Life Through Death
- As dying, and behold we live.
- —2 Corinthians 6:9—
As we gain life by being brought by divine power “from death unto life,”2 so we retain and enlarge life by continuing the process of passing from death unto life. We must not fall to thinking that we can die of ourselves, or do the execution ourselves, for we cannot. “To kill and make alive” belongs to God.3 But it is ours to recognize the fact that life is by the way of death, and to submit to God. Nor must we fall to inventing methods of capital punishment and torture for ourselves, like the old Ascetics, or invent crosses, and flagellations and penances. The true “death route” is God’s appointment, and not the plan we may fix up for ourselves.
No sooner do we find ourselves alive unto God, than we want to sever all the old death attachments to sin. We are truly dead to them in heart, but not separated from the life in which they inhere. We are not of the world, though we are in it. The avenues of temptation abound on every hand. Habits of thought and expression, habits of body, and habits of passion all have fixed modes of action. It has become a kind of second nature to think and act that way. We fall to obeying the law of affixing, and settling down into the uniform actions which habit always determines. The forces of the new volume of water, in life’s channel-ways, flow in these ditches prepared for it. Regeneration is a new life, not a new body nor personality. It adds a force in life’s potencies newer than before; but it is always in the same person. Regeneration takes effect in the soul in which it enters, and addresses itself to the task of working the machinery already in the factory. It operates with all the native force of will the individual possesses. It can do no more. If that will is weak and vacillating, regeneration may and will greatly improve it; but it cannot work outside of its usual methods of activity. There may be a new choice, or direction to it; but though the boiler in the power room may be one hundred horsepower, so long as there is only a ten horsepower engine to work the machinery, you cannot secure but ten horsepower execution through the machinery. It is so with all the faculties of soul, and acquired forces of habit, and common practices. Persons who have given way largely on one side of their nature find after conversion a weakness on that side that needs special attention and watching. The devil attacks us in our weak points, and having had easy access to the soul before conversion, he knows how to reach us to our great disadvantage.
The trend of life’s activities after we are converted is to work and think and act in the same manner that we did before we received such grace. We do not mean to act with the same intention and design, or to do just what we did before; but in walking, the rule is that we will have the same steps, though now we may be going to church instead of the saloon. In writing, people will recognize our handwriting, though we are giving them in detail our experience of being saved. In speaking we will have the same voice, and though its tones and tenses may be softened by the gospel, yet it is our utterance after all. Our methods of thinking, reasoning, comparing, and remembering are substantially the same in their methods and mode, though all life’s machinery is employed in going in a different direction.
It is in this fertile field we find our crosses, our self-denials, and the myriad things to die to which open the gateways to better things. While we were sinners, seeking salvation, we had to give up bad things; it was death to them, or no victory. Being saved, we are to give up and abandon, not things that are bad, but things which are of lesser value for those which are of greater worth. We give up good things for things that are better. We might have devoted our lives to farming, or law, or medicine, or commerce, but the Lord wanted us to preach. We gave a good for a better. When God wants a man to preach, that man knows, and it is better in all such cases to become a poor preacher (as the learnèd put it) than to become a successful farmer. But the man has to die to the farm, and keep dying as he drives among beautiful, luxuriant farms with bursting granaries, overflowing barns, fat herds, and palatial homes.
We pass over this same road in almost all our experiences. How many aims, plans, desires, loves and aspirations there are, that, one by one, must find a grave, in going God’s way! How much in tone and temper of spirit that comes up out of our old past life needs correction, regulation and extinction. Take tone and manner of voice, for example: how often have its old, rough, unloving ways clung to people who have been converted for years! They have been, perhaps, unnoticed, but now at last, hunted down by the Holy Spirit, they must die; and only as they die does the soul rise to walk a better way.
We cannot walk both in the “flesh and in the Spirit.” There must be a cessation of appropriating touch with carnality, if we would “live in the Spirit.” We live the life of the Spirit by a real death to the unspiritual.
On a beautiful closing day of summer, that epoch in the season when summer begins to court the approach of autumn, I saw a caterpillar weaving for himself a coffin. It was to all appearances a time to live and enjoy the stores of summer’s wealth, but he had evidently concluded to die. Had he in some mysterious way read from God’s Nature-Bible, written in the world where he lived, “To die is to gain”?4 It really seemed so. A few weeks later the coffin was completed and closed over the sleeping worm. Such an end was well in many respects. He had crawled for days, despised, and undesired by men. He had destroyed many a fair leaf. He had left his marks upon otherwise fine fruit. He was counted as an enemy. The passing mother bird was ever ready to butcher him for steak for her birdies’ breakfast. The frosts were coming to chill him to death. “To die was gain.” But watch him. When April suns wake the violets, and when May carpets the fields with green, look again at that coffin. It is indeed resurrection day in the dispensation in which Mr. Caterpillar lives. The spring angels have sounded their trumpets, and his grave gives up its dead. See what comes forth! A caterpillar? Why no! Something so clothed with beauty and newness of form, that man could not have conceived any lines of personal identity. And yet it is the same caterpillar, in his after-death glorification. It was indeed “gain to die.” For feet, he now has wings of gorgeous color. For his despicable, repulsive appearance, he is now robed with beauty, and becomes an object of desire and admiration. No longer a worm, he is a denizen of the air. He flies at will, and sips nectar at pleasure, dining at nature’s most beautiful restaurant, a flower. How changed! Say not it was no “gain to die.”
Shall God provide less for man than He does for a worm? In all the lesser resurrections there are for us in the order of God, there is always the “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness,” and all this for two reasons: that “they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord,” and that “He might be glorified.”5 We may be long in learning it, but truly there is a way to gain life by death. Death to sin is the way to life.
The real practical question is how to get on in the world where we must “live, move and have our being,”6 and at the same time no longer be “of the world.” Before regeneration the query was how to get away from the old environment and break the chains that bind us, and get united in living touch with the source of spiritual life. Now that we are “alive unto God,” how shall we, while still in the circumstances of the old life, keep unattached and out of appropriating touch with them? Death to them is the only sure and safe remedy.
- The text itself is public domain. The original book, How They Grow, was transcribed by Jim Kerwin, biographer of Isaiah Reid, and co-edited and emended with Denise Kerwin. Annotations and emendations are copyright © 2008, 2011 by Jim Kerwin along with his other contributions to the online, print, and e-book versions of Isaiah Reid's How They Grow. ↩
- The allusion is to John 5:24 and 1 John 3:14. ↩
- 2 Kings 5:7 ↩
- Philippians 1:21 ↩
- All these quotes come from Isaiah 61:3. ↩
- Acts 17:28 ↩