How To Die Well

You will die in your sin. John 8:21

One of the benefits of preaching right through a book of the Bible is that the Lord himself puts things on our agenda that we wouldn’t think of. In this paragraph Jesus says something startling. Verse 21: “You will die in your sin.” Verse 24: “You would die in your sins.” Again in verse 24: “You will die in your sins.” We hear that and think, “How negative!” Yes. It’s extremely negative. That’s why he is warning us.

Jesus is combining two things that we don’t like to think about – our sins and our deaths. In the Victorian era, people talked a lot about death, but sex was the taboo subject. We today talk a lot about sex, and death is the taboo subject. And dying in our sins – do we ever talk about that?

There is a reason, beyond common sense, why we Americans eat organic foods and work out and go on diets and get plastic surgery and check our cholesterol. Down underneath these good ideas, we’re afraid to die. We know we’re not ready. We’d rather not think about it, though it surrounds us every day. And whenever death lays down its trump card, we’re shocked. So we’re driving down the interstate, the traffic slows down, we finally weave around a serious car wreck with the ambulance there, and we think, “He must have been driving recklessly.” It’s how we cope. We manage our fears intellectually. We move our deepest fear around behind lesser fears. And the thought we most ignore is what comes after death: the judgment of God. We are living in denial. That’s why Jesus is lovingly, calmly, rudely disrupting our illusion of control.

Jesus has just made the most amazing statement in all of human history: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). But instead of responding, “That’s the most amazing statement in all of human history,” the people respond with a technical, procedural, hair-splitting objection: “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true” (verse 13). So their real need is obvious to Jesus. They don’t need a debate about procedural technicalities. They need this: “Unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins.” If we today respond to him with objections and counter-arguments, we will die in our sins. But love warns. The most loving man the world has ever seen is saying to us today, “Unless you believe that I am he, the Promised Messiah, you will die in your sins.” He wants to help us get ready to die. You can stop living in fear and dread and denial. You can face death, if Jesus is your ally. So we’ll take it in two steps. One, what Jesus means by “you will die in your sins.” Two, how you can die in your Savior.

1. What Jesus means by “you will die in your sin”

First, let’s understand the category “sin.” Sin is more than breaking a rule. The Bible has a nuanced view of our sins.

The Old Testament uses the word hata’, which means to miss the mark. For example, the book of Judges tells us about some men who could sling a stone at a target and not miss (Judges 20:16). So, sin is a misfire, falling short, not measuring up, failing – not failing ourselves, but failing God. Are we proving every day what it looks like, unfailingly, to live for the glory of God? Do we even think about God’s glory in our daily lives?

The Old Testament uses the word cawah, meaning to err or stray from the path, to wander off, to get lost. So the prophet Hosea says, “Ephraim shall stumble by his sin” (Hosea 5:5). There is a reason why we stumble and fall. It’s because we wander off into paths and life patterns that can only be our downfall. Green pastures and still waters actually exist in this world, and we so often find a way to meander off into some dreary desert.

The Old Testament uses the word pashac, meaning to rebel, to act stubbornly and willfully. For example, God speaks as a father when he says, “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me” (Isaiah 1:2). We love our kids, which is why they break our hearts. That’s how we treat God our Father. We defy him and insult him and reject him.

The Old Testament uses the word caqash, meaning to twist or pervert or distort. For example, “They make crooked all that is straight” (Micah 3:9). Just as a bone that’s dislocated causes pain and harm, our hearts twist God’s good gifts into habits and lifestyles that God never had in mind and can only go bad. No wonder we are all a little bit weird.

Finally, the Old Testament uses the root ’awal to describe folly and stupidity. For example, “Fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:6). Our problem is not intellectual but emotional: we despise wisdom. We think, “How can someone else possibly understand my reality? I’m the only one who gets me. So why listen to others?” That sounds plausible, but isn’t it true that we just hate correction? There is nothing more painful and humiliating than seeing ourselves as we really are. And when we don’t know wisdom, because we don’t want to know, how can we learn and grow?

