David Powlison: Half of the words from the cross are small acts of love from the extremity of suffering and the other half of the words from the cross are small acts of faith: “Into thy hands I commit my spirit,” “It is finished.” Our Jesus can help us in our dying and we can help those who are dying in some tiny, tiny way to live faith working through love even right up to the extremity.
Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, we thought it appropriate to honor Dr. David Powlison. We’re all grateful for the ministry and life of Dr. Powlison. In fact, this past week, I had the opportunity to join in fellowship at his memorial service. I know it’s difficult to think about the passing of a loved one, but I have to be honest with you, that time together with people who are honoring the life of Dr. Powlison and to be with Nan and his family was edifying. It was an experience like not many other here on earth to be able to honor the faithful life of a brother in the Lord Jesus. It was a time of weeping and a time of rejoicing in the work of the Lord Jesus through the life of Dr. Powlison. I want to encourage you over the next several weeks to remember to pray for David’s wife Nan. Pray for his family. He leaves a gaping hole as a loved one, as a father, and as a husband, so I would ask you to continue to pray for them, lift them up, and pray for the members of CCEF. To lose your leader would be difficult and pray that the Lord would give them wisdom in finding a way forward. I know He will.
Today, what we want to do on the podcast is to continue to honor Dr. Powlison from his life and his work. We’ve reached back into our archives to present to you a portion of a talk that David did for ACBC, and the title of it was Facing Death which I thought was quite appropriate if you’ve been following the illness that Dr. Powlison was living through. He posted several updates on how he was processing, as a finite human being, his own mortality. I found reading them was very encouraging but very sobering and very difficult to read the reality of my own mortality, but I was encouraged by Dr. Powlison in persevering in faith and trusting in the goodness of the Lord despite what reality was.
I hope you’ve been encouraged in that process as well. It was interesting at the memorial service to see so many who were blessed by his life and his ministry. I encountered two people as I was flying to the memorial service in the aisle next to me on the airplane. I see a red book and on the spine of the book I see Dr. Powlison’s name. There was a young lady reading Good and Angry and I thought, “Wow, what an amazing story that this man, through his life and publications, will impact people for generations to come.” Then we met a man at the memorial service who had never met Dr. Powlison. One of the brothers that I was with asked him if he knew Dr. Powlison and he said, “No, I read one of his books and it impacted me so much that I just wanted to be here to honor him.” I think about that life, I think about that legacy, and we want to share with you just a portion of a talk from David Powlison on facing death.
David Powlison: Facing death yourself. Point one is the obvious: reckon with your dying now. This is something our culture does not do well. We live in a culture where I’ve heard it said that the Moderns sneer at the Victorians because they were supposedly so prudish about sexuality, but Victorians would look at Moderns and say that these people are unbelievably prudish about death. The Victorians face death and they looked it right in the eye. We Moderns live in a culture of denial. One of the ways that we become equipped to live well, die well, minister well is by facing death. Facing your own death right now. I want to throw four things on the table there.
First, simply face the simple fact that you are going to die. It is a fact worth personalizing. Saying, with some time to think, I will die and then starting to walk out, hammer out what that means. The Bible is relentless on this. In fact, you can even say that this is one of the ground themes of the entirety of Scripture, as I alluded to earlier. The Bible uses many vivid metaphors. It talks about grass in the desert: things that just pop up because it happened to rain that day and then they wither. One psalm talks about rooftop grass. Most of us have seen that stuff in your gutters or maybe even on your shingles and something starts to sprout that has absolutely no ability for it to keep growing. The Bible says that’s what our lives are. We’re rooftop grass. We’re a morning mist. Here and gone. In fact, we could say that there is only one certainty in all of human life. The one and only certain thing is that every person will die. Everything else is up for grabs: your health, your relationships, your money, your job. Everything else is uncertain, and the one certain thing is that you’ll die.
Second, the way that God would have us think about this issue is that within this simple fact is a far deeper drama. Psalm 90 is perhaps the most crystalline place where this comes to fore. Psalm 90 is the oldest psalm. It’s the one song by Moses and it is a reflection on the fact that, “God, you turn man back into dust.” It is a reflection on our dying. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on this, but it’s something that should become part of the furniture of every Christian’s life. We rightly proclaim in Christ that we have been delivered from death and from the power of sin to kill us, but what Psalm 90 underlies is that we live our lives in what we might call “under the conditions of wrath” because we die. We still live within the conditions of wrath, the wrath of God, the judgment of God on a fallen earth.
Psalm 90 is a psalm reckoning with this fact, and this is unto the day when death is no more, until Revelation 20. Only in Revelation 21 and 22 does this reality finally become sight not faith for us. We live under the conditions of wrath. We live in the context of death and it’s interesting that as Moses goes on, “We have been consumed by your anger, and by your wrath we have been dismayed. You have placed our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days have declined in your fury; we have finished our years like a sigh.” (Psalm 90:7-9) He goes on to talk about the fact that during life it’s about labor and sorrow and soon it is gone, and we fly away. Then, this wonderful exhortation: “So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) What is being said there is that you must stop and reckon with your dying and reckon with this most cosmic-level reality of what is being played out there. Every one of us is experiencing the fundamental darkness of a world gone wrong. We who live by faith, but it is not by sight. We die also, we experience death, but not ultimately.
