"The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law," saith our apostle, 1 Cor. xv.56. These two concur to make man mortal, and these two are the bitter ingredients of death. Sin procured it, and the law appointed it, and God hath seen to the exact execution of that law in all ages; for what man liveth and shall not taste of death? Two only escaped the common lot, Enoch and Elias; for they pleased God, and God took them: and, besides, it was for a pledge, that at the last day all shall not die, but be changed. The true cause of death is sin, and the true nature of it is penal, to be a punishment of sin: take away this relation to sin, and death wants the sting. But, in its first appointment, and as it prevails generally over men, aculeata(201) est mors, it hath a sting that pierceth deeper, and woundeth sorer than to the desolation of the body, it goeth into the innermost parts of the soul, and woundeth that eternally. The truth is, the death of the body is not either the first death or the last death: it is rather placed in the middle between two deaths: and it is the fruit of the first, and the root of the last. There is a death immediately hath ensued upon sin, and it is the separation of the soul from God, the Fountain of life and blessedness: and this is the death often spoken of, "You who were dead in sins and trespasses," &c. Eph. ii.1. "Being past feeling," and "alienated from the life of God," Eph. iv.18, 19. And truly this is worse in itself than the death of the body simply, though not so sensible, because spiritual. The corruption of the best part in man, in all reason, is worse than the corruption of his worst part. But this death, which consists especially in the loss of that blessed communion with God, which made the soul happy, cannot be found till some new life enter, or else till the last death come, which adds infinite pain to infinite loss. Now the death of the body succeeds this soul's death, and that is, the separation of the soul from the body, most suitable, seeing the soul was turned from the Fountain-spirit to the body, that the body should by his command return to dust, and be made the most defiled piece of dust. Now, this were not so grievous, if it were not a step to the death to come, and a degree of it introductive to it. But that statute and appointment of heaven hath thus linked it, "after death comes judgment:" because, the soul in the body would not be sensible of its separation from God, but was wholly taken up with the body, neglecting and miskenning(202) that infinite loss of God's favour and face, therefore the Lord commands it to go out of the body, that it may then be sensible of its infinite loss of God, when it is separated from the body; that it may then have leisure to reflect upon itself, and find its own surpassing misery: and then indeed, -- infinite pain and infinite loss conjoined, -- eternal banishment from the presence of that blessed Spirit, and eternal torment within itself. These two concurring, what posture do you think such a soul will be into? There are some earnest of this in this life. When God reveals his terror, and sets men's sins in order before their face, O! how intolerable is it, and more insupportable than many deaths. They that have been acquainted with it, have declared it. The terrors of God are like poisonable arrows sunk into Job's spirit, and drinking up all the moisture of them. Such a spirit as is wounded with one of these darts shot from heaven, who can bear it? Not the most patient and most magnanimous spirit, that can sustain all other infirmities, Prov. xviii.14. Now, my beloved, if it be so now, while the soul is in the body, drowned in it, what will be the case of the soul separated from the body, when it shall be all one sense, to reflect and consider itself?
This is the sting of death indeed, worse than a thousand deaths to a soul that apprehends it; and the less it is apprehended, the worse it is; because it is the more certain, and must shortly be found, when there is no brazen serpent to heal that sting. Now, what comfort have you provided against this day? What way do you think to take out this sting? Truly, there is no balm for it, no physician for it, but one; and that the Christian only is acquainted with. He in whom Christ is, he hath this sovereign antidote against the poison of death, he hath the very sting of it taken out by Christ, death itself killed, and of a mortal enemy made the kindest friend. And so he may triumph with the apostle, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ, who giveth us the victory," 1 Cor. xv.55. The ground of his triumph, and that which a Christian hath to oppose to all the sorrows and pains and fears of death mustered against him, is threefold; one, that death is not real; a second, that it is not total, even that which is; and then, that it is not perpetual. This last is contained in the next verse, the second expressed in this verse, and the first may be understood or implied in it. That the nature of death is so far changed, that of a punishment it is become a medicine, of a punishment for sin it is turned into the last purgative of the soul from sin; and thus the sting of it is taken away, that relation it did bear to the just wrath of God. And now as to the body of a Christian under appointment to die for sin, that is, for the death of sin, the eternal death of sin. Christ having come under the power of death, hath gotten power over it, and spoiled it of its stinging virtue. He hath taken away the poisonable ingredient of the curse, that it can no more hurt them that are in him, and so it is not now vested with that piercing and wounding notion of punishment. Though it be true that sin was the first inlet of death, that it first opened the sluice to let it enter and flow