by Al Maxey

Issue #70 ------- September 19, 2003
God does not refuse grace
to those who do what they can.

--- Medieval Latin Saying


Ministering to the Dying
Discussing a Deathbed Dilemma

This issue of Reflections will be rather unique. You, the readers, will be sharing your insights into a most difficult situation many face in seeking to minister to the dying. Specifically, the dilemma is with regard to genuine deathbed conversions to Christ Jesus. When a person turns to the Lord in the final moments of life, and that person requests to be immersed, but is physically incapable of doing so, what do we do?!

For those new readers to these Reflections, I would encourage you to carefully read the following two articles, as this current issue is based on reader responses to a question posed in the latter of these two studies. The perspective you gain from your examination of these articles will better help you to understand the perspectives of the readers presented below.

It has been two weeks since the question was posed to you, the readers of these Reflections, and your response has been overwhelming. I have received scores of emails in which you shared your convictions regarding these deathbed scenarios. The responses have fallen primarily into three major, and very distinct, categories. I will make a few introductory and connective comments throughout, but the majority of the reflections in this issue will come from you. I thank you for your participation in this reflective process, and appreciate immensely your input.

The Way of Law

Only three or four people wrote suggesting that this was a clear case of people simply waiting too long, and so "too bad for them!" Either they are immersed, or they go straight to hell. Period. End of discussion. Either they go into the water, or they go into the fire. One reader wrote: "There is no such thing as a deathbed conversion. They are just people scared of dying. They waited to the last minute on purpose. God will reject every one of them unless they are baptized." I wrote this person and asked him if this would apply even if the person was genuinely repentant, if he had true faith in Christ, and if he had confessed his Lord before those around him. "None of that matters," the man wrote back, "unless he gets baptized. If he's too sick to be baptized, then that's just too bad. He will burn forever!"

Thankfully, such extreme attitudes are rare. Others, who may well think this way, are nevertheless reluctant to actually verbalize such thoughts. Therefore, they will generally avoid the matter completely by simply refusing to discuss it. One person wrote, "I don't discuss hypotheticals." Another wrote and said, with regard to those incapable of being immersed, but who sincerely desire to be, "I do nothing in a situation where a person cannot follow the Lord's directive, and leave it to the Lord and the individual." Yes, I agree it is ultimately in the Lord's hands, but is there no hope we can offer such persons? Is there no insight to be drawn from the Scriptures regarding the character of our God that may provide some assurance to such persons? Do we wash our hands of them and walk away, leaving them alone to wonder what kind of God they will be facing?

Frankly, such thinking is dying out among discerning disciples. The better we come to know our Father and His Son, the more convicted we become of the beauty of His true character. Too many depictions of deity from the past portray a God completely foreign to the loving Father we have come to know. Thankfully, more and more of His children are now willing to portray Him to others as a God of LOVE rather than LAW.

The Way of Trust

By far, the greatest number of you who responded fall into this group. Although it is not man's place to judge, nevertheless God has revealed Himself to us sufficiently in Scripture for us to know that He is a God of infinite mercy, compassion, fairness, grace and love. He is a God who judges HEARTS, and who on occasion has even made exceptions to His own law when a greater good could be accomplished. After all, "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). In other words, law serves a purpose, but it must take a back seat to the legitimate needs of man. A speed limit in a residential area is a good thing, but it is set aside when a child is bleeding to death in your car and you're trying to get to the hospital to save his life. Legitimate need supercedes legitimate law. GRACE and MERCY make exceptions!! Or, as the brother of our Lord phrased it, "Mercy triumphs over judgment!" (James 2:13).

Most readers who responded believed God would accept such a one who genuinely believed, who genuinely repented, who genuinely confessed his Lord, and who genuinely desired to evidence that faith in immersion, even if he were hindered from actually being immersed because of circumstances beyond his control. I believe this is a view consistent with the nature of our God as depicted in the Scriptures. A missionary in Capetown, South Africa responded: "I encourage people to be immersed, yet, I would not presume to judge the limits of God's mercy in circumstances where immersion is not possible. I recall sharing the story of Christ to a prisoner in South Africa while he lay dying in a hospital. He died a couple of days later. Given he was a prisoner and that he couldn't even sit up, they would not give in the slightest to our request for baptism. I hope to see him with the Savior!"

A brother from Texas wrote, "We know the Bible teaches that God expects us to do what we have the ability to do (Matthew 25:14-30), but we are not accountable for what we do not have the ability to perform (2 Cor. 8:12)." This is a legitimate question: Does God require more of a person than that person is capable of giving or doing? The apostle Paul declared, "For if there is first a willing mind, it is accepted according to what one has, and not according to what he does not have" (2 Cor. 8:12). If the willingness is there, but the ability is not, God accepts the person based on what was in his heart and mind, and what he is capable of doing. This is seen perfectly in the example of Abraham and his near-offering of Isaac. "For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). This brother from Texas summed up: "Therefore, as I understand the grace and mercy of God, the person who did all he could would be accepted even if that excluded immersion." I would refer the reader again to the "quotable quote" at the top of this current issue of Reflections. There is much wisdom there!

This is a debate that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, and the way of trust can be seen expressed in the theological teachings of various groups within Christendom. Just by way of a singular example, note the following quote from the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church: "For catechumens who die before their baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity (love), assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament." Here again we see an appreciation for the grace of our God in a circumstance beyond a person's ability to control.

A retired judge from Texas, who now lives here in New Mexico (and with whom I was honored to have lunch a couple of weeks ago), provided a great perspective on this matter: "Al, as I read your comments and the comments of others on the subject, it struck me that it might be helpful to consider a legal concept. A large body of court decisions dealing with the 'impossibility of performance' exists. The courts have helped by defining the issue as follows: 'impossibility means not only strict impossibility, but impracticability because of extreme and unreasonable difficulty, expense, injury or loss involved.' Now, if indeed baptism is an expression of the faith of a person, the only thing that would prevent that person from expressing his faith would be the 'impossibility of performance,' something totally out of his control. Unlike judges today, God knows the heart of the person. I believe that, like Abraham, God will accept the faith of every sincere person. God knows that had it been possible, a person would have been in the baptismal pool without question. God's grace is extended to every person on this earth, and I know of no passage in the Bible that demands of an individual that which is impossible."

A reader in Florida expressed it this way: "God does not require of us that which we cannot do. Righteous Daniel could not keep the command to offer sacrifice at the Temple while he was in Babylonian captivity." A Christian sister from Mississippi wrote, "The first thing I thought of when reading these deathbed stories was the story of Jonah. The law required one to make a sacrifice after an offense. This story shows me that God accepted Jonah's change of heart before his sacrifice was made. God saved Jonah .... a "deathbed" scene, if you will .... because of repentance (not sacrifice). God is not bound by strict law; law does not dictate to Him. Therefore, He is able to judge the heart and offer grace accordingly."

A preacher from North Carolina asserted: "Al, I don't see the problem here. God has never demanded from one what it is not humanly possible to do. If the person can hear the gospel, can believe the gospel, confess Christ Jesus as his Lord, but it is impossible for him to fulfill the command to be baptized in water, then God's grace and mercy comes into play." Several readers quoted Romans 9:14-16 -- "What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it does not depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy." Do we believe this? Do we trust our God in this matter? If so, can we not pass along this divine assurance to those dying disciples willing to be immersed, but who are incapable of the effort? I believe we can!

