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William Law: Penitens

This incredible excerpt from William Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life is as powerful an exhortation as there is on being serious about following God. In fact, it's hard to conceive of something that could be more convicting than this death bed exhortation.


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Originally published in 1729, this piece is no longer copyrighted, but my updated wording is. You have my permission to use it anyway.

William Law's Penitens
A Convicting Word from God

Penitens was a busy, notable businessman. He was very successful in his trade, but he died at the tender age of thirty-five.

A little before his death, when there was no more the doctors could do, some of his neighbors came to see him. That was when he told them the following:

My friends, I see the tender care you have for me. I can tell by the grief in your faces. I know, too, what you're thinking. You're thinking how very sad it is to see so young a man, in such a flourishing business, delivered up to death. It's possible, that if I were visiting you in my condition, I would think the same thoughts about you. But now, my friends, my thoughts are no more like your thoughts than my condition is like your condition.

It no longer bothers me to think that I am going to die young or before I've made my fortune. These things have become such mere nothings, that I can't think of a name small enough to call them by. Think about it. If in a few days or hours, I'm going to leave this carcass to be buried in the earth and find myself either forever happy in the favor of God or eternally separated from all light and peace, can any words sufficiently express the littleness of everything else?

Is there any dream like the dream of life, which amuses us while we neglect and disregard these things? Is there any foolishness like the foolishness of our human condition, which is too wise and busy to spend "leisure time" reflecting on these things?

When we consider death as misery, we think of it only as a miserable separation from the enjoyments of this life. We seldom mourn over an old man that dies rich, but we lament the young that are taken away in the midst of earning their fortune. You yourselves look upon me with pity, not because I am going unprepared to meet the Judge of living and dead, but because I am about to leave a prosperous business in the flower of my life.

This is the wisdom of our human thoughts. And yet, what foolishness from the silliest children is as great as this?

Consider; is there anything miserable or dreadful in death except the consequences of it? When a man is dead, what does anything mean to him except the state he is then in?

Our poor friend Lepidus died, you know, as he was dressing himself for a feast. Do you think it is now part of his cares that he did not live until that party was over? Feasts and business and pleasures and enjoyments seem like important things to us, while we are thinking of nothing else, but as soon as we add death to them, they all sink into an equal littleness. The soul that is separated from the body no more laments the loss of a business than the losing of a feast.

If I am now going into the joys of God, would there be any reason to grieve that this happened to me before I was forty years old? Could it be a sad thing to go to heaven before I had made a few more deals or stood a little longer behind a counter?

And if I am to go among the lost spirits, could there be any reason to be happy that this did not happen to me until I was old and wealthy?

If good angels were ready to receive my soul, would it cause me any grief that I was dying upon a poor bed in a shack somewhere?

And if God has delivered me up to evil spirits, to be dragged by them to places of torment, could it be of any comfort to me that they found me upon a royal bed?

When you come as near to death as I am, you will know that all the different states of life—youth or age, riches or poverty, greatness or insignificance—affect nothing other than whether you die in a poor or gaudy room.

The greatness of those things which come after death makes all that comes before it sink into nothing. Now that judgment is the next thing that I look for, and now that everlasting happiness or misery has drawn so near to me, all the enjoyments and prosperities of life seem as useless and insignificant as the clothes I wore before I could speak. They have nothing whatever to do with my happiness.

But, my friends, I'm stunned I've never had these thoughts! What is there in the terrors of death, in the vanities of life, or the necessities of godliness that I could not just as easily and fully seen at any point in my life?

What a strange thing it is that a little health or the poor business of a shop should keep us so senseless of such important things, which are coming upon us so quickly!

Just as you came into my room, I was thinking to myself how many souls there are in the world right now that are in my very condition at this very time, just as surprised by their summons to the other world. Some are taken from their shops and farms, others from their sports and pleasures. These are conducting court cases; those are gambling. Some are on the road; others are at their own firesides. All are alike seized at a moment when they weren't thinking about it. They are frightened at the approach of death, confounded at the uselessness of all their labors, designs, and projects, astonished at the folly of their past lives, and not knowing which way to turn their thoughts to find any comfort. Their consciences fly in their faces, bringing all their sins to their remembrance, tormenting them with the deepest convictions of their own foolishness, presenting them with the sight of the angry Judge, the worm that never dies, the fire that is never quenched, the gates of hell, the powers of darkness, and the bitter pains of eternal death. Oh, my friends, bless God that you are not among them! Bless him that you have time and strength to devote yourselves to works of godliness that can bring you peace at the end!

