Can a person put off repentance until the final hours of life and still receive salvation? What does the Bible teach about deathbed repentance?
God is the author of salvation. His utmost desire is for every human being to receive this gift from Him. The Scriptures leave no doubt that God will save all who are willing to follow His instructions.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).
God is “not willing [or wishing—Revised Standard Version] that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Since God is the One offering salvation and the One who desires that all receive it, it is only logical that He would make clear what He requires of anyone seeking salvation. The Scriptures clearly define what is required for someone to be saved.
Thief on the cross
Those who believe in deathbed repentance point to the thief on the cross to demonstrate that someone only needs to acknowledge his sins at the end of his life. They look at the thief’s request to Jesus: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Is that sufficient to be saved? (For more on this, see our article “Thief on the Cross: What Happened to Him?”)
Acts 2:38 provides us with the basic formula that must be followed by everyone seeking the gift of salvation. “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”
Repentance: the starting point
John the Baptist set the stage for Jesus’ ministry. The focus of John’s short ministry was repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2).
After John was imprisoned, Jesus Christ began His ministry by preaching the importance of repentance in order to be saved. “Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15).
Repentance means to turn around and change your life—to stop practicing sin. A person must come to see that his or her way of living is unacceptable to God and that God requires the person to change. The Bible explains that we must change initially by repenting of a past sinful way of living and thinking. However, repentance does not stop there; it must continue on for the remainder of our life.
On the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 31, the apostle Peter preached a stirring sermon that deeply affected many in the Jewish audience. “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37). They wanted to know what God required of them in order to be saved.
Peter’s response in verse 38, which we read earlier, reveals that these devout Jews (verse 5) had to do something. Even though they had been devout and sincere throughout their lives, they needed to recognize they had sins that needed to be forgiven. Therefore, they needed to repent of their sins (see our articles “What Is Repentance?” and “How to Repent”).
Repentance of personal sins involves turning from sin and turning to obedience to God’s laws. Unless a person is willing to submit his will to God by walking according to His instructions and laws, that individual has not repented. A repentant person must begin to produce positive actions and thoughts.
Baptism follows repentance
During John the Baptist’s ministry, a number of Jews flocked to the Jordan River to be baptized by him. John was concerned because many were not living as they should have been (Luke 3:7-8, 10-14). Before John would baptize them, he required that they produce fruit in their lives as evidence of their repentance. He required that they put into practice what the Scriptures taught.
Unless a person is willing to submit his will to God by walking according to His instructions and laws, that individual has not repented.Then, and only then, would he baptize them. He understood that baptism was symbolic of the burial of the old self and the forgiveness of sins (see Romans 6:3-4, 10). Therefore, baptism would be meaningless unless there was repentance and an inner change. Our sins can be forgiven only by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. He is our Savior. God applies the sacrifice of Christ only if we have faith that His blood will, in fact, remove our sins.
Paul stated in Acts 20:21 that we must repent “toward God” and exercise “faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” We must go to God and ask Him for forgiveness and believe that the blood shed by Jesus Christ will remove our guilt of personal sins.
Baptism—immersion in water—is an outward symbol of a person’s repentance of sin. Peter makes it clear that this ceremony is necessary for “the remission of sins” of the past. (See our articles “What Is Baptism?” and “Do You Have to Be Baptized to Be Saved?”)
Peter also stated that baptism must be performed by the ministry “in the name of Jesus Christ.” This important statement means “by the authority of Jesus Christ.” The ceremony of baptism should be done correctly—the person is to be fully submerged in water—as a symbol of the death of the old man, which is our old, sinful way of thinking and living.
Receiving the Holy Spirit
Acts 2:38 also records that a person must “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is necessary for all, as we read in Romans 8: “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. … But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit. … For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (verses 9, 11, 14).
What does a person have to do to receive this gift of the Holy Spirit? Let’s look at some biblical examples.
The apostles Peter and John traveled north from Jerusalem to Samaria after they heard that people in “Samaria had received the word of God” (Acts 8:14). A group of Samaritans had responded positively to the preaching of the good news of the Kingdom of God, had repented of their sins and had been baptized by Philip. Peter and John laid hands on those who were baptized and prayed, and the Holy Spirit was given as a gift to those who had repented and been baptized (verses 12, 14-17).
Later in the book of Acts an unusual situation arose. Some disciples who had been baptized by either John the Baptist or his disciples were not aware of the Holy Spirit. They understood the need to have their sins forgiven, but did not understand the need for the Holy Spirit. Their understanding about salvation was limited. Without having the Holy Spirit, we cannot be saved.
In Acts 19:1-6 we read that they were baptized again, but this time “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (verse 5). Following their baptism, Paul laid his hands on them, and the Holy Spirit was given to them.
What else are we to do?
The Christian life is a life of overcoming. Overcoming involves spiritual growth “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). We must study the Bible and allow it to instruct us in the way of righteousness. We must be taught what is right and what is wrong so that our lives undergo transformation. We must repent as we see shortcomings and sins in our lives. We must pray regularly for God’s spiritual strength to overcome.
Equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit, correct understanding and contact with God, we begin a life of overcoming sin in our lives.
Jesus’ messages to the churches focus on the importance of overcoming sins in our lives (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). It is only as we overcome sin that we grow in godly character—the mind of God and Christ. This is an arduous process—a process that takes diligent effort for the rest of our lives. As Jesus stated in Matthew 24:13, “He who endures to the end shall be saved.”
Repentance, water baptism and the laying on of hands for receiving the Holy Spirit are the first steps toward salvation. From that point forward, every person must live a life of resisting against and overcoming sin.
So, is deathbed repentance all that is required for someone to be saved? There are no examples in the Bible that support this erroneous concept. Salvation is an awesome gift of God. It is a free gift, but it is not cheap. Jesus gave His life to pay the penalty for our sins. Our response must be surrendering our lives so that God can transform us into people of godly character, prepared for the glorious Kingdom of God (Romans 6:12-13; 12:1-2; James 4:7).
The thief on the cross has not entered the Kingdom of God. He will still have his opportunity to follow through on his repentance and belief.
The Bible reveals that there is coming a time when he and millions of others will be resurrected and be given an opportunity to live forever. “And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books” (Revelation 20:12).
For further information about the thief’s future and God’s plan for what happens after death, see the article “Do We Go to Heaven When We Die?” and the free booklet The Last Enemy: What Really Happens After Death?