The following message was preached by John Piper in 1988 at a memorial service for a member of Bethlehem Baptist Church. Identifying information has been removed.
We need firm biblical ground under our feet at a time like this. And so I want to try to take the Bible, God’s Word, and unfold five truths that I hope will give you a firm place to stand in the coming days.
- Saints sometimes feel so bad that they want to die.
- It is sin to fulfill that desire by taking your own life.
- The only way sin can be forgiven is in our relationship to Jesus Christ by faith.
- Saving faith can be so weak that the heart gives way to grievous sin.
- Therefore let this death not be in vain: let it make us utterly committed to overcome the weakness of faith that cost him his life.
1. Saints Sometimes Feel So Bad That They Want to Die
Moses was under tremendous pressure from the people to take them back to Egypt. They were dissatisfied with his leadership. And God himself had sent fire against the people. Moses says, “I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness” (Numbers 11:14–15).
Elijah had just endured the incredible strain of single-handedly opposing 400 priests of the idol Baal and the people of Israel and the king. God vindicated his faith, and he ran exuberantly for miles in front of the king’s chariot. Then he heard that the king’s wife, Jezebel, vowed to kill him. In his fear and exhaustion he went into the wilderness, sat down under a broom tree, and said, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4).
The prophet Jonah displayed one of the most selfish attitudes of all the prophets in being irritated that God had mercy on the pagan city of Nineveh. And God rebuked him with a desert wind. “When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4:8).
Listen to the account of a young Christian graduate student.
Although I have always been reasonably healthy, insomnia has plagued me from adolescence until now. Only those who are unable to sleep at night can appreciate the distressing toll this ailment takes on one’s life: the omnipresent sense of fatigue, the susceptibility to irritation, and the grossness of an unrefreshed mind. All through the university I struggled against a never ending torpor, mental and animal. Each night the disquiets of mind prevailed over weariness. And the more the tensions of graduate work mounted, the more I fought off the effects of insufficient sleep. One Friday afternoon, as I prepared for the spring language examinations, I emotionally exploded. Having lost sleep with such regularity, I lacked courage to face the future. My mind was like a mass of live rubber: continually expanding, it threatened to divide down the center. This would leave me powerless to cope with responsibilities in the university . . . Everything I conceived became a burden; every anticipated obligation threatened to impale me. Even so ordinary a responsibility as conversing with others overwhelmed me with consternation. Nor dare I conceal that fact that even suicide took on a certain attractiveness.
This graduate student went on to become a great professor of theology. He wrote books that are among the most penetrating and moving I have ever read. But in the end he was found dead of an overdose of sleeping pills. The coroner wrote, "I find death undetermined whether Accidental or Suicidal." But those closest to him conceded that there was an addiction to the sleeping pills and that this was connected to his mental condition and "that dependency finally proved his undoing." If this beloved professor intentionally took too many pills, it would not prove he was unregenerate.
Saints sometimes feel so bad that they want to die.
2. It Is Sin to Fulfill That Desire by Taking Your Own Life
Committing suicide is sin. For three reasons:
- First, it is disobedience to the command of God, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). And disobedience to God’s commands is sin.
- Second, it is presumption upon God’s sovereign prerogatives to give and take life. God alone can create a human person, and therefore personhood belongs to God. We have no right to dispose of ourselves or others as we please. The Lord has sole rights over what he has made. Murder and suicide intrude on the sacred ground where God alone is the giver and taker.
- Third, it is failure to trust in God for the help needed to survive and cope. And the Bible says that whatever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).
Therefore, we are on firm biblical ground when we say: it is sin take your own life.
3. The Only Way Sin Can Be Forgiven Is in Our Relationship to Jesus Christ by Faith
Every one of us is a sinner. It doesn’t matter how many “good” things we do or have done. We have dishonored God by the meagerness of love to God and the shallowness of our trust in God and the inconsistency of our obedience to God. If we don’t find a way for our sins to be forgiven, we will be cut off from God forever, because God is holy and cannot look with favor on sin.
