We sometimes hear about “deathbed conversions,” in which someone repents of sins and confesses faith in Christ in the final moments before their death. Some might question whether such a “last-minute” conversion is legitimate being that the person has supposedly lived a life of sin and is now asking for a “free pass” to heaven. Does God actually save people like that?
What happens when someone repents of their sins on their deathbed, and they don’t get to live out a life of repentance, take communion, be baptized, join the church, or live a life for the glory of God? What happens to that person?
THE DYING THIEF
To find an answer to these questions, we can look at the example of “the guy on the cross” next to Jesus on Good Friday.
When Jesus was crucified, there were two other men crucified alongside of him (Matt. 27:28; Mark 15:27-28, 32; Luke 23:33; John 19:18). Luke’s Gospel is the only one that tells us about one criminal crying out for salvation:
“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And [Jesus] said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
— Luke 23:39-43
In his last dying moment, Jesus promised the one repentant thief that he would be with him that day "in paradise."
How do we know this man underwent a real change, a real conversion, and was given a new heart there on his cross? We can actually look at what Luke records him saying there next to Jesus as evidence that on his cross, Jesus gave the dying thief a new heart.
Let's look at what the thief says in his rebuke of the other criminal scoffing at Jesus:
“DO YOU NOT FEAR GOD?”
Most people in their dying moments are reflecting on their life, relationships and this is accompanied oftentimes by thoughts of fear and God. This man had is in utter agony experiencing death at the hands of men. However, he was not merely looking at men, he sensed the presence of God in Jesus.
"OUR DUE REWARD"
In his rebuke of the mocking thief, the now redeemed man confesses that their punishment is "just." They had broken the law and this was their punishment. He was aware of his moral failure. He knew his own sin.
“THIS MAN HAS DONE NOTHING WRONG”
We also observe that the man testified from his cross that Jesus did not deserve a criminal’s death, for he had done "nothing wrong!" In making this statement, the criminal was acknowledging that Jesus was “without sin” (Heb. 4:15) and that his punishment was unjust.
“JESUS, REMEMBER ME WHEN YOU COME INTO YOUR KINGDOM.”
He acknowledged that Jesus is King of God's Kingdom, but he took it a bit further and made a request of Jesus. He asked Jesus to "remember him." The people of God often use the word "remember" throughout the Old Testament in prayer to God. Interestingly, when it the word "remember" is used it is always in the context of petitioning the God that they know will act on their behalf! The man was asking Jesus for more than to think of him–he's asking for Jesus to act on his behalf! That's exactly what Jesus is accomplishing on his cross! Acting on behalf of his people – bearing our sins and taking them away.
So, can someone be saved from their sin and be given eternal life on their deathbed? Yes!
The grace of God is so vast and amazing that if the thief on the cross and the Apostle Paul were to ever bump into each other in heaven, and the question they were asked, "What did you do to get in here?" Both could reply, "Nothing. Jesus remembered me. Jesus acted on my behalf." That, my friends, is grace and grace alone.
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