Shortly before his death on June 7, 2019, David Powlison completed writing his final book, which has just been published by New Growth Press: Safe and Sound: Standing Firm in Spiritual Battles.
Here are among his final written words.
Six months ago, I was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. As I write, I am facing the real possibility of my own death. By God’s grace I have been able to continue working, yet much of my work is bittersweet. I am handing off responsibilities and jobs to others. I am involved in making plans for the future that I am not likely to be a part of here on earth. Our family continues to grow with grandchildren. I wonder if I will be here to meet my next grandchild. Those I love are also in the midst of this battle with me—my wife, children, grandchildren, extended family, friends, friends at work. We are all confronted with the evil of death and illness. In the midst of this battle, the weapons Christ gives sustain and equip us to battle against the last enemy—death itself. . . .
Today I am called to fight this final battle with Jesus as my armor and his Spirit as my strength. . . . The world tells us that medicine is our only hope. We don’t want to get fixated on finding a cure. We want to be wise. So we pray. We armor ourselves with the truth that the Lord is near and will be our good Shepherd. We take up the sword of the Spirit and remember Jesus’s words that “sufficient for the day is its own trouble” and ask for help one day at a time (Matt. 6:34).
The temptation to slide off into various escapes is also present—television, sports, food.
My escapism takes an unusual turn: I am burying my nose in a long biography of Joseph Stalin. Nothing really wrong with reading! But the temptation to not engage is present. Yet I hear the voice of my good Shepherd. I remember Jesus on the cross, facing death, yet still fully engaged with life—caring for his mother, speaking words of life to the thief next to him—and I can stay engaged too. I can pray with and for my wife, Nan; my family; my friends; those I work with. I can trust their care to the great Shepherd of the sheep.
The temptation to listen to the lies of Satan is certainly still present.
I have devoted my life to helping people know how central and relevant Christ and his Word is to the real things they struggle with personally, interpersonally, and situationally. But I also know how many other voices are clamoring for people’s attention. Voices that shout, “We can explain your anxiety,” “We can solve your depression,” and “We can give you three tips that will improve your communication.” I know that it’s easy to listen to the voices of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. I know that our grasp of truth can be fragile. I am concerned that fidelity to the Scripture will be embodied, carried forward, and that we will step out and tackle the next set of challenges in a way that’s faithful to Jesus. When I worry, I turn to Christ. I gird myself with the belt of truth from the sword of the Spirit because it is Jesus who builds his church and the gates of hell cannot stand against it (Matt. 16:18).
As I reflect on this last battle, I can see that the Lord has been preparing me for this battle through my whole life. . . .
In the midst of my confusion, unbelief, and fear of death, God used Ezekiel 36:25–27 to bring me to faith. It was my first encounter with the belt of truth that Jesus gives his people. It was my first encounter with the sword of the Spirit that exposes and heals. At that moment, I knew the truth of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). It was God who shone his light into my heart and awakened me from the slumber of sin and death.
Now more than four decades later, I am staring death in the face. Instead of my faith failing, the promise of a new heart holds true. God is still shining into the darkness of my heart to give me the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. The reality of death has made the truth of God’s Word come alive to me. I am now living out the end of 2 Corinthians 4:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (vv. 16–18)
At times I am tempted to lose heart. But my good Shepherd is leading me toward life, not death. One of my favorite hymns is “My Song Is Love Unknown,” written by Samuel Crossman in the 17th century. It begins, “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.” And then goes on, “Oh my friend, my friend indeed, who at my need his life did spend.”
Since the first day the Lord invaded my heart with his mercy and grace, I have never lost that sense of the friendship of Jesus, that he showed love to the loveless to make them lovely, that he befriended the friendless, that he befriended the unfriendly who were self-absorbed and all about themselves. That is the gospel of peace. My feet are fitted for this battle with my final enemy. So I do not lose heart. As Nan and I pray together, we do not lose heart. And even if I did or she did, God’s mercy and grace would remain unchanging. We can always turn and ask for help in our time of need. He is always near.
This is what the whole Bible is about. It’s about life and death; it’s about what is going to happen to you when you die; it’s about right and wrong, true and false, hope and despair, obedience and recklessness, faith and idolatry. This is the drama that we and those we minister to are living in. And the miracle is that we are given a new heart, a heart of flesh, and a new spirit so that we can and will live forever.
What a privilege it has been for me to serve my faithful Savior these many years.
What a privilege it has been to walk with others in need.
And what a joy it will be to see him face to face.