Does this conviction imply we no longer acknowledge the place of immersion in God's plan for our salvation? Does this imply we have rejected it as a visible response of faith for those capable of making it? In Paul's words, "May it never be!" It simply means that in special circumstances in which the desire is present but the ability is not, we trust in a gracious, merciful, loving, compassionate God to demonstrate divine fairness. A wonderful Christian lady from Texas wrote, "My reasoning is that only Divinity knows the contents of people's hearts, and that is surely the ultimate basis of final judgment. This in no way devalues the commandment to be immersed: Scripture is clear that refusal to obey will bring appropriate judgment. But when extenuating circumstances (physical impossibility, etc.) exist, but a person's heart is begging to obey, it seems to me he rests safely in God's merciful hands. One of God's great providences for us is common sense. I don't think He minds if we use it." A minister in Arkansas phrased it this way: "Yes, I believe baptism is essential and it is commanded by the Lord, and my conviction is: immerse if at all possible. However, Jesus is the Saviour of all who completely trust in Him and surrender their heart's will to Him. We must trust God's grace to accept the truly repentant who call on His name."

A noted Christian author wrote in and shared these thoughts: "Your suggestion of comforting the person who is willing, but physically unable, to be baptized is surely the way to go. We all regret that anyone waits until the final moments of life to turn to God, but we realize that this DOES sometimes happen. The person should be assured that God knows that person's heart and will treat him or her according to that heart. God has always shown Himself less concerned with exact obedience than with proper desires and intentions. Some Bible teachers wouldn't agree with this, but I believe we could convince anyone who reads with an open mind that this is the case. BUT, how important it is that we should not offer false hope to anyone who is ABLE to be baptized and chooses NOT to be." I agree. Willingness, but inability, is not even remotely the same scenario as one who is able, but who refuses.

One of the well-known leaders and authors in the Churches of Christ responded, "We have a problem with this because, without intending to, we have made a sacrament out of baptism .... a concept among us very similar to the 'sacramental' concept of Catholicism, i.e. that the power to save is in the act itself." With a sacramental perception also comes the need for legal exactness and regulation. Getting the ritual right soon takes the place of conversion of heart, and form takes precedence over faith. One reader wrote in, with respect to this attitude, "In the fellowship of our youth, those in charge of the baptism had begun to place a man at each of the four corners of the baptistery to ensure that every square inch of the person being baptized was immersed. Not one tiny speck of flesh on elbow or knee could be left out of the water, else the whole thing was to be done all over again. For the love of the Mighty God!! What is wrong with people? Where is faith? And where is our faith in God?!" This reader went on to note: "These very same people went ahead very soon to grow their own grapes and canned the juice for the communion, because you never can tell what has been 'added' to the juice purchased in the store." If this isn't "straining gnats and swallowing camels" (Matt. 23:24), I don't know what is! I personally witnessed, years ago, a minister wrestle with a teen in a baptistery for over five minutes to get every inch of him wet. This teen had a terror of water, and when he would go under he would grab the side of the baptistery and hold on. They practically whipped the water into foam to get all of him wet. I know the intentions of this preacher were good, but it seems to me that perhaps somewhere along the way he had failed to perceive the true purpose of immersion, and it had become a sacrament which must be performed with legal exactness before salvation could be conferred.

A minister and Christian counselor from Mississippi wrote, "It seems to me that we keep treating baptism as if it were a legal requirement instead of a grace/faith thing. For example, if we change the 'form' of baptism to covering a person in a sheet instead of water, the question is why we would do that? Do we believe that we 'must' somehow 'baptize' this person in order for them to be saved? Where is our view of grace? In such special circumstances, why wouldn't we simply trust the grace and mercy of God to see the true penitence and faith of the believer and save them? Refusal to be baptized is one thing. Extreme examples of people finally responding to the message of salvation is another. I believe I can offer comfort to the latter even without baptism. I do not believe I can offer comfort to the former."

The Way of Expression

Most of those respondents in the above category -- the way of trust -- believed it was inappropriate to make any baptismal substitutions, and that to do so displayed a lack of trust in the grace and mercy of our Father. They believed it tended to bestow a sacramental quality upon the act itself, which was to diminish the place of grace and faith. There were a significant number of readers, however, who, although they agreed with the above concept of trusting God's grace to save, nevertheless felt there was a legitimate place for some form of visible expression of faith on the part of the penitent believer who was incapable of expressing it through actual immersion in water. These respondents felt one's faith should be demonstrated in some fashion .... especially if the dying believer desperately desired to do so. To allow him such expression would ease his own mind and bring comfort to his heart. These readers felt one could still ultimately trust in God's grace to save one who truly had given his heart to the Lord, but nevertheless it would not be inappropriate to allow this person a form of expression of that deep faith to which he had come on his deathbed.

