July 11, 2013

Why Dying Is Gain

by Nathan Busenitz

Foxe's_BookFox’s Book of Martyrs is a must read for every Christian. Written by John Fox over 350 years ago, it catalogs the lives of hundreds of believers who, throughout church history, were willing to give their lives for the cause of Christ. When it comes to contagious courage, I can think of no greater testimony than reading about those who embraced their Lord to the point of embracing death.

One such account concerns the lives of Jerome Russell and Alexander Kennedy, two English Protestants who took a daring stand for what they believed. Because of their biblically-sound doctrine, the pair was arrested and imprisoned. Kennedy was only eighteen years old. After some time, the two men were brought before religious officials for questioning. Russell, being older, gave an articulate defense, using the Scriptures to support his belief in salvation through faith alone. Yet, in spite of the evidence, the men’s accusers prevailed and Russell and Kennedy were deemed heretics.

In keeping with the jurisprudence of the times, they were condemned to death—their sentence to be carried out the following day. Early the next morning, Russell and Kennedy were led from their prison cells to the place of execution. They could have denied their Lord, right then and there, and been spared. But when Kennedy, being but a young man, began to display signs of fear, Russell quickly encouraged him to stand firm:

Brother, fear not; greater is He that is in us, than he that is in the world. The pain that we are to suffer is short, and shall be light; but our joy and consolation shall never have an end. Let us, therefore, strive to enter into our Master and Savior’s joy, by the same straight way which He hath taken before us. Death cannot hurt us, for it is already destroyed by Him, for whose sake we are now going to suffer.

In this way, the two men came to boldly face execution without compromise. John Fox finishes the account with this.

When they arrived at the fatal spot, they both kneeled down and prayed for some time; after which being fastened to the stake, and the fagots [kindling] lighted, they cheerfully resigned their souls into the hands of Him who gave them, in full hopes of an everlasting reward in the heavenly mansions.

How could these men calmly submit to being burned alive? Why did they willingly undergo severe suffering and death? The answer begins with the biblical doctrine of hope. By focusing on God and His unwavering faithfulness, they stood firm as a testimony to the truth.

Biblical Hope Changes the Way We View Death

Every day over 150 thousand people die. Some die from disease, others from crime, and still others from tragic accidents. Sometimes death is expected, the prognosis having been grim for several months; other times death is unforeseen and sudden—the result of an unexpected stroke or a drunk driver. But no matter how it comes, all of us know that one day it will be our turn. Death is part of life, and there’s no escaping it.

One might think that, due to its widespread inevitability, death is something people would ponder frequently, constantly preparing for the end of their earthly lives. Yet, generally speaking, the opposite is usually the case. People feel uncomfortable talking about death. For most, it represents the great unknown. It is the result of tragedy, the basis of fear, and the ultimate separation from friends and family.

Of course, it’s understandable to realize that non-Christians cower at the thought of dying. For them it is the end of everything they hold dear. The pleasures of this earth, its resources and relationships—this is all they have. In dying, they lose what they have worked so hard to obtain.

What’s sad is when those in the church embrace that same kind of worldly perspective. Why should a Christian ever fear the grave? Is not death the doorway to heaven? Is there not eternal life on the other side? God’s Word is clear: death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:56–57). Granted, when we hope in the pursuits of this world, death is the enemy—separating us from the temporal treasures we love. But, when our hope is properly placed in God, death comes as a welcome friend to take us home.

Here are two reasons why:

a. Hope sees death as a beginning, not an end.

For believers death is the beginning of eternity in heaven. Death is not termination but initiation—the start of an existence far better than anything we can imagine. The apostle Paul knew this to be true. The book of 2 Timothy is the last letter he wrote before his execution—chapter 4 indicates that he realized his death was imminent (see v. 6). As he looked back on his life, he realized that his life was almost over (v. 7). Yet, he now looked forward to something far greater: namely, the reward of Jesus Christ and an eternity spent together with Him (v. 8). Paul looked beyond the grave and saw his God. Because Christ had conquered death (1 Corinthians 15:20–28) there was nothing to fear.

It was John Owen, the great Puritan, who wrote on his deathbed: “I am yet in the land of the dying, but I hope soon to be in the land of the living.” Like Paul, he too understood that true life, in its fullest measure, begins where this life ends.  In stark contrast, many in the contemporary church live as though this present life is better than the life to come. Tenaciously, they hold on to their short stay on this earth. Some follow every health fad, taking whatever supplement will reduce the risk of a heart attack. Others avoid airplanes, fearful that their trip could end in an unexpected dive.

Our quest for longevity has affected our eating habits, our exercise routines, our travel plans, and even the type of sunscreen we buy. While there is nothing inherently sinful in enjoying the earthly life that God has given, Christians sometimes need to be reminded that the next life is far superior. Death is a doorway, not a dead end. And for God’s children, death’s door opens into heaven.

b.  Hope sees the Shepherd through the shadows.

A second reason Christians need not fear death is because our Savior has already conquered death. He is not asking us to go anywhere He has not already been. And, because He arose from the grave victorious (Acts 2:32–33), we can be confident that we also will be resurrected one day (1 Corinthians 15:20). In Psalm 23:4, the writer says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” For David, whose life was often in danger, comfort came in looking to his Shepherd, even when thinking about death.

