What About Deathbed Repentance?
Oh how this goes so deep into our hearts, as there are many reading this sermon who are longing and crying out for the salvation of loved ones, not the least among them old hardened sinners who have not repented and believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. If I have heard it once, I heard it hundreds of times, “Pastor, would you please pray for my father who is nearing the end, for he is not saved.” There is nothing so filled with love and pathos as a cry like that.
We come into the world as babies totally dependent and all maintenance, and so often we leave this world once again as babies totally dependent and all maintenance. And we look back on the life of an old unregenerate, and we wonder how there could be such a gaping void spiritually between the two babyhoods. From tiny hands and fingers to now wrinkled hands and fingers that never were folded in prayer or lifted in praise as far as we know.
So often we tend to be spiritual archaeologists in times like these, digging around in the past and seeking for clues as to what went wrong in a life so filled with potential and yet so little performance for the glory of God over those 86 years. We reflect upon the pictures of a soft and perfect little pink moon head to a now old, creased, gaunt, and spotted-moon head, and we long for some evidence of a spiritually sensitive and transformed mind and heart in Christ, but it has never yet manifested itself.
Can we, should we, may we pray and hope that not only an old unregenerate, but even an old degenerate can still repent and change his mind and heart from sin to God, from self to the Savior, and from cursing Jesus Christ to praising Jesus Christ? Is there such a thing as true deathbed repentance and faith in Jesus Christ?
We have written long and hard explaining in previous teachings why delayed repentance is lethal, and why long-standing, hardened sinners are the least likely candidates to become humble, kneeling saints. But is there any hope at all for the avowed unbeliever and sinner who are now in a frantic-and-losing race against time and the grim reaper?
We read in Romans 8:14,
“In hope against hope he (Abraham) believed, in order that he might
become a father of many nations….”
“IF ABRAHAM HOPED AND BELIEVED FOR A BIRTH FROM FROM HIS
WIFE’S OLD AND DEAD PHYSICAL WOMB, WHY SHOULD WE
NOT HOPE AND PRAY FOR A REBIRTH FROM WHAT
APPEARS TO BE AN OLD AND DEAD
And that is just the point isn’t it? When and where the Holy Spirit is at work, no womb is old and dead, but rather young and vibrant, and that old dead-in-sin and moldy soul can become the Holy Spirit’s birthing and rebirthing room for physical and spiritual miracles.
Let’s get this out in the open right at the start. Those who flat out deny the possibility of deathbed repentance and faith are often motivated by Pharisaical self-righteousness and just plain sour grapes. They just love to deliver a heated dissertation at any opportunity on the “Impossibility of Deathbed Conversions.” As a matter of fact I have been lectured more than once in my life on that very thing by very emotional religious cynics both clergy and laity. But what is really behind their seemingly pure doctrinal passion is pride and resentment that an old and wrinkled profligate could be saved in the last minute without living the holy and righteous life that the long-time religious devotee to God has lived for so many years.
These protesters of deathbed repentance are generally the same people who do not pray to God but instead make pompous speeches to God. And they generally have a monosyllabic vocabulary consisting of the word “I.” As in, “I think God that I am not like other men.” A whole lot of one-way self talk and self exaggeration! You know those folks, even religious ones, who spend their whole life polishing their self righteousness to a high luster.
But what they always lose sight of is the fact that no one is saved by works, but by God’s grace and God’s grace alone. There is that most disgusting and unthinkable story in the Bible told by Jesus Christ in Matthew 20:1-16 about the “SIXTH HOUR WORKERS,” the “NINTH H0UR WORKERS,” and the “ELEVENTH HOUR WORKERS” who earned the same wages as those who were the “FIRST HOUR WORKERS.” Hey, come on now, it was a fact that for the “FIRST HOUR WORKERS” the workload, pressures, and aggravation levels were much greater. Let’s be truthful about that at least.
Then this big rhubarb was started by those who worked all day and got the same wages at the end of the day as those freeloaders who worked the minimum hours and got the same wage. They said to their employer in Matthew 20:12,
“These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made
them equal to us who have borne the burden and
the scorching heat of the day.”
I tell you. The Labor Unions of today would go nuts and order their members to go on strike and set up picket lines around the vineyard.
