You may have heard this expression used to describe what someone supposedly did in order to be saved, immediately before they died. After living a life of sin and dissipation, they supposedly repented on their deathbed, at the last minute, just in the nick of time in order to be saved. There are several problems with this picture, to which I invite your sincere attention.
In the first place, I am not sure what would motivate a person to genuinely repent, “at the last minute.” Repentance is a change of heart, produced by godly sorrow for one’s sins. “For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation, a repentance which bringeth no regret: but the sorrow of the world worketh death,” (2 Cor. 7:10). A person who waits until the “last-minute” to repent, is generally motivated not by godly sorrow but by the fear of death. They comprehend that the end is near, and are suddenly terrified by the prospect of dying lost. They finally admit that they can defy God no longer. That sounds more like capitulation than repentance.
Secondly, we observe that in every one of the judgment parables of our Lord, someone is condemned not for bad things they did, but for good things they left undone. Not that doing bad deeds is condoned, but in and of itself avoiding wrongdoing does not appear to be sufficient. In describing who will enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus did not say “whosoever does not disobey my Father will be saved,” but “whosoever doeth the will of my Father,” (Mt. 7:21). Obedience is positive as well as negative. In the great judgment scene of Matthew 25, Jesus pronounced condemnation not upon those who did evil things, but upon those who failed to do good things, even “unto one of these least,” (Mt. 25:45). How can a person undo a life of inactivity and void of good deeds with “deathbed repentance?”
I am not saying such is impossible with God, and I would not presume to judge the hearts of those who claimed to have a spiritual conversion just before they died. But I think reliance upon such a scheme is a risky venture at best. Waiting until the end of the road to obey the gospel robs a person of a lifetime of good works and almsdeeds which they might have done. It robs God of the service they might have rendered. And it robs others of the good example such a person might have set, along with the influence they might have had.
Thirdly, how can a person repent of their sins on their deathbed if repentance requires making restitution, repayment, or other corrections? Did not John the baptist tell the multitudes who came to be baptized to “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance,” (Lk. 3:8)? How could someone do that in their final hours, on their deathbed? For that matter, how could someone be baptized on their deathbed? We are aware that sprinkling for baptism was introduced by men several hundred years after Christ, but such is nowhere authorized in the New Testament. The New Testament consistently speaks of baptism as a burial in water for the remission of sins, (cf. Rom. 6:1-6; Col. 2:12; Acts 8:36-39, etc.) and the word itself means a complete dipping or immersion. I have trouble seeing how that could be done on one’s deathbed.
I heard of a man who waited too long to be baptized, and then pleaded with the ambulance driver to stop en route to the hospital to permit the act, but his request was denied. I would not want to be in the position of waiting to be persuaded until the “harvest is past,” (Jer. 8:20). The church is in the Lord, and the Lord is in the church. Intentionally distancing ourselves, and remaining separate and apart in the hope that we will suddenly be able to change at the end is contrary to all good judgment, and contrary to His will.
Some may point to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1ff) as proof that people may postpone obedience until their deathbed. But that must be a misapplication because in that parable each person went immediately to the work when they were called, regardless of when the call came. Others point to the thief on the cross (Lk. 23:39ff) , who was “saved at the last minute.” But was he not saved under the old law? And further, we know nothing about his prior life or acts of obedience before the cross, so this is not a good comparison either. Sinner, give your life to Christ now! Don’t wait until some future opportunity, which may never arise. Don’t put off until tomorrow what the Lord commands you to do today, “lest you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13; 2 Cor. 6:2) and miss your eternal salvation!
-by Robert C. Veil, Jr.