The Westminster Assembly on Visiting the Sick

Pastoral Visitation 1

The brevity, wisdom, and clarity of the  Westminster Directory for Public Worship is wonderful. Below you will find a portion of the section from it about visiting the sick. There is a lot of wisdom in it. All bold is mine.

It is the duty of the minister not only to teach the people committed to his charge in public, but privately; and particularly to admonish, exhort, reprove, and comfort them, upon all seasonable occasions, so far as his time, strength, and personal safety will permit.

He is to admonish them, in time of health, to prepare for death; and, for that purpose, they are often to confer with their minister about the estate of their souls; and, in times of sickness, to desire his advice and help, timely and seasonably, before their strength and understanding fail them.

Times of sickness and affliction are special opportunities put into his hand by God to minister a word in season to weary souls: because then the consciences of men are or should be more awakened to bethink themselves of their spiritual estate for eternity; and Satan also takes advantage then to load them more with sore and heavy temptations: therefore the minister, being sent for, and repairing to the sick, is to apply himself, with all tenderness and love, to administer some spiritual good to his soul, to this effect.

He may, from the consideration of the present sickness, instruct him out of scripture, that diseases come not by chance, or by distempers of body only, but by the wise and orderly guidance of the good hand of God to every particular person smitten by them. And that, whether it be laid upon him out of displeasure for sin, for his correction and amendment, or for trial and exercise of his graces, or for other special and excellent ends, all his sufferings shall turn to his profit, and work together for his good, if he sincerely labor to make a sanctified use of God’s visitation, neither despising his chastening, nor waxing weary of his correction.

If he suspect him of ignorance, he shall examine him in the principles of religion, especially touching repentance and faith; and, as he sees cause, instruct him in the nature, use, excellency, and necessity of those graces; as also touching the covenant of grace; and Christ the Son of God, the Mediator of it; and concerning remission of sins by faith in him.

He shall exhort the sick person to examine himself, to search and try his former ways, and his estate towards God.

And if the sick person shall declare any scruple, doubt, or temptation that are upon him, instructions and resolutions shall be given to satisfy and settle him.

If it appear that he hath not a due sense of his sins, endeavors ought to be used to convince him of his sins, of the guilt and desert of them; of the filth and pollution which the soul contracts by them; and of the curse of the law, and wrath of God, due to them; that he may be truly affected with and humbled for them: and withal make known the danger of deferring repentance, and of neglecting salvation at any time offered; to awaken his conscience, and rouse him up out of a stupid and secure condition, to apprehend the justice and wrath of God, before whom none can stand, but he that, lost in himself, lays hold upon Christ by faith.

If he hath endeavored to walk in the ways of holiness, and to serve God in uprightness, although not without many failings and infirmities; or, if his spirit be broken with the sense of sin, or cast down through want of the sense of God’s favor; then it will be fit to raise him up, by setting before him the freeness and fullness of God’s grace, the sufficiency of righteousness in Christ, the gracious offers in the gospel, that all who repent, and believe with all their heart in God’s mercy through Christ, renouncing their own righteousness, shall have life and salvation in him. It may be also useful to show him, that death has in it no spiritual evil to be feared by those that are in Christ, because sin, the sting of death, is taken away by Christ, who hath delivered all that are his from the bondage of the fear of death, triumphed over the grave, given us victory, is himself entered into glory to prepare a place for his people: so that neither life nor death shall be able to separate them from God’s love in Christ, in whom such are sure, though now they must be laid in the dust, to obtain a joyful and glorious resurrection to eternal life.

Several things stuck out to me as I read this. 

First, It is assumes that pastoral visitation will be a regular part of ministry. Of all the things our fathers in the faith did that we don’t do this might top the list. Few churches and ministers have a visitation plan.  We visit when a crisis hits, but only rarely at other times. Visitation should be more important to  us than it is.

Second, how reluctant we are to talk the state of our souls even in times of great sickness! Pastors and parishioners alike find the discussions of heaven, hell, sin, repentance, and Christ awkward. How uncomfortable would it be for me to go into the hospital room and ask one of my congregants, “Is your soul right with God? Have you looked to Christ for forgiveness?” How many ministers would be willing to confront a dying man (or woman!) when he did not have a “due sense of his sins?” I fear we trafficked too long in this world, become too comfortable here to care about the next world.

Third, there is great comfort in knowing that all sickness comes “by the wise and orderly guidance of the good hand of God to every particular person smitten by them.”  Thus “all [our] sufferings shall turn to [our] profit, and work together for [our] good, if [we] sincerely labor to make a sanctified use of God’s visitation.”

Fourth, note that the WDPW does introduce the possibility sickness can be laid upon us because of our sins. There are other reasons listed (see paragraph in bold), but sin is one possible reason. Why is this interesting? We completely ignore this possibility today. Caution is required. Not every sickness comes because of sin. But some do. Most of the time we assume that God does not intervene in our lives at all in any concrete way, especially as a judge.

Finally, there is great peace and joy to be found in the work of Jesus Christ when one is sick or when death draws near. Few things remind us of our frailty and weakness as the threat of death. We cannot stop it. We are all stripped naked and exposed for the sinful creatures we are by death. Yet Christ, his life, death burial, resurrection, and ascension reminds us that death has been overcome and lost its sting. Because of His work death is but a prelude to glory and resurrection. For those of us who have turned to Christ death holds a natural fear, but no spiritual fear. We know it cannot separate from God.