A few months ago I had occasion to read some words from J. R. Miller directed towards youth, instructing them in how to prepare for a "Beautiful Old Age." My reaction is mixed. The words are an eloquent plea for the pursuit of purity and holiness throughout one's youth and middle years for the sake of reaping the benefits in one's old age. Yet, I find them strangely devoid of the gospel, except for one or two comments, almost exclusively works-oriented and prone to producing despair rather than comfort at the hour of death.
I do realize that Mr. Miller is a Presbyterian of the old school, hence he is one of my own forefathers in the tradition I follow and I realize that I could never approach his learning and zeal for Christ. I realize that I owe him deference and respect and am more than happy to be corrected if I have misunderstood his words.
He advises that youth need to cultivate friendship in their younger years as these friends will be there to comfort them in their later years. So far so good. And he says that youth need to pursue holiness and purity throughout their life so that their clear conscience (my own words to translate his meaning) may comfort them before the Lord in their later years. This gets a bit problematic. Yes, we pursue holiness throughout life but Miller describes this almost in the sense that we save up a bank of merit we could draw on in old age.
Sin may seem pleasant to us now, but we must not forget how it will appear when we get past it and turn to look back upon it; especially must we keep in mind how it will seem from a dying pillow. Nothing brings such pure peace and quiet joy at the close as a well-lived past. We are every day laying up the food on which we must feed in the closing years. We are hanging up pictures about the walls of our hearts that we shall have to look at when we sit in the shadows. How important that we live pure and holy lives! Even forgiven sins will mar the peace of old age, for the ugly scars will remain.
Apparently forgiven sin can still torment us on our dying pillow. The source of our peace and joy is a "well-lived past." And "even forgiven sins will mar the peace of old age, for the ugly scars remain."
I read these words on another blog and all the commenters were positive and effusive in their praise. I, on the other hand, was not quite as positive. I guess we can chalk it up to my guilty conscience, but my reaction was that, if I were to take these words to heart I would be in despair at the hour of death. The apostle Paul himself considered his best works of righteousness as no more than filthy rags, so how could any of us lesser lights hope to offer God anything more than the filthiest of filthy rags in the hour of death. And how could any of us speak peace to our own hearts if we relied on "a well-lived life." The message of the gospel is that none of us lives "a well-lived life," in the eyes of God.
While doing some reading today I found some much better words to comfort the dying in the book "The Hammer of God," by Bo Giertz. This novel is nearly unknown here in America outside the Lutheran tradition, and I am not sure it's all that well known within the Lutheran tradition here in America. If possible, I'd love to do my small part to generate a few sales from a few of my readers because the book is quite profound. In reading up on the author, there are those who see him as (what I would call) a kind of Scandinavian C. S. Lewis. I had not heard of it till a friend recommended it the other day.
The book is a novel, actually comprised of three novellas. In the first a clergyman is called to the bedside of a dying man named Johannes and due to his unfamiliarity with the gospel, the clergyman is unable to offer Johannes any words of comfort. As you read you get the idea that Johannes is the kind of person lived a life of repentance and aggressively pursued holiness. Yet, on his deathbed, with God at the door, all he can see is his sin. His sin is that which is most evident to him. As the clergyman seeks to persuade Johannes to look at his life (a well-lived life?), the clergyman urges Johannes to find comfort in the knowledge that his life exhibits many evidences of grace.
Johannes is wiser than the clergyman and knows that his sin outweighs whatever good was in his life. So, on the scene comes a character named Katrina, who will minister the gospel to him. Here is a scene which eloquently displays the goodness of the gospel in the hour of death. Johannes has spent much of his life repenting and yet he is still troubled that his heart is not clean.
"What then shall I believe Katrina?" (Johannes speaking)
"You mus believe this living Word of God: 'But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.' Up to this day you have believed in works and looked at your own heart. You saw only sin and wretchedness, because God anointed your eyes with the salve of the Spirit to see the truth."
Katrina addresses this a bit further but I wanted to interrupt the dialogue and notice that Johannes was trying to cultivate a right heart, a clean heart, before God, but that this is a work. This is a subtle but important point to make especially given the fact that it is common in our day to exhort one another to cultivate a clean "heart" before God. But even this is detour as the emphasis is on our work of cultivation, and it causes us to trust in a clean heart as the basis of our acceptance before God, rather than trusting in Christ. Katrina goes on to address this in ways that I find astonishing, profound and comforting:
"But why, then, have I not received a clean heart?"
"That you might learn to love Jesus," said the woman as calmly as before.
I'll be meditating on those words for some time, but there's more:
I mean, Johannes, that if you had received a clean heart and for that reason had been able to earn salvation - to what end would you then need the Savior? If the law could save a single one of us, Jesus would surely not have needed to die on the cross."
Johannes goes on to ask:
"Do you mean . . . ? Do you really mean that he takes away also the sin that dwells in my unclean heart?"
"Yes, he atoned for all that sin, when he died in your place."
"But I still have it with me, don't I?"
"Yes, as surely as Paul also still had it with him. Have you never read, 'I know that in me (that is in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not."
"Yes, that's how it is," whispered Johannes.
"That is the way it has always been for us, and for all others. 'With his stripes we are healed.' 'He is the propitiation fo rour sins: and . . . also for the sins of the whole world.'"
Johannes finds peace through these words and I find a great deal of comfort in them. I know that we are to pursue holiness and don't want to seem as if I am against this in any way. But though we are to pursue holiness we never told to take comfort in our holiness. I also think this whole dialogue properly takes the focus off of introspection and the cultivation of some kind of personal experience of a clean heart. We keep our focus on Jesus and His righteousness as our only hope in life and death.