Nor can he sweep sin under the rug as though the dishonoring of his holy name by our sin were of no consequence. It is of infinite consequence. And that’s why God sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world to die for sinners.
The prophet Isaiah foresaw this great sending of the suffering Messiah.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6)
Jesus Christ came into the world and fulfilled this great Jewish prophecy by dying on the cross and becoming a curse for those who trust in him. “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
His apostle Peter said, “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). So the issue for every one of us is: do we have a relationship of faith with Jesus Christ so that our sins are forgiven? It is the most precious gift in the world. And there is no other way for a sinner to get to God than through the shed blood of God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ—by trusting in his name.
No amount of good works can earn God’s salvation. And no amount of bad works disqualifies a person from God’s converting grace. A thief hung on a cross next to Jesus as he was dying. His life was one total waste of sin and unbelief. And in that last moment his eyes were opened and he threw himself on the mercy of the King of the universe and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus, with all the sovereignty of one who would not be defeated by death, said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42–43).
In the eleventh hour a lifetime of sin and unbelief can be forgiven by faith in Jesus Christ.
4. Saving Faith Can Be So Weak That the Heart Gives Way to Grievous Sin
Or to put it another way, those who are truly forgiven for their sins and accepted by God forever can give way temporarily to temptation and fall into sin.
The biblical evidence for this is:
- The seventh chapter of Romans describes how Christians struggle with the remaining corruption in our lives: Romans 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
- Philippians 3:12: “Not that I . . . am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
- 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive we ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
- In Matthew 6:12 Jesus says we should not only pray for daily bread but for daily forgiveness too: “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”
Saving faith can be so weak at times that the heart gives way to grievous sin.
But this does not mean that the saving relationship with Christ goes in and out of existence with each of our sins. When a believer yields to temptation, his faith in Christ is weak and the enticements of sin and the power of Satan get the upper hand. But there is a great difference between Satan getting a temporary upper hand and Satan being the Lord of life. There is a great difference between yielding with resistance to an evil that I hate to do, and doing that evil as part of the usual pattern of my life.
The evidence of the Master’s hand is the warp and woof of the fabric, not the snags in our thread.
In the years of your friend’s unbelief he was like a captive in a concentration camp far behind the lines of Satan’s territory. Like all of us at one time or another, he had given himself over to the side of the enemy by refusing to trust in Christ. The result was a kind of numbness toward spiritual things.
Then one day, it appears that Jesus set himself to penetrate the lines of Satan’s territory, break through the fences of the concentration camp, and shock him out of his stupor of unbelief.
But as they were leaving the concentration camp, the sirens went off, the ensuing combat was fierce. The sword was knocked out of his hand and the shield slipped on his arm. And the deceptive dart of temptation sank so deep into his heart that he fell in the combat.
And where was Jesus? We believe he caught him when he fell and carried him home.
And if we say to Jesus, “You should have protected him while he was escaping,” I think he would say, “My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. You can no more grasp my wartime strategies than a child can read the graphs of the Chief of Staff. And remember, if I hadn’t broken through the prison of his unbelief, you would have never seen him again.”
5. Therefore Let This Death Not Be in Vain: Let It Make Us Utterly Committed to Overcome the Enemy That Brought Him to the Grave
- Give his death worth and meaning by letting it make you hate sin and Satan and unbelief.
- Let it make you blood-earnest about spiritual things.
- Let it strip you of unbelief.
- Let it be his last loud cry against the dangers of the powers of darkness.
What could honor him more than to let his death be a covenant between you and him, sealed with his own blood,
- that you, from this day forth, will fight with all your might the enemy that brought him to his grave;
- that you will wear the whole armor of God; and
- that you will take the sword of the Spirit, the Bible, and practice with that sword so regularly, so diligently, so earnestly that you become valiant for the Savior who did not leave him blind, broke the prison walls of his unbelief . . . and caught him when he fell.