Thursday, May 20, 2010

Four Last Things

The Puritans were noted for pressing upon sinners and saints thoughts of the "four last things": Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Eternal life and death, a question that modern society would gloss over or avoid confronting altogether, was an important theme of Puritan preaching and teaching, because human nature has not changed too much since their day. Robert Bolton's treatise on these matters was published two years after his death, having been completed as he himself prepared to face his Maker. Richard Baxter warned sinners against carnal security: "O sirs, believe it, death and judgment, and heaven and hell, are other matters when you come near them, than they seem to carnal eyes afar off. Then you will hear such a message as I bring you, with more awakened, regardful hearts" (A Call ot the Unconverted). William Bates' discourses on this subject were prefaced by an epistle dedicatory to the "right honourable Rachel Lady Russel," to whom he addressed this plea:

Of all affairs for the compassing whereof men are so diligent and solicitous, there is none of that absolute necessity, and high importance, as the preparation for death and judgment, and the immediate consequence of them, heaven and hell, to obtain the one, and escape the other. This requires the whole man in his best vigour, and should be the work of the day, but it is usually delayed till the melancholy evening of the age, or the twilight of death. The trifles of this world divert them from that main business, to which all other things should be subordinate.

While John Bunyan was in prison in 1664 he published a series of poems, "to be sold by his wife or children, to aid in their humble maintenance," later collected and published together as One Thing Is Needful; or, Serious Meditations Upon the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. The reader would be blessed to prayerfully consider the full corpus of these poems, but here I have space to present only his "Introduction to the Ensuing Discourse":

1. These lines I at this time present
To all that will them heed,
Wherein I show to what intent
God saith, Convert with speed.

2. For these four things come on apace,
Which we should know full well,
Both death and judgment, and, in place
Next to them, heaven and hell.

3. For doubtless man was never born
For this life and no more:
No, in the resurrection morn
They must have weal or woe.

4. Can any think that God should take
That pains, to form a man
So like himself, only to make
Him here a moment stand?

5. Or that he should make such ado,
By justice, and by grace;
By prophets and apostles too,
That men might see his face?

6. Or that the promise he hath made,
Also the threatenings great,
Should in a moment end and fade?
O! no, this is a cheat.

7. Besides, who is so mad, or worse,
To think that Christ should come
From glory, to be made a curse,
And that in sinners’ room,

8. If nothing should by us be had
When we are gone from hence,
But vanities, while here? O mad
And foolish confidence.

9. Again, shall God, who is the truth,
Say there is heaven and hell
And shall men play that trick of youth
To say, But who can tell?

10. Shall he that keeps his promise sure
In things both low and small,
Yet break it like a man impure,
In matters great’st of all?

11. O, let all tremble at that thought,
That puts on God the lie,
That saith men shall turn unto nought
When they be sick and die.

12. Alas, death is but as the door
Through which all men do pass,
To that which they for evermore
Shall have by wrath or grace.

13. Let all therefore that read my lines,
Apply them to the heart:
Yea, let them read, and turn betimes,
And get the better part.

14. Mind therefore what I treat on here,
Yea, mind and weigh it well;
‘Tis death and judgment, and a clear
Discourse of heaven and hell.

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