Pastor John, can a sinner repent and be saved in their final moments leading up to their death?
Before the answer can be given to that question, we have to ask, “Which sinner?” Which might seem strange, I suppose. The sinner who can genuinely repent, genuinely trust, genuinely be changed into a lover of Christ who deeply regrets a life wasted, preferring the world to Christ — that is one kind of sinner who might try to repent.
Raising Yourself from the Dead
But there is little reason to think that anyone who puts off repentance and loves sin for a whole lifetime would ever become that kind of sinner at the end who genuinely repents, genuinely trusts, genuinely loves Jesus, who now genuinely hates sin, genuinely regrets a whole life of sinning. The mistake that so many make when they contemplate the possibility of putting off Christ is that they think it is like snapping their fingers. It is like choosing to eat, or not eat, and it isn’t. You can’t choose to raise yourself from the dead. You can’t choose to stop loving the world, especially when you have loved it for seventy years.
I wonder if people who contemplate this possibility and wonder about it read Romans 8:7: “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” That is why if you are going to ask, Can a sinner repent at the moment of death? I said, “Which sinner?” This one can’t. And the can’t is not because God won’t let him, but he doesn’t have it in himself to change himself — “I can’t. I am a lover of the flesh.” Or, 1 Corinthians 2:14: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
So if a person thinks that they can come to that moment in life and just snap their fingers and say, “Well, now I can stop being a person in the grip of the flesh, stop being a person enslaved to sin,” they don’t have that freedom to do that. They can’t just snap their fingers and become a different kind of person after years and years. There is a hardening that a person can reach after which God won’t strive with them anymore.
Oh, I remember as a kid, my father preaching on this to young people and telling the stories of young people who walked out of his services saying, “Maybe later, pastor, maybe later we will get serious about Jesus,” and were hit by a train on the way home and killed. And I watched the tears flow down my father’s face because it was a real story that he was talking about from one of his crusades.
Mercy in the Last Hour
But the answer that the person may be asking is, If my mom is eighty, can she be saved? If she is going to die two days from now, and she is on a respirator, can she be saved after living all her life? And the answer to that is, The thief on the cross had lived his whole life in sin, and he looked to Jesus in the very last hours of his life and he said, “Jesus, remember me, please.” And Jesus looked at him and said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (see Luke 23:42–43).
Those are really sweet words for the person who has lived their whole life and now really, really regrets that they have wasted it. And the reason it is possible for a person in the eleventh hour to be saved is because “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works” — not a lifetime of works, not of works in the last hours — “so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
“I would warn everyone, you can’t presume that you will be able to repent if you push Jesus away now.”
And Jesus told a parable, didn’t he, about the workers in the vineyard? Some worked all day, and some worked just an hour at the end of the day, and Jesus paid them all the same. And when the people who had worked all day got angry, Jesus said, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (see Matthew 20). In other words, he is saying, I am free. I can show grace to people at the end of the day if I choose to do that. So be glad that you got yours, and I will give what I please to whom I please. So I think the word to all of us in this is, Behold, now is the fate of all time. And the now is for a 14-year-old now or an 84-year-old now. Now is the day of salvation (see 2 Corinthians 6:2).
“Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). So the question in the end is, Can or will God save the truly repentant in the last hour? Indeed, he will. And the question is, Will we be able to repent? And I would warn everyone, you can’t presume that you will be able to repent if you push Jesus away now.