Few conversations are harder to have than those we have with a professing believer who has shown little to no fruit in their lives over the years. Those are hard conversations to initiate and to do well. Today’s question arrives anonymously.
“Hello, Pastor John! In episode 803 you tackled the question ‘How Do I Wisely Tell a Professing Believer I Don’t Think He Is Saved?’ I’m struggling to consider how to apply the principles you put forth in that episode with an elderly professing Christian who I think may be unsaved and who is close to death. In thinking about this, I thought about your love for dying saints, and figured that in your pastoral experience, you have been with dying individuals who profess faith in Christ, but have had strong signs that they may not be saved. How do you personally speak to these seemingly nominal individuals, especially elderly ones, when they’re so close to death?”
Before It’s Too Late
That’s a really good, real, practical question. I have indeed stood beside the bed of dying professing Christians whose faith I was not at all sure was real. This is especially frightening when I know the person has sat under my ministry for years.
“Saturate the entire season with pleading love.”
The reason that’s so especially frightening is because I know I don’t have much more to say than what he’s already heard, and he has already given evidence that they had no effect on him.
Now, of course, that’s not always the case. Often, the dying person, who’s a professing believer or who a believer is not sure whether they’re real, often that person has gone to a church where the gospel is rarely, if ever, mentioned and where the Scriptures are not believed and taught.
The person has, perhaps, a completely wrong notion of the whole issue of salvation. Perhaps they have wholly wrong notions of what God is really like. And the situation is often complicated by the fact that, at this season in life, their mind may not be able to think very clearly or feel very intensely.
My dad was an evangelist, and I heard him preach numerous sermons in which he quoted, for young people, Ecclesiastes 12:1: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” In other words, that end-of-life season may be such that the capacities for joy and delight and treasuring and pleasure are gone. You may have sinned them away.
So what do you do now? I would suggest four stages or kinds of interaction, and you may jump into these stages or kinds of interaction anywhere along the way. I’m going give them in a particular order, but whether each of these would receive the same emphasis depends on what you know about the person and how much they know.
1. Plead with Love
Saturate this entire time or season — it might be that they’re dying for weeks or days or hours — saturate the entire season with pleading love. My guess is that this person may have never experienced anyone looking him or her right in the eye and saying with seriousness and even tearful emotion, “I love you. I don’t want you to perish. I don’t want you to be lost. I want you to be saved by Jesus. I want you to be brought into Jesus’s fellowship forever. I want to be with you in heaven, and I am concerned for your soul.”
Very, very few people have ever heard a Christian say that, which is sad.
Paul said, in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “We implore you” — that is, plead with you — “on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Most of the time when we speak of the gospel, we narrate facts. And we must, of course; the gospel is news, factual news. But that is not enough. It’s not enough to give facts.
We have to look at people and plead with people to be reconciled with God. Seldom do we actually embody, incarnate, the love of God the Father going out to the prodigal son and pursuing and seeking and longing and pleading. That’s the spirit that these seasons — the last days or hours of life — should have.
2. Warn of Judgment
Be sure that they know that God is a God of holiness and justice, and therefore, wrath against all sinners, including us and them. This is our biggest problem.
“The gospel is news, but it is not enough to just give facts. We have to look at people and plead with them to be reconciled with God.”
Give them a few passages to remind them that the greatest problem of mankind, and their greatest problem, lying in their bed right now, is not whether they’re hurting or can’t breathe. The greatest problem is the holy and just wrath of God. Turn to Romans 1:18–25, Ephesians 5:6, or 1 Thessalonians 1:10. Pick out a verse or two to bring authority to your reminder.
Remind them of coming judgment. It’s so sobering to me to read. Every time I get there it’s sobering. I just read about it in my devotions yesterday: “Just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
Tell them. Warn them. So often, we’re so eager — secular people would just get furious at what I’m saying right now — to give them peace right now so that last thing they can have is peace as they die. Whoa! To hell with such a thought. If the person is about to drop into an eternity where there is no peace forever, they need to know judgment happens after you die.
3. Give Them the Gospel
Clarify the heart of the gospel. God sent Jesus to bear his own wrath and to cover all our sins as a perfect substitute. Talk about the objective facts. Talk about the facts of the divine transaction that happened on the cross, and talk about these facts before you say one syllable about what’s expected from this person lying there in bed.
It was a glorious thing to me to discover, at some point in my life, when somebody said, “Don’t you realize that the gospel is the factual, objective transaction between God and Christ on your behalf before you ever existed? That you were saved before you existed? That you existed in the decisive transaction that happened in the covering of your sins and the providing of your righteousness? And that now the question is, Will you have it? Will you receive the gift?”
Give him those facts. I could read a lot of them here, but let’s just read a few:
- “Whom [i.e., Christ] God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25).
- “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
- “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).
- “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
- “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
All five of those texts say nothing about faith. Nothing about obedience. Nothing about repentance. These are facts. These are realities outside of us.
Then comes the rest of the gospel:
“You can’t earn this, so don’t worry that you can’t get out of bed. Don’t worry that you don’t have a life coming in front of you. To obey and to earn this would not do. You’re like the thief on the cross. You’ve got one hour before you meet him, and guess what? It’s a gift to be received in an instant, not to be earned in a lifetime of obedience.”
“If the person is about to drop into an eternity where there is no peace forever, they need to know judgment happens after you die.”
So you plead with him: “Receive the gift. ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’” (Romans 6:23).
Then you offer it. You offer it. With your hands stretched out, then you say, “Throw yourself on God’s mercy. Embrace Jesus as your only hope and as the all-satisfying Treasure that is going be satisfying your soul forever. He would be your Savior, your Lord, your Friend, your Treasure from now to eternity.”
Maybe even show them the vanity of self-sufficiency with the little parable about the tax collector:
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:11–14)
What unbelievable words. “I’m telling you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.”
So say to them, “Can you, right now? Can you, my friend? Can you humble yourself and cast yourself on the mercy of Jesus like that?”
4. Read the Truth
The last thing I would say is spend the rest of the hours or days speaking or reading to them about the glories of Christ. According to 2 Corinthians 4:4–6, we are changed by beholding the glory of Christ. We behold the glory of Christ in his word and work. They need help from you to remember those, to see those.
Maybe you’re wondering, “How would I do that? If they live for another three days, and I get to sit with them for eight hours, how would I do that?”
One resource would be Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ. I wrote this little book precisely for unbelievers who might, in looking at about thirteen pictures of the glories of Christ, be awakened to the beauty of Christ.
That’s one possible resource. Whether you turn to Scripture or a book or your own testimony, keep reading as long as they will let you, and keep praying as long as they will let you or until God would open their eyes.