Project Canterbury

Parochial Sermons

The Posthumous Works of the Late Right Reverend John Henry Hobart, D.D.
Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of New-York.

Volume Three.

New-York: Swords, Stanford, and Co., 1832.

Sermon XV. Death-bed Repentance.

And the door was shut. Matthew xxv. 10.

The church at this holy season calls with more than usual frequency and solemnity to repentance. Her faithful members she exhorts to more than customary acts of humiliation and self-denial, and to a particular acknowledgment at the throne of God, of those infirmities, and imperfections, and sins, from which the best in this probationary state are not exempt: for "there is no man that liveth and sinneth not."

She also feels a deep solicitude that her solemn calls may awaken those who have hitherto slumbered secure in their iniquities; who, liable to the just wrath of an offended God, with fatal indifference cry to their conscience, Peace.' and though on the brink of the abyss of perdition, are sporting in their sins.

Alas! her calls are seldom availing: often they do not even penetrate the hardened heart: and more frequently the compunction, the apprehension, the good resolutions which they excite, are dissipated by the soothing solicitations of present pleasure; and sinners delay--yes, they delay the work of repentance to a season more convenient; [175/176] like the foolish virgins in the parable, they delay, even until the last hour, preparing for the coming of their Lord--delay, expecting that then they may enter into his kingdom. Alas! "the door is shut!"

This delusion is most dangerous; and it is as common as it is dangerous. Few indeed are the individuals who are so hardened in their sins, and so indifferent to their God, to judgment, to the concerns of an eternal world, as to dismiss these awful subjects entirely from their thought: still fewer is the number of those who encourage the expectation, as impious as it is absurd, that without repentance they can be the objects of the favour of God, or be qualified for his presence. But when is this work of repentance to be performed?--to what period do they assign it?--to the last stage of life--to the bed of death? Yes--a death-bed repentance has been the dependence, the fatal dependence of thousands; it has deceived them, to their eternal destruction. They have been compelled, at the hour of midnight, at the hour of death, when they should have been ready to obey the summons of their Lord, to repair their past negligence; and alas! before they are ready to enter into his kingdom, "the door is shut!"

Let me then dissuade you from trusting to a death-bed repentance.

A death-bed repentance is a most dangerous dependence:

It is barely possible:

It is eminently difficult:

It is most hazardous:

It is only in part effectual as it respects its future reward.

[177] 1. A death-bed repentance is barely possible.

No limits indeed can be set to that mercy of God which willeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should repent and live; and which prompted God not to spare his only Son, but freely to give him to suffering and death, to purchase redemption for sinners. That mercy extended pardon, and peace, and the joys of paradise, to the penitent thief upon the cross. To this mercy no limits can be set; and therefore we say, a deathbed repentance is possible.

Whenever the penitent sinner comes unto that Saviour whom he had rejected or despised, he has the assurance that he shall "in no wise be cast out." With the grace of God, nothing is impossible; and by the power of this grace, the bed of death may become the scene of holy contrition of strong crying and tears; and the earnest supplication of the dying penitent my reach the ears of the Lord of hosts, and call down his blessing on this late this momentary, but this sincere repentance. God forbid, then, that we should shut against the dying penitent the arms of that mercy which has constantly been inviting him to leave the scenes of guilty pleasure, and to repose in peace on the favour of his God. No; God is merciful--Jesus Christ is mighty to save: his merits are all-sufficient--his grace is almighty; and if the moments of death be those of penitence, they shall be also those of peace.

But this death-bed repentance is barely possible:

2. Note its extreme difficulty.

[178] What is it which often deters men in the fulness of health and strength from this necessary work of repentance? What is it which prompts them to postpone it from day to day, from year to year--to postpone it to the bed of death? It is a work of unavoidable difficulty, of pain, of remorse, of pungent sorrow, and therefore men dread to enter on it. Is it then a work that is fit to be performed on the bed of death? Is the hour when the sinner is racked by the agonies of dissolution, the hour to sustain the remorse, the sorrows, the conflicts of penitence? Can the work of days, of years, of a whole life, be crowded into one day--perhaps one short hour, and that an hour of agony, the agony of death?

