Death has bewildered many in every generation and habitation. Many people have come up with preposterous ways to make death a great mystery. Others have schemed ways to play it down and to give themselves false peace. Death insulates men and women from its pangs until it encroaches on them. The Reformers and Puritans sought guidance from the Word of God in order to come to a clear understanding of death. They endeavored to prepare men and women to face this last enemy.

Preparing for death

Reformers and Puritans came from a Roman and Anglo Catholic background, respectively, where death was mystified, dreaded, and shrouded in superstition. They laboured to prepare the living to die triumphantly. They were not oblivious to the fact that even believers were likely to despair at the roar of death as the case was with Christian in John Bunyan’s book, Pilgrim’s Progress. Others were likely to have a glorious death as it was with Hopeful in the same book.

As far as the Reformers and Puritans were concerned the only way to prepare to die well is to live well. A holy life on earth ends up in a peaceful death. The hymns of the day sought to arm the people concerning the triumphant entry into the presence of the Lord. Thomas Kelly’s hymn (1769–1854), though written a century after the Puritans, is a typical example as stated in stanza 3,

We have no abiding city here;

Then let us live as pilgrims do;

Let not the world our rest appear,

But let us haste from all below.

How you live in this world becomes evident at the point of death. This made the Reformers and Puritans meticulous in the way they lived and in preparing people for death.

The great Puritan pastor Richard Baxter points out four things that were needed in preparing for death:

  1. What must be done to make death safe to us that it may be our passage to heaven and not hell?
  2. What must be done to make sickness profitable to us?
  3. What must be done to make death comfortable to us that we may die in peace and joy?
  4. What must be done to make sickness profitable to others about us?

The ancient fathers knew that death brings fear rather than renewal of the soul. Dying people are no wiser at the point of death than they were in good health. The only thing that can bring renovation to a soul is love for God and holiness. The fear of death tends to paralyse faith and make people open up to demons rather than to God. They believed that the same instruments that keep men from repenting in good health—that is, the devil and wicked men—would still do so in sickness. You need to watch out who is around you when you die. They ensured that men were sanctified long before God called them rather than trying to do so at the gate of death.

Doctrine of death

The Reformers and Puritans were convinced that the only way to liberate people from the fear of death was by giving them a right understanding of it. You cannot prepare well for an enemy you do not know. They taught a biblical perspective of death. This was propounded in their confessional statements. The Belgic Confession of 1561 says:

The consideration of this judgement is justly terrible and dreadful to the wicked and ungodly, but most desirable and comfortable to the righteous and the elect; because then their full deliverance shall be perfected, and there they shall receive the fruits of their labour and trouble which they have borne. Their innocence shall be known to all… The faithful shall be crowned with glory and honour and the Son of God will confess their names before God the Father, and his elect angels…

The men of the Book sought to correct the erroneous views prevailing concerning death. They opposed the teaching of Purgatory because it is not found in the Bible (1 Cor. 15:51–54). They refuted the teaching of soul-sleep because it was contrary to the biblical view of life after death (Luke 16:22). Confusion also surrounded the death of infants. The Reformers and Puritans categorically stated that the elect who die as infants are still saved by the grace of God.

 Funerals

The Reformers and Puritans taught the people not to take death lightly, but at the same time not to grieve as those who have no hope. The death of a non-believer was painful and everyone had reasons to mourn. The pain in the death of a believer lay in the fact that he was separated from us and the church was robbed of a gallant soldier, but there was joy in knowing that they had entered into eternal bliss and we would meet again.

The funerals of the dignitaries of their day were flamboyant and characterised by pomp. For the Reformers and Puritans, the best way to honour the godly departed was by walking as they walked. The burial site for many Reformers and Puritans was the stake as they were engulfed in flames of fire. Their ashes were scattered on the graves or simply thrown into the streams. Those who had the rare privilege of having a natural death had very simple funerals. John Calvin’s funeral was simple and he was buried in the common cemetery without a tombstone. Like Moses, no one knows his sepulchre to this day.

The world tends to crowd our minds and determines how we think about many issues. Today, as ever before, people’s view of death has been corrupted. Many people in their ignorance end up worshipping the dead as they bow at the graves of the departed. They may do this in the name of “paying their last respects,” but this is deep-rooted as they try to venerate the dead.

Death is very common to us, but we never learn its lesson. We are gripped by it when it hits, but as soon as we get over it we forget its sting. A nation that does not prepare for the enemy’s attack risks being exterminated. In the same way those who ignore their last enemy will soon find themselves in its jaws. The Reformers and Puritans were careful to know what death was all about and how to prepare for the final battle against that ancient arch-enemy. We are only wise if like them we do everything possible to ensure safe passage through the sea of death.

Bibliography

Baxter, Richard, A Christian Directory, Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria Publication, 1846.

Bunyan, John, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Pensacola: Chapel Library, 2001.

Grace Publication Trust, Grace Hymns, London: Grace Publication Trust, 1975.

Houghton, S. M, Sketches from Church History, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980.

Piper, John, Future Grace, Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 1995.

Sproul, R. C, The Reformation Study Bible, Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 2005.