Those who die in Christ retain full consciousness of their existence and are immediately made perfect in total moral likeness to Christ
by Albert N. Martin /
Why has God led this world through the great arc of redemptive history? What has been his ultimate purpose? The great goal of God in redemptive grace has always been and remains nothing less than to glorify himself through the complete restoration of his moral image in those he has chosen to save. And the pattern for that restoration is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ himself.
In Romans 8:29 Paul writes, “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Paul then goes on to assert that all whom God foreknew (that is, loved beforehand with a distinguishing and purposeful love) he predestined to conformity to Christ. Each such individual ultimately will be glorified, or fully conformed to the moral likeness of Christ in body and soul. J. I. Packer stated these truths most helpfully:
Glorification (so called because it is a manifestation of God in our lives [2 Corinthians 3:18]), is the scriptural name for God’s completion of what he began when he regenerated us, namely, our moral and spiritual reconstruction so as to be perfectly and permanently conformed to Christ. Glorification is the work of transforming power whereby God finally turns us into sinless creatures in deathless bodies (Author’s emphasis).
Believers who are alive at the return of the Lord Jesus will receive this complete conformity to Christ in soul and body all at once. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, those “predestined” and alive on that day will be transformed into the moral image of Christ, body and soul simultaneously. However, most of God’s children will attain this blessed state in two stages. First comes the perfecting of our spirits at death, when we enter the intermediate state. Second comes the perfecting of our bodies in the resurrection at the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we enter the final state.
Here, in this life, we stand by the bedside of a departed loved one and think, What has now happened? What has happened to your loved ones who have died in Christ? The Scriptures are not silent. They tell us that the moment our loved ones breathe their last, their spirits, in the full consciousness of their existence, are immediately made perfect in the moral likeness of Christ.
Counted Just, Counted Perfect
In Hebrews 12, the writer enumerates the manifold blessings that all believers in Christ share under the New Covenant. Among those blessings, we will all one day come into the company of “the spirits of just men made perfect” (v 23, ASV). How do these human spirits in heaven attain their state of perfection? While they were yet joined to their bodies on earth, at the moment they truly believed in Christ, two things happened simultaneously:
Justification. They were given a perfect legal standing in the court of heaven by being justified (declared righteous) on the basis of the perfect obedience and substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:19, 8:1).
Definitive sanctification. By virtue of their union with Christ, they died to the dominion and the reign of sin, and began to be personally holy as the “slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18, and see the context of Romans 6 entirely). This redemptive experience is called by some theologians “definitive sanctification.”
When we thus experience God’s saving grace in, the reign and dominion of sin ends radically and God begins an actual reign of righteousness in the heart and life of the one now united to Christ.
As all true Christians know well, however, it soon becomes quite evident that while sin may no longer reign in the believer, it clearly still remains. The child of God begins a lifetime of seeking to put to death the habits, the attitudes, the dispositions and perspectives, the words and deeds that were the dominant patterns of his life while he was yet under sin’s dominion and reigning power, however long or short that period may have been. At the same time, the true believer begins actively to seek to become more and more like Christ in the cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit and the graces of Christlike character (Galatians 5:22-23, 1 John 2:6, 2 Corinthians 3:18). This experience is most frequently described and defined as “progressive sanctification.”
A true believer in a healthy spiritual state experiences great grief because sin yet remains, actively and aggressively working in him. But, blessed be God, the moment that wrestling, struggling, repenting, striving, child of God breathes his or her last breath, God will put forth upon that soul that has left the body a concentration of his sanctifying grace and power that will immediately complete the work of conforming that soul to the moral likeness of Christ.
From that very moment, and on into the limitless stretch of eternity, the departing soul of a true believer will never again have one sin to confess, one tinge of coldness of heart to be ashamed of, one inordinate lust or unholy desire to fill him or her with shame and remorse. Furthermore, the soul of that departed child of God will be beautified with all the graces of Christlike love, purity, passion for the glory of God, and every other virtue of soul which Christ possesses as the perfect man. In becoming totally conformed to the moral image of Christ, we do not merge into little gods who partake of the divine essence. Rather, we become sinless human souls or spirits.
In the hours and days subsequent to my wife’s death, I focused my mind upon this wonderful fact that she was now within the company of “just men (and women) made perfect.” And this reality caused me to review the history of her life.
When Marilyn was two years old, her parents divorced. She was placed in the sole custody of a kind and caring but utterly pagan and irreligious father who was an outspoken agnostic. However, gospel seeds were sown in her mind and heart by one of the housekeepers whom her father hired to look after her while he was at work. At age 19, while Marilyn was in nurse’s training, God brought some vibrant young Christian women across her path who lovingly witnessed to her concerning her need of the salvation offered to sinners in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit watered those earlier sown seeds of gospel truth and blessed the witness of those other young women to bring Marilyn into vital union with the Lord Jesus. She became a new creature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
When I met Marilyn, two years after her conversion, she was still living in the flush of her first love of Christ, as was I, having been converted just a few months prior. Nothing mattered much to us except talking and singing about the Lord Jesus, reading the Bible and praying together, and passing out tracts along with other young men and women inflamed with a passionate love for Christ and a burden to bring the gospel to those around us. It was evident that God had indeed taken out Marilyn’s heart of stone, given her a heart of flesh, and made Jesus Christ the “pearl of great price” to her. He had implanted within her a passion to be holy and to be like Christ.