in upon mankind, yet that appointment of death is renewed, and bears a relation to the destruction of sin, rather than the punishment of the sinner, who is forgiven in Christ. And, O! how much solid comfort is here, that the great reason of mortality that a Christian is subject unto, is, that he may be made free of that which made him at first mortal. Because sin hath taken such possession in this earthly tabernacle, and is so strong a poison, that it hath infected all the members, and by no purgation here made can be fully cleansed out, but there are many secret corners it lurks into, and upon occasion vents itself, therefore it hath pleased God, in his infinite goodness, to continue the former appointment of death, but under a new and living consideration, to take down this infected and defiled tabernacle, as the houses of leprosy were taken down under the law, that so they might be the better cleansed, and this is the last purification of the soul from sin. And therefore, as one of the ancients said well, "That we might not be eternally miserable, mercy hath made us mortal." Justice hath made the world mortal, that they might be eternally miserable, but to put an end to this misery, Christ hath continued our mortality, else he would have abolished death itself, if he had not meant to abolish sin by death. And indeed, it would appear this is the reason why the world must be consumed with fire at the last day, and new heavens and earth succeed in its room, because, as the little house, the body, so the great house, the world, was infected with this leprosy, and so subjoined to vanity and corruption because of mans sin therefore, that there might be no remnant of mans corruption, and no memorial of sin to interrupt his eternal joy, the Lord will purify and change all, -- all the members that were made instruments of unrighteousness, all the creatures that were servants to man's lusts. A new form and fashion shall be put on all, that the body being restored, may be a fit dwelling place for the purified soul, and the world renewed, may be a fit house for righteous men. Thus you see, that death to a Christian is not real death, for it is not the death of a Christian, but the death of sin his greatest enemy, it is not a punishment, but the enlargement of the soul.
Now, the next comfort is, that which is but partial, it is but the dissolution of the lowest part in man, his body, so far from prejudging the immortal life of his spirit it is rather the accomplishment of that. Though the body must die, yet eternal life is begun already within the soul, for the Spirit of Christ hath brought in life, the righteousness of Christ hath purchased it, and the Spirit hath performed it, and applied it to us. Not only there is an immortal being in a Christian that must survive the dust (for that is common to all men), but there is a new life begun in him, an immortal well being in joy and happiness, which only deserves the name of life, that cometh never to its full perfection till the bodily and earthly houses be taken down. If you consider seriously what a new life a Christian is translated unto, by the operation of the Holy Ghost, and the ministration of the word, it is then most active and lively, when the soul is most retired from the body in meditation. The new life of a Christian is most perfect in this life when it carrieth him the furthest distance from his bodily senses, and is most abstracted from all sensible engagements, as you heard, for indeed it restores the spirit of a man to its native rule and dominion over the body, so that it is then most perfect when it is most gathered within itself, and disengaged from all external entanglements.
Now, certain it is, since the perfection of the soul in this life consists in such a retirement from the body, that when it is wholly separated from it then it is in the most absolute state of perfection, and its life acts most purely and perfectly when it hath no body to communicate with, and to entangle it either with its lusts or necessities. The Spirit is life, it hath a life now which is then best when furthest from the body, and therefore it cannot but be surpassing better when it is out of the body, and all this is purchased by Christ's righteousness. As man's disobedience made an end of his life, Christ's obedience hath made our life endless. He suffered death to sting him, and by this hath taken the sting from it, and now, there is a new statute and appointment of heaven published in the gospel, "whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have eternal life." Now indeed, this hath so entirely changed the nature of death, that it hath now the most lovely and desirable aspect on a Christian, that it is no longer an object of fear, but of desire, amicable, not terrible unto him. Since there is no way to save the passenger, but to let the vessel break, he will be content to have the body splitted, that himself, that is his soul, may escape, for truly a man's soul is himself, the body is but an earthly tabernacle that must be taken down, to let the inhabitant win out to come near his Lord. The body is the prison house that he groans to have opened, that he may enjoy that liberty of the sons of God. And now to a Christian, death is not properly an object of patience, but of desire rather, "I desire to be dissolved and be with Christ," Phil. i.23. He that hath but advanced little in Christianity will be content to die, but because there is too much flesh, he will desire to live. But a Christian that is riper in knowledge and grace, will rather desire to die, and only be content to live. He will exercise patience and submission about abiding here, but groanings and pantings about removing hence, because he knoweth that there is no choice between that bondage and this liberty.