Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017
WSC 37 of 107
39 And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. 40 But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. 42 And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. 43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.Luke 23:42-43
WSC 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness,1 and do immediately pass into glory;2 and their bodies, being still united to Christ,3 do rest in their graves4 till the resurrection.51 Heb 12:23; 2 2 Cor 5:1,6,8; Phil. 1:23; Lk 23:43; 3 1 Th 4:14; 4 Isa 57:2; 5 Job 19:26,27
We are in a series of messages ordered according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism. For several messages now, we have been looking at the benefits Christ, our Redeemer, purchased for us, and the Spirit of Christ applies to us in our effectual calling.
We noted that there are main benefits which are also objective, namely justification, adoption and sanctification. These benefits are also spoken of in terms of “communion in grace” with Christ in our Larger Catechism (Q. 69).
Then there are benefits in this life which are more subjective, like assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace and perseverance therein to the end.
We spoke of these as the glow of the golden chain, but in the Larger Catechism, they are spoken of as “communion in glory” with Christ in this life (Q 83). Now, the phrase “communion in glory” suggests to us that these are blessings that will be enjoyed by God’s people fully when they are glorified following death.
This leads us to think about death and what benefits of salvation come with it.
Our Shorter Catechism asks: “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?”
The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.
Where is this doctrine taught in the Scriptures? It is taught in several passages. But for our purpose in this study, we want to take our starting point from Luke 23:42-43, particularly the words of the Lord Jesus to the penitent malefactor: “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
You will be familiar with this event if you have read the Gospel of Luke.
The Lord Jesus is crucified with two malefactors or robbers. One of them remains unrepentant and will die a hardened sinner. The other is initially also abusive towards the Lord. But after some time of observing and hearing the Lord, he is soundly converted.
Thus, we read of how he rebukes the other malefactor when the latter taunts the Lord, saying: “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us” (v. 39).
The penitent malefactor retorts:
Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.Lk 23:40b-43
These are words of faith. The penitent malefactor has come to see that he deserves God’s wrath and curse. And he has also come to see that only Christ Jesus can save him!
So turning to the Lord, he cries unto him: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (v. 42). This is when the Lord says those beautiful words of hope: “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
We believe the words of the Lord were fulfilled that day. The repentant malefactor lived a sinner but died a saint. And when we compare Scripture with Scripture, we see that His experience of what happened after he died is not unique. His circumstance and lateness of conversion may be somewhat unusual since few of the elect of God are converted at the last minute, as far as we can tell. But what he experienced after he died is testified in other parts of scripture.
Bearing this in mind, we may learn at least three things from the words of our Lord.
- First, it is implied that the saint passes into glory upon death.
- Secondly, it is also implied that the saint is made perfect in glory at his death.
- Thirdly, it is implied that his body will remain in the grave until the resurrection.
Let’s consider these three benefits.
1. The Soul Passes into Glory
This is obvious, for the Lord says to the penitent thief, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” The Lord knows that they are going to die today. Tomorrow is the Sabbath and a special one because it will be the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.1 So it is a “high day” (Jn 19:31) to the Jews. The Lord knows that the Jews will not allow the bodies to remain on the cross, and they will request for the legs of those hanging on the cross to be broken to speed up their death by asphyxiation. He will give up the ghost before that happens so that none of His bones will be broken. But He knows the Jews will kill the other two today by breaking their legs.
So he tells the penitent malefactor, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Paradise, no doubt, refers to heaven. The Greek word παράδεισος (paradeisos) is of Persian origin and speaks of a garden of happiness which probably points to a restored Garden of Eden.
Clearly, the Lord is telling the penitent malefactor that upon his death, his soul will enter into glory, and He will meet Christ there.
By this declaration, the Lord refutes several myths about what happens after death.
- Buddhists, Hindus and Taoists believe in reincarnation, where the soul will be judged in hell and then re-incarnated as a more noble person, woman, animal, or insect, depending on how he has lived.
- Liberals and atheists believe that there is no such thing as a soul, and death is the end of life altogether.
- The Seventh Day Adventists believe that the soul would go into an unconscious state of soul-sleep.
- Roman Catholics believe that the soul of believers will go into an intermediate place known as purgatory to be purged of their venial sin by suffering.
But the Lord says concerning the believer that his soul will be with Him in Paradise the moment he dies. This will not apply to the impenitent malefactor and all unbelievers, for their souls will enter into hell for everlasting torment. But for the believer, death is an entrance into heaven.
The apostle Paul confirms this doctrine in his letter to the Philippians when he tells them, in Philippians 1:23, “For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Phil 1:23).
Death is not going to the realm of the unknown. Death is a departure. The Greek word translated “depart” (ἀναλύω, analuō) means “to unloose.” It brings to mind a picture of a ship tied to the harbour, which, when unloosed, sails across the sea to the harbour at the opposite shore. Death is like unloosening our ties with this world so we may sail to Christ in glory.
This being the case, it will also be implied that the soul is made perfect in holiness at death.
2. The Soul Is Made Perfect in holiness
This is our second point. This is not directly stated in the Lord’s word to the penitent thief, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” But it is a fact that may be inferred by necessary consequence and by comparing scripture with scripture.
