I’m sure you’ve heard an objection like this before: “According to Christianity, a person can live a horrible life—cheating, stealing, whatever—but then if he trusts in Jesus right before he dies, he goes straight to heaven. How is that fair?” I think there are two serious misunderstandings of Christianity behind this objection, and if you’re aware of those misunderstandings, the objection can serve as an excellent opportunity to explain the Christian view of God and the Gospel.
First, think about what’s driving this objection: A person whose life turns around as a Christian at age 15 will then spend the next 70 years doing good, but what does the deathbed convert have to show for himself? He has done nothing to make up for his sin! Hence, the unfairness—the second guy certainly does not deserve to receive anything from God. Do you see the theological misunderstanding yet? In terms of paying for your sins, there really is no difference between becoming a Christian at the age of 20 and becoming a Christian right before your death—in neither case do you “make up for your sins.” In neither case do you deserve anything from God. There’s a theology of works standing squarely behind this objection, but the truth is that the first man is saved by grace alone, just as the second man is. The first man’s salvation is as much of a scandal as the second man’s—unpaid for (by the man) and undeserved. It’s just that the second man’s case makes it absolutely clear to everyone that salvation is by the sacrifice and merits of Christ alone, not by our works—that is, it clarifies the Gospel, which is why it causes people to object.
Between the two men, it might even be the case that the deathbed convert would understand and appreciate God’s grace better as a result of having a more accurate understanding of who is responsible for his salvation than the man who is tempted (as we all are) to think his 70 years of service earned him something. As Jesus said to the Pharisees who were disgusted by a repentant sinner who kissed Jesus’ feet, the better we understand God’s forgiveness, the better we will love Him:
“A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:41-47)
Second, I strongly suspect there’s an assumption lurking in the background of this objection that the profligate life is the better life—i.e., the deathbed convert pulls one over on God by enjoying whatever he wants in life until the very last minute, while the guy who reins in his sin to follow God’s commands is a sucker who misses out on fulfilling his desires—and all for nothing, for he too could have waited until the last minute in order to have it all.
But here again is a misunderstanding—the same misunderstanding we see expressed in Jesus’ parable by both the prodigal son (when he leaves his father’s home) and the older brother (when he resents the prodigal son’s return):
“But [the older brother] became angry...and said to his father, ’Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ’Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:28-32)
Both the younger and the older brother thought life with their father consisted of rule-following drudgery. The younger brother rejected the rules and sought a “better” life of following his desires. The older brother begrudgingly focused on earning points with his father. They both missed the truth that real joy lay in being with their father and receiving his love: “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Those who are concerned that the deathbed convert is pulling a fast one by sinning as much as he likes and getting everything he wants, and that the seasoned Christian is missing out on the “fun” of sin as he slaves away in obedience, miss the fact that real joy lies in living a life with God. The deathbed convert is the one who has missed out, not the seasoned Christian. He has missed out on an entire life of peace with God, of getting to know Him, of enjoying Him, of seeing the proof of His wisdom and love through obedience, of avoiding the pain that results from sin, of the freedom of having his guilt removed, of deepening his own soul through the spiritual means God has provided. The seasoned Christian rejoices that the deathbed convert has joined him under God’s astonishingly beautiful grace, but he does not envy him.
Ultimately, the objection to deathbed conversions reflects both a theology of salvation by works and a belief that a life of Christian obedience is a substandard life of drudgery under a joyless taskmaster. Put those two misunderstandings together, and becoming a Christian must look to the objector like a grim prospect indeed. What an opportunity to explain to him our absolute need for grace and the truth that God is a loving Father!