Well now, it is the same beef when it comes to “ELEVENTH HOUR REPENTERS.” If we are to apply this to repentance and conversion, what would the religious sour-grapes people do with the sinner who repents and believes at age twenty and then dies at age forty? Would they conclude that he was only half saved, and at the most should be given only half of a throne and half of a Heaven? How many days must a sinner have lived a repentant and holy life before the sour grapes people could at least sweeten up a bit toward him? Is it a thousand, a hundred, fifty, or what?
“IT ISN’T THE QUANTITY OF TIME SPENT SERVING GOD, BUT RATHER
THE QUALITY OF GRACE THAT SAVES THE REPENTANT SINNER.
THIS HOLDS TRUE FOR FIRST HOUR, SIXTH HOUR NINTH
HOUR, ELEVENTH HOUR, OR ANY HOUR REPENTER.”
If you will:
“WHETHER WE LIVE A HOLY LIFE FOR TEN YEARS OR TEN MONTHS
OR TEN MINUTES DOES NOT CONDITION OR PHASE OR
ALTER ONE BIT THE SAVING POWER
OF DIVINE GRACE.”
But, But, and more Buts as the sour grapes are stomped to pieces by the sour grape stompers. Yes, go ahead now, and give us all of your Buts. “But you see,” says another Butser, “the deathbedder cannot stand in praise or kneel in prayer or serve in works. He cannot show forth fruits of repentance like all true repenters like us must.” Oh, I get ya! So you require an extended time, however long, of dynamic service and performance of the Christian life before repenters and repentance will be validated by you. If the repenter does not stand in worship, bow at the throne of grace, and visit the fatherless and widow, his repentance is as far as you are concerned bogus. Right?
Apparently you haven’t heard a word from Jesus in Matthew 20:1-16. I can still hear you muttering to yourself. Matthew 20:1-16 in fact answers all of your sour-grape gripes, but I see that you are still stomping and butting. Well then, I want you to listen to God in II Corinthians 8:12 KJV,
“That if there is first a willing mind, it is accepted, according to that
a man hath, and not according to that a man hath not.”
Now then, apply that truth to REPENTANCE! If a man sincerely changes his mind and heart from rebellion against God and His ways, to yieldedness and obedience toward God and His ways, and yet has not the physical strength or capacity outwardly to carry out his Godly thoughts and desires, his repentance is judged by God by what he has and not by what he had not. He has the the sincerity of his mind and heart to serve God, and even though his body is totally infirmed, he is accepted by God as if he had served God all of his life. Same thing! We are right back to the ELEVENTH HOUR WORKER and the ELEVENTH HOUR REPENTER.
This is the huge difference you see, for the sour graper and griper would command the utterly infirmed and disabled person to stand in praise, kneel in prayer, go to church, and a whole bunch of other acts of Godly devotion. “No,” says God, “I see the thoughts and intents of his heart, and whether you like it or not, I the Lord God rate and reward those holy intentions at the highest level, because I know he would carry them out if he had the ability and opportunity to do so.”
Immediately I hear the question:
“WHAT WORTH IS A GOOD INTENTION IF IT IS
NOT CARRIED OUT?”
You are so right, because no one will go to Heaven on good intentions alone, but never carrying out for the Lord what he says he intended to do given his ability to do them. So we read in James 4:17,
“Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does
not do it, to him it is sin.”
Let’s put it this way,
“HE THAT HAS THE RIGHTEOUS INTENTIONS AND PHYSICAL ABILITIES
TO SERVE GOD BUT DOES NOT DO IT, HE HAS NOT
TRULY REPENTED OF HIS SINS AND IT IS
ACCOUNTED TO HIM AS SIN.”
“HE THAT HAS THE MINDFUL AND HEARTFELT DESIRE TO SERVE
GOD, BUT HAS NOT THE PHYSICAL ABILITIES TO DO IT,
HIS REPENTANCE BEFORE GOD IS ACCOUNTED
I remember as if yesterday when I visited my friend and colleague Wes Smedes in the hospital. He was there suffering from cancerous and inoperable brain tumors. When I walked into his hospital room where his precious wife was faithfully attending him, he saw me and when he did he began to cry. His wife said to me. “Bob, he is not unhappy to see you, but he is crying because your standing here reminds him that he has so much he still wants to accomplish for the Lord and he now knows that he cannot.”
