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

1 comment:

James said...

Excellent article, Rich. This will help guide the many good people trapped in the denominational mindset towards the truths revealed in the scriptures.