by Scott Clark
Americans and residents of the late-modern West generally do not like to think about or discuss death. Ask your table mates at lunch today what they think about death. How do they hope to die? What happens after death? Where do they want to be buried? Try it and see what happens to the conversation. I guess that the conversation would go better if you ask about the Chiefs or the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ new coach Mike Riley. Few things will—pardon the pun—kill a conversation more quickly than raising the matter of death. Our reluctance to discuss death or even to think about it is remarkable because, unless Christ returns first, every single one of us will go through it. It is a truly universal fact of human experience. We are naturally reluctant to discuss it, however, because we know intuitively that it is wrong, that it is not natural—whatever the New Age gurus and others may tell us. If death is so wonderful and beautiful, why are wired with a flight or fight impulse? Why do we struggle mightily in the water when we think we may be drowning? The most calm, rational person you know turns into a crazed animal when drowning. I know this because, as a lifeguard I was trained how to disable a drowning person so I could drag him to shore. Our fight or flight impulse, the rapid pulse, the shot of adrenaline, the tunnel vision and all the other natural, instinctive features of our fight to survive are not the products of nurture. They the products of a fallen nature. This is because we were not created to die. We were created to live in communion with God forever. Our rebellion destroyed that relationship and brought death into the world.
Still, our aversion to thinking about death in the late-modern West seems to be even stronger now than it once was. Four or five decades ago death came more quickly for most of us than it does today. In rural communities people were more likely to die at home. Funerals were conducted differently. Among those of us who grew up on the Plans it was expected that there would be an open casket funeral. Indeed, the space we today call the “living room” was once called “the parlor” and one of the major functions of “the parlor” was to host a visitation of the deceased. Today we gather in “funeral homes” for that purpose. In short, where, in a more agrarian society death was nearer (whether livestock, crops, or humans). Today, in a more urbanized and suburbanized society, death seems remote. We tend to die in hospital or in nursing homes and death itself is made more alien to our experience. We do not generally slaughter our own food. Someone, somewhere else does it for us. It comes to us in nice plastic packages almost as if by magic.
When the Apostle Paul used death to explain the first major aspect or facet of the Christian life, he assumed that we all knew what he was saying, that we were personally familiar with it. Child mortality was higher. Lifespans were (probably) shorter. There is some dispute about whether or to what degree lifespans are longer now. Nevertheless, death was familiar enough that Paul did not have to explain it to his readers. The same is true of the period in which the Heidelberg Catechism was written. Calvin died at age 55. Ursinus, the primary author of the catechism, died at age 49. Olevianus, a contributor to the catechism, died at the same age. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva and a teacher of Ursinus and Olevianus, lived to age 86, which was exceptional for the time. The bubonic plague was a regular feature of sixteenth-century life. In the 14th century Europe’s population was reduced by millions in just a few years as the plague swept through. One observer said that bodies were stacked in the street like lasagna. There were no antibiotics. The practice of medicine in the period was crude and often harmful. Anesthetics? They did not exist, at least not as we know them. Life was hard and then you died.
All this to say that, in order to understand the biblical doctrine of the Christian life, we must try (as it were) to dislocate ourselves from our late-modern experience and try to sympathize with the worlds in which Scripture was written and in which the catechism was written. Scripture unabashedly uses death as the metaphor for the Christian life. After all, we Christians believe in and follow the God-man, who saved us by living for us and by dying for us and he died one of the most shameful, horrible deaths imaginable then or now. People today object to capital punishment on the grounds that it is cruel because the anesthetic drugs do not work quickly enough. There were no effective anesthetics for the crucified. It was meant to be a brutal, humiliating death and it was.
The Apostle says “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death…” (Rom 6:3, 4). If we substitute identified for baptized we get his meaning. Christians have been identified with Christ’s death just as all the Israelites were identified with Moses as the crossed the Red Sea. So, too, we have all been identified with Christ’s death. This is our new identity. That is who we are now. This is how he continues to explain the Christian life:
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:5–11; ESV).
