[Lord, not only make secure for them what they come here to ask You to gain, but
it is a gain that is an eternal gain. Secure that gain to them forever, along
with all those who are trusting in Jesus Christ, so that they’ll never ever lose
“…And hereafter in Thy glory evermore with Thee to reign.”
[Lord, give them the gain that they’re going to have with You forever in glory.]
Now I ask you a question: What gain is the hymn
writer talking about? It is the gain that the Apostle Paul is talking about in
Philippians 1:21. And you say to me, “What is that gain?” And I say to you,
“Look at verse 23!” What does Paul say? “…To depart and to be with Christ.”
There’s the gain. The gain is to be with Christ, because here’s the blessing
that enables you to be able to say that death is gain: In death, believers are
with Christ, whom they prize more than all things. In death, believers are with
Christ, whom they prize more than all things; and therefore, for believers death
is gain. The greatest gain because our greatest prize is Christ and being with
Him, and in death we are united with Him. We are brought into fellowship with
Him. I love the way the Apostle Paul puts this in II Corinthians 5:8. “I
prefer,” he says, “…I prefer to be absent from the body and to be at home with
the Lord.” You see, the prime longing of every Christian to be with Christ, to
fellowship with Christ because we prize Christ more than anything else…the prime
longing of every believer is fulfilled instantaneously in death. We immediately
enjoy fellowship with Christ.
2. Made perfect in holiness.
Secondly, why is it that believers approach death
as gain? Because in death believers are made perfect in holiness. Believers
are made perfect in holiness…the Apostle Paul wrestled all his life with the
reality of total depravity — the truth that sin has worked its way into every
part of us because of Adam’s original sin. You know, some people like to argue
against the biblical teaching of total depravity, but think of it, friends: it’s
the only doctrine that can be empirically proven! You don’t have to be around
other human beings very long to see the absolute irrefutable truth of total
depravity. You know it deeply grieved the Apostle Paul that though he was
redeemed by the blood of Christ and had been called into His service, that
nevertheless Paul still struggled with sin. He was unfaithful to his Savior, he
let others down. He continued to struggle with sin, and he writes about it in
Romans 7:24. He says:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free
from the body of this death?”
And he answers that question in Philippians 1:20. In
Philippians 1:20, he says:
“I will not be put to shame in anything, but with all boldness Christ will even
now as always be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Paul knew that in death Christ was going to be
exalted in his perfecting of the Apostle Paul so that he would never ever sin
again. That’s why Paul will say in Romans 7:25, “Thanks be to God, through Jesus
Christ!” He would be made perfect.
Now a lot of times we don’t feel our sin. Other
people may feel our sin, but we ourselves don’t feel our sin and its effects.
Let me ask it to you this way, to try and bring home to you something of this
truth of sin. Have you ever deeply hurt, wounded, betrayed, let down someone
whom you deeply love? You’ve cut them to the quick. You’ve done it. Nobody else
— you. If you’ve lived very long, you know what it is by your own actions —
whether they were thoughts or words or deeds — to hurt the ones that you love
the most. The Apostle Paul is saying, in the hour of death, never again. Your
heart will never wander from your Lord; you’ll never yield to the temptation of
Satan; you’ll never again hurt the ones that you care about the most. Never
again. I cannot imagine a greater rest than that, than to rest from sin that we
will be given in death. And for this reason, my friends, death is gain.
III. Pass into glory.
But there’s a third reason why death is gain: In
death believers pass into glory. Notice what Paul says in Philippians 1:23.
He’s hard pressed from both directions. He has a desire to depart and be with
Christ. Why? Because “it is very much better.” Why is it much better? Because
when a believer passes through death, he passes into a place of glory, and into
a company of glory, and into a state of glory.
What did Jesus say in John 14:2? ‘I go to prepare a
place for you. In My Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I
would have told you.’ It is a glorious place, and it’s a glorious company…there
we will be with all the saints. We sang about that last Lord’s Day — with all
the saints, including those loved ones in Christ for whom you are awaiting a
reunion. And there will be the angels… above all, the Lord Jesus Christ. Think
of it, my friends. You have served Him all your life, since He saved you by His
precious blood…and you have never laid eyes on Him. But then you will see Him as
He is, for you will be like Him. And it’s a glorious state! “Rest,” Hebrews 4:9
says. Rest! In this overly busy life that we live, running around chasing our
own tails, there is no lasting rest. But there, everlasting rest.
You see, in death we begin to taste for the first
time the fullness of the glory to come. Though in our death we do not
immediately taste all of the fullness of the glory to come — that awaits
the great resurrection — but in death, more than we have ever tasted it before,
we will taste glory.
You know, in this life from time to time there are
these few fleeting moments where we feel as if we could reach out and touch the
suburbs of heaven themselves. It may have been in that moment when God drew you
to Himself savingly and there was such glory and such a sense of forgiveness and
peace, and nearness to God; it may have been in the context of the funeral of a
loved one. It may have been in the context of the regular worship of the people
of God, or it may have been in some other special time in which God made an
extraordinary visitation of His love upon your heart. And in those times you
just wish that it wouldn’t end. But in death, the believer is ushered into a
time of such great glory that the believer will say, “I wish this wouldn’t end,”
and it won’t.
IV. United to Christ
And in death, believers are united to Christ.
That’s the fourth blessing that enables us to say, “To die is gain.”
What does the Apostle Paul say in Philippians 1:23?
That to depart is to be with Christ. Our Catechism reminds us that even
the bodies of believers are at their death still united to Christ. Our souls are
feasting on fellowship with Him. We are enjoying being with Christ because we
are united to Him. This is the fulfillment of what the Apostle Paul says in
those so familiar and beautiful words in Romans 8. Turn with me there. Verse 35:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress,
or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
And then look at verse 37:
“In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I
am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor
things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any
other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is
in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And then the Apostle Paul, when he says that to
depart is to be with Christ…when he says that to be absent from the body is to
be at home with the Lord…is affirming the truth of Romans 8 for believers. Even
though our bodies are still in the grave, we’re united to our Savior and our
souls fellowship with Him. That’s why one Christian said, “Christians outlive
and out die pagans.”
Are you prepared for your dying day? Only if you
understand the first part of Philippians 1:21 can you know the comfort of the
second part of Philippians 1:21. May God grant that you are prepared now by the
gospel for that great day. We’re going to sing about that in just a few moments,
and I’d like to suggest that we sing the last stanza without accompaniment.
So let’s pray right now.
Heavenly Father, prepare us for our dying day by
the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We ask this in His name. Amen.
[Congregational Hymn: A Few More Years Shall Roll]
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your
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