So the Bible is alerting us that sin shows up in us at multiple levels – failing God, straying from God, refusing God, distorting God’s gifts, despising God’s wisdom. And that’s for starters. So, are there any sinners here in church this morning? If so, Jesus doesn’t want us to die in our sins and go before God in our sins. Jesus is calling us to get free now, because whatever we are when we die is what we will be when we stand before God. Why do we think we will even want heaven then, if we don’t want God now? If we’re okay with our sins now, aren’t we telling God we’re okay with hell in eternity? Do we think that at the judgment God will say to us, “You don’t have to want me. I’ll go sit in a corner off at the far end of heaven while you come in and take over and make it more to your liking”? Have we thought it through? Are we ready?

But we’ve got to know this. Jesus is not talking about mere guilt feelings. Jesus is talking about objective moral guilt before the all-holy God, which we scarcely feel at all. We don’t feel our real danger. So Jesus is not speaking here as a therapist but as a prophet. He understands that a true sense of sin before God is not harmful but life-giving, if we’ll bring it to him. We are not helped by a non-judgmental, all-approving self-esteem. Jesus believes we are helped by God-esteem.

William Kilpatrick tells us about a remarkable moment while he was teaching at Boston College:

A colleague once asked members of his philosophy class to write an anonymous essay about a personal struggle over right and wrong, good and evil. Most of the students, however, were unable to complete the assignment. “Why?” he asked. “Well,” they said – and apparently this was said without irony – “We haven’t done anything wrong.”

We are on easy terms with ourselves. But what if God thinks we’ve done a lot of wrong? And what if God came down in the person of Jesus so that we can receive his forgiveness for our real wrongs? What if God can see that our self-protection is really self-destruction? And what if he cares about us enough to come save us from ourselves? God lovingly confronts us with insights embarrassing enough to save us. What is a sense of sin? A God-given sense of sin is the lance of the divine Surgeon piercing the infected soul, releasing the pressure, letting the sickness pour out, so that healing can begin. A sense of sin is the Holy Spirit being kind to us by impolitely confronting us with the truth we would ignore until it’s too late. A sense of sin is the severe love of God exposing our well-rehearsed excuses. A sense of sin is the violent sweetness of God disturbing the guilty secrets hidden behind our smiling appearances. A sense of sin is the merciful God declaring war on the false peace we settle for. A sense of sin is our escape from boredom to joy, from posing to honesty, from judgment to salvation. A sense of sin, with the forgiveness of Jesus washing it all away, frees us to live confidently and prepares us to die magnificently.

That is what the Christian gospel says. But I wonder what you think. I wonder what you believe your deepest need really is. On Friday I did a search at for “self-esteem,” and I got over 72,000 hits. I did a search for God-esteem, and I got around 1,400 hits. What do you think of that? Do you believe that you will be a wiser and healthier person by feeling better about yourself, or do you believe that your life will open up more and more as you learn a higher view of God? What is the center of your life – God or you? The reason why Jesus is blunt about our sins is that God isn’t thinking how deserving we are; God is thinking how much he loves the undeserving. In her New York Times article, “The Trouble with Self-Esteem,” Lauren Slater quotes a researcher who studied criminals and concluded this: “The fact is, we’ve put antisocial men through every self-esteem test we have, and there’s no evidence for the old concept that they secretly feel bad about themselves. These men are racist or violent because they don’t feel bad enough about themselves.” Jesus is not saying there is no place for a sense of personal worth. But he is saying, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. A friend of mine tweeted this: “My sin is that my heart is pleased or troubled as things please or trouble me, without my having a regard to Christ.”

What then are we seeing? We’re seeing that we don’t sin by breaking some arbitrary rule; we sin by breaking God’s loving heart. And our primary need is not to find a way to be okay with ourselves; our primary need is to be reconciled to God. And my greatest sin is my self-centered mentality that uses God and others as props on the stage of my own selfish drama. That is what’s wrong with ISIS, and that is what’s wrong with every one of us. And Jesus is asking us this morning not only whether we want to live in our sin but, far more, whether we want to die in our sin, because the judgment of God is coming.

