Facing death with clarity and anticipation
The Covenanters were a group of faithful ministers and Christians in Scotland who worked to uphold the principles of the National Covenant of 1638 and Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 in order to establish and defend Presbyterianism against the imposition of Episcopacy by the state. They suffered severe persecution through imprisonment, fines and execution rather than abandon their principles.
28 Mar, 2024

People’s priorities change as they move through different stages of their life. What sort of things weigh most heavily when we are forced to think most seriously about death? Betrayed after years on the run, now severely wounded and on death row, John Nisbet of Hardhill (c.1627–1685) wanted his friends to know that he was facing his end with a clear sense of God’s love for him — so much so that he could hardly wait to get to meet Him face to face. Nisbet dictated his testimony from prison, shortly before he was executed at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. As the following abridgement shows, he is full of thankfulness to the God of all grace for introducing him to His saving truth and granting him firm commitment to it, as well as full of concern for the holiness and integrity of the Christian friends he leaves behind.

Reasons for writing

I have always thought that to live for Christ, and die for Christ, is a sufficient testimony for truth; yet now when I am within a few hours of eternity, to prevent mistakes, to satisfy my dear friends, and let them know how it is with me, and to let the world know what I die witnessing for, and testifying against, I judge it proper to leave a few lines behind me.

The Lord’s superabundant goodness

As for myself, it pleased the Lord Jehovah, of his superabundant goodness and infinite mercy, powerfully to determine my heart to close with and embrace the Lord Jesus Christ, as He is made offer of in the everlasting gospel, for my king, priest, and prophet.

The Scripture has been to me from my youth the living oracles of His divine and sacred lips. When I was crying, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ and saying, ‘How shall I know the way of the Lord, that I may walk therein?’ then His Word was a light to my feet and a lamp to my path, exhorting me, ‘Ho every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money, come ye, buy and eat, yea, come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price …’ (Isaiah 55:1–8). When I was grappling with sin, Satan, and the world, and my own wicked and deceitful heart, the enemies of my salvation, His words were as props and pillars to me. It is by Him that I have fought the good fight, that I have finished my course, and that I have kept the faith. It is by Him shining in His Word that I know all my manifold sins and transgressions are freely pardoned, and that I have a just right and title to what is expressed in 1 Corinthians 1:30.

No room left to doubt

So that now, the guilt and condemning power of sin being fully pardoned by a judicial act of God’s free and sovereign grace, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ, especially applied and witnessed to by the Holy Spirit, on and to my spirit, there is no room left me to doubt any more of my being freely justified by Him, of my being in union with Him, and in a state of grace. Nor of the power, dominion, and filth of sin, original and actual, being subdued, taken off, and washed away by the virtue of the Spirit of sanctification, or of being created anew in Christ Jesus unto good works, and being sanctified throughout in soul, body, and spirit, and made meet to be a partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light by Him who loved me, and gave Himself to the death for me, and redeemed me by power and price.

Longing to go to Jesus

Now, being in such a case of communion with Him, I am pained till I be freed of the remains of a body of sin and death, till I be freed of the world and all things therein, and also of this natural life, and be possessed of Himself, and with Himself, in His eternal inheritance, which is incorruptible, undefiled, and fadeth not away, a place which He hath provided for all whom He hath chosen, all whom He hath called, for all whom He hath justified, for all whom He hath sanctified. O to be there, where I shall sin no more, neither feel any more of the withdrawings of His Spirit’s presence, and light of His glorious countenance, but shall be ever with Him, see Him as He is, and serve Him for ever and ever.

Appeal to Christian friends

Now, my dear friends in Christ, it is the unquestionable and indispensable duty of all who have any love to God, to His Son the Lord Jesus Christ, to the thriving of His kingdom, to their own soul’s salvation, and to the following generation, to act a close, constant and needy dependence on the Lord Jehovah’s all-sufficiency, for light, for counsel, for direction, for strength and ability, to make conscience in bearing testimony for Him, for His persecuted truth, work, and interest, in these lands.

