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"For David says concerning him,
‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses" (Acts 2:25-32).
"And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' And when he had said this, he fell asleep" (Acts 7:60).
When God created the world and everything in it from nothing, he saw all that he had made and declared it to be "very good" (Gen 1:31). All creation was working as it should; new life had just been created everywhere and there was no logical reason or rational possibility that any of it should ever perish.

But in only a few short chapters everything changes. Sin enters the newly created world when the devil succeeds in tempting Eve and then Adam to rebel against their Creator. As a result, God curses what he has made; it is no longer worthy of doing what it was created to do. But rather than destroy it all in a fury, God promises to one day redeem it by sending a seed through the woman that would crush the head of the tempter, the serpent (that is, the devil).

Still, the curse would be upon all creation because of man the creature's sin. In the end, death will consume all things. Indeed, it is death that is man's chief enemy. It is also by the one man's sin that the entire world - all created things! - received the curse of God. Apart from the promised seed of God through the woman, there would be no hope.

But there is hope! God has sent the promised seed - the Christ! - to bear the curse of death for God's elect. For this reason, all who are in Christ can rightly be said to have fallen asleep and not to have died.

Why is this distinction (between death and falling asleep) important?

First of all, death is a result of the curse of God: "[I]f you eat of [the tree] you shall surely die" (Gen 2:17). Of course, when Adam ate of the tree, he did die, though not immediately. He was cast out of the garden of God, sent to toil and labor in the world which was cursed because of his sin, and eventually physically died after a few hundred years. Not only was man cursed to die physically, but he also died spiritually; that is, he was cast out from the presence of God.

Yet notice, in the midst of all of this, that is the Lord who pursues the man! Throughout history it is God pursuing man, helping him, preserving his posterity, and giving him what he needs. God even promises to send someone to overcome the curse! What a merciful and gracious God!

However, it is not as though man was cast out of the garden and then tried desperately to return. Man, apart from God's intervention, has made their decision: they "all like sheep have gone astray" (Is 53:6); "no one seeks God" (Rom 3:11). This is all the more revealing of the love of our God: for he pursued us though we despised him. He pursued us even to the point of shedding his own blood for us.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of God's substitutionary work on the cross:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed... the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
 Likewise Paul writes that "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'" (Gal 3:13).

What remarkable grace! "Therefore, there is no now condemnation (no death, no hell, no curse) for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1). Christ has counted our sins to himself and he has counted his spotless perfection to us! It is not as though we are without sin, only Christ is; but we are counted (reckoned, considered) sinless because Christ has substituted himself willingly in our place, both to give us his righteousness and to bear the curse for us!

Therefore, this is why it is right to speak of the believer's death as one who falls asleep. For we do not die as rebels; we die as those who have a Savior who rose from the dead and so likewise we too shall rise (2 Cor 4:14). One who falls asleep rises in the morning. So it shall be with all those who trust in the Lord Jesus.

What amazing grace! Those who are in Christ are, as Martin Luther declared, "a dung heap covered with snow." How can the sinner be justified in the sight of God? Only through a righteousness that is not his own, for never shall works of the law justify a man: "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.... But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law... the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe" (Rom 3:20-22).

Because Christ has counted all those who believe in him (not just one time in the past, but continue to believe in him even now) as righteous, and because God the Judge accepts his Son's atonement, we who believe shall fall asleep, yet we shall rise again in glory because of what Christ has done! Just as it was with Steven who fell asleep as the stones were assailing his body, so shall he rise again in the last day with all the saints whose sins have been forgiven and whose curse has been lifted. Amen.

"But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep" (1 Thes 4:13-14).