I found myself recently pondering the details of my own death. It wasn’t pretty.
Will I die alone? Will my spouse outlive me? Will I have a son or a daughter to grieve me? Will I die in my sleep, at my home, forgotten? Or in the hospital, suffering and drugged up? At a retirement home? In a car seat, bleeding and covered in glass? A freak accident? Cancer?
Let me change the subject for one second. Martin Luther, the church reformer, made a distinction between theologians of glory and theologians of the cross. Theologians of glory chase after a spirituality that focuses on our efforts as Christians, as we attempt to grow more visibly holy and righteous, more desired by God, more ‘victorious’ over sin. Glory theologians shy away from discussing deathbeds. The story of Jesus saving the thief on the cross doesn’t preach too well for them – he doesn’t really have enough time to change his life and become a glorious example of human progress. Theologians of the cross, however, are aware that the deathbed leaves everyone powerless and without hope for any more progress, so they shift their focus from our accomplishing holiness to Christ and his promises. Theologians of the cross, deathbed theologians, are aware that no matter how we live our lives, we are all eventually the thief on the cross, spiritually bankrupt, facing mortality and begging desperately for mercy.
[Sidenote: Theologians of the cross are don’t despise good works, but just perspectivize good works. Do them! You will be happier and so will your friends. But when you fail, God won’t be caught off guard or withhold his grace from you. It’s weird, kind of. For lots of us who grew up religious, making spiritual efforts without the pressure of threats seems difficult to imagine. There is no ‘sucking-up’ to God. He accepts us fully and completely in our imperfection. “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” Okay, now back to deathbeds.]
Our deathbed rips control away from us, as we realize we have no decision-making power about what comes after. I am not in control of my eternity. On our deathbed, our powerlessness is magnified until it becomes our entire identity.
But wait. Is it true we really don’t have power? Are we really so out of control? We all want to say, “No!” The things we have done in this life matter greatly to what happens after we die. If that is our first thought, then we are depending on our works to save us, and not God’s promise in Christ.
Just a little bit more triage before we meet grace again. Bear with me for a second.
The Law does nothing after I die. It ends there, because my ability to “do” ends there. If I live an entire life assuming that the Law is going to save me, that my hard work for Christ is going to get me into heaven, then I’m going to be scrambling when I am forced to face my death. When I am faced with my nakedness, like Adam and Eve were, I hear the voice of the Law that says: “Don’t worry, I can resolve that if I focus more effort on that broken area of my life. I can fix that problem eventually, with enough elbow-grease. I can conquer that sin.” My go-to comfort becomes the resolutions that I make to myself. I silence the voice of inadequacy by puffing out my chest, not confessing my spiritual bankruptcy. I add the clanging of my resolutions to the haunting voice of the Law – noise to drown out noise. I try to hide my shame with fig leaves, hoping God won’t notice or will even be impressed at how much effort I put in concealing that shame (Gen. 3:7). My heart is loud with law and, its constant companion, shame.
The joy of following Christ is that my “doing” never saved me in the first place. On my deathbed I won’t be haunted by my past sins, or my current bitterness, or Satan’s accusations, or my spiritual poverty. Satan can say, “You are pathetic on your deathbed. Why should God love someone so weak, so alone, so sinful? God knows that you love to gossip. God remembers how many times you got drunk. All the times you fell asleep praying to him. All the unkindness towards your family. Those five years you went without giving any tithes. Those secret sins that you have tried to forget.” And I can confidently respond, “I am a peasant, indeed. A silly beggar, undeserving of someone else’s perfect record. But Christ’s promises are my salvation, and he doesn’t break his promises. God has forgotten my sin, on Christ’s behalf, and I am fully pardoned. Go away Satan, your accusations aren’t good here.”
God is very interested in you letting go of your own works. I know it sounds strange and even unnecessary to some of us. We have all done some things we consider impressive in the past. We all think that, compared to those around us, we are not that sinful (so did the self-deluded pharisee in Luke 18 who thanked God that he wasn’t “like this tax collector, a sinner.”). Your deathbed demands you admit your spiritual bankruptcy, because the tax collectors share the same deathbed. The thief on the cross shares that deathbed, too (remember the parables of the workers in the vineyard from Matthew 20?). So there lies you, the tax collectors, and the thieves, the pharisees and the saints, all with one choice: cling to Christ – who came to call not the righteous but sinners (Mark 2:17), or cling to your accomplishments and assert your own righteousness. Keep in mind, there is no one who is righteous (Romans 3). You have only Jesus and his works to cling to. It is impossible to hold God’s hand when your hand is so tightly wound around your own spiritual efforts.
Your academic degrees, your wealth, your generosity, your accomplishments are worth nothing as you take your final breaths. (I applaud and encourage those accomplishments for today, but those deathbed questions have me a bit skeptical of the worth of our accomplishments in 60 years). But God’s promise – that you are loved and cherished forever because of Christ’s sacrificial death – is as true at the hour of your death as it was at the hour of your baptism.