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, >>http://endsofearth.wordpress.com/category/sermons-inspirational/feed/<< [Accessed June 10, 2011]

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

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