This was not a deathbed repentance, but a deathbed powerful longing to do more for Christ and for the salvation of the lost. It all came to an end far too soon, but then for those who are intensely pro-Christ and pro-active, it always does. But remember Wes, my brother in the Lord:
“GOD SEES YOUR PURE AND EARNEST HEART, AND WHEN HE SEES
YOU, THE THINGS WHICH YOU LONG TO DO FOR HIM HE
COUNTS AS ALREADY DONE. HE WILL SEND SOMEONE
ELSE TO SIMPLY BE YOUR EXTENSION AND
FROM DEATH CROSS TO PARADISE
That is, from a thief’s cross to Heaven. This is a quantum leap that many critics cannot make! At the least for goodness sake, make the mugger spend some time in Hell before he gets to Heaven. It would have been much more palatable for Christmas’ Scrooge if, when the crook asked to be remembered by Jesus in His Kingdom, Jesus would not have said to him in Luke 23:43,
“Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
But instead said something like:
“Truly I say to you, in a few years you shall be with Me in
Paradise, but first to Hell with you.”
After all, you simply cannot walk from death row through the gates of glory just like that! That is a mockery of justice. After all, he is hanging there not because of a small-caliber misdemeanor. This crook is a rotten thief, and who knows how many people he whacked during his robberies. It is not enough that the robber is impaled on a cross – humbug – let him be engulfed in flames for a while. Let him burn before he is rewarded with Heaven’s bliss.
But that is not how it went!
First of all, and we must underline this in our minds:
“THE REPENTANCE OF THE THIEF ON THE CROSS BEGAN
NO SOONER THAN WELL INTO HIS DYING, AND YET
ENDED WITH THE REWARD OF HIS ETERNAL
LIVING WITH CHRIST IN PARADISE.”
We are talking here about a “Death’s Door” and a “Heaven’s Gates” repentance. This was a deathbed repentance if there ever was one. Not much difference here between the dying bedridden sinner and the dying cross-nailed sinner. This career criminal was in such unutterable pain and weakness, and yet after he defended Christ’s innocence and confessed his own guilt, he humbly asked that Jesus would be mindful of him in His Kingdom after he had been forgetful of God during his entire life. And Jesus in effect said to him:
“It is done, for your citizenship in my Kingdom is secured today.”
All of this tells us:
“IT IS NEVER TOO LATE AND NO ONE IS EVER TOO BAD, BUT
THAT THE REBEL CAN BE BROUGHT TO REPENTANCE,
AND THE OLD CRIMINAL CAN BE MADE A
NEW CREATION IN CHRIST.”
If you will:
“THE OLD DULL CONSCIENCE CAN INSTANTLY BE SHARPENED BY THE
HOLY SPIRIT,AND THE OLD HARDENED HEART CAN BE
SOFTENED AND MADE TENDER TO GOD.”
“THE OLE CRIMINAL’S PISTOL IN HIS RIGHT HAND CAN BE
MELTED INTO PENITENCE IN HIS SOUL.”
I think that God records in His Word this single and signal story, as a powerful and perpetual beacon of hope for the sinner young or old in death’s dark shadow, that one before him repented and received pardon from God in the same if not in a worse condition.
Are deathbed conversions real? Of course they are real, as real as three crosses, two criminals, and the Lamb of God on a hill called Golgotha just outside of Jerusalem. It is the most high profile 11:59 repentance and salvation in all of recorded history! The precedent has been set in the Bible, and it doesn’t get any more real and optimistic than that.
THE GOD OF MERCY
God has told us in no uncertain terms in His Word that He deeply desires for all men to be saved, and that not one be lost to an unrepentant and unbelieving eternal state. Hear the clear words in II Peter 3:9,
“…not wishing (willing) for any to perish but for
ALL to come to REPENTANCE.”
We must sink our spiritual teeth into that truth until the Divine love juices permeate our souls. How often we forget that God does not wish or will for any one to go to Hell, and that is true for even the most rotten Hitler or Oswald or Dahmer in our world.
What stands between the sinner and perishing is one thing – repentance – which God wants all men to come to. So Jesus took every opportunity to bring men to repentance. There was an accident on one of Pilate’s building projects in which some workmen were killed. A self-appointed committee among the pious came to Jesus to inquire of Him who sinned to cause such a calamity. Their implication was that whoever was at fault should be strung up. So Jesus used the moment to humble them and to bring them to that which God desires all men to come to. He says in Luke 13:3,
“Except ye repent, ye shall likewise perish.”
