Crossing the river in Pilgrim’s Progress

Among the songs our church sang on Easter Sunday was “Because He Lives.” The third verse reads:

And then one day, I’ll cross that river
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain
And then as death gives way to victory
I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He reigns

The line about crossing the river reminds me of a late scene in Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian & Hopeful must cross the river of death to reach the Celestial City. Bunyan’s depiction of the weakness of our flesh and our wavering faith in the face of death is arresting and somehow comforting. Until the day that it is destroyed, death remains an enemy that threatens us with fear and tempts us to despair (1Cor 15:26). We need not fear death when it comes (Heb 2:14-15), but who can say how we will fare in the heat of our last battle? On the heels of Easter Sunday I’m thankful that God’s promise of eternal life is certain even when I am not.

Now between them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep. At the sight of this river the pilgrims were stunned. Then the men who went with them said, “You must go through the river or you cannot enter the City at the gate.”

The pilgrims then began to inquire if there was no other way to the gate, to which they answered, “Yes, but there have been only two, Enoch and Elijah, permitted to tread that path since the foundation of the world. And no one else will be permitted to go that way until the last trumpet shall sound. “

Then the pilgrims, especially Christian, began to despair in their minds. They looked this way and that, but no way could be found to escape the river.

Then they asked the men if the waters were deep everywhere all the time. They told them that sometimes the water was shallow, but that they could not guide them in that matter since the waters were deep or shallow depending upon their faith in the King of the place.

Then they waded into the water, and upon entering, Christian began to sink. He cried out to his good friend Hopeful, saying, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows are going over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.

Then Hopeful said, “Be of good cheer, my brother. I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

Then Christian cried out, “Ah, my friend! The sorrows of death have compassed me about. I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey.”

With that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see ahead.

It was then that Christian lost his senses, and his memory failed him, and he could not talk in an orderly fashion of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage.

All the words that he spoke were filled with horror, and he feared that he should die in that river and never obtain entrance at the gate. He was greatly troubled by thoughts of his past sins, committed before and during his pilgrimage. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, which he continually spoke about.

It was everything that Hopeful could do to keep his brother’s head above water. Sometimes Christian, despite all Hopeful’s help, would slip down into the waters and rise up again half-dead.

Hopeful continually tried to comfort him, saying, “Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us.”

But Christian would answer, “It is you, it is you they wait for. You have been Hopeful ever since I knew you.”

And so have you,” Hopeful said to Christian.

Christian answered, “If things were right with me, He would now come to help me, but because of my sin he has brought me to this snare, and He will leave me here.

Then said Hopeful, “My brother, you have forgotten the text where it is said of the wicked, ‘There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men’ (Psa. 73:4, 5). These troubles and distresses you are going through in these waters are not a sign that God has forsaken you; but are sent to try you, to see if you will call to mind all the goodness that you have received from Him. You are being tested to see if you will rely on Him in your distress.”

Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was in a bewildered stupor for a while. Hopeful spoke to Christian, encouraging him to “Be of good cheer,” reminding him that Jesus Christ would make him whole.

With that Christian shouted out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see him again; and he tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you’ (Isa. 43:2).”

Then they both took courage and crossed the river, and the enemy was as still as a stone. Christian soon found solid ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So Christian and Hopeful crossed over the river and arrived on the other side. As soon as they came out of the river, they saw the two shining men again waiting for them. The men saluted the two pilgrims saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent here to minister to those shall be the heirs of salvation.” Then they all went along together toward the gate.

Now though the city stood upon a mighty hill with its foundations higher than the clouds, the pilgrims went up with ease, agility, and speed because the ministering spirits supported their arms as they led them. Also they had left their mortal garments behind them in the river, for though they had gone in with them, they had come out without them.

-John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (ed. C. J. Lovik)

He clothes us with incorruption

The Word thus takes on a body capable of death, in order that, by partaking in the Word that is above all, this body might be worthy to die instead for all humanity, and remain incorruptible through the indwelling Word, and thus put an end to corruption through the grace of his resurrection. […] Hence he did away with death for all who are like him by the offering of the body which he had taken on himself. The Word, who is above all, offered his own temple and bodily instrument as a ransom for all, and paid their debt through his death. Thus the incorruptible Son of God, being united with all humanity by likeness to them, naturally clothed all humanity with incorruption, according to the promise of the resurrection.

