Any Room In God’s Word For Deathbed Conversions?

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It is written:

Matthew 20:1-16- “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2  Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3  And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4  and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. 5  Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. 6  And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ 7  They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’ 8  “So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ 9  And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. 10  But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. 11  And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, 12  saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’ 13  But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14  Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15  Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ 16  So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”

One of the questions which arises quite often for a Gospel preacher deals with the subject of what I term “deathbed conversion.”

If a person is on their deathbed and wants to be saved, will God save him?

If a person wants to be saved but is unable to be baptized, will God show mercy?

Notice that this question presupposes that the person in question has heard the Gospel plan of salvation (Romans 10:17), believes in Jesus Christ as the Son of God (John 3:16), repents of sin (Luke 13:3), and confesses Jesus as the Son of God (Romans 10:9-10), and yet is unable to be baptized (which is also according to the New Testament a prerequisite for salvation-Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21).

Now, it may be objected that God will always provide a way for a person on their deathbed to be baptized; yet this is by no means certain, and the facts of experience tell otherwise. I have been involved in situations where a person who requested baptism on their deathbed was denied because of hospital policy; and have been acquainted with situations where persons in jail were unable to be baptized (fortunately that has not been my experience, as the workers at the jails where I have labored over the years have always been good hearted towards our church ministries). Indeed, there have been other situations where I know persons who were on their way to baptize an individual but the person died of a heart attack as soon as his foot touched the water.

So, there are situations where people will want to obey God but are unable to do so because of their circumstances.

Are there any Scriptures which provide some direction regarding our thoughts about these situations?

Indeed, there are.

The first example is drawn from the Old Testament Scriptures, which were written for our learning and whose principles are just as binding today as they ever were (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:1-11), even if the specific commandments are not (Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:15; Romans 7:4; Hebrews 8). The incident in question involves a time when the Word of God had been largely forgotten by the people, and they were now called to repentance. In their ignorance, they were not worshipping God as the Law said that they should, and hence were quite in danger of being killed by Divine justice.

2 Chronicles 30:17-20-For there were many in the assembly who had not sanctified themselves; therefore the Levites had charge of the slaughter of the Passover lambs for everyone who was not clean, to sanctify them to the LORD. 18  For a multitude of the people, many from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the good LORD provide atonement for everyone 19  who prepares his heart to seek God, the LORD God of his fathers, though he is not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary.” 20  And the LORD listened to Hezekiah and healed the people.

The people here had long forgotten the Law of God. This had not just been mere ignorance, but a result of following false gods. They were doing some very incorrect things when they approached God in worship. So serious, in fact, that under the Old Testament Law, God had declared that He could inflict the death penalty on those who violated these commandments (see Numbers 9:10-14; 19:20)

However, despite these things, God showed mercy on them. He recognized that there were genuine people who were seeking Him and His Word. So, He showed mercy as they experienced revival from their repentance.

One author has explained the situation well:

“When Hezekiah began his reign as King of Judah, the temple had been closed for several years (2 Chron. 29: 7). When the temple was cleansed, Hezekiah invited “all Israel and Judah” to celebrate the Passover at the newly rededicated temple (2 Chron. 30: 1). 7 However, Hezekiah celebrated the Passover in the wrong month. Though the Law prescribed the first month, Hezekiah celebrated it in the “second month” (2 Chron. 30: 2). While many think Hezekiah is following the “Second Passover” law of Numbers 9: 2-14 which permits those who are unclean at the time of the first month to celebrate the Passover in the second month once they are clean, the text of Chronicles does not explain the rationale in this light. Hezekiah recognizes that his plan is irregular but he justifies it because “priests had not sanctified themselves in sufficient number” for the celebration in the first month and the people were not yet “assembled in Jerusalem” (2 Chron. 30: 3). Chronicles’ rationale for the irregularity does not invoke Numbers 9 and the rationale includes more than Numbers 9 permits. Numbers 9 permits a second Passover but it does not permit a wholesale abrogation of the first. Thus, grace took precedence over prescribed dates. But may unclean people eat the Passover? Unclean people ate what was clean. This was a clear violation of the Law. Chronicles clearly states that they “ate the Passover contrary to what was written” (2 Chron. 30: 18, NIV). Some have invoked Numbers 9 as a specific authorization for this irregularity, but it does not address this situation. The presumption of Numbers 9 is that those who eat a “second Passover” will be clean when they eat it. Numbers 9 does not authorize unclean people to eat the Passover. Hezekiah’s celebration not only violates Numbers 9, but also Leviticus 7: 19-21 regarding sacrificial meals. The penalty for such a violation was death. But Hezekiah prays for the people. The prayer appeals to the gracious promise of God in 2 Chronicles 6-7 (especially 7: 14). God accepts anyone who seeks him “even though” they do not seek him “in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” The critical point is orientation—those “who set their hearts to seek God” (2 Chron. 30: 19). This phrase combines two important words in Chronicles: “heart” and “seeking.” The two terms are linked in 1 Chronicles 16: 10; 22: 19; 28: 9; 2 Chronicles 11: 16; 12: 14; 15: 12,15; 19: 3; 22: 9; 30: 19 and 31: 21. “Seek” (translating two Hebrew synonyms) appears fifty-four times in Chronicles and “heart” (translating two Hebrew synonyms) appears sixty-four times. God seeks hearts that seek him. God takes the initiative and seeks out those hearts that yearn for him and trust him (cf. Heb. 11: 6; Matt. 6: 33; John 4: 23-24). Hezekiah prays for the forgiveness of those who violated the divine ritual out of a heart that sought God. The guiding principles of the prayer are two: (1) the goodness of God who seeks a people for himself (1 Chron. 28: 9; 29: 14-17) and (2) the orientation of the heart toward God. Hezekiah roots his prayer in God’s forgiving nature. Those whose hearts seek God are received, even though they transgress his ritual prescriptions, because God is “good.” God accepted unclean worshippers because they had a heart to seek him. The text explicitly records, as if to emphasize the legitimacy of Hezekiah’s request, that “the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people” (the promise of 2 Chron. 7: 14). Significantly, Chronicles commends Hezekiah’s Passover renewal in 2 Chronicles 31: 21: “every work that he undertook… to seek his God, he did with all his heart.” Even though he admitted ritually unclean people to the Passover, his Passover is described as wholehearted because he sought God in everything. Why would Hezekiah expect God to forgive this? Was it not clear in the Law that unclean people who eat sacrificial meals should be punished? Did not God forbid unclean people to eat the Passover? Perhaps even some of Hezekiah’s priests could have objected that if they permitted unclean people to eat the Passover that God would judge them and reject their Passover. But Hezekiah knew his God. He knew God’s compassion, grace and goodness toward those who seek him out of a genuine heart of faith.” (John Mark Hicks & Greg Taylor, Down in the River to Pray, 2468-2498 (Kindle Edition); Abilene, TX; Leafwood Publishers)

The people should have died-they were on their “deathbed” if you will-and yet God showed mercy (despite their inability to perfectly keep the Law of God as He commanded and decreed).

Another example comes from the well-known thief on the cross:

Luke 23:39-43-Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” 40  But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41  And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” 42  Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” 43  And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

The thief on the cross is often used as an argument against baptism, since it is assumed that he was not baptized. However, the argument is fallacious, since the thief lived and died under the Old Law (Hebrews 9:16-17). Indeed, how could the their on the cross be required to be baptized with Great Commission baptism since this would not even be created until some forty days later (Mark 16:15-20)?

However, this is where the thief becomes relevant to our study: he lived and died under the Old Law, and was forgiven, even though he was not able to keep God’s commands.

Remember, in the Old Testament, a thief could be forgiven if he first made restitution and sacrifice for his sins:

Leviticus 6:1-7-And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2  “If a person sins and commits a trespass against the LORD by lying to his neighbor about what was delivered to him for safekeeping, or about a pledge, or about a robbery, or if he has extorted from his neighbor, 3  or if he has found what was lost and lies concerning it, and swears falsely—in any one of these things that a man may do in which he sins: 4  then it shall be, because he has sinned and is guilty, that he shall restore what he has stolen, or the thing which he has extorted, or what was delivered to him for safekeeping, or the lost thing which he found, 5  or all that about which he has sworn falsely. He shall restore its full value, add one-fifth more to it, and give it to whomever it belongs, on the day of his trespass offering. 6  And he shall bring his trespass offering to the LORD, a ram without blemish from the flock, with your valuation, as a trespass offering, to the priest. 7  So the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he shall be forgiven for any one of these things that he may have done in which he trespasses.”

Interestingly enough, this passage of Scripture indicates clearly that premeditated sin may be forgiven upon repentance.

Yet here is what is fascinating: the thief on the cross could do nothing to make restitution, nor offer the required sacrifice: yet Jesus showed mercy to him on his “deathbed!”

There are at least two Scriptures which hold out hope for those who experience “deathbed conversion.”

Yet we would be negligent indeed not to point out that we should obey God TODAY while we have certain time and opportunity.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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