Yesterday my wife, Jeannette, told me about a friend who had called her regarding Carolyn Lonas, a local woman who is dying of cancer. The friend is concerned that Mrs. Lonas, who with her husband, Jack, was a noted missionary, has taken a morbid turn of mind in asking about the deaths of others, wanting to hear report of their Christian testimony at their last hour.
What good can such questions be dealing with a lethal cancer?
Today I am sitting in a hospital room with a lady 20 years older than Mrs. Lonas. My mother yesterday broke her arm in a fall in her strawberry patch. She is not near death. In the emergency room, making preparations for admission and surgery today, I read and signed legal papers purporting to be our acknowledgement that all the risks of surgery had been explained to us. They hadn’t been, but the warnings in bold print — several paragraphs of them — made clear to the signer that surgeons are not God. It is possible for even the best-planned surgery under accepted practices and good faith dealings to go awry, leading to complications and death. We are informed, and assume full liability, as it were.
Among the treasures in my briefcase this morning are 30 photocopied pages from The Complete Works of the Late Rev. Thomas Boston (1676-1732), part of a 12-volume set in the elders’ study at church, also known as “The Gray Room.” Along one wall are sets of theologies and histories of the church fathers. As my mother chats in her Swiss accent about family matters I have Mr. Boston’s pages in front of me, some highlighted.
“Mom,” I declare, finally. “I’d like you to hear some of what Thomas Boston says about death. Of course you’re not near death, or anything, but I’ve been thinking about Carolyn Lonas and I think you will enjoy what Boston says about our frail temple of the body, and what with your fall I know you are thinking a lot about that.”
Thinking about death is good
“The less you think on death, the thoughts of it will be the more frightful,” Mr. Boston says; “make it familiar to you by frequent meditations upon it, and you may thereby quiet your fears.” He compares death to the cloud that separates the Israelites and the Egyptians at the time of the flight of God’s people from slavery. The cloud has bright side for his people, but to the pursuing Egyptian army it is dark, terrible.
The Rev. Boston would have agreed with Mrs. Lonas’ holy pursuit of accounts of the godly readying to meet their maker. He recommends visits to graveyards, and I am sure he made edifying use of newspaper obituaries. Mr. Boston develops an argument about death by giving attention to the evils of this world and the trials of life — as well as its seductions.
“It is a pity that saints should be so fond of life as they often are: they ought to be always on good terms with death.” He expounds at length about life’s evils. Does not Job decry the hazards of life — “I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone, for my days are but a breath,” in chapter 7, verses 16 and 17?
A consideration of the sinfulness and temptations of this life should make Christians less enamored with it. “While you live here, you sin, and see others sinning. You breathe infectious air. You live in a pest-house. Is it at all strange to loathe such a life? *** Your own plague sores are running on you. Doth not the sin of your nature make you groan daily? Are you not sensible, that though the cure is begun, it is far from being perfected? Has not the leprosy got into the wall of the house, which cannot be removed without pulling it down?”
In other words, the fall is complete, and though we may clean a room of sin, and the next room, sin is rottenness in the walls. “The follies and wickedness of men are every where conspicuous, and make but an unpleasant scene. This sinful world is but an unsightly company, a disagreeable crowd, in which the most loathsome are the most numerous.”
Death extinguishes the latent battle our flesh makes against Truth, beauty and virtue, as revealed in the scripture. “To be ever struggling, and anon falling into the mire again, makes weary work. Do you never wish for cold death, thereby effectually to cool the heat of these lusts, which so often take fire again, even after a flood of godly sorrow has gone over them? Do not you sometimes infect others, and others infect you? There is no society in the world, in which every member of it doth not sometimes lay a stumbling block before the rest. The best carry about with them the tinder of a corrupt nature, which they cannot be rid of while they live, and which is liable to be kindled at all times, and in all places *** .”
Mr. Boston is lovely in his descriptions of the danger of this life that should bring a desire for eternity into the heart of his people. He likens life to “a sea of trouble, where one wave rolls upon another. They, who fancy themselves beyond the reach of trouble, are mistaken.”
“[N]o wonder they long to be at their journey’s end. The sudden alterations which the best frame of spirit is liable to, the perplexing doubts, confounding fears, short-lived joys, and long-running sorrows, which have a certain affinity with the present life, must needs create in the saints a desire to be with Christ, which is best of all.”
How to have a good death
After saying much about either the tribulations of life and its false hopes, Mr. Boston goes to the important task of advising the Christian how to prepare, “that we may die comfortably.”
The most important thing is to keep a clean conscience, to keep short accounts with God, “a conscience void of offense toward God and men” (Acts 24:16). “Beware of a standing controversy between God and you, on the account of some iniquity regarded in the heart. When an honest man is about to leave his country, and not to return, he settles accounts with those he has had dealings with, and lays down methods for paying his debts in due time, lest he be reckoned a bankrupt, and attacked by an officer when he is going off. Guilt lying on the conscience, is a fountain of tears, and will readily sting severely, when death stares the criminal in the face.” An arrearage of accounts makes many Christians terrified of death, and as they lie at death’s door their old sins stagger into view with grisly and leering masks.
Mrs. Lonas and Mrs. Tulis and every person should “walk closely with God; be diligent, strict, and exact in your course; beware of loose, careless, and irregular conversation; as you would not lay up for yourselves anguish and bitterness of spirit, in a dying hour. And because, through the infirmity cleaving to us, in our present state of imperfection, in many things we offend all, renew your repentance daily, and be ever washing in the Redeemer’s blood. As long as you are in the world, you will need to wash your feet, John xiii. 10, that is, to make application of the blood of Christ anew, for purging your conscience from the guilt of daily miscarriages. Let death find you at the fountain; and, if so, it will find you ready to answer at its call.”
My mother greatly enjoyed these passages, though her lids were heavy.
Temptation at last moment
The Scottish reformer John Knox faced a satanic attack just before his death in 1572. First the evil one suggested he had not done enough, that he had let God down in his life of service, that he had favored himself over the things of God, had held back, and that he was an unworthy servant. Knox rebuffed the tempter, who altered tried the alternative argument. “Satan *** attacked him by suggesting that he somehow ‘merited heaven and eternal blessedness by the faithful discharge of [his] ministry.’ He was grateful to God; God enabled him to resist here as well.”
A dying day is joyful to the godly. “[I]t is their redemption day, when the captives are delivered, when the prisoners are set free,” Mr. Boston says. “It is the day of the pilgrims coming home from their pilgrimage; the day in which the heirs of glory return from their travels, to their own country, and their Father’s house; and enter into actual possession of the glorious inheritance. It is their marriage day: now is the time of espousals; but then the marriage is consummated, and a marriage feast begun, which has no end. If so, is not the state of the godly in death, a hopeful state?”
Thomas Boston, The Complete Works of Thomas Boston (Stoke-on-Trent, Great Britain: Tentmaker Publications, 2002; 1853), Vol. VIII, pp. 259-269
Doug Wilson, The Kirk and Covenant[;] the Stalwart Courage of John Knox (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2002, Leaders in Action series), page 203
Joe Morecraft, “The History of the Protestant Reformation,” tape series, Vol. 2 “John Knox & Scots,” (West Tennessee Reformed Missions). I highly recommend this series, having heard it twice.