“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6)
The 33-year-old Van Tholen had discovered a lump behind his knee in early 1998. It turned out to be a malignant cancer which had already spread to his bones and kidney. He left his pulpit for seven months while he had aggressive chemotherapy and radiotherapy, to little avail. On October 18, 1998 he returned and preached a sermon he titled “Surprised by Death.”
Of all the texts that he could have preached from that day, he chose Romans 5:6, 8.
The young (and dying) Van Tholen spoke of his cancer “vacationing for a little while.” And he told his listeners: “The truth is that for seven months I have been scared. Not of the cancer, not really. Not even of death…. Dying scares me…[but] I have been scared of meeting God.”
He had preached grace for a couple of years to the folk in his congregation, but his seven months of treatment — and facing death — led him to conclude:
The reason I didn’t get it where grace is concerned, I think, is that I assumed I still had about forty years left. Forty years to unlearn my bad habits. Forty years to let my sins thin down and blow away. Forty years to be good to animals and pick up my neighbors’ mail for them when they went on vacation. But that’s not how it’s going to go.
Now I have months, not years. And now I have to meet my creator who is also my judge. I have to meet God not later, but sooner. I haven’t enough time to undo my wrongs, not enough time to straighten out what’s crooked, not enough time to clean up my life. And that’s what has scared me.
Then Van Tholen reached for Romans 5:6, 8 and …
…just one little word in verses 6 and 8. It’s the Greek word eti, and it has brought comfort to my soul. The word means “yet” or “still,” and it makes all the difference between sin and grace…. Making sure we get the point, Paul uses the word twice in verse 6 in a repetitious and ungrammatical piling up of his meaning: “Still while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
The young preacher knew that death stood at his doorstep, and he felt utterly inadequate to explain himself to the holy God before whom he’d stand. And that’s when these ancient, inspired words broke through his fear. He concluded:
I’m dying. Maybe it will take longer instead of shorter; maybe I’ll preach for several months, and maybe for a bit more. But I am dying. I know it, and I hate it, and I’m still frightened by it. But there is hope, unwavering hope. I have hope not in something I’ve done, some purity I’ve maintained, or some sermon I’ve written. I hope in God; the God who reaches out for an enemy, saves a sinner, dies for the weak.
That’s the gospel, and I can stake my life on it. I must. And so must you.
In January, 2001 James Van Tholen joined Christ in eternity.