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Reformed Christians are often accused of being cold and callous, virtual Stoics or fatalists. We’ve all heard the epithet “the frozen chosen” applied to Reformed believers. We usually protest that such a nickname does not truly describe us, and of course, we all know many brothers and sisters to whom such a name would never stick. But the fact that this nickname, this description of us, is so common should give us pause. Do we sometimes speak and act in ways that give rise to such an idea? Sadly, I believe we do.
Take grief, for example. I cringe when I think of the number of times I’ve heard completely heartless and, frankly, offensive words come out of the mouths of Reformed Christians when speaking about death. The problem is a lack of biblical balance. As believers, we do now rest assured that when believing loved ones die, they are then in the presence of the Lord, finally free from sin. We also rest assured of the resurrection, when our bodies will be raised incorruptible from the grave. And, trusting the sovereignty of God, we always attempt to be prepared for whatever time God shall choose to call us to Himself.
To be present with the Lord is a great good. To be free from sin is a great good. For these things it is appropriate to long. This is what John Calvin means when he says, “Let us, however, consider this settled: that no one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of death and final resurrection” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.10.5). But the fact that these things are good does not mean that death, in and of itself, is good. God, in His Word, refers to death as “the wages of sin” (Rom. 6:23). Hell is “the second death” (Rev. 20:6). Paul describes death as God’s “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). Is an enemy of God good? No. Death is the result of sin. It is an unnatural abomination in God’s creation, an ally of Satan that will ultimately be eradicated. As the apostle John tells us, in the new heaven and earth “death shall be no more” (Rev. 21:4).
Now because believers are in Christ and share in His resurrection, death will not conquer us, but the fact that Christ has taken the ultimate sting out of death for believers does not change the fact that death is still an enemy of God, which will be completely destroyed by Christ. This understanding of death affects the way we look at grief. The fact that believers who die are present with the Lord and that their bodies will be raised means that we do not grieve as unbelievers grieve (1 Thess. 4:13). It does not mean, however, that we do not grieve at all.
Somehow, ma ny Reformed Christians have gotten it into their heads that to grieve with those who grieve is to deny the belief that a deceased loved one is in the presence of God. Some seem to have convinced themselves that true compassion for the grieving or true hatred of this enemy of God somehow betrays a lack of faith in the sovereignty of God. But who has a greater certainty of God’s sovereignty than Jesus? Who knows better what is on the other side of death for believers? And yet how did Jesus respond when Lazarus died? Did He look at it with a heartless Stoicism? No. Jesus wept (John 11:35). He wept, even though He knew what He was about to do in raising Lazarus back to life.
Jesus’ response is how we should respond to death in this time between the times. Jesus has already conquered death in His resurrection. He will completely destroy it at the final resurrection of the dead. Here and now, we grieve with those who grieve, not as unbelievers with no hope of the resurrection, but as believers who know death cannot defeat us, but who still hate this enemy of God and the pain and loneliness it causes to our brothers and sisters. We grieve as those who cannot wait to see death destroyed once and for all.
Is such hatred of God’s last enemy and compassion for its victims “Calvinist”? On the one hand, such a question is irrelevant, but those who doubt that it is “Calvinist” should read some of the letters of Calvin himself. Take Calvin’s letter of April 1541 to Monsieur de Richebourg as an example. Calvin wrote this letter to console him on the death of his son. Calvin writes that when he first heard the news, “I was so utterly overpowered that for many days I was fit for nothing but to grieve.” After consoling his friend with the truths I mentioned above concerning the resurrection, Calvin continues: “It is difficult . . . to shake off or suppress the love of a father, as not to experience grief on occasion of the loss of a son. Neither do I insist upon your laying aside all grief. Nor, in the school of Christ, do we learn any such philosophy as requires us to put off that common humanity with which God has endowed us, that, being men, we should be turned to stones.” All Calvin urges him to do is refrain from grieving as unbelievers grieve. As Jesus wept, so too did Calvin weep. If we are human, we too will weep.