Third, one of the things this means, which is so contrary to the world we live in, is that death is not a friend. Death is a destroyer. Death is something that the Bible calls “The Last Enemy.” It is the final loss. Whatever other losses happen in a person’s life; death is the final loss. Life is tough and then you die. The wages of sin is death. The evil one is a killer and the whole earth lies in the power of the evil one in that existential sense that we live in.
There is in Christ this inexpressible gift that relates directly to death. We are right in the way we preach and sing and pray to reckon that the more primary problem is sin. The inexpressible gift deals with our sins, but sin is the cause of death ultimately. The inexpressible gift is life, and the Bible is relentless on this. We will receive life. Think about this: in this reckoning with your own death, as Colossians 3 would put it, “You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” It’s forcing us to reckon not just with the mere fact of physical death, but this more ultimate, profound fact that we have died. John Owen had a wondrously profound book: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ about how we are in the life of Christ as those who have known him. 1 Peter 1 talks about this inheritance that is imperishable. It can’t be corrupted. It can’t be defiled. It can’t end. It can’t fade. That inexpressible gift is this: it is an eternal and indestructible life that is in Christ. That is the theme throughout the Bible. In Ephesians 2, you were dead, and you were made alive in Christ. Inexpressible gift.
My fourth point is a question. I have a friend who likes to ask people, “When you die, who are you most looking forward to seeing?” He’s asked the question of hundreds of Christians. He said that only one or two have ever said, “I’m looking forward to seeing Jesus Christ.” People usually say, “I’m looking forward to seeing my best friend, my grandmother, my husband, my…” Yes, that’s part of our hope, but when you think about this inexpressible gift, the one that we most look forward to seeing should be like Psalm 17, “When I awake, I see your face.” The one that we will see is Christ, and that’s my fourth comment here. I’ll call it an unexplainable longing.
There is a longing to see the one whom we love, to see His face, to be with Him. Thus, you see this holy recklessness in the life of Paul. It comes out in Philippians 1 or 2 Corinthians 5. “I long to be with Him. It is better to be with Him. I’ll stick around; it’s better for you. I’m glad to stick around because I’m here to serve but it is better to be with Him and to see Him because He is life. He is the one in whom I have hope.” This is what’s going on in 1 Thessalonians 4: “We do not grieve as those who have no hope,” because we have hope. We will see the face of the one man who lives, and seeing Him we will live and become like Him. The whole battle is over. It’s that hope that leads to this unexplainable longing to be with the Lord. That’s our foundation.
What can you help them do? I mean after all, they’re dying. Perhaps they’re quite limited. The question we must ask is, how can you now live all the way to the finish line? You’re looking for things that a person can actually live out: to be able to pray honestly in the light of God’s promises, to be able to join in worship.
A friend from our church died while I was down here in Texas, and my wife went to the funeral on Saturday. She said that one of the things that was spoken of many times at this man’s funeral was that this 50 year old single man had lived fruitfully for Christ. He died of cancer, and people said that when they visited him he would take his oxygen mask off and asked how he could pray for people. He’d pray for them, and then say, “Could we sing this hymn?” He’d lead in the singing and put his oxygen mask back on because he needed to be able to breathe.
You can care for people. Simple care for people can happen. A dying person can care for the nurse and not be a grouch. You can say, “Thank you,” rather than being grouchy and indifferent, and it’s actually obedience to our God. You can pursue with the dying simple reconciliations with God, with others, asking forgiveness, naming what’s wrong, getting straight with God, and getting straight with others. The best dying’s I’ve been a part of are people like that man that I just mentioned who would actually ask of others, “How are you doing with what I’m going through?” Let’s say that the wife is dying, to be able to say to the husband, “How are you doing, dear, with my dying? How can I pray for you?”
Jesus did that. Jesus will enable us to do, in some small way, things He did. Here, he’s being tortured to death. He’s looking out for the interest of the thief and the interest of his mother. “Behold your son, behold your mother,” “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Half of the words from the cross are small acts of love from the extremity of suffering and the other half of the words from the cross are small acts of faith: “Into thy hands, I commit my spirit,” “It is finished.” Our Jesus can help us in our dying and we can help those who are dying, in some tiny, tiny way, to live faith working through love even right up to the extremity.
Let me pray for us: Our Father, these things we’ve looked at are so rich. We have barely scratched the surface. It is so good, your ways to the children of men, and we know and want it to be so. We know that if we learn how to die well, we in fact will live well. We won’t be morbid. It’s the opposite, in fact, where we’ll be the one kind of person who doesn’t have to be on the run or then get depressed when you get caught up short. That we can be people who love well, who in the end die well, and live all the way to the finish line. Would you make it so? Would you make us so aware that the promises of God in Christ are for just such a thing as this most grievous part of the human predicament? Would we be men and women that live gratefully and fruitfully because we have learned to reckon with our mortality right now? We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
This is a portion of one of Dr. David Powlison’s talks from our previous annual conferences. To listen to the full audio as well as others from our archive, you can click here.