Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision:…
All men would be happy; and in consequence of an inclination so natural and invincible, there are few persons but design at least one time or other to repent and turn to God. But it is not so generally agreed whether it be absolutely necessary to the salvation of penitent sinners that they should do works meet for repentance or live to discover the effects of it in their future reformation; for a great many are of opinion so they do but in their last moments confess their sins in a humble manner to God and sincerely resolve upon a new course of obedience such a resolution will recommend them to His favour, though they have no time wherein to evidence the sincerity of it.
I. THE CHIEF ARGUMENTS ON BOTH SIDES THE QUESTION CONCERNING THE VALIDITY OF A LATE OR DEATH-BED REPENTANCE.
1. I begin with the opinion of those who represent the case of a sinner that defers his repentance to a death bed as wholly desperate, even though we could suppose it to be sincere. As harsh as this doctrine may seem, yet it must be owned the reasons where by it is supported are by no means contemptible; for —
(1) It is urged by those who maintain it that Christianity is represented as a state of continual striving and watching and praying and doing all diligence; that it is compared to a race, wherein those only that run through the several stages of it, from the beginning to the end, shall obtain the prize. To the same effect, Christians are represented also as soldiers fighting under the Captain of their salvation, the Lord Christ, against those powerful enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil.
(2) It is further urged that more fully to explain the meaning of these metaphorical expressions we are required (Romans 14:8; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Philippians 2:15). How does a sinner who exercises not any act of repentance till the last moments of his life come up to these characters, or indeed to any one of them?
(3) As the precepts of the gospel require, so the promises of it are all made upon condition of a constant and uniform course of obedience (John 15:7; Hebrews 3:14; 2 Corinthians 7:1). If the promises, then, of the gospel are only made to Christians upon these and the like conditions, how can we reconcile the hopes of a dying sinner with them? of a sinner who never had any vital or sensible communion with Christ, who has been so far from going on to perfection in a state of holy living, that he has hitherto perhaps lived, to all appearance, without God in the world, or so much as any true or distinct notion of holiness?
(4) It is said, further, that at the day of judgment sentence will pass upon man, not according to some transient and occasional acts of piety and religion, but according to the general course and tenor of their lives or the habitual or standing bent of the inclinations towards good or evil (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 20:12). Upon all these considerations of the general expressions in Scripture concerning the necessity of a holy life, of the precepts and promises of the gospel, and the account we have in it of the process of the last judgment, several pious and learned men are of opinion that sinners who have all along lived in a wicked and unregenerate state and never repent till they come to die cannot, according to the terms of the new covenant, "die the death of the righteous," though we could suppose that there is much greater reason always to suspect that their repentance may be sincere; for repentance, say they, in the Scripture notion of it, does not barely imply a thorough change of mind and a steady resolution of amendment, but a new and actual obedience, and a resolution to become better can no more be called that new obedience than the spring can be called the harvest or a blossom the fruit. A good resolution is a hopeful step to begin our obedience upon; but till it carry us forward and discover itself in some real and sensible effects it is still only a principle of obedience, but cannot be called obedience itself.
(5) Men are the more confirmed in this opinion, that repentance does not only consist in our forsaking of sin and resolving to do well, but in the actual, or rather indeed habitual, practice of piety, because we have no instance or example in Scripture of any person that was saved at the article of death who had all along lived in a wicked and vicious course of life. As to the case of the thief upon the cross (besides that it was extraordinary, and which therefore no rules can be drawn from, in the ordinary and standing methods of God's grace), we do not know how he had behaved himself in the general course of his life; he might have been drawn into the fact he is charged with in the gospel by ignorance, by inadvertency, or surprise. There are mitigating circumstances of his crime; and some of the best men in Scripture are charged with crimes of as high a nature, and with committing them deliberately. This poor criminal might have been, in other respects, of a regular and sober life, or he might, during the time he was in prison, have exercised a hearty repentance for his past sins and miscarriages, and have evidenced the sincerity of his repentance by some real and sensible effects. As to the parable of those who were called at the last hour, and yet received the same wages with those who bore the heat and burden of the day, it is equally insignificant to prove the validity of a death bed repentance. The design of that parable is plainly to show that the Gentiles, under the gospel dispensation, are entitled to the same privileges with the Jews, who were the first in covenant with God and called so many ages before to be His chosen and peculiar people. Accordingly our Saviour Himself explains the design of this parable (Luke 13:29, 30). If no arguments can be drawn from either of these parables for the validity of a death bed repentance, what shall we say to that parable of the wise and foolish virgins, which seems to conclude directly against it? There is the greater reason to suppose that this parable is particularly designed by our Lord to show the incapacity sinners are under of being saved who never take any care to prepare themselves for another world till they are going out of this from the application which our Saviour Himself makes of this parable (Matthew 25:13).