The preacher here in the Southwest, whose examples I gave in Reflections #67a, wrote a few days ago, explaining, "I told you what I did when I 'baptized' the woman in a sheet and 'baptized' the man by pouring water on his head, but I don't think I told you why I did these two non-biblical acts. I do believe that biblical baptism is an immersion in water. I do believe that biblical baptism cleanses us, brings us into the Family of God and unites us with Christ. But, there is another aspect of baptism I have come to appreciate. Baptism is a specific point in time in which one publicly expresses his faith in a unique, one-of-a-kind action. A decision to express faith in Jesus by participating in this action provides a psychological benefit by providing a specific point in time in which one crosses from damnation to salvation. There is peace of mind in that knowledge. Prayer cannot provide this psychological benefit because prayer is not that unique, one-of-a-kind experience to which an individual may point when asked about his salvation. In the case of the two individuals I 'baptized,' I was able to provide for them a unique experience that allowed them to point to a specific moment in time in which, and a specific action by which, they expressed their faith. Was this a comfortable experience for me? No! I am committed to teaching and practicing baptism. Yet, in the presence of their faith, and an unquestioned desire to obey God, I provided what I believed to be the best alternative to biblical baptism."

A doctor from Kentucky wrote, "We humans need a way to express our faith. Besides all the other facets of baptism that you have correctly covered in your Reflections articles, baptism serves as a much needed expression of our faith. A friend of ours (who had a very legalistic Church of Christ background) relayed a story very similar to the one the minister relayed to you in #67a. It was a 'deathbed conversion' where the person was not able to be immersed into water. Instead of using a sheet, they cut out the room lights (there was complete darkness -- like a burial) and then turned the lights back on (as if in a resurrection). Though I am fully aware that immersion into water is the biblical example and command, I can also appreciate what was done here, and also with the example that your friend gave of being 'immersed' into a sheet. Possibly, just possibly, part of the reason that woman your friend immersed with the sheet slept peacefully that night (besides giving her life to Christ) could have been the fact that she was allowed an expression of her faith. Symbolically uniting with our Savior in His death so that we also might rise in newness of life gives us that much needed expression. I believe as you do concerning God's grace, and also as you do concerning those who REFUSE immersion. However, when I look at what baptism does for us in terms of allowing us an expression of our faith, what these Christians did (with the sheet and the pouring of water on the head and the cutting out of the lights) certainly seems appropriate as well. Just some thoughts to consider."

A minister from Illinois offered this perspective: "Al, thanks for challenging our thinking. On the subject of the baptism of those who are not physically able to be baptized, I would offer the two examples I encountered in my 49+ years of preaching. The first was a man who had brain surgery to remove a cancer on the brain, and the opening was bandaged. The man wanted to be baptized, and we got permission to baptize him in a bathtub, but with the restriction that we could not submerge the top of his head. We complied with it, and feel God accepted it as a complete baptism, although I knew of a preacher once who declared that unless he got every hair under the water the person wasn't truly baptized, and he would be lost! The second case was a man who was told by the doctor that he couldn't be baptized because his ribs were so fragile the water would collapse his chest. I took him as far under as I could. God does not expect the impossible of us, and His grace is abundant!"

A reader from Texas wrote: "My thinking on this is that immersion is for all who are able and capable of being baptized. It is NOT for the person who is so ill-healthed and disabled they cannot be immersed. God is a Judge of unending wisdom and He will know what is in the heart of the person desiring to be baptized, but who is unable to carry out the act, and He will accept that person. If a person will feel better in their soul by having water poured or sprinkled on them, then do it. It does them no harm. If it makes him/her feel better, then do it as an act of mercy for the dying person. I feel that the Lubbock preacher would take exception to this, but I could care less."

