Deathbed Conversions — How common are they?

death-bed_fullsizeDon’t get me wrong. Deathbed conversions do happen. And when they do we rejoice and thank God the Holy Spirit for having worked such a miracle on the cusp of eternity. Please do not think I am denying the reality of deathbed conversions with such a provocative title. That being said, many people in the midst of life dismissively state they will come to Christ at the moment of their death. This article addresses the notion that faith in Christ can be postponed to promiscuously enjoy the things of this world while at a later time placing their trust in Christ through a so-called “Hail Mary” deathbed conversion.

Such a notion is based on semi-Pelagianism which expresses what the father of lies (John 8:44) told Adam and Eve. Satan told our first parents they would not die (Gen 3:4b) when they ate the forbidden fruit. Semi-Pelagianism says that non-Christians are not spiritually dead though they may be spiritually weakened. Therefore with his weakened, though not dead spirit (see Gen 2:17), unbelieving man can make the initial movement or entreaty towards God and God will graciously respond to man’s initiative. This type of thinking is summed up in the false but popular saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” Such thinking often lies swirling behind the confident belief of deathbed conversions.

To presumptuously post-pone faith in Christ toward a later date of one’s own choosing also dismisses what the Holy Spirit says through St. Paul:

Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,

“Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts” (Heb 4:16-17).

On whatever day the Lord calls a person through the preached Word that is the day of salvation. To dismiss the Holy Spirit’s gracious entreaty and postpone it towards another day results in hardening one’s heart. And this is never good. In the civil realm most are aware that each choice we make makes that very same choice easier tomorrow: for good or for evil. That is in the civil realm. In the Spiritual realm it is always God who works since we are dead in our sins (Eph 2:1, 5) and dead people are, well, just that, dead. A non-Christian’s ability to choose Christ (John 15:16a) is as successful as a corpse raising the lid off of his coffin.

This speaks of monergism where it is God who makes the initial and complete offer of salvation through the preached Word and or baptism which brings to life a rotting corpse which, being more than simply dead, actively resists the working of the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). It is solely the work of the Holy Spirit who is carried on sound waves who “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist …” (Rom 4:17). Each act of resisting the Holy Spirit’s entreaty through the Word and Means of Grace hardens one’s heart (Heb 4:17) making it easier to resist tomorrow’s entreaty by the Holy Spirit. However, the obverse is never true, however logical it may be. We never chose Christ since prior to faith in Christ we are dead in our sins (see above). God in Christ gives life as a gift; from above (Jn 3:3, 7).

Found in a Lutheran Women’s Missionary League publication is a good quote from St. Augustine that addresses the frequency of deathbed conversions. Though they happen, St. Augustine has some interesting things to say.

Many people seem to place far too much confidence in the so-called deathbed repentance. They imagine that in one’s last moment a person can think a quick thought about Jesus and be whisked off into heaven. Sadly, as St. Augustine noted long ago, this hardly ever happens. If someone has not been thinking about Christ for 40, 60, or 80 years, usually his last thoughts are not thoughts of Christ but of terror as he plunges into the darkness of death. Likewise, when Christ returns on the clouds of glory surrounded by thousands of angels, it will be too late for unbelievers to find a faith they never had.[1]

What is offered next is a short sermon illustration I came across from, From the Ends of the Earth Weblog. Within this illustration is an interesting quote from John Tillotson, archbishop of Canterbury from 1691-1694. This writing by Tillotson well predates the tide of liberalism which has subsumed the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church in England.

The 19th century Spanish general Ramon Narvaez was on his deathbed, and toward the end, was visited by a priest. Eventually, the discussion came around to the condition of the officer’s soul.

The priest asked him “Sir, have you forgiven your enemies?”

“I have no need to forgive them” the officer weakly replied, “I’ve had them all shot.”

The myth of the dramatic deathbed conversion is usually just that—a myth. A person who has spent a lifetime ignoring God is usually still ambivalent about what awaits him beyond death’s door.

