Don’t Count on Deathbed Conversions

J.C. Ryle writes that Judas Iscariot’s repentance, after betraying Christ, was too late. In our day, we have become accustomed to thinking that one can repent at any time in our lives, but when we look at the life and death of Judas Iscariot, we see that his repentance was too late, and the remorse he experienced was not repentance unto salvation. Here are Ryle’s words:

It is a common saying, ‘that it is never to late to repent.’ The saying, no doubt, is true, if repentance be true; but unhappily late repentance is often not genuine. It is possible for a man to feel his sins, and be sorry for them, — to be under strong convictions of guilt, and express deep remorse, — to be pricked in conscience, and exhibit much distress of mind, — and yet, for all this, not repent with his heart. Present danger, or the fear of death, may account for all his feelings, and the Holy Ghost may have done no work whatever in his soul.

We must not think of repentance as a work that we perform. Unless the Holy Spirit is moving in our hearts, making us a new creation, all the remorse we can conjure up for our sins will do us no good. Repentance is a means of grace because it takes the Holy Spirit enabling us to truly repent (and believe) in the first place. Lots of people have remorse over their sinfulness, but that is not repentance that leads unto life. This is the example we see with Judas Iscariot. He was truly sorry for what he had done, but it was not repentance unto life and he remains known to this day as the son of Perdition (John 17:12).

This reminds of when Mickey Mantle died back in the 1990s. There was news of his deathbed conversion and the evangelical world rejoiced. “We got one!” This has always bothered me because when you heard about what Mantle said concerning his faith, it wasn’t very comforting. Realize, I’m not saying that Mantle was not saved, just as you cannot say he was. But what he was reported to have been saying, asking about salvation over and over again, asking to have the Bible read to him, and never really saying anything showing solid belief, led me to question the deathbed experience all together. (I’ve never actually read anything on this supposed conversation, just remember some pastors speaking about it).

Just compare Mantle’s lack of a clear statement to that of the thief on the cross. In faith, the thief said “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” The man made a pure statement of faith. There was no questioning the reality that He would come into His kingdom. The thief was asking Him to be a part of that kingdom that truly existed.

That kind of confidence only comes from those who are born again, renewed in the Spirit, and given a heart to believe and repent (the thief had already demonstrated repentance unto life, in that he told his fellow thief that both of them were under the same condemnation.)

What the story of the thief tells us is that there is the possibility of a deathbed conversion. But far too many people are counting on that instead of trusting in Christ while it is yet “Today.”

As Ryle continues:

Let us beware of trusting to a late repentance. ‘Now is the accepted time. To-day is the day of salvation.’ One penitent thief was saved in the hour of death, that no man might despair, but only one, that no man might presume. Let us put off nothing that concerns our souls, and above all not put off repentance, under the vain idea that it is a thing in our own power.

And finally, let me post the WCF’s Larger Catechism on repentance unto life with Scriptural proofs embedded.

Q. 76. What is repentance unto life?

A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace,[320] wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit[321] and Word of God,[322] whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger,[323] but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins,[324] and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent,[325] he so grieves for[326] and hates his sins,[327] as that he turns from them all to God,[328] purposing and endeavouring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.[329]

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4 thoughts on “Don’t Count on Deathbed Conversions

  1. Pingback: Don’t Count on Deathbed Conversions

  2. Chris Nelson

    The Mantle example may be a bit unfortunate, maybe you should have studied that a bit more, but otherwise an excellent article.

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    1. The Mantle example was only mentioned as an illustration and was clearly qualified as “hearsay.” I think the point is that many people cling to a loved one’s deathbed interest in “spiritual” matters as evidence of a last-minute conversion, while it may actually be a superstitious grasping after “getting religion” and a person’s last attempt to fashion a fig-leaf to cover their nakedness and shame.

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  3. Rereading this and pondering how our initial repentance unto salvation is purely a result of grace at work in our hearts. May He continue to pour out His grace in our hearts, bringing us to repentance again and again, until we see Him face to Face.

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