You see, the Lord promises the penitent malefactor that he will be with Him in paradise.
But Hebrews 12:14 teaches us that without holiness, no man shall see the Lord. Now, the context in Hebrews suggests that actual holiness is required and not just imputed righteousness. The apostle, after all, is encouraging the pursuit of holiness. This suggests that true believers will pursue holiness, and they will be made perfect in holiness before they see the Lord in paradise.
This agrees with Revelation 21:27, in which we are told that nothing that defiles or works abomination may enter heaven. The penitent malefactor was working abomination all his life. Unless his soul is made perfect in holiness at death, he will not be allowed to enter heaven even though he is justified by the blood of Christ.
Thus, the souls of saints in glory are spoken of as “the spirits of just men made perfect” in Hebrews 12:23.
We conclude, then, that the souls of believers are at their death first made perfect in holiness before passing immediately into glory. One of the benefits of redemption is sanctification and an increase of grace, but it pleases God that we will never be perfect in this life as long as our soul is bound to a corruptible body. But as soon as we die, our soul is free, and, therefore, is made perfect in holiness by the Holy Spirit before we enter into paradise.
At the same time, when that happens, then we shall begin to enjoy communion in glory with Christ fully. We shall enjoy full assurance of God’s love. We shall have perfect peace of conscience. Our joy will overflow. The sanctification of our soul will be complete.
But we will not be complete yet. Why? Because we will not, at that point, have our bodies with us. It will be a while before our bodies are returned to us. In that sense, our joy will not yet be complete. In the last verse of Psalm 16, where we are given to sing, “in thy presence is fullness of joy,” the fullness is tied to our having our bodies raised.
Thus, we learn thirdly that the body of believers will remain in the grave until the resurrection.
3. The Body Remains in the grave Until the Resurrection
When the Lord tells the penitent malefactor that he will be with him in paradise Today, what will he understand the Lord to mean? Surely, he will understand that he will meet the Lord in his soul since he is going to die.
The penitent thief will die, and his body will be taken down from the cross and buried. His body will suffer decay and return to the dust.
But the body and the soul are one. Man is a psychosomatic entity. Human nature comprises body and soul. Therefore, Christ took upon himself a human body together with a reasonable soul. Therefore, Christ came not only to redeem our souls, but our bodies as well.
Make no mistake: our bodies are not generic shells. They are fearfully and wonderfully made, and they are unique. This is the testimony of the word of God, for the psalmist says: “Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14). And this is also the testimony of our own experience and science. Scientists, for example, recognise that even identical twins who share the same DNA are different due to epigenetics. No two bodies are precisely the same.
Therefore, when Christ redeems us, He redeems our unique soul and the unique body that goes with it. Therefore, our union with Christ is not only spiritual, but also bodily.
This being the case, we can logically conclude that as Christ raised our souls in the first resurrection in regeneration, he will raise our bodies in the second resurrection. Thus, our catechism testifies concerning believers at their death, that “their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.”
It is on the basis of the truth thus expressed that so long ago, the patriarch Job could declare in Job 19:26-27:
26 And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: 27 Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.
We will say more about the resurrection in our next study. But for now, I trust you can see that there are indeed blessings or benefits associated with death.
WSC 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.
Death has lost its sting for believers. Therefore, death is not a terrible thing for believers. Death is an enemy, for at death, our body and soul will be torn asunder for a season. And death is sad for those who are left behind, for which reason the Lord wept at the death of Lazarus. But death need not be fearful anymore for believers, for death is the gate into paradise for the true child of God.
What shall we do with this doctrine? Let me suggest three things for you to take home.
First of all, if you will only be perfect in holiness at death, do not allow yourself to become proud by success or frustrated by failure. God has indeed called us to be perfect as He is perfect (Mt 5:48) and to be holy as He is holy (1 Pet 1:15-16), but remember that God does not judge you based on how perfect or how holy you are, for you are received on account of the righteousness of Christ imputed to you. Therefore, humbly and gratefully walk before the Lord. Seek His strength to live a holy life, but never allow yourself to become proud of your success or despondent by failure. Learn to give all praise and glory to the Lord. Thank Him for your successes, and in your failure, thank Him that you are accepted for Christ’s sake and that one day you shall be made perfect in holiness unto His glory.
Secondly, cease to fear death, seeing that you will enter into glory upon death. The apostle to the Hebrews reminds us that Christ came to “deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb 2:15). Therefore, there is no more reason to fear death. Nevertheless, since death can happen anytime, let us be prepared to meet our God. Let us live as dying persons, not laying up treasures upon the earth where moth and rust corrupt, but seeking first God’s kingdom and laying up treasures in heaven.
Finally, knowing that our bodies will only be perfected at the resurrection, let us not become enamoured with our bodies and pay more attention to them than our souls. We must take care of our bodies. This is our duty in the 6th commandment. But we must not pay more attention to our body than our soul. What we do for our souls today will have eternal consequences even though our souls will be perfected, but what we do for our bodies will not have eternal consequences. Therefore, let us learn to give much attention to the cultivation of the health of our soul as we wait upon the Lord for the day when our soul will be perfected for the glory of Christ. Amen.