And as it is appointed to men once to die, but after this the judgment:…
There are few things which more strike a reflective mind, one which seriously ponders the relation of the creature to the moral Governor of the universe, than that the period of human probation should be so short, when compared with the period of recompense. There seems, at first sight, little or nothing of proportion between the thing done and the penalty incurred: and, accordingly, it is no unfrequent argument with those who wish to get rid of the plain statements of Scripture, that it cannot be just to visit the momentary gratification of a passion with everlasting pains, and that, therefore, there will come a termination of the torments of the lost. We need hardly pause to observe to you, that in every such reasoning there is a grievous forgetfulness of the very nature of sin, as committed against an infinite Being; for it is impossible that any sin should be inconsiderable, seeing that it offers violence to all the attributes of God, however insignificant it may appear in itself. But nevertheless, we are free to own, that had not Scripture been definite on the point, there would have seemed nothing wild in the supposition that men might be admitted to other states of probation, and that the whole of their eternity would not be made dependent on the single trial they pass through on earth. We do not know that we have a right to refer it to anything else but a Divine appointment, that those who fail in the single trial are not allowed to try again, so that no opportunity is afforded for endeavouring to retrieve what is lost: but certainly the statements of the Bible are sufficiently explicit, and leave no room for the supposition that the present life is to be followed by other periods of probation. "It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment"; and the judgment as delineated in the figures and assertions of Holy Writ, closes up God's dealings with the human race in its probationary character, and is followed by nothing but one interminable dispensation of happiness or misery. So that if there be but one death, and that one succeeded by the judgment, without the intervention of new seasons of trial, it is evident that man's portion for eternity is to be decided exclusively by what he now does on the earth: that in the brief space of his present life he is to lose or secure everlasting glory. And is there in this any just ground of complaint, anything that can be proved at variance with either the wisdom or mercy of God? We know that at first thought the persuasion will be, that if the appointment were somewhat less rigid — if men might die twice in place of only once, so that, having failed in the first trial, they might return to the second with all the experience derived from having actually entered the invisible world — there would be a vast increase in the numbers of the righteous; and we may possibly marvel that no further opportunity should be granted, when the result would be to throng heaven with a mightier multitude. But even if you put out of sight that sufficient has been done for every man in his present state of probation, we can have no right to wonder; and we see strong ground for question-in whether there would be any such increase in the number of the righteous as you are inclined to suppose. We rather think, if it had been appointed to men to die twice, far more would die eternally than now that it is appointed unto men to die once. If even now, when we tell you, if you die in your sins you are everlastingly lost, we are heard with indifference, what would it be if you had the thorough assurance that though you threw away the present opportunity, another would yet be vouchsafed? Indeed, if you could only die twice, we could hope to produce no moral impression on any man who had not yet died once. It is impossible to question, seeing that even under the present arrangement everybody is disposed to defer the work of repentance — it is impossible to question, that, with scarce an exception, men would put off seeking the Lord until after the first death; and the rarest thing on earth would be the spectacle of an individual who had resolved to forego the pleasures of sin, without waiting to undergo the second probation. So that we should have to seek the righteous almost exclusively among those upon whom the first death had passed. And here, perhaps, you think we should find them in great numbers. We do not think so. These men would enter upon their second season of probation, with a conscience hardened and seared by the despite done to God through the whole of their first. It is true, they would have been made to taste something of the recompence of sin, and that therefore they would be their own witnesses to the stern consequences of persisting in evil; but in a short time the testimony of sense wears away, and it becomes nothing more than the testimony of faith; and the man who is impervious to God's threatenings might easily become proof against his own recollections. And then you are to consider, that with this hardened conscience, and this ever-strengthening tendency to forgetfulness of their sufferings, they have before them the prospect of another long life, and therefore are as likely as ever to procrastinate. We now advance to the statements in the second verse of our text, between which and those of the first we are to search for such a correspondence as may justify the form of expression which the apostle adopts. It will not be necessary that we insist on the great doctrine of the atonement, which is evidently affirmed by the words under review. Without enlarging on points on which we may suppose you to be agreed, we shall lay the stress where the apostle seems to lay it, on the fact that "Christ was once offered" — a fact which is made to answer to the other, that "it is appointed unto men once to die." We wish you again especially to observe how the apostle sets these facts one against the other. You strip his expressions of all force, unless you suppose that the appointment of a single death proves in some way the sufficiency of a single sacrifice. Why was Christ offered but once? Because "it is appointed unto men once to die." St. Paul states in the one verse what was the condition of man, and to what he was exposed in consequence of sin, and then he shows in the other verse that Christ had done precisely what was needed in order to man's deliverance and happiness. The one verse is the law, requiring that man should die and be then eternally condemned; the other verse is the gospel, proclaiming an arrangement through which death is abolished, and judgment may issue in nothing but salvation. And by putting the one verse in contrast with the other, St. Paul affirms the precision with which the provisions of the gospel meet the demands of the law; the former so answering to the latter, as to prove them constructed for the purpose of setting man free. The whole appointment of vengeance might be gathered into two articles, the death and the judgment. This was the appalling sum of the penalties which man incurred by disobedience to God; it is appointed to him once to die, and after this the judgment. And then there stood forth a Surety for the lost, a Surety so capable of suffering in their stead, that by one offering of Himself, He could redeem the whole race from the curse which had fastened on both body and soul. Yea, and so confident have we a right to be in the extent of that love which was felt for human kind, that we may be sure that had a second sacrifice been necessary, a second sacrifice would not have been withheld; but there remained nothing that love with all its anxiety could suggest, which has not been done for the welfare of its objects. The one death of the Mediator threw life into the dead, and gaining for Him the office of Judge, secured the final acquittal of all that believe on His name. And therefore might the apostle glory in this one death, and magnify it in comparison with the altars and sacrifices of the Mosaic economy; therefore might he insist on the fact that Christ was to die only once, as overwhelming evidence of the awful dignity of the surety, for that myriads were to be quickened through one death — the past, the present, the future being alike pervaded by the energies of one expiatory act.
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: