Better Late than Never – Thoughts on Deathbed Conversions
In the last couple of weeks I have come across two men who professed faith just before their deaths, which has prompted me to think about the subject. Here are some thoughts, in no particular order.
1. The great and gracious good news of the Christian message is that any true conversion, no matter how late it comes, leads to eternal salvation. In fact, few things illustrate more clearly the essence of the gospel of God’s free grace to sinners in Jesus Christ. We are saved not by anything we have ever done or could ever do, but only by what Jesus has done for us. Someone who is converted on their deathbed has no time or strength to do any good works. He will probably not have time to become a member of a church, be baptised, take the Lord’s supper, attend even a single worship service or prayer meeting. He may not give a single penny to the work of the church. He certainly won’t be going on any mission teams or helping at a soup kitchen. And yet the absence of all these things, and many other good works besides, will not jeopardise his salvation in any way. Why not? Because we are saved by grace, through faith; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. The conversion of a sinner in the last hours of life highlight this truth. Everything else is stripped away.
The thief on the cross (Lk 23.39-43) is the definitive example of this for us. Here is a man who was most probably a terrorist in Barabbas’s unit. He may have also been a thief, but theft – even violent robbery – wasn’t a capital crime. The word Matthew and Mark use for him was often used of political freedom fighters.
So here is a man who has lived a life of violence and murder, consumed by anger and hatred. He has caused great hurt and grief to many people. He is a guilty criminal who is getting what he deserves. He has nothing to offer God – nothing remotely resembling a good work – not a shred of righteousness. There is no hope that the good in his life will outweigh the bad.
And yet he receives from the lips of Jesus Christ the strongest assurance anyone is ever given in all of Scripture: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ He is completely and freely forgiven. In fact, Jesus gives him extra assurance with the words ‘Truly, I say to you…’ There is no room for doubt!
2. All of this presupposes that the conversion is true, of course. It’s not enough to simply say a certain form of words at the end. No doubt many people have been given a false assurance at the end of their lives by being told that all they need to do is say sorry to God for their sins and ask Jesus to save them. There must be the essential elements of true repentance and faith if there is to be salvation.
True repentance consists of three things: (a) recognition of sin for what it is – an offence against God which deserves eternal condemnation; (b) remorse for sin – genuine grief for sin as an offence against God; (c) resolution to change – a turning away from sin and a corresponding pursuit of righteousness.
True saving faith similarly comprises three things: (a) understanding of the necessary facts of the gospel required for salvation; (b) belief that these facts are true; (c) a personal, unreserved trust in Jesus Christ alone, about whom the facts speak, to save from sin.
It is clear from the example of the bandit on the cross that while his understanding was very limited, he understood enough to be saved – there was true repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. If these are real then salvation is guaranteed by God himself, for ‘whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’
3. There is always the danger that the Devil will use the possibility of a deathbed conversion to lull people into a false sense of security, encouraging them to put off becoming a Christian until the last possible moment. Someone has said, ‘There is only one deathbed conversion in Scripture so that none should despair; but only one, so that none should presume.’ Or as Matthew Henry put it, ‘True repentance is never too late; but late repentance is seldom true.’ More often than not, those who complacently think they will enjoy life first and then at the last minute ask for forgiveness will find, assuming they even have the time and the ability to think clearly at the end, that truly repenting of sin and trusting in Christ is not as easy as they imagined it would be.
And so the warning of God’s Word comes to all of us who read this, ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.’