What About Deathbed Repentance

What About Deathbed Repentance
November 7, 2021
Passage: Matthew 3:8
Service Type:

We're going to talk this morning about deathbed repentance. When it comes to repentance, in Matthew 3:8, as John was baptizing, many were coming to him; the Pharisees, scribes, Jewish leaders, and the common people were coming down to be baptized of John and many were questioning John.

John said: 

"Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance," — Matthew 3:8

There was more to repentance according to John, and according to Jesus, than merely saying that I'm sorry, or, feelings of sorrow. There must be fruits that are brought forth. Let's think about that as we talk about deathbed repentance.

I have a friend who preaches in Oklahoma and he told the following true story that chills me to the bone. There was a faithful Christian lady married to a good man, who simply refused to obey the gospel. He attended church with her periodically, ensured that his children grew up attending church with their mother.

He watched both his kids grow up, obey the gospel, and marry faithful Christians and raise their own families in the church. My friend and many other Christians had attempted to get him to study the Bible with him over the years, but he always politely turned them down.

One evening this man suffered a massive heart attack and was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance – he was very distraught, and his wife tried to calm him by pointing out various landmarks they were passing: The school where their grandchildren attended, their favorite restaurant and finally she told him they were passing by the church building.

When he heard that he started pleading with the paramedics, “STOP! I want to go and be baptized right now! I need to get right with God!”

The ambulance did not stop, and he was pronounced dead on arrival. That's a horrible, sad story. He had had many opportunities to obey the gospel. Yet, he always thought he had more time. He had put it off. But, like Felix, in Acts 26, he sought a more convenient time. We never read at any time after that Felix obeyed the gospel. 

  • Ecclesiastes 9:10-11

Solomon goes on to say, later in Ecclesiastes that at one time we will all face death. We never know if we have another minute. 

What exactly is deathbed repentance? Is it practiced and practiced today? Where did the idea originate? We'll encounter some problems with this belief.

What Does the Term Deathbed Repentance Mean?

What does deathbed mean? It's not exclusively referring to a person literally lying in bed near death. Can refer to any situation or place a person may be in when death is near and inevitable. There are many circumstances that could lead to the end of physical life. It could be in a foxhole, entrapped in a burning building, submerged vehicle, or any number of situations that one might find themselves in with no escape from physical demise. The end of physical life is close and the spirit will soon be ushered into eternity. It's certainly not limited to a hospital bed. 

What does the term repentance mean? The dictionary says to feel sorrow over one’s actions or regret wrongdoing.

The Biblical meaning involves much more than just a feeling of sorrow. Repentance involves not only a change of mind but a change of action.

  • Matthew 3:8

Genuine repentance proves itself by the fruits of a changed life. Jesus commanded it.

  • Luke 13:3,5

The apostles preached it.

  • Acts 2:38; 3:19

We see examples of it.

- Saul of Tarsus

- Zacchaeus

  • Luke 19:8
  • Matthew 21:28-31

What then does deathbed repentance mean? What does it imply? It is an action that implies a feeling of sorrow and desire to change shortly before death.

If repentance involves a change of action, how can this be accomplished at this point in time, when there remains no time for action of any kind? What is the intended purpose of deathbed repentance?

Not repenting to any individual for wrong actions but expressing sorrow to God for the way one has conducted their lives. It is one's final plea to God for forgiveness that will bring eternal salvation.

Is Deathbed Repentance Taught and Practiced Today?

Many professed religious people today endorse this doctrine wholeheartedly. Many prayers have been offered by others for someone’s salvation as the individual being prayed for is dying. Many last breaths have been taken with the utterance of, “God please forgive me.”

Preachers, priests, and those who others believe may have a special connection to God are summoned to the bedsides of dying loved ones on a continual basis, to intervene on behalf of the dying person’s soul. Many people today have been taught this and are counting on this as the last-minute remedy for a life lived in total rebellion to God.

The Catholic church today practices what is called “extreme unction.” The priest anoints the person with oil and prays for them, which they believe results in the sins of that person being forgiven.

This idea is said to come from their interpretation of certain passages.

  • Mark 6:13
  • James 5:14-15

How they get the idea from either of these, I have no clue. Does the Bible in fact endorse this teaching? The term deathbed repentance is found nowhere in the scriptures. The only place I can remotely see the idea might come from is the thief on the cross. Does the thief on the cross justify one’s belief in this theory?

It is true the eternal fate of one of the thieves crucified with Christ was changed as he too was dying from crucifixion.

The thief was definitely close to death.

  • Luke 23:42-43

Can we depend upon the same opportunity today as the thief enjoyed? We cannot be saved like the thief. The thief on the cross was one reason many think baptism is not necessary for salvation. They contend that if the thief could be saved without it so could they but there is a hole in this line of thinking.

First of all, we don’t know for sure if the thief had been baptized or not. He lived during the ministry of John the Baptist, so it is a possibility that he had been baptized. However, for the sake of argument let’s say he had not. We must understand which covenant the thief lived under.

Jesus lived and died under the Mosaic law and so did the thief. Jesus’ will and testament were not in effect before He died.

  • Hebrews 9:16-17

Baptism, for the remission of sins, was not brought into effect until the death of Christ. Thus, this man, the thief on the cross was not subject to the New Testament law. 