What are the constituents of repentance? It must be founded on a clear and strong sense of the evil and guilt of sin.

The penitent must discern sin in its most odious form, lifting up the arm of rebellion against the most high God; contemning the justice, violating the authority, abusing the goodness, trampling on the forbearance of the righteous and merciful Maker of the universe: he must behold it spreading disorder, corruption, and ruin through that world which, when it rose under the hand of the Almighty Architect, God pronounced to be good.

The penitent also must be deeply impressed with the evil and guilt of sin, in its effects upon his own soul; defacing that divine image in which she was formed; blinding her understanding, perverting her will, and corrupting her affections; and consigning her, in this world, to shame, to remorse, to misery--and in the world to come, to blackness of darkness for ever.

[179] But are views of the evil of sin which are essential to true repentance, likely to possess the soul on the bed of death? They are excited and attained, under the influences of God's Spirit, only by much reflection, by serious meditation, by frequent and continued prayer: and do the thousand cares and fears which, at the hour of her departure, crowd upon the soul, and agitate her with unknown terrors, fit her for reflection, for meditation, for frequent and continued prayer? Is an hour of so much agony, an hour in which she can form just views of her own sinful state, and of the demerit of that sin under which she labours? On the verge of eternity, the fear of the wrath to come principally occupies the soul; and this least ingenuous motive to repentance is generally, if not the sole, the principal one that operates on a dying penitent. The demerit of sin, as an infraction of the laws and a contempt of the authority, justice, goodness, and forbearance of God, which so forcibly strikes the mind of the sincere penitent in the days of reflection, meditation, and prayer, seldom more than partially occurs amidst the pangs and apprehensions of a dying hour.

Genuine repentance also supposes sincere SORROW for sin, excited by a just sense -of its demerit; but as this sense is generally imperfect in the dying penitent, so of course will be the sorrow which arises from it. At a period when the fear of that vengeance which, in an eternal world, will be poured upon the ungodly, racks the soul, how difficult will it be for her to acquire an ingenuous sorrow for sin, prompted by the views of its baseness and ingratitude towards God, the greatest and the best of Beings!

[180] And alas! is a dying hour the proper season to form holy resolutions, and to renounce sinful passions and habits? Resolutions which require serious reflection, and the utmost vigour and decision, are to be formed when the soul is agitated by the terrors and pangs of death; and when the body, weakened and depressed by sickness, increases the terrors and pangs of the soul. Passions which, from long indulgence, have become the masters of the soul; and sinful habits which, long cherished, hold her in servitude--are to be renounced, to be relinquished. This work, a work of years, (alas! sincere Christian, dost thou not find it a work of years?) is to be done in a day--in an hour! This work, to which the soul should bring the most deliberate resolution and determined courage, is to be performed when she is weakened, distracted by the cares, the languishing, the fears of a dying hour! O God! but for thy superabundant and almighty grace, the resolutions of the dying sinner would be ineffectual, and his cries only those of despair! And the uncertainty whether this grace will be afforded, renders a death-bed repentance hazardous.