Concluding Thoughts

I want to thank the readers for their tremendous response to this challenging scenario involving deathbed conversions. The responses were so numerous that I could only select representative ones for publication in this special edition of Reflections, however each of your submissions were appreciated and stimulated my own thinking.

This current issue of Reflections is NOT intended to be in any way determinative of "church policy" on the issue under consideration, nor do the various positions and practices advocated herein necessarily reflect my own convictions. This is simply an opportunity for disciples from around the world to reflect openly with one another and to share their personal struggles in how best to minister to searching souls in special circumstances. Through such interaction we seek only to better know HIS will, not to impose our OWN. I am convicted in my heart that disciples of Christ have absolutely nothing to fear from an open and honest inquiry into all aspects of our faith and practice. Nothing should be regarded as so inviolable that it is above inquiry; so sacrosanct that it is above scrutiny. Truth has nothing to fear from in-depth investigation, thus we should have no qualms about such examination even though it may well challenge some of our "sacred cows" and expose them for what they really are. If our quest is genuinely for ultimate Truth, and not just the perpetuation of a cherished tradition, then we should welcome such inquiry, uncomfortable though it may be.

Those who commit their lives to public ministry of the Word will at times face such difficult challenges as we have discussed in this issue of Reflections. We can either run from them, or we can prepare ourselves in advance, as best we can, to be effective in our ministry to such persons in special circumstances. I pray that this discussion has challenged you, the readers, to greater reflection and study of God's holy, inspired Word. If it has, then it has accomplished the purpose for which it was prayerfully submitted. May God bless each of us as we seek greater insight into His Word and as we seek to accomplish His will. May you be a blessing in the lives of others!

Reflections from Readers

From a Minister in Tomsk, Siberia, Russia:

Dear Al, Thanks again for the food for thought in your Reflections -- very encouraging and thorough. It would be real nice for the preacher in Lubbock, Texas, to actually "be a man" and present his argumentative thoughts about the article on baptism, instead of just hurling his emotions on the subject. Isn't it ironic that when people have nothing they can say against the Truth, they get all mad instead of learning?

From a Reader in Australia:

Please add me to your distribution list for Reflections.

From a Reader in Texas:

Thank you brother. Your analysis, in Reflections #69 -- A Lordly Lampectomy, lays the axe to the root of the cause of "our" slow death. I hope we continue to grow big, healthy ears.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, I am an ex-Catholic, now a Baptist. A Church of Christ friend sent you my email address as he wanted me to receive your Reflections. At first I was skeptical of what I would hear because several years ago a Church of Christ pastor took great pains in trying to convince me I was not saved until I was baptized in his church. Anyway, I have been inspired and encouraged by your writings. I am a Sunday School teacher in my church, and have been known to do "unorthodox" lessons not in the current Southern Baptist Sunday School literature. I had started teaching the seven epistles by Jesus to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. In my class I implied that the church at Ephesus could lose its salvation (contrary to Baptist eternal security teaching). I am not sure of the Church of Christ position on this. Also, I understand you live here in Alabama? Or, is it Kentucky?

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, Enclosed is a check for $100 to help with your web page. It is terrific, and I really appreciate your efforts. I know how much time and work it must take to post your Reflections. Keep up the fight against division and divisive tradition.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Several years ago I abandoned my "agenda" and my quest for "THE truth," and have since been full of joy as a pilgrim that loves God and His grace! I am looking forward to reading your thoughts, musings, and manifestations of the Spirit working in your life. Please sign me up for your Reflections!

From a Preacher in Texas:

When I got to your "position one" in your latest Reflections --- "A Lordly Lampectomy" --- I was saying, "Yes! We often are so focused on getting people into the church that we forget to teach Jesus." I just knew this would be the correct position .... and then you had a second position. The fighting over such small things in the church really bothers me, and I wish we could all come together and just lift each other up! Building one another up would be much better for the Lord than fighting each other.

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