Just over 1,000 years later, an early Christian leader named Ignatius shared David’s confident perspective. According to church tradition, Ignatius was arrested by the Roman government and executed because he professed Christ. Shortly before his death, he wrote the church of Rome, saying:

I care for nothing, of visible or invisible things, so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus.

Even in being thrown to hungry animals and torn limb from limb, Ignatius’ commitment to his Lord remained firm. He was willing to endure death because of the Master he sought to please, the Master he knew he would soon see face-to-face.

In considering death, these men focused on the One who was waiting to meet them there. They did not fear death, because they rested in the promises of their Savior. What comes into your mind when you think about death? A biblical perspective thinks first about Christ. And for the soul that loves Jesus, nothing is more exciting than the thought of going to be with Him. We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), and not even death can separate us from that love (Romans 8:38–39).

Death is the doorway that brings us into the presence of Christ. That is why Paul could triumphantly tell the Philippians, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” For those who know the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul’s words summarize both our purpose in this life and our hope for the next.

Nathan Busenitz

Posts Twitter

Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • This book has been on my shelf for years. It’s staring at me right now. I guess I need to pick it up (after a couple of books I’m working on . . . .).

  • daryl.little

    One question, a little off topic but I hope not too much.

    I’ve read much (or at least parts…) of Fox’s Book of Martyrs and found it eye-opening and encouraging, but I’ve noticed over the past 10 years or so that it is a much maligned book with many questioning it’s truthfulness and reliability.

    I assume that this is simply due to a move towards sympathizing with Rome and with many in the church decrying the way that Fox notes the Roman church’s involvement in so many killings of believers.

    Is that pretty much it or is there more to it do you think?

    • gerald

      We Catholics are believers too mr. Little. Protestants were never asked to deny the name of Christ as the article implies. They were never asked to deny faith. Your post only shows the 500 years of prejudice and rhetoric caused by the likes of Foxe’s and Hislops distortions of history and Catholicism.

  • kevin2184

    This world is not our home. Thanks for the reminder, Nathan.

    “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self his being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

  • Thanks, Nathan. Well done.

  • gerald

    If salvation by faith alone were true then why did the NT writers use the word faith over 300 times and NOT ONCE use it with word alone. Check that, James 2:24. Won’t help though. The Apostle Paul never used the term. Why do protestants think they need to correct him? Romans 2:4-10 shows the problem with faith alone.

    As for Foxe’s book, a Catholic book could be written just as easily. There were over 200 priests killed by “Good Queen Bess” primarily for having their bowls ripped out so they could die a slow death. The Catholics of Ireland suffered greatly under protestant rule with Cromwell killing about 70,000 and selling women and children as slaves. Starving them as well.

    I’ve read Foxe’s book. Basically it is an anti-catholic historical blaming of all the religious persecutions from Constantine on on the Catholic Church. All the heretics were good and the Church was bad.

    The reality is that Romans 13 does give the state authority to use the “sword” and God in the end is the judge of these matters. Check out the stories of the Anabaptists in Switzerland and Germany. The protestants persecuted protestants as well. Why do non-Catholics think the Puritans came to America? Was it because jolly old England wasn’t so jolly for them. Why do you think that protestant countries became protestant along border lines? It was because of persecution. Religious persecution is not limited to one side or the other and my post is no attempt to whitewash all that Catholics did. It is funny however that protestants speak well of King Henry VIII and of his cronies when he was in power and yet say nothing of him and his casting asunder of what God has joined. Yet oddly enough his cronies who persecuted are spoken of as martyrs but Moore and Fischer, who were only carrying out his wishes are sneered and jeered by protestants when protestant cronies did the same or worse than these two. There were certainly abuses of Government power. God will judge these times far better than we can.

    Much more I could say.

  • Armando Valdez

    I really enjoy this post. It touch my soul. Thanks Nathan.
    And thanks to all martyrs to be an example and remind us that our Christianity comes up short against them.

  • gerald

    And my posts were deleted why?

  • Elaine

    Nathan, thank you for writing so masterfully on this topic. (I just found this blog site and love to read the daily posts.) I’ve read a lot of Foxes Book of Martyrs. I’m grateful that so many martyr stories/testimonies were documented. I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of saints in the past and the present to face horrible tortures and brutal deaths in the name of Christ. I find great encouragement in reading how they faced death and desire that I, too, can fully trust my Lord and not fear death when my time comes —trusting in all His promises to those who believe in Him. Thank you for illuminating and exhorting the proper persepective for Christians who sometimes forget that this is not our world.

  • METOWNSEND Townsend

    ‘I win Christ Jesus’..???? unclear exactly what he meant by this?
    Foxes Book… is a fabulous reminder that this world is not our home – we are only strangers in a strange land.

  • gerald

    Seems cripplegate only wants posts from those who agree and pat their backs about their articles.

    • Gerald, you’ve been given parameters for your comments. You’ve not remained within them. Do it once more and you’ll be banned.

      • gerald

        Every one of my comments was related to the article. For instance the comments about foxes book above are of the same type of comment as mine. They just speak of it favorably so you allow them. The article is, as you seem to be saying, not about foxes book. The parameters you have given me are clearly on a whim of what you think is pertinent to the article. The article mentions faith alone and foxes book. Yet you let others speak on these things because they speak favorably. So I comment on those and you say I am off topic and delete my posts. No I think you just want to ban me. And you will eventually.