3. A death-bed repentance is most hazardous.

Its hazard arises in great part from its difficulty; which I have already illustrated. The difficulty of a work which requires the vigorous exercise of the powers of the mind in their full strength, must be greatly increased when those powers are enfeebled by sickness, and by the near approach of death. Hence there is great hazard that this work of repentance will not be performed on a death-bed. There must at this period be extraordinary supplies [180/181] of divine grace, to make up for the weakness of nature, and to enable the sinner to perform, in a short period of perplexity and anguish, the de- liberate work of years. But what certainty is there that this extraordinary supply of grace will be granted? Can the expectation be founded on the promise of God? No such promise is given. Mercy indeed is assured to all who repent, at whatsoever period their repentance takes place; but extraordinary grace is no where promised to those who, in the season of health and strength, despise the warnings and resist the strivings of God's Spirit. On the contrary, as if to destroy this expectation, the succours of God's Spirit are promised only to the time present. "To-day, if ye will hear his voice." "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near." "In the day of thy visitation attend to the things that belong to thy peace, before they are for ever hidden from thine eyes."$ There can be no expectation, therefore, founded on the promise of God, that extraordinary measures of grace will be afforded, to quicken and strengthen the repentance of a deathbed. There are indeed many considerations which indicate the unreasonableness and presumption of such an expectation. The sinner has devoted the whole of his life, and the vigour of his days, to selfish or sensual indulgence, and when his passions can be no longer gratified, and death and judgment are overtaking him, he cries to God for succour. When the past course of his life has thus been devoted to sin and to the world, can there be any reasonable expectation that his cries will be heard [181/182] that God will accept the refuse of his days, and make that penitence sincere and evangelical, which the fear of future wrath only has excited? Miracles of grace God indeed can perform; extraordinary supplies of his Holy Spirit we trust he does sometimes afford, to cheer the desponding soul, and to strengthen the pious desires and resolutions of the dying penitent; but no one can reasonably calculate on receiving this extraordinary grace. When the invitations of his heavenly Father have been slighted; when the calls of the Holy Spirit have been rejected; when its secret inspirations and monitions have been unheeded and despised--What! shall all this constitute a claim for extraordinary supplies of grace--for singular exertions of God's mercy? Presumptuous expectation! Sinner, let it not deceive you. If you delay your repentance to the hour of sickness and death, its difficulty will be eminently increased; more than ordinary grace will be necessary for you; you can indulge no solid expectation that you will receive it. How hazardous, then, to trust to a death-bed repentance!

It is hazardous also, for there is every reason to distrust its sincerity.

Cause indeed is there for distrusting the sincerity of the repentance which is excited in the near approach of that eternity where everlasting vengeance will be executed on the wicked--which is excited by the fear of death, that will translate the soul into this eternal state. Cause there is for distrusting the sincerity of those resolutions of amendment of life, which are formed as a relief from the agonies of conscience, and when the world has no longer any charms, and temptation no longer solicits. [182/183] The fear of punishment alone never excites genuine repentance. This evangelical grace must be founded on a lively apprehension of the baseness and ingratitude which sin displays, as a violation of the authority and laws of the greatest and best of Beings, God most holy, most just, and most good. But in a death-bed repentance, the fear of future wrath will generally predominate, and extinguish those ingenuous feelings which excite godly sorrow.

Nor can there be any certainty that those resolutions of penitence, formed amidst the terrors of conscience and the fears of death, and in the absence of all temptation, would not be forgotten or broken, should those terrors and fears be removed, and should temptation again assail the soul. The best, the only evidence of the sincerity of penitent resolutions, is found in the performance of them. The only test of genuine repentance is in amendment of life. Alas! there can be no such evidence, no such test, in a death-bed repentance. Sorrow for sin often proves as transient as the affliction or fears which excited it. Resolutions of amendment, formed in the dark and disconsolate hour of adversity, often vanish, like the morning cloud and the early dew, before the first beams of prosperity. What certainty can there be that such would not prove the repentance and resolutions of the death-feed penitent, were his life prolonged? He leaves the world, affording to others no certain evidence that his penitence is genuine, enjoying no comfortable assurance of it himself--unless it pleases God to grant him the rare and extraordinary manifestations of divine love. How hazardous is a deathbed repentance!

[184] 4. Lastly. It is only in part effectual, as it respects its future reward.

