The latter question is found in the Heidelberg Catechism, and the brief but poignant answer has stuck with me since I first encountered it. First, the catechism clarifies that our death does not have redemptive power: “Our death does not pay the debt of our sins.” That’s what distinguishes Christ’s death from our own.
But next, the catechism describes two interrelated things our death does do. First, our death “puts an end to our sinning.” What a comforting thought! As Luther put it strikingly, “As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin.” Our death is the end of our lifelong struggle against sin, and the culmination of the purpose of our entire life. As Calvin writes, “during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit.” Our death is where this “constant rest” is finally achieved.
And following from the end to our life of sin, our death marks “our entrance into eternal life.” Thus we enter through our deaths into the eternal Sabbath, where we finally rest from our evil works, enjoy the “constant rest” (Calvin) from sin, and the fullness of life in the Spirit.
So on this Ash Wednesday, when we contemplate the origin and destiny of our earthly life in dust, let us take comfort in the realization that the death of those who are in Christ is merely the end of the beginning of the story. In the midst of our mourning during the Lenten season inaugurated with Ash Wednesday, let us not “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 NIV).