Consider what John Tillotson, archbishop of Canterbury from 1691-1694 said about deathbed conversions:

Do we think that when the day has been idly spent and squandered away by us, we shall be fit to work when the night and darkness come—when our understanding is weak, and our memory frail, and our will crooked, and by long custom of sinning obstinately bent the wrong way, what can we then do in religion? What reasonable or acceptable service can we then perform to God? When our candle is just sinking into the socket, how shall our light “so shine before men that they may see our good works”? … I will not pronounce anything concerning the impossibility of a deathbed repentance, but I am sure that it is very difficult, and, I believe, very rare.[2]

In his commentary on “Ezekiel 1-20” in the Concordia Commentary Series Horace Hummel wrote the following: “Deathbed conversions are possible, but relatively rare. Most people die as they lived. But as long as there is life, there is hope for repentance, faith, and salvation. God hopes, and so should we—and act accordingly.”[3] For this discussion the telling phrase from Hummel is, “most people die as they lived.” Hummel affirms what Augustine and Tillotson said in that most people fall back to what they know and have used all their lives to their utter disappointment.

Connoisseurs of football tell us Hail Mary’s have a low success rate—through they do happen. Their low success rate is due to many things including the ferocious work of the opposition. All-to-often deathbed Hail Mary’s are found to be incomplete through the work of the opposition who never rests going to and fro upon the earth (Job 1:7).

The purpose of this article is not to disparage you, the reader, or anyone else. No, not at all. Rather the purpose of this article to it to encourage all of us including myself to continually witness to our neighbor about Christ in season and out of season; (2 Tim 4:2) “… always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, (1 Pet 3:15). May the spiritual truth enunciated by Augustine, Tillotson, and Hummel rouse us to share the good news while it is still day before the night comes and no one can work (John 9:4).

In this way the work of the law will break through those false crutches that become more ingrained through the passing years. And then the sweetness of the Gospel’s free gift is proclaimed to birth a person from above where “…the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).


In Christ,

Pastor Weber


[1] Jane Fryar, “Jesus is Coming—Are You Ready?” Today’s Light (June 2009): 61. [Today’s Light is a devotional booklet produced by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, CPH.]

[2] From the Ends of the Earth Weblog, Sermon, Inspirational, >><< [Accessed June 10, 2011]

[3] Horace D. Hummel, “Ezekiel 1 – 20,” Concordia Commentary Series (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005): 339-340.

About Pastor Karl Weber

Karl has been serving St. Paul’s Richville LC and St. John’s, Ottertail, MN since Labor Day, 2004. He was raised in the Roman Church receiving his BA from Fordham University. Before going to seminary he was a computer programmer in Minneapolis. He served as a short term missionary in Guatemala and Kenya, East Africa. He spent time as a member of the ELCA and studied two years at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN pursing his M. Div. before transferring to the LCMS for theological reasons and continuing his studies at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. He was ordained in 1991 and earned his D. Min. in May 2002 from the same institution. He has contributed study notes to The Lutheran Study Bible. He enjoys deer hunting, going to the gym, swimming, and reading. He is married to Mary and has five wonderful children.


Deathbed Conversions — How common are they? — 12 Comments

  1. Is it still the Holy Ghost, Who moves? When terminal, & you know when you are on the abiss, is it really for us to say yea or nay? Decades can pass, with every aid & witness, w/no outward visible sign, until the end of their days. I seem to remember, a man, who lived & was found guilty of crimes, who knew, he was meeting his own end, asking just to be remembered & defended in belief, at his own end. We don’t know how long he lived after he spoke the words, on Golgatha, but we do know for sure what our dear Lord said, just to him. We hear it, every Good Friday.
    No, as we are His, before we take our first, we are His when our eyes close. It is soley to Him, our Lord, the Holy Ghost, & the Almighty God, that we place our trust, with those, who it takes death’s cold sting, to lead to Faith. The Holy Ghost can move on Golgatha, He can do what chooses, when He chooses, and that, is not something I need to know, nor doubt. I will find that out, when I fall asleep, & take my first, at Home.
    The Father, Son, & Holy Ghost, can see what we, the fallen, sinful, & failable, cannot. They can see thoughts, pleas, can we hear a conversation, betwixt He & them? No, we can’t, nor do many. I know a few who did not make it Home, & I know a few, who I & mine, never thought would bend a knee or repent. Loosing this life, comes to us all. Those who look to Him, is to Him & them, not us.

  2. Is it conversion, or reversion?

    Conversion would seem to mean faith in one who never knew about it before.

    People could probably tell more stories of those who were taught, then went away from church but came back if/when they had time to consider the approaching end of their lives.

