Friday, December 10, 2010

What About Deathbed Repentance?

2nd in a series concerning baptism's place in our salvation

The New Testament makes a clear case for immersion being an essential part of receiving Christ's gospel. If this idea is unfamiliar to you, please see my previous blog entry, Why immerse? Unfortunately, though, the idea of "baptism for salvation" has simply had no part in mainstream religious training. For this reason , objections are frequently put forth against the teaching.

This series of blog entries began with what might be the most common objection of all, "What about the Thief on the Cross?" Closely related is the question addressed in this entry:

What about deathbed repentance?

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of deathbed repentance, here is how it works (or is supposed to work):

Some poor soul, who has expended the many years and energies of his life in the vigorous pursuit of evil, finally feels a fear of God as his life's force ebbs. So he prays "the sinner's prayer" and is "saved".

The preacher who "saved" him can then stand before the family at funeral time and assure the survivors that "evil old Ed" is as safe as a little lamb in the arms of Jesus. What is more, the preacher can assure them that they too can quietly say "the sinner's prayer". They can do it right where they are, while everyone's eyes are closed! All the preacher asks is that they raise their hand so he will know to follow up with them later.

This is not an imagined scenario. I actually attended a funeral where the preacher did exactly that. A couple of folks probably raised their hands. Most others probably figured they would wait and take care of this business at life's end, like "evil old Ed" did.

If it sounds as though I'm not buying this kind of "death bed repentance" scenario, you are right. It contains too many assumptions unsupported by the Holy Scriptures.

Assumptions In The Scenario:

1st: it is assumes that "the sinner's prayer" is a valid means of salvation.

Supposedly, people are saved when they say "the sinner's prayer". It goes something like this:

"Lord Jesus, I am a sinner. I believe that you died upon the cross to forgive my sins [here, some other things to be believed about Jesus are added in – the recipe varies]. I now ask you into my heart and receive your salvation [etc.]"

The person is then assured that he can know in his heart that he is saved and as a rule, he does. Unfortunately, forgiveness does not take place in the sinner's heart. The man can feel forgiven and can feel this with utmost sincerity. He can even change the way he lives. But unless forgiveness has taken place in the heart of God, the man who has prayed this "sinner's prayer" is still outside of Christ and carrying the guilt of his sins.

No one in scripture was ever converted to Christ by "asking Jesus into their heart". There is no commandment in scripture for anyone to say "the sinner's prayer" at the time of their conversion. Nor is there any scriptural example of anyone ever saying, or being saved by, "the sinner's prayer". It is therefore quite strange that "everyone" thinks that people can be saved in this way today.

Believing an unscriptural thing to be scriptural does not make it scriptural. There is nothing scriptural about the sinner's prayer. Christians are to pray for forgiveness when they sin. But no one in scripture ever became a Christian by such a prayer. Even so, "salvation by the sinner's prayer" has become one of Christendom's most sacred cows.

If we truly want to know how people were saved in the New Testament, there is a true book of inspired history that records many conversions. The gospels were written to record the life and teaching of Christ. All of the teaching contained in them has great value. But Jesus' ministry was to the Jews. Christians are people who are saved by the death of Christ. There weren't any Christians until Jesus went to the cross. To learn how people became Christians in scripture, we can read the book of Acts. You won't find any examples of the sinner's prayer there. There is nothing even close.

2nd, it assumes that every appeal for deathbed repentance is answered by God.

Some might suppose, based on the scenario painted above, that I do not believe in deathbed repentance. Not so. What I don't believe is that people can be "saved on their deathbeds" in an unscriptural way.

What of lifelong sinners, who've deliberately hardened themselves against the gospel?

There are many who were raised by devout parents. They have known the central facts of the gospel from the time of their youth and even supposed the Bible's message to be true. But they have ignored the gospel's message because of their love for evil. All their lives they have hardened themselves against the gospel. They wanted no Bible, no church, no preachers and none of that "goody two-shoes, holier than thou" living. But once terminally ill, they got nervous and wanted to be saved.

Will God receive them? Ultimately, God will make that decision, and it will most certainly be the right decision. He'll hear no complaints from me if He does receive these people. But the following statements from God's word leave me with very serious doubts that He will receive them.

Galatians 6:7-8 – Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life.

Proverbs 1:24-29 – Because I called, and you refused; I stretched out my hand, and no one paid attention; And you neglected all my counsel, And did not want my reproof; I will even laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your dread comes, When your dread comes like a storm, And your calamity comes on like a whirlwind, When distress and anguish come on you. "Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; They will seek me diligently, but they shall not find me, Because they hated knowledge, And did not choose the fear of the LORD.

Psalm 32:6 – Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to Thee in a time when Thou mayest be found; Surely in a flood of great waters they shall not reach him.

Psalm 66:18 – If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear;

All scripture quoted from the New American Standard (1977) Bible

Only God can know whether a man's repentance is genuine and the ultimate decision as to who will and will not be saved is His alone. But these passages – among others – offer little encouragement of a successful "deathbed repentance" to the one who has deliberately chosen to walk in darkness though exposed to light.

Those newly coming to know the light

Here the prospects of salvation "on the deathbed" seem much brighter. I knew a "good" man whose religious background was quite dubious. He had never been properly taught scriptural truths but only some nonsensical religious traditions. He was nevertheless – while literally "on his deathbed" – quite willing to hear biblical truth.

On coming to understand the scriptures he responded much in the same way as the Ethiopian treasurer who – having heard the preaching of Jesus – sought to be baptized (see Acts 8:35-36). We asked to speak to the Nursing coordinator. The patient himself made his request known to her and it was arranged for the man to be immersed in the Physical Therapy department's therapeutic pool. That gentleman never recovered from his illness and died, still in the hospital, two weeks later. But the healing he sought at that stage of his life was of a different kind. And I see no reason to believe that he did not receive it.

We are speaking here of assumptions and one of the assumptions commonly made is that people on their deathbeds have no opportunity to be immersed. Not so, as this man's case demonstrates.

By the way, we have just mentioned the Ethiopian treasurer of Acts 8, who was travelling through the desert. If ever there were a case where an exception to the rule might be expected, it was this one. I have actually been asked, "What if someone accepts the gospel and they are in the desert where there is no water for baptism?" One answer is that you go to the Howard Johnson's and use their pool (the Howard Johnson's pool is gotten from the same place the desert wasJ). But the better answer is found in Acts 8. Phillip did not offer to pray the "sinner's prayer" with the Ethiopian Treasurer. Nor did he sprinkle him with a little water from his canteen. They came to water, went down together into the water and the man was immersed there.

3rd it assumes that an assumed exception to the rule overthrows the rule even in ordinary cases.

As stated above, it is assumed that – in the case of "deathbed repentance" – baptism is unnecessary. It is then further assumed that this proves baptism unnecessary in every case.

God is God and makes the rules. They are His rules and He can make exceptions to them if He chooses. I'd have no right to object if He did make exceptions. But I have no right to say that He will. So I wouldn't, even if I wanted to.

Jesus stated a rule in Mark 16:16. "He who believes and is baptized shall be saved…" I have no right to teach that He will make any exceptions to the rule. But what if He did make an exception to the rule? In this case, we need to remember that exceptions to rules do not change rules.

Consider for example the rule of gravity, also established by God (creator of our physical universe). The rule of gravity predicts that a million pounds of metal isn't going to go stay off the ground for long. Yet a fully loaded Boeing 747 Airplane (maximum takeoff weight of 975,000 pounds) can actually stay in the air for hours at a time.

This appears to be an exception to the rule but - one way or another - the airplane always comes back down. So it is actually debatable whether this example is truly an exception to the rule. But even if we agree that it is, the rule of gravity would remain a rule.

The flawed nature of the Objection

People have assumed baptism is optional in a "deathbed repentance" situation. Having assumed baptism is not essential on the deathbed, people then assume it is not essential at all. The first assumption is seen as proof of the second. But assumptions are not usually considered adequate proofs. And possible exceptions to rules do not overthrow rules.

I am, by God's grace,
Rich In Christ

Why Immerse?

The Scriptural Case for Immersion

The New Testament consistently connects baptism (derived from a Greek. word that means to dip or immerse) with salvation themes. (All scriptures are quoted from the New American Standard (1977) Bible)

  • The Bible connects baptism with the forgiveness of sins.

    Luke 3:3 - And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins;

    Acts 2:38-39 - And Peter said to them, "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. "For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself."

    Acts 22:16 - 'And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.'

  • The Bible shows that there is a connection between baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit.

    Acts 2:38 - And Peter said to them, "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    Acts 19:2-3a - and he said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" And they said to him, "No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit." Act And he said, "Into what then were you baptized?"

  • The Bible states we are "baptized into Christ".

    Romans 6:3 - Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?

    Galatians 3:27 - For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

  • Jesus Himself said baptism was to be a part of "making disciples" and promised salvation to those who believed and were baptized.

    Matthew 28:19 – "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,

    Mark 16:16 – "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.

  • The apostle Peter stated plainly that "baptism now saves you" and describes it as an appeal or pledge to God for a good conscience.

    1Peter 3:21 - And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

  • Inspired Biblical History shows that when people believed the gospel they were baptized. This should never have changed. Here are some of the examples:

    Acts 2:41 – So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

    Acts 8:12 – But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.

    Acts 8:36, 38 – And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch *said, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" …And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him.

    Acts 16:33 – And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.

    Acts 18:8 – And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.

Why not!

In light of these clear scriptural teachings, we should not be asking "Why immerse?" at all. Rather, the question should be "Why not immerse?"

Most denominations within Christendom don't immerse and the few that do think of it only as a "church ordinance". Others sprinkle infants and call this baptism, even though this was never done in the New Testament. Some of these churches teach – or at least used to teach - that the baptism of babies is for the forgiveness of "original sin". But the baptism of believing and penitent adults "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38) is rarely taught or practiced in today's Christendom.

The idea of immersion having any place at all in our receipt of salvation has had no part in most believers' religious training. As a result, many "believers" find it strange – or even offensive - that anyone would see baptism as a necessary part of salvation.

Why does so much of Christendom neglect this ordinance, commanded by Christ? The short answer is that it is rejected because of religious tradition. In other words, it is neglected for no good reason.

It's still in there!

The story is told (and it may or may not be authentic) of an old country preacher in debate against a college professor from one of the grand denominations of Christendom. The topic was whether or not the Bible taught that being baptized was necessary for salvation. The country preacher contended that it was necessary, whereas this great doctor of theology denied it.

Again and again the college professor would advance eloquent arguments against baptism's place in our receipt of salvation. And by way of rebuttal the country preacher would open his Bible again and again to Acts 2:38-39 and reply "It's still in there!"

I don't think I ever heard whether the audience was won over by the old preachers arguments or not. But it doesn't matter. What matters is that "It's still in there!"

I am by God's grace,
Rich In Christ