I was privileged to track that initial work of grace flowering out into Marilyn’s progressive sanctification over the course of 52 years (four years of courtship, followed by 48 years of married life together). It was my great privilege to witness much of God’s work in her: the Holy Spirit enabling her to mortify patterns of sinful thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions, and empowering her to more and more to reflect the image of her dear Savior. However, all that God had done in her subsequent to her conversion at age 19 until her home-going at age 73 could be put in a spiritual thimble compared to the ocean of grace poured upon her and into her the moment she breathed her last. In an instant, her spirit was purged of every last vestige of remaining sin, and she was endowed with the moral perfection of Christ himself.
Are the spirits of just men and women “made perfect” capable of growth? Yes! Are they capable of further development and expansion in knowledge, joy, and eventual usefulness in the new heavens and new earth? Yes! Just as a perfect Jesus was able to grow and develop from a perfect baby into a perfect mature man, and as a perfect mature man became a perfect Savior, so there will be growth and development in perfect, glorified believers. But as to their moral condition and existence, the dead in Christ are now spirits made perfect. Their minds, affections, and wills are fully and unreservedly conformed to the highest standard of the law of God in all its breadth and depth and in all of its penetrating demands. They will be no more perfect one million years into the new heavens and new earth than they were at the moment they breathed their last and joined the company of “just men made perfect.”
Their minds, affections, and wills are fully and unreservedly conformed to the highest standard of the law of God in all its breadth and depth and in all of its penetrating demands. They will be no more perfect one million years into the new heavens and new earth than they were at the moment they breathed their last and joined the company of “just men made perfect.”
In those first days after Marilyn’s home-going, in my effort to handle the deep and crushing grief of my loss, I sought to frame into little maxims the various aspects of the biblical principles with which I wrestled. I would repeat these words to myself and they helped me greatly: Albert, think more of what Marilyn has gained than of what you have lost. I reminded myself again and again that she had gained that which is the burning desire of every true believer, even her complete and final release from all sin.
If you were to dig down through the various layers of the heart of a true Christian, in the deepest subterranean level you would discover a passionate longing to be done with sin forever and to be holy like Jesus. As we grieve the loss of our loved one, will not the nature and measure of our grief be moderated by knowing that the departed now and forever possesses in full the very thing for which he or she so deeply yearned? Would we really want our loved one back in this realm where, in the sovereign plan and purpose of God, we experience only the first fruits of our salvation?
Child of God, do you understand and firmly believe that this has been and will be the experience of everyone who dies “in the Lord?” Will you focus your mind upon this when God wrenches away from you a loved one joined to Christ? Are you determined to fill your mind with this reality as you anticipate your own death, should the Lord Jesus delay his coming during your lifetime?
And may I lovingly and tenderly address you, my non-Christian reader? You have read what I have thus far asserted—what the Scriptures tell us concerning the things that await the child of God the moment he or she dies. Please understand that at this moment you have no such hope. Apart from Christ, your death will be nothing less than your entrance into a bleak and horrific state of ultimate outer darkness, where there will be “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.” But this need not be your experience. In the kindness of
But this need not be your experience. In the kindness of God you are yet alive. You have your rational faculties, and the God who has created you and sustains your life has so ordered your steps that this book rests presently in your hands. Let the Scriptures, let me, let this article urge you to “flee from the wrath to come” by turning away from your sins and entrusting yourself to Jesus Christ who died in the place of sinners, rose from the dead on the third day, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father. He is ready, able, and willing to receive every sinner who comes to him.
He has given this wonderful word of promise, saying, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). Added to all of these things, you have an infallible promise from the living God: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13)
From Grieving, Hope and Solace: When A Loved One Dies in Christ, by Albert N. Martin
Pastor Albert N. Martin shepherded the people of Trinity Baptist Church in Montville, New Jersey for 46 years. He was a Reformed Baptist at least a quarter-century before anyone considered it to be cool. Now retired from ministry, he wrote this book for Cruciform Press to recount what he learned from the death of his wife, Marilyn, at age 73. Grieving, Hope, and Solace is his second book, and his first for a lay audience. To offer a sense of the depth of Pastor Martin’s ministry, the late John Murray, Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, and author of several classic books, including Redemption Accomplished and Applied, once said regarding an upcoming conference,”If Al Martin is to be there I really think he should be asked to take the three evening services proposed for me. He is one of the ablest and most moving preachers I have ever heard…I have not heard his equal..”