Here is what it means for you to die in your sins. It means you die unprepared. It means you stand before God with your sins unforgiven. Throughout this life you center yourself on the things of this world, you silence your conscience, you use your reason to evade the truth, you refuse to face your past, you build your life on excuses and delays. Then you die, and suddenly you’re standing before God with nothing to say, and your life flashes before you and before God in a way that cannot be denied, and all the dirty secrets are laid bare, all your God-avoidance, and you find yourself unfit for the presence of God in his purity and glory and beauty, and you know – even before God speaks a word – that you don’t belong there. And you realize you are going to spend eternity shut out from the presence of God, shut in by your own misery forever.

I am not trying to frighten you. I am reminding you of what you already know is true. And here is the question. Are you ready to die? Have you faced your sins God’s way, under the cross of Christ? Or are you just hoping for the best? Do you think your good deeds will offset your bad deeds? Do you think you’ll be able to point to some other sinner who is worse and have God send that person to hell instead of you? Why shouldn’t God send you to hell? Do you think God will say to you, “It’s okay, because you meant well”? Don’t you realize that the true moral quality of our lives is not measured by what we intend but by the one whom we offend? For example, if your child says to a playmate, “You’re stupid,” you will say to your child, “Honey, we don’t talk that way.” If your child says to his or her teacher at school, “You’re stupid,” you will say to the teacher, “I am so sorry,” and you will say to your child, “You will apologize right now.” And if your child says to God, “You’re stupid,” you should tremble. Why? Because the true moral meaning of our lives is not in what we intend; our golden hearts, our clueless hearts, always mean well; but we are rightly judged in relation to the worth and dignity and glory of the one against whom we sin. Every sin against infinite Beauty brings upon us infinite guilt. And we sin against him countless times every day. There is our true worth. Our worth is bound up with our responsibility to God. So Jesus is lovingly alerting us to the sacrilege that we are. But we don’t have to die that way.

2. How you can die in your Savior

There is another way to die, only one other way. Rather than die in our sins, we can die in our Savior. Martyn Lloyd-Jones reminded me of another verse in Scripture. The Bible says, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13). We can die in our sins, or we can die in the Lord. Two men die in battle, one dying in his sins and the other dying in his Lord. Two women die of cancer, one dying in her sins and the other dying in her Lord. How they die is secondary. How ready they are to die is primary. And you can be prepared. You can die in the Lord.

What then does it mean to die in the Lord? It means we believe and cherish the finished work of Christ on the cross for our sins. It means that we embrace him personally as our only hope. It means that we live thinking about the day we’ll die, and we’re not dreading it, we’re not afraid any more, because we have in Jesus one who stood in for us as our substitute at our Judgment Day and our hell that the cross was. He conquered death for us, and he is even now preparing a place for us. Dying in the Lord means we die with our eyes on him, rejoicing in him, revering him, come what may, because he is faithful always to all who trust in him.

You will die only once. You must be ready. If you get married and wreck your marriage, you can try again. If you start a business and it fails, you can try again. But you will die only once. Why not die with the Lord as your kind companion through it all? You can even look forward to death, if his blood has washed away all your sins, because death will only usher you into the presence of your Savior who loved you first and whom you love.

Friend, you can die magnificently in the Lord. Your only part is right now to move all your chips over onto his square, because Jesus said – and he said it to you – “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).

Long ago there was a minister in Scotland named Robert Bruce. He was having breakfast with his family one morning when he realized he was dying. He asked his daughter to open the family Bible to Romans chapter 8. She read to him, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Robert Bruce put his hand on the page of the Bible and said, “I die, believing these words.”

You can die in the Lord, held by the love of God, ushered into his presence with joy, hearing his voice say to you, “Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). Then the day of your death is your best day, the day of your liberation, the day when you fly home to God, forever free from all sin and misery, safe in the arms of God. And as you step into his presence, as he welcomes you in and you walk up to him you can say, “Lord, could I just hug you for maybe a year or two?”, he will say, “Sure. Take all the time you want.” And his healing will flow down into your deepest regrets and sorrows, and you will be happy.

Are you ready? He is ready. He is willing to settle it all now. Will you make definite your trust in him? When you transfer your trust to him, you find that on that cross, wonder of wonders, he died in your sins, so that you don’t have to.