All baptized Christians have been outwardly identified with Christ’s death. Those who, by God’s sovereign grace, by the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, have been given new life have also been given true faith and through that faith alone, by the Spirit, they are united to the risen Christ. This is what Paul means by “united with him.” The old man, the old principle, the First Adam, has been crucified. A fundamental change has been made. Imagine that you were indebted to your neighbor. You lost your job and your neighbor loaned you enough money to get by but he did so at interest. You got a new job but the principal was so large and the interest continued to accrue even as you worked to repay him. You worked hard but you never got caught up because the interest grows faster than you can repay. You were a slave. In this world (which really existed) there is no “do over,” there is no bankruptcy court. How can you escape bondage? Death. Only in death are you free from your slavery to your debt and to your neighbor. This is what Paul is thinking as he describes our liberation from the bondage and dominion of sin. Having been united, by grace alone, through faith alone, to Christ, having therefore died with him and having been raised with him, we are free. It is not that we no longer sin but we are no longer trapped in slavery. We are free men. Thus we confess:
HEIDELBERG CATECHISM QUESTION 89. What is the dying of the old man?
ANSWER: Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more (Heidelberg Catechism).
According to the catechism, repentance is sanctification and conversion. Notice the answer. Where, we, because of the influence of the so-called Higher Life Movement, we have tended to think in triumphalist or perfectionist categories, when the catechism thinks of sanctification, the first thing of which it thinks is not sinlessness, but of an honest recognition of our sinfulness and an honest, heartfelt repudiation of our sinfulness and or particular sins. Perfectionism is a trap because it actually causes us to define sin out of existence and to hide the reality of sin or to pretend that it does not exist. That is not an honest accounting and therefore perfectionism cannot and does not lead to genuine sanctification.
True sanctification begins with what we used to call “mortification,” which is a one-word way of saying “dying of the old man.” As I wrote under Heidelberg 88, this teaching is not complicated but it is not easy either. Death is never easy if only because it always entails loss. The truth is, to the degree we are Adam’s children, we like sin and we like to sin. It is pleasurable for a while to think evil, vindictive, murderous, or lustful thoughts. It is momentarily satisfying to gratify sinful desires but only for a while. In that way sin is like drug abuse. The first hit from an illegal narcotic maybe thrilling but take a look at a long-time drug abuser and tell me that it’s still fun or glamorous. After a while, drug abuse becomes just another job: satisfy the habit. So it is with familiar sins.
We, who are united to Christ, are called to recognize sin for what it is, to call it what it is: sin. This is a good reason to eschew therapeutic language. We are dysfunctional but the root of dysfunction is sin. We all have medical, psychological, and emotional “issues” and they are real and should be addressed but the root of it all is sin. Re-describing sin as something else ultimately leads to despair. When we face our sins for what they are there is hope because grace is for sinners. This is why it is so important not to fall into the Romanist trap of describing grace as a medicine. It is not. Grace is God’s free favor (approval) toward us in Christ. It is grace that sets us free. It is grace that delivers us from bondage. it is grace that gives us hope when we are in the midst of the existential, daily struggle against temptation and sin. This is why Paul writes:
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
We will consider what it means to live under Heidelberg 90 but please see that the beginning of living is death. Because we have died with Christ we are not debtors (see above) to sin. Because we are free, because the Spirit indwells us, by God’s free favor, we can put to death “the deeds of the body,” i.e., sin. We are led by the Spirit. We are not slaves but sons. We have full and free access to the Father. These are not conditions that we must fulfill in order to be accepted and saved. These are truths that we must trust and appropriate for ourselves as we are tempted.
Death is unpleasant but, in contrast to nihilists of our age, it is not the end. It is the beginning of life. Christ was raised but in order to be raised for our justification he had first to die for our justification. So it is with us. We shall be raised but we must first die to sin daily. We must learn to regard it as God does and to regard ourselves as God does. Only then are we able to “turn from it more and more” and turn from it we must.
Dr. R. Scott Clark is Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He blogs at THE HEIDELBERGER.