When all the difficulties of a death-bed repentance are overcome--when, notwithstanding the weakness of nature in her last moments of pain and agony, the penitent sinner, through divine grace, feels that godly sorrow which is a characteristic of genuine repentance, and forms true and steadfast resolutions of obedience--when the sincerity of his repentance is thus placed beyond all hazard, and he rejoices in a well-founded hope of the mercy of God--even then, a death-bed repentance, as it respects its future rewards, is only in part effectual. It is founded in the nature of things, it is founded in reason and justice, that there should be a proportion between the work and the reward: to suppose, then, that the sinner, whose life has been devoted to fulfilling the lusts of the flesh--who, so far from doing good in his day and generation, hath, by his injustice, his cruelty, his sensuality, disturbed the peace of society, invaded the rights of others, and corrupted, by his evil example and solicitations, the souls of men--who, so far from glorifying his God and Saviour by an holy life, hath practically denied him, contemned his authority, violated his laws, done despite unto his Spirit, and trampled under foot his precious blood; to suppose that the last moments of a life thus sinful, spent in the tears, the cries, and the resolves of penitence, will obtain the same weight of glory which will reward the uniform service of the prime and vigour of our years, is contrary to every idea of propriety and justice. No; God, the just Judge, who rewardeth every man according as his work shall be, will apportion the reward to the work [184/185] performed. The ability by which this work is performed cometh of God: its acceptance must be attributed to that mercy which is not strict to mark what is done amiss; and its reward, far transcending the merits of the best human performances, proceeds from that infinite goodness which delights in the diffusion of happiness. Of grace, therefore, is our salvation; and "not of works, lest any man should boast." But there is still a proportion between the rewards of heaven and the comparative advances in holiness of the children of God. As it respects, indeed, God's kingdom in this world, our Saviour pronounced the parable of the householder calling his servants at different hours into the vineyard, and finally rewarding them all alike. But this parable was designed to repress the arrogance of the Jews, who would have excluded the Gentiles from an equal participation with them of the blessings of this kingdom. Early called into the vineyard, the Jews murmured against their Lord, because, though he fulfilled his covenant with them, he admitted, at the last hour, the Gentiles to an equal interest with them in Gospel privileges. "Thou hast made them equal unto us, who have borne the burden and heat of the day." And here the Sovereign Dispenser of grace vindicates his right to distinguish, according to his own will and pleasure, various portions of mankind with different degrees of spiritual light and knowledge. "May I not do what I will with mine own?" Still, in the final awards of his justice, they who, equally distinguished on earth by spiritual privileges, have variously improved them, will be variously rewarded. [185/186] For in the celestial house where the righteous1 dwell for ever, are many mansions; and in that new heaven, the habitation of the saints, one star differeth from another star in glory. How far inferior, then, will be the future glory of the deathbed penitent, who has only to offer the tears of contrition, the supplications of a wounded spirit, and the desires of a soul which pants for mercy--to that bliss which will be awarded to him who early forsook the ranks of the ungodly, and enlisted under the banner of his God and Saviour; who early took up his cross, to follow his divine Lord and Master; who early commenced that good fight, which terminated in complete victory over a sinful world, in the full attainment of grace and holiness; and for which, therefore, there is laid up the most splendid crown of glory!

Persevere, then, young Christian, with increasing fidelity and ardour, in thy warfare; for thou shall increase thy future reward. Redouble thy diligence, aged saint; for the term of thy probation is nearly closed. Renounce without delay, O sinner! thy sinful course; for every moment's delay diminishes that bliss which, by patient continuance in well-doing, thou mayest secure: and a few days or hours, at the close of life, devoted to God, can at best obtain for thee but a distant view of that glory which, in its full radiance, fills with unutterable ecstasy the spirits of the blest.

Alas! that any should rest their immortal interests on a death-bed repentance. We do not declare this repentance impossible; on the contrary, we declare it is possible, through the extraordinary mercy and grace of God; and therefore we encourage and soothe the contrition and sorrow [186/187] of the dying penitent. But still a death-bed repentance is inexpressibly difficult--eminently hazardous--and recompensed, at best, with only imperfect rewards. Will any, then, rest their eternal happiness on a death-bed repentance? That repentance may never come: some sudden accident may in a moment cut asunder the tie that unites you to life; disease may instantly terminate your mortal existence; delirium, seizing your departing spirit, may render you incapable of reflection, of resolution--even of one prayer for mercy. Oh! fatal delusion! that has placed the interests of eternity on a death-bed repentance--which never comes.

Beloved brethren, oh! defer not to this uncertain, this hazardous hour--this hour of solicitude, of weakness, of pain, of agony--the work of repentance. Employ the season of health, of strength, of vigour, in this difficult, this arduous, but this indispensable work. Let your death-bed be the scene, not of your tears, your anguish, your conflicts; but of your praises, your joys, your triumphs. Then have recourse to your God--not as your Judge, to be appeased--but as your Father already reconciled. Then have recourse to your Saviour, not solely to shelter you from the tempest of the divine displeasure, but to support and conduct you through the darkness and trials of this dread hour, to the light and glories of eternity.

Oh, brethren! delay not until the last moment; sue for mercy, lest the door be shut.

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