I repeat, Peter tells us that God wishes for ALL TO COME TO REPENTANCE, and for NO ONE TO PERISH. This mercifully includes all of the sinners coming into the world, all of the sinners living in this world, and all of the sinners leaving this world. God has no secret or fiendish wish that certain really rotten ones be tossed into the abyss and perish forever, while His favorite ones He lifts up into Heaven and life forevermore.
God has a wide-open wish that every child, adult, and aged one repent and not perish. For you see, we read in Acts 10:34,
“…that God is not one to show partiality.”
Now then, we either believe that or we don’t believe that. Either God is an equal opportunity-for-repentance God or He is not. God never looks at a decrepit dying one and says, “Oh well, he is over the hill not only, but way down the slope and too far gone. Kiss him off.” Nor is God licking His chops as He gleefully writes off this or that old geezer who as far as He is concerned only takes up needed space and uses valuable air without putting anything back. Which is exactly where we are headed in America. Such a concept of God is conceived in Hell, and such a society that thinks that way will end up in Hell.
We read about God in Romans 6:15,
“For He says to Moses, ‘I will have MERCY on whom I have MERCY,
and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
So there, and who are we to tell God that He can show mercy to this one, but that He cannot show mercy to that one? I believe it stands to reason that if God shows mercy to whomever He wills, He can also show mercy to whomever whenever He wills. God does not want a fully alive 18 year old to repent any more than He wants a barely alive 80 year old to repent. And if you do think that way, you are closer to being a proponent of euthanasia than you realize.
James 5:11 tell us,
“…that the Lord is full of compassion and merciful.”
Are we? Generally speaking no – not full! God by nature is full of mercy and wants to fill each man with His mercy. But you see man by nature wants to prescribe boundaries to mercy. I have heard in courtrooms across the nation on COURT TV, relatives of murdered victims addressing the convicted murderer and I shudder to hear them say:
“I NOT ONLY WANT YOU TO BE PUT TO DEATH, BUT I HOPE
THAT YOU BURN IN HELL FOREVER.”
That is the godless antithesis to the Lord Who does not want anyone to burn in Hell forever. And as recently as the Jerry Sandusky trial and conviction, I heard a Christian woman and mother say that if he would have done that to her children:
“I WOULD HAVE TAKEN A GUN AND SHOT HIM
IN THE HEAD.”
Not one drop of mercy extended but only wrath to overflowing. Tragic, while God by nature is full of mercy, man by nature is full of mercilessness. In fact:
“WHILE MAN SO QUICKLY RUNS OUT OF MERCY, EVEN WHEN GOD HAS
POURED OUT HIS MERCY, HE HAS AN INFINITE RESERVE
OF MERCY REMAINING.”
Just a quick input here! Mercy must not be used politically or judicially as a final argument for peace at any price, nor in opposition to capital punishment. When it comes to justice and mercy, Christians can be on both sides of these issues. Much more important than a man receiving a pardon from the governor is his death-row or death-chamber repentance.
Back to the point! Frankly, I am thankful that God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts, and God’s mercies are not as our mercies. Sad and horrible would be the condition of sinners if that were true, for then the number of those that would be saved would be much less, and Heaven’s volume of the Book of Life would be shrunk to a very small booklet.
To the aforesaid merciless people I would like to quote the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 5:7,
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
That is both a tremendous promise and a terrible promise, for it really says:
“THOSE WHO SHOW MERCY WILL RECEIVE MERCY FROM GOD,
BUT THOSE WHO DO NOT SHOW MERCY WILL NOT
RECEIVE MERCY FROM GOD.”
Those who have truly tasted of Divine mercy are thrilled when anyone repents at the last hour of his life and is mercifully saved and rewarded with those who repented in the early hours and days of their lives. If the God of all mercy brings a sinner to Himself at the very end, and makes his deathbed the gate to glory, I rejoice with him that I will adore with him forever the God of mercy Who saved us both. Saved for a long time or saved in the nick of time, the long and the short of it is that it is all mercy from beginning to end, early or late.
NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD
Oh so true is the fact that REPENTANCE is a great thing, and cannot be done trivially or numbly. And so often is the case that the old unrepentant and unregenerate sinner on his lingering deathbed has a mind that is weak and confused, his apprehension of right and wrong – guilt and shame is slow and dark, and often with physical diseases that engulf and consume him. Let’s be real:
“A MAN UNFIT AND THEREFORE UNABLE TO BE RULED BY REASON,
BY CONSCIENCE, AND BY SPIRITUAL SENSE, IS FRANKLY IN
THAT CONDITION EQUALLY UNFIT AND THEREFORE
UNABLE TO REPENT.”
We must however remember the principle given to us in Romans 4:17,
“…even God, Who gives life to the dead and calls into being
that which does not exist.”
If you will:
“WHAT LOOKS DEAD AND GONE TO US CAN BE MADE ALIVE AND
COMING TO GOD, AND WHAT APPEARS NON-EXISTENT TO US
CAN FULLY BE BROUGHT INTO EXISTENCE BY GOD.”
And again the well-known truth in Matthew 19:26,
“With men this is impossible, but with God all
things are possible.”
If you will:
“WHATEVER LOOKS THE LEAST POSSIBLE TO US IS MORE
THAN POSSIBLE WITH GOD.”
“TO GIVE UP ON ANYONE IS IN REALITY TO GIVE
UP ON GOD.”
You see, when we look at the natural impediments of the diseased or infirmed in critical care, and especially on life support systems, we would conclude the following spiritually and mentally and physically:
“IT IS MOST UNLIKELY THAT SUCH A ONE COULD ANYMORE COME
TO REPENTANCE AND FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST.”
So we stop reading the Bible to and praying with this most unlikely candidate. I know, I too have struggled with the same thoughts and feelings. After all, it is very improbable, and so we add our unlikely and improbable, when in fact the Bible cancels out not only the unlikely and the improbable, but even cancels the impossible.
In fact, we don’t just leave it as improbable, but HIGHLY IMPROBABLE, and we don’t just leave it as unlikely, but HIGHLY UNLIKELY. And so we have the deathbed degenerate in Hell before he even leaves earth.
But we forget that God does not think like we think, i.e. His thoughts are not our thoughts, and therefore His ways are not our ways. Listen now:
“GOD DOES NOT LIVE IN A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES AND IMPOSSIBILITIES,
LIKELIHOODS AND UNLIKELIHOODS, PROBABILITIES AND
IMPROBABILITIES, MAYBE’S AND MAYBE-NOTS.”
We do, but He doesn’t! For you see, where the power of the natural ends, the power of the supernatural begins. What we look upon as terminal, God looks upon as germinal.
I have often fed on and been inspired by the truth found in John 3:6, the words of Jesus to Nicodemus:
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is
born of the spirit is spirit.”
We are such creatures of the flesh senses, and we often conclude that when things look hopeless and helpless in the flesh, nothing can happen or is happening in the spirit world. Wrong! Oh so wrong! I have witnessed close up more than once powerful occurrences when the flesh was in a coma, yet the coma was not a period but only a comma to God.
God’s story was by no means ended, but rather the final and victorious chapter was being written. The Holy Spirit was at work in the bedridden person Spirit to spirit, so much so, that I have seen in Divine answer to prayer and Scripture reading comatose faces brighten with joy which before were pale, stagnant, and set. God can go where we cannot go, do what we cannot do, and accomplish what we cannot accomplish.
I believe it pleases God when we never give up on Him Who never gave up on us. All of us by nature were dead in sin. Not just spiritually comatose, but dead, buried, and decaying.
BUT GOD!!! We read in Ephesians 2:4-6,
“BUT GOD, being rich in mercy, because of His great love
with which He loved us,”
“even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive
together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),”
“and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the
Heavenly places, in Christ Jesus.”
Listen now! Christians are those who were dead in sin, and were raised up with Christ. The only kind of people that are raised from the dead are those who are dead and buried. Christ was raised up out of His tomb, and we were by grace raised up from our spiritual tombs with Him. You and I must understand this:
“BY SINFUL NATURE WE WERE NOT JUST DEATHBED RIDDEN,
BUT WE WERE DEADBED-RIDDEN AND GRAVE-RIDDEN.”
“WE WERE NOT SIMPLY SPIRITUALLY DYING, BUT WE WERE
STONE-COLD DEAD AND BURIED.”
We need say no more, for:
“WHETHER A DEADBED REPENTANCE FOR US, OR A DEATHBED
REPENTANCE FOR OLE JOHN HENRY, ONE IS NO MORE
MIRACULOUS THAN THE OTHER.”
And in the final analysis:
“WHETHER A DEAD AND BURIED SINNER’S REPENTANCE, OR A
DYING SINNER’S REPENTANCE, NEITHER CAN BE DONE BY
THE POWER OF MAN, BUT BOTH ARE EQUALLY
POSSIBLE BY THE POWER OF GOD.” Amen!