And take this with you: there is nothing but a life of great godliness, or a death of great stupidity, that can stave off these fears.

If I now had a thousand worlds, I would give them all for just one more year, so that I might present to God one year of devotion and good works such as I have never considered before. You, perhaps, when you think about how I have lived free from scandal and debauchery, and even in the communion of the Church, may wonder to see me so full of remorse and self-condemnation at the approach of death. But, alas!, what a poor thing it is, only to have lived free from murder, theft, and adultery, which is all that I can say about myself.

You know that I have never been considered a drunk, but you are at the same time witnesses—and frequent companions—of my lack of self-control, sensuality, and great indulgence. And if I am now going to a judgment, where nothing will be rewarded but good works, it would be good to be concerned that although I am no drunk, yet I have no Christian sobriety to plead for me.

It is true that I have lived in the communion of the Church. Usually I attended its worship and service on Sundays, as long as I was neither too tired nor unavailable due to business or pleasure. On the other hand, my consent to public worship has been more a matter of habit than any real intention of providing service to the Church. If it had not been so, I would have been at church more often, been more devout when I was there, and been more fearful of ever neglecting it. But the thing which now surprises me above all is this: I never had so much as a general intention of living up to the standard of the Gospel. The thought never so much as entered my head or my heart. I never once in my life considered whether I was living as the laws of religion direct or whether my way of life would procure me the mercy of God at this hour. Can we really think that I have kept the Gospel terms of salvation without ever so much as intending in any serious and deliberate manner either to know or keep them? Is it possible to think that I have pleased God with the sort of life He requires without ever considering what He requires or how much of it I have done? How easy a thing would salvation be if it could fall into my careless hands; someone who has never given as much serious thought to it as to any single business arrangement that I have made?

In business I have used prudence and reflection. I have done everything by rules and methods. I have been glad to speak with men of experience and judgment in order to find out the reasons why some fail and others succeed in any business. I have taken no step in trade except with great care and caution, considering every advantage or danger that might arise. I have always had my eye upon the main purpose of business, and I have studied every way and means of profiting in whatever endeavor I undertook.

But why have I brought none of these attitudes to religion? What possible reason is there that I, who have so often talked of the necessity of rules, methods, and diligence in worldly business, have never once in all this time thought of any rules, methods, or arrangements that would carry me forward in a life of godliness?

Do you think that anything can astonish and confound a dying man as much as this? What pain do you think a man must feel when his conscience charges him with all this foolishness, when it shows him how regular, exact, and wise he has been in small matters that pass away like a dream and how stupid and senseless he has lived—without any reflection, without any rules—in things of such eternal importance that no heart can sufficiently comprehend them?

If I had only my weaknesses and imperfections to lament, I would lie here humbly trusting in the mercies of God. But, alas!, how can I call a general disregard and thorough neglect of all religious improvement a frailty or imperfection, when it was as much within my ability to have been exact, careful, and diligent in the exercise of godliness as to do so in the carrying on of my business? I could have called in just as many helps, have practiced as many rules, and been taught as many sure methods of holy living as of thriving in my trade if I had simply intended or desired it. Oh, my friends! A careless life, unconcerned and inattentive to the duties of religion, is so without any excuse, so unworthy of the mercy of God, and such a shame to the sense and reason of our minds that I can hardly conceive of a greater punishment than for a man to be thrust into the state I am in so that he can reflect upon it.

Penitens tried to continue here, but his mouth was stopped by a convulsion, which never allowed him to speak again. He lay convulsed for about twelve hours and then gave up the ghost.

Now if every reader would imagine this Penitens to be some particular acquaintance or relative of his and imagine that he saw and heard all that I describe here—that he stood by his bedside when his poor friend lay in such distress and agony, lamenting the foolishness of his past life—it would, in all probability, teach him such wisdom as had never entered his heart before. If that reader also considered how often he himself could have been surprised in the same state of negligence and made an example to the rest of the world, then this double reflection—both upon the distress of his friend and the goodness of the God who had preserved him from a similar distress—would in all likelihood soften his heart into a holy attitude and make him turn the remainder of his life into a consistent exercise in godliness.

Since this is such a useful meditation, I shall here leave the reader—or so I hope—seriously engaged in it.

If you enjoyed/were encouraged by/were exhorted by this page, you will find similar writings from the earliest days of the church on our Early Christian Writings page.

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