(6) Besides these arguments from Scripture, there are others made use of from the nature and reason of the thing itself to show the invalidity of a death bed repentance. True repentance implies at least a. thorough change in the frame and temper of our minds; it requires that we "put off, concerning the former conversation, the old man, which is corrupt, according to deceitful lusts"; and that we "put on the new man, which is created in righteousness and true holiness." Now, it is as contrary to the nature and established order of things that a man should all of a sudden pass out of one of these different states into another as that he should be in a high fever and the same moment in a perfect state of health. The ill habits of the soul, as they are contracted by degrees, so they can only be destroyed by contrary and repeated acts. And till the body of sin be destroyed, how good soever our resolutions may be, we are but where we were; and should we die with such ineffective resolutions, God, who sees us in a state of disorder, and whose judgment is always according to truth, cannot, say they whose principles I here proceed upon, but judge us, notwithstanding all our designs of forsaking our sins, to die in a sinful and unregenerate state. So that could we suppose the repentance of an old beaten sinner in his last moments might recommend him to the pardoning grace of God, yet without His sanctifying grace also, and that too in a very extraordinary manner, such a sinner could not die in that heavenly temper of mind which is necessary to qualify him for the vision and enjoyment of God. According, therefore, to that principle whose grounds I have been explaining nothing but a miracle can save a dying penitent who has lived all along in a sinful, impenitent state; that is, nothing can save such a sinner but what might have saved him if he had never exercised any repentance at all — nothing but that Divine almighty power which is able of these stones to raise up children to God. I proceed now —
2. To lay before you the reasons of those who are of opinion that a late or death bed repentance, if it be sincere, may come within the conditions of the new covenant, upon which the pardon of sin and eternal life are promised.
(1) It is said that in other cases where there is no opportunity for practising our duty God will accept a virtual instead of an actual obedience. By a virtual obedience I understand not only a true sense and conviction upon our minds of the general obligation we are under to obey the laws of the gospel, but a firm and settled resolution to do it as the occasions of obedience may be offered; and by actual obedience I understand our putting those good resolutions in practice when such occasions are offered. Now the apostle, in the case of charity to the poor, has expressly determined (2 Corinthians 8:12). And indeed if God did not in other cases accept a virtual for an actual obedience — that is, as we commonly say, the will for the deed — the obedience of the best of men would be only partial and temporary, because it is impossible that any man should actually discharge all the duties of religion at all times; nay, there are some particular duties of religion which very good men may not have a call or opportunity to exercise at any time. If we may not be allowed to judge thus favourably of the case of late penitents, what shall we think of those (and there were a considerable number of them) who had no sooner embraced Christianity but they suffered martyrdom for the profession of it? Shall we say that these short-lived converts, who were faithful unto death, shall not inherit the crown of life? Shall we be so uncharitable to conclude that because they had not time to evidence the sincerity of their repentance by doing works meet for it that therefore they died in a state of impenitence and disorder? No man will say so.
(2) That God Almighty does sometimes infuse such a charity into the hearts of dying sinners, upon their sincere repentance, seems highly agreeable to the doctrine of the Church of England, the practice of whose clergy it is not only to administer the Holy Sacrament to sick persons who desire it, though they have been of a very wicked and dissolute life, but to notorious criminals and condemned malefactors, where they give any visible or public testimony of their repentance. This practice of the Church, it is said, supposes it to be her doctrine that if the greatest sinners truly repent and turn to God, though in their last moments, they may partake worthily of the Lord's Supper. Why else is it administered to them? And if they be duly qualified to partake of so high an ordinance, then it is beyond supposition that they partake of all the real effects and benefits of it; so that their sins are not only pardoned, but their natures sanctified and renewed: they dwell in Christ and Christ in them; they are one with Christ and Christ with them. It is impossible that a penitent upon whom the holy sacrament, according to the doctrine of the Church, has these heavenly and sublime effects, should die in an unregenerate or unsanctified state. But —
(3) As to the objections on the other side, from the metaphorical allusions that occur in the gospel, from the precepts and promises of it, and the process of the last judgment, which were said all along to suppose an entire and continued course of obedience, it is answered, they may be accounted for from the distinction of a virtual obedience, where men have not time or opportunity to reduce it into act, and that God will look upon a foreseen course of piety and reformation which men sincerely resolve upon, as if they had lived to execute their resolutions. It is granted, indeed, that we have no example in Scripture of any dissolute and habitual sinner to prove the validity of a death bed repentance. It is acknowledged, further, that the parable of those who were called at the last hour has no relation in the main scope and design of it, as we have observed, to such penitents. But it is answered, again, that the silence and want of precedent in Scripture to prove that a death bed repentance may be valid, is, at the best, but a negative argument, which ought not to be admitted against great appearances of truth and reason on the other side. As to the parable of the virgins, it seems to be directly intended to discourage men from casting all their hopes upon the uncertain issue of a death bed repentance. This, too, is readily owned by those who contend for the validity of such a repentance. But then, say they, we are not to strain every passage or circumstance of a parable, which is mentioned for the greater decorum of it, too far, but are to consider the chief arguments and tendency of it according to the general sense and other concurring proofs of the Holy Scriptures; and therefore what we are to understand by the parable of the virgins is this, that all the prayers and tears, all the deep sighs and bitter lamentations, of a sinner in the extremity of life, will be to no effect except he sincerely repent and turn with all his heart to God, which, because it is a case that very rarely happens, and which, when it does happen, no sinner, considering how deceitful the heart of man is, can certainly know to be his own case, therefore all wise persons will take care to be always prepared for the coming of the Lord, and not put their everlasting salvation upon the dangerous and, to say the best of it, very disconsolate issue of a death bed repentance.