-Athanasius of Alexandria, quoted in The Christian Theology Reader (ed. Alister McGrath), 288.

the King is sleeping

Today, there is a great silence on earth — a great silence and a great stillness. There is a great silence because the king is sleeping. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh, and he has raised up all who have fallen asleep ever since the beginning of the world. God has appeared in the flesh, and Hades has swallowed him. God will sleep for a short time, and then raise those who are in Hades. […] He has gone to search out Adam, our first father, as if he were a lost sheep. Earnestly longing to visit those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, he – who is both their God and the son of Eve – has gone to liberate Adam from his bonds, and Eve who is held captive along with him. […] “I am your God. For your sake I have become your son[; …] I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead! Arise, my seed! Arise, my form [morphe], who has been made in my image [eikon] !”

-unknown Author, quoted in The Christian Theology Reader (ed. Alister McGrath), 292.

A good quote for Good Friday

“I have paid the debt, and it is right that those who were imprisoned on account of that debt should now be set free to enjoy their former liberty and return to their own homeland.”

Therefore the Lord takes upon himself the curse that lay on all humanity and removes it by a death which was not required by justice. He himself was not under the curse […] but he endured the death of sinners; and he contends in judgment with the vengeful foe of all our human nature, becoming the champion and advocate of our nature.

He says, with justice, to our harsh tyrant: “You are trapped, you villain, and ensnared in your own nets. […] Why have you nailed my body to the cross and handed me over to death? What kind of sin have you found in me? What breach of the law did you detect? […] If the smallest fault is found in me, you would have every right to hold me, in that death is the punishment of sinners. But if you find nothing in me which God’s law forbids, but rather everything which it demands, I will not allow you to hold me wrongfully.

What is more, I will open the prison of death for others also: and I will confine you there alone, for transgressing the law of God. […] And since you have taken one prisoner unjustly, you will be deprived of all those who are in fact justly subject to you. Since you have eaten what was not to be eaten, you will vomit all that you have swallowed. […] I have paid the debt, and it is right that those who were imprisoned on account of that debt should now be set free to enjoy their former liberty and return to their own homeland.”

With those words the Lord raised his own body, and sowed in human nature the hope of resurrection, giving the resurrection of his own body to humanity as a guarantee. Let no one suppose that this is an idle tale. We have been taught from the holy Gospels and the apostolic teachings that this is indeed a fact. We have heard the Lord himself say: “The ruler of this world is coming, and he finds nothing in me” (John 14: 30) […] and in another place: “Now is the judgment of this world: now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12: 31).

-Theodoret of Cyrrhus, quoted in The Christian Theology Reader (ed. Alister McGrath), 292-93.

Newton: A final farewell not only tolerable, but pleasant

Alterations and separations are graciously appointed of the Lord, to remind us that this is not our rest, and to prepare our thoughts for that approaching change which shall fix us forever in an unchangeable state. Oh, madam! what shall we poor worms render to him who has brought life and immortality to light by the gospel, taken away the sting of death, revealed a glorious prospect beyond the grave, and given us eyes to see it?

Now the reflection that we must ere long take a final farewell of what is most capable of pleasing us upon earth is not only tolerable, but pleasant. For we know we cannot fully possess our best friend, our chief treasure, till we have done with all below; nay, we cannot till then properly see each other. We are cased up in vehicles of clay, and converse together as if we were in different coaches, with the blinds close drawn round. We see the carriage, and the voice tells us we have a friend within; but we shall know each other better, when death shall open the coach doors, and hand out the company successively, and lead them into the glorious apartments which the Lord has appointed to be the common residence of them that love him. What an assembly will there be! What a constellation of glory, when each individual shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father! No sins, sorrows, temptations; no veils, clouds, or prejudices, shall interrupt us then. All names of idle distinction (the fruits of present remaining darkness, the channels of bigotry, and the stumbling-block of the world) will be at an end.

— John Newton, “Letter to Mrs. Place,” August 1775; Letters of John Newton, 235-6.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams

JAdams_letterI am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forevermore.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, “Had a Declaration…” [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Pascal: The gospel humbles & exalts

Pensees[The gospel] teaches the righteous that it raises them even to a participation in divinity itself; that in this lofty state they still carry the source of all corruption, which renders them during all their life subject to error, misery, death, and sin; and it proclaims to the most ungodly that they are capable of the grace of their Redeemer. So making those tremble whom it justifies, and consoling those whom it condemns, religion so justly tempers fear with hope through that double capacity of grace and sin, common to all, that it humbles infinitely more than reason alone can do, but without despair; and it exalts infinitely more than natural pride, but without inflating; thus making it evident that alone being exempt from error and vice, it alone fulfills the duty of instructing and correcting men.

Who then can refuse to believe and adore this heavenly light? For is it not clearer than day that we perceive within ourselves ineffaceable marks of excellence? And is it not equally true that we experience every hour the results of our deplorable condition? What does this chaos and monstrous confusion proclaim to us but the truth of these two states, with a voice so powerful that it is impossible to resist it?

–Pascal, Pensées, 123.

I deserve death & hell. What of it?

“When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also’.”

–Martin Luther, in Theodore G. Tappert, editor, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 86-87.

A reflection on God’s goodness & mercy

It gives us occasion to admire the wonderful patience and mercy of God. How many millions of practical atheists breathe every day in his air, and live upon his bounty who deserve to be inhabitants in hell, rather than possessors of the earth! An infinite holiness is offended, an infinite justice is provoked; yet an infinite patience forebears the punishment, and an infinite goodness relieves our wants: the more we had merited his justice and forfeited his favor, the more is his affection enhanced, which makes his hand so liberal to us. At the first invasion of his rights, he mitigates the terror of the threatening which was set to defend his law, with the grace of a promise to relieve and recover his rebellious creature. Who would have looked for anything but tearing thunders, sweeping judgments, to raze up the foundations of the apostate world. But oh, how great [is his compassion] to aspiring competitors! Have we not experimented his [works] for our good, though we have refused him for our happiness? Has he not opened his arms, when we spurned with our feet; held out his alluring mercy, when we have brandished against him a rebellious sword? Has he not entreated us while we have invaded him, as if he were unwilling to lose us, who are ambitious to destroy ourselves? Has he yet denied us the care of his providence, while we have denied him the rights of his honor, and would appropriate them to ourselves? Has the sun forborne shining on us, though we have shot arrows against him? Have not our beings been supported by his goodness, while we have endeavored to climb up to his throne; and his mercies continued to charm us, while we have used them as weapons to injure him? Our own necessities might excite us to own him as our happiness, but he adds his invitations to the voice of our wants. Has he not promised a kingdom to those who would strip him of his crown, and proclaimed pardon upon repentance to those who would take away his glory? and hath so twisted together his own end, which is his honor, and man’s true end, which is his salvation, that a man cannot truly mind himself and his own salvation, but he must mind God’s glory; and cannot be intent upon God’s honor, but by the same act he promotes himself and his own happiness? . . . All those wonders of his mercy are enhanced by the heinousness of our atheism; a multitude of gracious thoughts from him above the multitude of contempts from us.

–Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God

‘What are you, then, my God?’

You are most high, excellent, most powerful, omnipotent, supremely merciful and supremely just, most hidden yet intimately present, infinitely beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive, unchanging yourself though you control the change in all things, never new, never old, renewing all things yet wearing down the proud though they know it not; ever active, ever at rest, gathering while knowing no need, supporting and filling and guarding, creating and nurturing and perfecting, seeking although you lack nothing. You love without frenzy, you are jealous yet secure, you regret without sadness, you grow angry yet remain tranquil, you alter your works but never your plan; you take back what you find although you never lost it; you are never in need yet you rejoice in your gains, never avaricious yet you demand profits. You allow us to pay you more than you demand, and so you become our debtor, yet which of us possesses anything that does not already belong to you? You owe us nothing, yet you pay your debts; you write off our debts to you, yet you lose nothing thereby.

– Augustine, The Confessions, 1.4 [trans. Maria Boulding]