O that in this all could act a faithful part for Him who has done so much for poor wretched us! When we were lying, dying, and rotting in our blood-red sins, He passed by us with His love and life-giving visit, saying to us, ‘Live, live!’

And on the other hand, to witness faithfully, constantly, and conscientiously against all that the enemies have done, or are doing, towards overthrowing the glorious work of Reformation, and banishing Christ out of these lands by robbing Him of His crown rights (for He, and He alone, is head of His own church), and by burning the Covenants, and persecuting His gospel ministers and members. Even though ministers and members may be turning their backs on Christ and His cross, reproaching and casting dirt on you and the testimony of the day, yet do not let this weaken your hands, stumble or discourage you from going on in the strength of the Lord your God, to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints, and witness a good confession for Him and His cause, resisting unto blood, striving against sin.

Leaving and adhering

But, my generation-work being done with my time, I go to Him who loved me, and washed me from all my sins — to Him who has counted me worthy to suffer for His name. If only I had many lives to lay down for Him, and much blood to seal His noble and honourable cause with! — He who graciously pitied me, and has now given me the full assurance of being a member of His church triumphant, the new Jerusalem, the city of the living God!

I die adhering to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the undoubted Word of God, an unerring rule of faith and manners, and a firm foundation for principle and practice in the ways of godliness and true holiness. And the Confession of Fatih, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as agreeable to them and safely founded on them. Likewise the Sum of Saving Knowledge, and the Directory for Church Government, in her doctrine, worship and discipline. I confess all the attained-to pieces of reformation in the Church of Scotland, particularly between the years 1638 and 1649, the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant, the Acknowledgement of Sins and Engagement to Duties.

Last request

It is my last request and my soul’s desire that, rather than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, you would set apart much time, and mourn, and afflict your souls for your original sin, heart plagues, sins of persons and families, sins of kings and kingdoms, and for all the dreadful apostacies, hateful compromises, and sinful sidings of ministers and people with the enemies of God and godliness. Mourn that there is not more faithfulness and zeal for the cause of God amongst His people.

My dear friends, give up your contentions and censuring one of another. Sympathise with and love one another, for this is His commandment. Keep up your sweet fellowship meetings. What is proposed for continuing a testimony for truth and against defections, let it be done with Scripture light for direction, and with zeal tempered with knowledge, and with the spirit of meekness accompanied with patience and humility. Be always ready to give a reason of your faith, and be much denied to the world, to yourselves, and to your natural life, and when God in His providence calls you to lay it down for Him, do it cheerfully, and embrace the cross of your sweet Lord Jesus with open arms, for He will not send any on a warfare on their own charges.

Don’t take fright at His sweet, lovely and desirable cross. Because of the wounds I received when I was captured, I have not been able to lift up or lay down my head without someone helping me, but yet I have never been in a better place in all my life. He has not challenged me for a single thing since I came to prison, small or great, but on the contrary, He has so wonderfully shined on me with the sense of His redeeming, strengthening, assisting, supporting, through-bearing, pardoning and reconciling love, grace, and mercy, that my soul longs to be freed from bodily infirmities and earthly organs, so that I may flee to His royal palace, the heavenly habitation of my God, where I am sure of a getting a crown put on my head, and a palm in my hand, and a new song in my mouth, so that I may bless, praise, magnify and extol Him for what He has done to me, and for me.

So I bid farewell to all my dear fellow-sufferers. Farewell, my children. Pursue holiness in all your ways, and praise the Lord for what He has done for me, and tell all my Christian friends to praise Him for this too! Farewell, sweet Bible, and wanderings, and contendings for the truth! Welcome, death. Welcome, the city of my death, where I shall see Him, and be enabled to serve Him eternally with full freedom! Welcome, blessed company of angels and spirits of just men made perfect! But, above all, welcome, welcome, welcome, our glorious and only God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! Into Thy hands I commit my spirit, for Thou art worthy. Amen.

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