Furthermore, If you find yourself in the physical presence of Jesus and He tells you that your sins are forgiven – then you can count on it. Other instances of Jesus forgiving are:

  • Luke 5:20
  • Luke 7:47

 Here are occasions where Jesus said, "Your sins are forgiven." Or, "Today, you will be in Paradise." That is not something that will ever happen while this world stands. His physical presence was limited to the time that Jesus lived a human life.

The thief on the cross, died under a different covenant, than the one in which we live. He died with a different way to be saved than the way that we are to be saved today. 

Problems Encountered with the Teaching of Deathbed Repentance

We have no assurance that we will have any time at all. The thief on the cross, had time, to think about his life. It is a lengthy process to die on a cross. We have no assurance that we will have any time at all to even think a thought about our relationship with God seconds before we die.

Thousands die daily with no warning or opportunity to make amends with others or God. Many go into unconsciousness before death and never see another conscious moment. Rationality can be lost at any time and by many means disallowing any changes to be made in this life, even if death is still years away. Time and chance happen to us all, Ecclesiastes 9:11. 

I have heard it said and even said myself that where there is life there is hope, but that is not necessarily true. Not only for the reasons above but I have personally talked with people about their souls and it was clear to me that even though they were fully in their right mind, they would never obey the gospel. I have heard the term ‘sinning away our day of grace.' That's the idea that you have the opportunity to act upon God's word, but you don't do it. That is to say, there can come a time in our life when our hearts are so hardened by sin that it is an impossibility to change.

We will not have any desire to change in spite of the final consequences we will face.

  • Hebrews 3:12-13

When we become hardened to sin, it can become very hard to change. Maybe even impossible. There are people who think they're so involved in sin that it seems impossible to get out, so they refuse to even try. 

There are times when God turns His back on people because of the hardness of their hearts. 

  • Romans 1:18-32

They clearly knew there was a God, but they willfully forgot them. Therefore, in verse 24, God gave them up for uncleanness. Three times it talks about God turning away, or God giving them up because their hearts were so hardened. 

Think about the world in which Noah lived, that generation, in Genesis 6, when there were no one righteous on the earth except, Noah, his sons, and wives, God destroyed that generation. 

  • 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12

Some people harden themselves so much, that they will not obey the gospel. 

There was a man who was dying of cancer, and a gospel preacher was talking to him about obeying the gospel. He had lived his life in sin, but now expressed an interest in “joining the church.” But he was not receptive to the truth and his last request before the preacher left, was for him to send for a certain denominational preacher to come and see him.

The Bible offers no hope of God making any exceptions for alien sinners on their deathbed to provide eternal salvation. God has provided the means of salvation to all of us.

  • Titus 2:11-12

The opportunity is there for all of us. The grace of God is there for all of us. But that grace also teaches us that we have to change the way we live. We have to live soberly, righteously. 

But there are no “loopholes” for those who try to skate by waiting until the last minute. This teaching goes against everything the scriptures teach about salvation. Some would say we need to substitute a sinner’s prayer.

There is no promise of salvation for that. The sinner's prayer is not found anywhere in the New Testament or in the Bible. 

What About the Estranged Child of God and Deathbed Repentance?

What about a child of God who has willingly turned away from Christ and gone back into the world to willfully sin? Some maybe have the attitude that they've obeyed the gospel in the past. But they want to engage in some of the sins of my past for a while. And then after they've have “sown their wild oats” for a time, they plan to get right with God before they die. And, perhaps they think that all they have to do is repent and pray, maybe even on their deathbed.

Again, this assumes you won’t die in a sudden tragic accident. It assumes that you will have a coherent moment in which to utter a prayer or something.

  • Galatians 6:7-8

The estranged child of God is told to repent and also to pray for forgiveness.

  • 1 John 1:9
  • Acts 8:22

He's told to repent and pray that his sins are forgiven. That's how a Christian, makes his way right with God when he has willfully sinned. 

I am afraid though, that it is a real stretch to suggest this might signal an endorsement of “deathbed repentance.” Repentance is an action, it requires restitution and fruit, which is difficult to accomplish from your deathbed.

  • Matthew 3:8

Even if this teaching was a certainty or even a possibility, why would anyone who truly loves God wait until the last minute to be reconciled with Him? That certainly shows no love for God or any concern at all about rendering anything in service to Him to show any gratitude for all He does for them. Death is too certain, eternity too long, and Hell too hot, to rest our souls upon such teaching.

  • Ecclesiastes 12:1

Solomon is saying, while you have the opportunity, or while you are still young, to obey God, to remember, now, the Creator.

  • Isaiah 55:6

Sounds as if there might be a time He could not be found and will not be near.

We don't know what might happen when we leave here. There are many opportunities and ways for us to be incapacitated or killed instantly. We don't know when the Lord is returning. What we do know is that we have the opportunity today.

If you have never become a Christian, never been baptized for the remission of your sins, we urge you to do so. Repent of your sins, confess your belief, and be baptized to have your sins washed away and live a life faithful to God through Christ. 

If you have done those things, but haven't been living faithfully, while you have the opportunity, repent today, and we will help you in growing closer to God. 

If we can help you in making true repentance and obeying Christ, or if you have further questions, please contact us.

Adapted from Polishing the Pulpit Sermon Swap 2006, Dennis Murphy.
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