“The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”—1 Cor. 15:56, 57.
First, the sting of death. The apostle pictures death as a terrible dragon or monster, which, coming upon all men, must be fought with by each one for himself…each man must die; we all must cross the black stream; each one of us must go through the iron gate…”but one thing can be done—it has a sting which thou mayest extract; thou canst not crush death under foot, but thou mayest pull out the sting which is deadly; and then thou needst not fear the monster, for monster it shall be no longer, but rather it shall be a swift winged angel to waft thee aloft to heaven.”
First, sin puts a sting into death from the fact that sin brought death into the world. “In Adam all die.” By his sin every one of us become subject to the penalty of death, and thus, being a punishment, death has its sting.
But I must take it in another sense. “The sting of death is sin:”—that is to say, that which shall make death most terrible to man will be sin, if it is not forgiven. Let us consider a man dying, and looking back on his past life: he will find in death a sting, and that sting will be his past sin. It would not sting him that he had to die, but that he had sinned, that he had been a bloody man, that his hands were red with wholesale murder—this would plague him indeed, for “the sting of death is sin.”
How many in this place can spell that word “remorse? You know its derivation: it signifies to bite. Ah! now we dance with our sins—it is a merry life with us—we take their, hands, and sporting in the noontide sun, we dance, we dance, and live in joy. But then those sins shall bite us. To have remorse is to feel the sparks that blaze upwards from the fire of the bottomless Gehenna. The sting of death shall be, unforgiven, unrepented sin.
But if sin in the retrospect be the sting of death, what must sin in the prospect be? My friends, we do not often enough look at what sin is to be. We have seen whereunto it has grown, but whereunto will it grow? for it is not ripe when we die; it has to go on still; it is set going, but it has to unfold itself for ever. And after that the man goes on growing filthier and filthier still; his lust developes itself, his vice increases; all those evil passions blaze with ten-fold more fury, and, amidst the companionship of others like himself, without the restraints of grace, without the preached word, the man becomes worse and worse; and who can tell whereunto his sin may grow? Where death leaves me, judgment finds me. It is for ever for ever, for ever! If a soul could die in a thousand years it would die in time; if a million of years could elapse, and then the soul could be extinguished, there would be such a thing as time…for there is no time to stop it; the fact of its stopping would imply time, but everything shall be eternal for time shall cease to be.
“The strength of sin is the law.” It is true I have sinned, and therefore I have put a sting into death, but I will endeavour to take it away. “Before thou canst destroy sin thou must in some way satisfy the law…until thou hast satisfied the vengeance of the law, until thou hast paid the uttermost farthing of its demands, my sting cannot be taken away, for the very strength of sin is the law.”
The strength of sin is in the law, first, in this respect, that the law being spiritual it is quite impossible for us to live without sin. If the law were merely carnal and referred to the flesh, if it simply related to open and overt actions, I question even then, whether we could live without sin; but when I turn over the ten commandments and read, “Thou shalt not covet,” I know it refers even to the wish of my heart. It is said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery;” but it is said, also, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath already committed that sin. So that it is not merely the act, it is the thought; it is not the deed simply, it is the very imagination, that is a sin.
Then, again, the law puts strength into sin in this respect—that it will not abate one tittle of its stern demands. It says to every man who breaks it, “I will not forgive you.” Where in the law do we read of mercy? If you will read the commandments through, there is a curse after them, but there is no provision made for pardon. If ye would be saved by works, men and brethren, ye must be as holy as the angels, ye must be as pure and as immaculate as Jesus; for the law requires perfection, and nothing short of it; and God with unflinching vengeance, will smite every man low who cannot bring him a perfect obedience
Yet again, the law gives strength to sin from the fact that for every transgression it will exact a punishment. The law speaks not of sin and mercy; mercy comes in the gospel. I will not have mercy,” says Justice; “Mercy has its own palace, but I have nought to do with forgiveness here; mercy belongs to Christ.
Now, my friends, I ask you, if ye consider the spirituality of the law, the perfection it requires, and its unflinching severity, are you prepared to take away the sting of death in your own persons? Can you hope to overcome sin yourselves? Can you trust that by some righteous works you may yet cancel your guilt? If you think so, go, foolish one, go!
But now, in the last place, we have before us the victory of faith. First, Christ has taken away the strength of sin in this respect that he has removed the law. We are not under bondage, but under grace. Law is not our directing principle, grace is.
Then Christ has removed the law in this sense, that he has completely satisfied it. “Christ says, “Law, thou hast it; find fault with me; I am the sinner’s substitute; have I not kept thy commandments? Wherein have I violated thy statutes?” “Come here, my beloved.” he says, and then he cries to Justice, “Find a fault in this man. I have put my robe upon him; I have washed him in my blood; I have cleansed him from his sin. I have endured the agonies he ought to have endured. Justice, have I not satisfied thee? Yes,” saith Justice, “I am well satisfied, and even more content, if possible, than it the sinner had brought a spotless righteousness of his own.” “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect!” Not Christ, for he hath died; not God, for he hath justified.” “O grave, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”
As the Lord liveth, sinner, thou standest on a single plank over the mouth of hell, and that plank is rotten! Thou hangest over the pit by a solitary rope, and the strands of that rope are breaking.
Jesus backs up my entreaty, and he cries, “Spare him yet another year, till I dig about him, and dung him, and though he now cumbers the ground, he may yet bring forth fruit, that he may not be hewn down and cast into the fire.” I thank thee, O God, thou wilt not cut him down tonight; but to-morrow may be his last day, Ye may never see the sun rise, though you have seen it set. Take heed. Hear the word of God’s gospel, and depart with God’s blessing. “Whosoever believeth on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ shall be saved.” “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” “He is able to save to the uttermost all that come unto him.” Whosoever cometh unto him he will in no wise cast out.” Let every one that heareth, say come; whosoever is athirst, let him come, and take of the water of life, freely.”