Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Grief, hope and the comfort of doctrine

One of the soul impoverishing dangers of regarding doctrine as no more than "head knowledge" is that it denies Christians the comfort and encouragement they need in the face of death. In fact a lack of knowledge leaves us in a position where our grief finds no relief, and our thoughts are given no solid hope.

Consider Paul's approach in 1 Thess 4:13-5:11. He doesn't want them to be ignorant or uninformed about those who have fallen asleep. If they are uninformed then they will grieve like those without hope. The remedy for this is knowledge, doctrine, truth. In the face of death, to those who grieve over believers that have died, Paul confesses the truth of Christ's resurrection. He says "We believe that Jesus died and rose again" and that he will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. In the face of death Christians confess the resurrection of the Son of God. In the midst of grief they hold that believers who have died will be woken from the sleep of death.

It is noteworthy that this confession of truth is the means by which the church is to be encouraged. Twice Paul tells them to encourage one another with these words (4:18; 5:11). They are to be a means of grace. Those who would reduce and relegate doctrine to the periphery of Christian life and experience are doing great damage to the pastoral needs of God's people. They are taking away the very means by which God ministers strength, hope and encouragement to his people in this valley of tears. Moreover, they are contradicting God's own command about the pastoral role of doctrine. Ignorance is not bliss but pain. The deliberate avoidance of teaching doctrine is a form of cruelty.

My practice at the funeral of a believer is to read, and explain, at the graveside Q. 37 from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I want everyone to understand the reality of union with Christ. I want people to know how much Christ loves his people, how great a Saviour he really is, and that he is the Saviour of body and soul.

Q. 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 in Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.

Our only comfort in life and in death is that we are not our own but really do belong body and soul to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. On the basis of the Word of God that is what we believe, that is what we must teach, that is what we must confess:

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
(1 Thess. 5:9-11)

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