    Recently reading many comments on an article about hospice, I was struck by that fact that faith or pastoral visits were not mentioned by anyone. Moreover, in the majority of cases death was denied to the very end. You can’t prepare for death by insisting that it’s not going to happen, even when you are in hospice, or at home attended by hospice nurses (if you are so fortunate).

  3. Great comment #2, Helen. I know of quite a few, personally & second hand.
    I’m sure we all do. Hospices & nursing homes, are an article, unto themselves. Family counts, the see, hear, & watch too!
    I’ve known a few who asked for aged parents to be given the Sacrament, & if they could not “answer” or repeat, they were denied. I also, know of one or two that a retired Pastor, made a trek, to give it to those who couldn’t answer correctly, yet the knew them for decades, but for illness or aged issues, those steadfast couldn’t answer or speak what needs be. Some people, make plans for this, just in case. It’s not like they didn’t or don’t know, or we all stray, in one way or another. That is where family, friends, should speak up or be contacted.
    The Holy Spirit, is the One, who holds that ground. Luke 15, covers it perfectly, I should think.

  4. @Dutch #3

    It depends…who was answering what questions and what were the answers given? If someone is on their deathbed and asks to receive the sacrament while confessing the sacrament is *not* the body and blood of Christ, should they be communed?

  5. Sure, deathbed conversions can happen. So can conversions without baptism.

    That there are exceptions to the rule does not mean the exception should be the rule.

  6. R.D.,
    How arrogant of you. My Papa was Baptized, in 1906, Dorpum, KreisNordfriesland, Germany & was Confirmed in same said Kirche. Papa took my sister & I, in 1985, to his Church & his old home. He was STEADFAST, FIRM, FAITHFUL. He taught many & thru Him, guided many. It is not for us, to judge.
    The Holy Spirit, & family/friends, know them, & know them well. My Papa’s daughters were told no, so they called Papa’s Pastor out of retirement, to make the 2+ hr trek, to just give Papa the Sacrament. If Baptizem & Confirmation, are what they, what proof is required? I have many who will be in this same place sooner or later.
    You don’t know anything about that sheep, unless it is you, who asks. Sheep follow, they do not lead.

  7. @Dutch #7
    Relax, Dutch. I was not talking about your Papa – I don’t know him or anything about him other than he

    “was Baptized, in 1906, Dorpum, KreisNordfriesland, Germany & was Confirmed in same said Kirche. Papa took my sister & I, in 1985, to his Church & his old home.”

    You spoke of an anonymous, general situation. I am asking a fair question about pastoral care. You respond to a theological question by charging arrogance. Should we get into a match about who’s grandparents were baptized 100+ years ago and how far back we can trace our Lutheran family lines? Or should we get back to theology?

    You said, “it is not for us, to judge.” You might be right given a certain set of circumstances. But in a different set of circumstances, you could be dead wrong, e.g., in my example previous (if one were to confess the sacrament is not the body and blood of our Lord, even if he be on his deathbed, he should not be communed).

  8. R.D.,
    I used the personal as an example. You made my point perfectly. Thank you.

    No, you didn’t have that privilige of knowing him or many like him. Have you spent time, at Bethany in Watertown? The VA hospital or a hospice? Or with their families? Or they wayward, have you asked them why when they come to you for answers, have you asked, they ran away? Did you bear their burdens, joys, & sorrows, as we are taught to?
    Confessionals do, more often than not,…we just do & not make a big deal or study of it.

    Have you known, anyone who either didn’t have or lost their abilities, yet remained steadfast in Faith? “I come not to hurt & harm but to give you a hope & future?” Acts 17.
    If you do not take the time, who are we to tread on His ground?

    This is the Holy Spirit’s ground to tread, not ours. Your comment in #8, is why we shouldn’t, presume to do so. At least that is the Confessional Lutheran, 4 generations were raised to believe. But, things change, do they not?

  9. Dutch, what do you think I am arguing, and what does my personal experience have to do with it? Can you explain, “have you asked them why when they come to you for answers, have you asked, they ran away?” I have no idea what you’re asking.

  10. Dutch, please slow down and edit your sentences…
    Some thoughts seem to be incomplete and maybe we could understand if you wrote a little more carefully.

  11. This reminds me of what the Spanish Catholic King Charles III (r. 1759-1788) said on his deathbed when advised by his confessor to forgive his enemies: “Why should I? They were all forgiven at the moment of the offense.” Such words may sound good, but they would not be so in God’s eyes. Thank you for your interesting article. God Bless!

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