II. TAKE WHAT SIDE OF THE QUESTION YOU PLEASE, IT IS THE HIGHEST FOLLY MEN CAN BE GUILTY OF TO DELAY THEIR REPENTANCE TO THE LAST AND CONCLUDING SCENE OF THEIR LIVES.
1. If you do believe that he only who leads a holy and religious life can have hope in his death, and that a sinner who does not timely repent and turn to God, so as to do works meet for repentance, is excluded the covenant of grace, why then, considering the uncertainty of life, you have in effect, every moment you continue in a sinful state, the sentence of death, of eternal death, in yourselves; and should you happen to die, as you cannot foresee you shall not, by a sudden disease or accident, by your own principles and out of your own mouth shall God judge you.
2. Because sinners are more generally of opinion that a death bed repentance may, if it be sincere, at last save them, I shall more particularly apply what I have to say to such persons, and desire them to go along with me in the following considerations: —
(1) It is extremely uncertain whether men who go on in a course of sin, in hopes that they may take up and remedy all at last by a death-bed repentance, will, when they come to die, have any time to repent.
(2) But what if a sinner should not be surprised by a sudden and immediate death, but have some short warning of its approaches, yet how is he sure that he shall be in a condition to exercise any true or proper acts of repentance? He may be deprived of the use of his understanding or memory, or the pains of his distemper may seize upon him in so violent a manner that, though he may have some confused notions and designs of repentance, yet he cannot apply his thoughts distinctly without great distraction to the business of it; and repentance is a work which at all times, but especially at a time when a thorough change of a corrupt heart is to be wrought all at once, requires great attention and composure of mind.
(3) Supposing God Almighty should be so merciful to a sinner as to allow him not only some short time to prepare for death, but the free and undisturbed use of his reason — let us suppose, I say, a case which very rarely happens, that the approaches of death should be so easy and gradual as to give a man no sensible pain of body or disturbance of mind, yet it is still uncertain whether he may find in his heart any true inclinations to repent and turn to God; for it is no easy matter for a man to resolve in good earnest to hate what he has all his life long placed his great happiness and satisfaction in, or even to desire to free himself from the chains which have held him for many years in so agreeable a captivity.
(4) But let us suppose, further, that a sinner in his last moments may have some good inclinations towards repentance, yet still it is uncertain whether they may be so well grounded or rise so high as to make his repentance sincere; for it is natural for wicked men, if they be not wholly hardened through the deceitfulness of sin, to have their conscience awakened under the apprehensions of death and a judgment to come, so that they cannot but wish at least that they had served God more faithfully and never indulged themselves in those transient pleasures of sin for which they are now in imminent danger of suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Why this is no more than the repentance of a hardened malefactor when he is going to execution; a mere motion of self-love is sufficient to fill him with regret for having made himself a sacrifice of public justice, without any real change in the temper and disposition of his mind. And it is to be feared that the repentance of a dying libertine seldom proceeds from any better principle than that of a servile fear of suffering for his sins; for he now finds that he can sin no longer, and that there is no other remedy left to deliver him from the punishment of his sins but to repent and turn to God. Besides, he looks upon the terrors which he feels in his conscience and the indignation which he expresses at himself for not having incurred the wrath of Almighty God as proper evidences of the sincerity of his repentance. And it must be owned these are good ingredients of a saving repentance; but, alas! how often do they prove of themselves to be, in the event, deceitful and ill-grounded! So that here is uncertainty upon uncertainty to discourage any man from the hopes of a happy death who defers his repentance till he come to die; and therefore, admitting that a death bed repentance, if sincere, may be available to salvation, yet there are so many blanks against one prize, that no man, one would think, who might otherwise be sure of it, should run the hazard, the almost desperate hazard, of drawing it. Even those persons who talk the most loosely of a death bed repentance, yet look upon it as the best plank, after shipwreck, upon which it is possible indeed a man may come safe to shore; but no man that duly consults his safety would choose to venture his life upon such a contingency.
(R. Fiddes, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision:
WEB: "Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision,