Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2014
HENRY B. ASHMEAD, BOOK AND JOB PRINTERS
GEORGE STREET ABOVE ELEVENTH.
RIGHT REV. A. POTTER, D.D.,
My DEAR BISHOP,
At your request, seconded by the wish of our friend, Hon. WILLIAM APPLETON, who has so generously provided for the expense of printing a large edition, I submit this Tract to your disposal. I cannot discover in it the merit you so much commend, but I pray God it may be useful.
Affectionately your Friend and Brother,
JAMES H. OTEY.
Philadelphia, October 20, 1856.
THE PENITENT THIEF.
IN contemplating this circumstance of the Saviour's crucifixion, we are forcibly struck with something beyond the idea of ignominy which it serves to aggravate. Beholding on the right hand and on the left of the great act of atonement, two of the souls for which this atonement was made--the one contrite, and the other impenitent,--we seem to recognize a type of that awful judgment, when the same Saviour shall come in the clouds, and "the dead, small and great," shall stand before him; some on his right hand, and some on his left. And even though our thoughts should not be carried to that final consummation of all things, we cannot but observe the illustration here furnished of the different effects which are wrought by the same judgments and religious opportunities upon dispositions of different mould or temperament.
See that hardened wretch, unfit to live and unprepared to die, passing the bitter hours of a sure and lingering death, in casting scorn and opprobrium on the meek sufferer near him: how awful to reflect that thus on the confines of the world of retribution,--thus within reach of the source of pardon and life,--thus having converse with his Saviour through the medium of the seeing eye and the hearing ear, and during the [5/6] solemn and affecting crisis of his errand of peace and love to our world--he turns his precious opportunity into an occasion of deeper condemnation, and scoffs through his last wasting sands of life, at the great sacrifice which was offered, that he, with all other souls, might be rescued from an eternity of sighs and suffering: but alas! when we turn our eyes to the exceeding great army of the impenitent, of whom we have conceived him to be the type, in no important circumstance do their situation, their opportunities and their conduct become distinguishable from his. Nay, impenitent soul! consider well his state and yours, and confess the justice of the comparison. He, indeed, denied and despised his Lord, in the midst of the circumstances we have described. We cannot say what opportunities he had previously enjoyed of observing our Lord's ministry and works, and of thus becoming convinced that he was the Christ: and in the absence of such opportunities, there was little in the situation in which Jesus was now beheld, to strike the uninstructed mind of a Jew, as one who was able to pardon and to save. But you deny a Saviour risen and glorified; to whom you are obliged to concede the possession of all power in heaven and in earth: you deny a Saviour whom you confess to have died, that you might live, and to be now set at the right hand of the Majesty on high. That you make this barren confession and acknowledgment, we must ascribe to the favorable Providence by which your lot has been cast in a land where the true light shineth, and perhaps with the invaluable blessing of parents to "bring you up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord!" If the world around you, as around the scoffing malefactor, deemed it wise and fashionable to contemn religion, on what ground can we suppose that in this you would resist the influence which in all things else you obey? And, so far as your accountability is concerned, the assent of your understanding only renders the denial of your heart the more inexcusable [6/7] and irrational.
Would you remind me of the callousness of heart and depravity of disposition which spent the last hours of a guilty existence in jeers at suffering innocence? You would then forget that we speak of him not as a thief, but as a sinner, and in connection with Christ, not merely with a guiltless companion in death, but with his Saviour. Doubtless, in similar circumstances, you would not revile a fellow-sufferer any more than you would meet death with the same iron-hearted composure. But mark: of him and of you, Christ is alike the Saviour, and he and you are alike sinners, discarding that great salvation. You also, though not in the same mode and manifestation, are despising your Saviour--crucifying him afresh, and putting him to an open shame, while you are virtually as near as he was to the blood of atonement. Tell us now, if you can, how much further are you from eternity, than was the reviling malefactor? If the shortness of his lease of life added enormity to his offence; tell us, I beseech you, how much longer is yours? He had the gloomy prospect of a protracted painfulness of existence until the horrible and yet merciful blow fell, that should finish the execution and his tortures with the expiring day. Are you in league with death for a longer period than this? Think of the many trophies which the grim destroyer has snatched from your midst, and tell me, why should not you or I, as well as others of our acquaintance, find only a few hours, or a few moments interval, between death and dissolution? Setting aside the awful consideration, that "in the midst of life we are in death," is it not true on the most favorable supposition, that our life is but a span long, and is not the eternal alternative before our eyes as surely, speedily at least, if not as shortly, and still more clearly? In short, institute a comparison between the malefactor's spiritual and moral opportunities and your own; and, according to the golden rule of the divine judicature, "unto whom much is given, of the same shall much be required," [7/8] and you may thence draw a repulsive, but yet salutary lesson of instruction. You will find nothing indeed to excuse him--nothing to detract a particle from the intrinsic enormity of his living crimes and his dying derision of his Saviour, his case can receive no white-washing, though thousands and millions emulate its ebon hue; but you will find much to place your own in its true colors; you may find in it a formula, as it were, to form, by means of a known quantity, a true estimate of your own concealed and unconsidered relation to eternity.
But your hearts prefer to contemplate the other side of the picture; for there, you think, you discover not only hope for eternity, but even encouragement to continue in your estrangement from God. See, you would call upon us, how possible and how easy for guilt, in a dying hour, to shake off the most enormous burden, and receive from a benign and indulgent Saviour the sweet assurance which enables the departing spirit to spread its wings in peace, looking back upon its course without remorse or horror--and forward to its destiny with joyful confidence! We cannot rob you, you insist, of this solace; we cannot remove from your eyes this delightful spectacle--it is written in God's word--painted in the indelible tints of inspiration! For what? That you, forsooth! may look to the scene of Calvary itself for encouragement in neglecting to consider, in this your day, the things that make for your peace! that when the importunate appeals of the Gospel, speaking from the blood-stained cross, threaten to rend the granite of your impenitence, you may resort to the contemplation of your Saviour's passion and death, in order to harden your hearth against the affecting appeal and impulse of his love. If this vile malefactor, gibbeted in just recompense of nefarious guilt, could thus, as his last sands of time were dropping--thus in the very jaws of death, burst at one effort the cords of iniquity, and knock successfully at the door [8/9] of heaven--if he, in the very hour of dissolution, could set about the work of salvation, and compass it with a few words of prayer, why should you, you secretly argue, who are by no means so great a sinner, and flatter yourself that for aught you know to the contrary, you may have before you years of the divine long-suffering which you may safely abuse, be in a hurry to repent and arrange your spiritual affairs? No: for the present, and for an indefinite period hereafter, you will enjoy the pleasures of sin: it will be time enough when death is near and visible to think of and prepare for eternity.
It might be enough, if it were reason with which we argue, to point to the other side of the picture, where a career of wickedness is closed by a hardened and obdurate death; and remind you, that this must be the general rule--the other the exception--and in scripture, the solitary exception! But we are aware, that the sinning soul never shrinks from the game of hazard--is never deterred by any supposable risk, but rather tempted--and the sight of one chance in its favor will decide for sin, with her soothing and enticing blandishments; though voices from a thousand quarters, and the warning tones of experience treasured up in the records of all past ages, are clamorous of peril. Therefore, postponing the consideration of the precarious attainment, and the uncertainty when attained, of the hope which glimmers dimly through the thickening shadows of approaching disaster and death, we shall first affirm, and then attempt to demonstrate, that the case of the penitent thief is no example of a death-bed repentance, and therefore cannot be used at all, and much less ought it to be abused, in connection with the subject to which it has been, and is so frequently perverted.
Assuming the circumstances which are usually conjectured to fill up those points of the case respecting which the brief notice of Scripture is totally silent--assuming those commonly imagined circumstances to have been actual, we have certainly [9/10] the most sublime instance on record of the plenitude of divine mercy--of the power and excellency of grace.
On this hypothesis, the probability of which we shall presently consider, there hangs a soul which but yesterday feared not God, nor regarded man, and until this dismal hour of execution neither reverenced nor knew his Redeemer! Tranquil amidst the horrors of a death, merited by his iniquities--confessing his sins--glorifying the justice of God in his own punishment--rebuking the blasphemy of his companion--justifying the innocence of his Saviour--and adoring him at the trying hour when the world derided, and his apostles forsook him, and receiving from him the infallible promise of an immortality in heaven! Well:--understanding the case in this striking and glorious light, what is its principal feature? What is its distinctive characteristic? It is the direct contrast--the very antipodes of a death-bed repentance. The distinctive feature of a death-bed repentance, is its lateness, its long, voluntary procrastination to the last moments of a life passed in the obstinate resistance of all the means of salvation, by a soul consciously sinning against light and knowledge--against mercies and warnings--against providences and opportunities of good. But here is a soul repenting, believing, imploring pardon in the first hour he knew his Redeemer. In the first hour that he enjoyed the opportunity and the means, he had the disposition--he seized the opportunity with eagerness, and he embraced the means with humility and joy. It is the earliest, the most prompt, the most entire surrendering of the soul to Christ on record; and, when together with this, we consider the extremely unfavorable circumstances in which it was made--when we consider that it was not in the sight of amazing displays of divine power and wisdom--not under the influence of associations and recollections wound round the spirit, during a life spent beneath the noon-tide splendors of a preached and acknowledged gospel, that his [10/11] faith was awakened and exhibited; but that he recognized and adored a Redeemer, mighty to save, in one who to all appearance was like himself a helpless sufferer, condemned by the wise and great of his nation, mocked by the pitiless multitude, and abandoned even by the chosen few, who beheld his miracles and experienced his divine compassion: the idea of this penitent's faith becomes "too wonderful and excellent for us." It culminates beyond our utmost conceptions. To the soul which in such circumstances and at such a time could breathe forth the prayer, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom,"--We are not surprised that such large measures of grace should be given to assist and sanctify it, and that the benignant answer should have been vouchsafed, "This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise!"
And is this the case to which the procrastinating spirit thinks to furnish a parallel, in a repentance postponed to the deathbed? Why, dear reader, it resembles anything else rather than a death-bed repentance. If we could suppose the gospel tidings to be preached for the first time to a dying heathen, and accepted instantly, readily and heartily with all the soul, it would be the nearest conceivable approach to it; but even that supposition would fall vastly short of a just comparison. For, the heathen would be told of a Saviour risen, triumphant and glorified, who had burst the bars of the grave--who had "led captivity captive, and brought gifts to men." He would hear and receive as a fact already accomplished, that essence of gospel truth and gospel persuasion, that "God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." It is a case, the excellency of which it is impossible for men who have been reared under the illumination of a published and completed gospel even to emulate. [* The faith of the penitent thief can never be emulated, if for no other reason, the following consideration will demonstrate. Men will never again behold Christ Jesus, suffering and dying on the cross, as did the repenting malefactor, and therefore they can never have the like opportunity to manifest in like degree his faith.] Not after Christ [11/12] "had risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept;" not after he had ascended to his Father, and was seated on the throne of his established, mediatorial kingdom; not after the Comforter had come to "lead into all truth;" but in the dismaying hour when the panic-stricken Apostles forsook their Master, and even his agonized human nature, in the mysterious sense of divine abandonment which formed a part of his atoning passion, cried out in the most piteous language ever heard by mortal ears, "My God! my God, why hast thou forsaken me!" then, in that dark hour of lowest humiliation and of accumulated ignominy, the penitent malefactor manifested his faith and preferred his petition for mercy! He seemed the solitary example among human kind to acknowledge the power and grace of Christ. "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." Never was there presented to the view of men and angels so sublime a spectacle in the moral grandeur of the action, so bright and glorious an exhibition of faith. Even the act of Abraham pales in the glory of this illustrious example. The happy among Christians, and few so happy as those in whose hearts sin, in consequence of early and effectual training, has never obtained the mastery over grace; and who, like Samuel, cannot remember the time when they were in a state of departure from the covenant, by which their unconscious infancy was consecrated to God; these furnish the nearest parallel that our days and circumstances can afford to the case of the penitent malefactor. For the longer the period of any person's life which is spent in the knowing and wilful rejection of his Saviour, the more remote is his spiritual case from that under our examination. Because, in this there is no perceptible interval at all between the knowledge of Christ and obedience.
 The very idea of postponement is utterly excluded from it; and, therefore, if there be any imaginable case to which it presents a perfect opposite, any imaginable case for which it furnishes no ground whatever of hope or encouragement, any imaginable case which it condemns and puts to shame, and into connection with which it cannot possibly be wrested; it is the case of that soul, which having been devoted to the world up to the time when the world must be left, having been rebellious against God, until it momentarily expects the summons to eternity; having, during the whole period of probation, known the Saviour, and wilfully rejected him; heard the call to repentance, and obstinately and constantly refused it; experienced the influences of preventing grace, and perversely resisted them; all the while entreated with mercies, and not been softened; chastised with judgments, and not been subdued; despising threatened retribution, and refusing offered reconciliation; at last, when the long-suffering of God has been abused to the uttermost, and inexorable death is tearing him from that world which he has so long hugged, would then fain transfer his affections to heaven; and consents, when all earthly hopes are perishing, to bestow a thought on his immortal interests. When mercy is exhausted, then to sue for mercy; when judgment is at hand, to begin to prepare for judgment; and having deliberately preferred the bondage of sin, until there remains no opportunity of its service, no offer of its pleasures, no prospect but its final wages of death and despair forever, then groans forth its aspirations for the glorious "liberty of the children of God!" Folly and presumption surpassing these, if not without a parallel, are without a name!
Go then, impenitent soul! if the penitent malefactor be the chosen stay of your hope, and the object of your proposed imitation--imitate him as far as the obstinacy of your past years will permit you; cast away from you the broken reed of procrastination, upon which you lean, and consider in this [13/14] your day, as he did in his, the things which make for your peace. He literally obeyed the summons, "To-day, if ye will hear the voice of mercy, harden not your hearts." There were no reluctant hesitations and delays between his knowledge, his determination, and his performance. He shifted the great work of salvation to no conveniently indefinite season. True, he had the certainty of death before his eyes--but neither have you, my friend, any certainty of life, and it is not in the close, but in the beginning that you would imagine a parallel in your cases. The beginning of his work was the beginning of his opportunities and of his knowledge--all the opportunities which you have ever neglected, all the knowledge which you have so long abused, already distinguish his case from yours and interpose between you and any hope of pardon, which your heart would construct upon his forgiveness and acceptance.
Every new delay operates to the total destruction of all parallelism between your case and his. And if there is any idea which the instance of his faith, repentance and obedience condemns; any hope for which it furnishes not the slightest ground of encouragement; any folly to the support of which it cannot and ought not to be perverted; it is the sinful idea, it is the flimsy hope, it is the egregious folly, which looks forward to an imaginary repentance, begun, pursued and completed, amidst the pains, the distresses, the shudderings and the breathless agonies of the death-bed!
We have proceeded on the supposition that the state of the case was actually, as it must be conjectured by those who assume it, (with what justice we have seen,) an example of repentance in death.
We by no means affirm that this hypothetical filling up is erroneous, there is nothing in the spectacle as we have exhibited it, inconsistent with sound views of the power of grace, and when we consider the time and the attendant circumstances, [14/15] it seems to present a suitable harmony with all the other sublimities of that glorious and awful scene. But after all, it must be remembered that this view is only hypothetical, it is a conjectural assumption, not a scriptural fact, that the repentance of this malefactor had not a date previous to the day of crucifixion. He is introduced to our notice as already repentant, and displaying illustrious evidences of a ripe charity, and a lofty faith. When, where, and by what circumstances his heart was renewed by divine grace, the word of God is wholly silent. Any mind may adopt the supposition that until the hour of crucifixion he was still a hardened sinner, but no one can affirm it as a fact; and there are other suppositions, sustained by at least equal probabilities, which we are at full liberty to adopt. For instance, we are entirely in the dark as to what interval elapsed between the commission of the crime for which he suffered, and the present infliction of its punishment. It may have been longer or shorter, months or weeks, we only know that there must have been space for an apprehension, an imprisonment, and a trial. His repentance for aught we know, or are authorized to affirm, may have been induced by the stings of a conscience lacerated by heinous crime, and wrought in circumstances highly favorable. While in the solitude of imprisonment there was no obtrusion of worldly deceits to divert his thoughts or drown the voice of conscience; and nothing in that lonely self-communion to strip off the disguises of sin, and raise his contemplations from the terrors of the human laws which he must either evade or endure, to the divine sanctions which he had so fearfully provoked, and from which there was no escape; and, granting what cannot be proved, that his heart was only broken to contrition by the prospect of a horrible death, fixed before him by the stern sentence of the judge, and that the respite of existence allowed to him was brief, his repentance is incapable of comparison with that of a death-bed, even setting aside the [15/16] decisive considerations that have already been offered. His mind had not to be exercised amidst the languor and debility of sickness, but with a sound reason and healthy body, with all his faculties fresh and vigorous, as we are free to assume, and only nerved to deeper and more absorbing devotional exercises by the spectacle of approaching death, he met the tremendous crisis of his fate.
If, in such circumstances, this poor unenlightened soul had considered with sincerity and contrition its guilt and helplessness, and fixed itself with supplicating humility and faith to the Old Testament doctrines, "To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against him." "Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon," he was led forth to Golgotha, already a proper object of forgiveness and acceptance, under the dispensation which was then passing away, and about to be succeeded by the Gospel; and it was altogether consistent with the wonders of the awful scene, and in keeping with the plenitude of God's mercy, that the eye of his faith should have been miraculously enlightened to discern the Saviour enduring by his side the vicarious sufferings by which his repentance was made acceptable with God, and to receive from the very fountain of mercy the consoling promise of eternal life. Hear what effectual pleading he might offer, and which was virtually urged in his favor in the ear of Omniscience, and judge whether our deathbed penitent might prefer the same: "Lord, I have wandered in ignorance and darkness, without the refulgence of thy Gospel to guide, without the effusion of thy Spirit to aid and protect me; these last few minutes only--minutes of unutterable anguish, from the pangs of crucifixion and remorse of conscience, are blessed with the knowledge of thee, my Redeemer, and thy mission of mercy. I confess my sins, and adore thy [16/17] redeeming love,--accept the sad remains of life since it is all I have to offer. By thy dreadful tortures, by thy untold agonies, by thy blood, now pouring out for the life of the world, by the fear of death eternal, which now rends and distracts my soul, by thy boundless compassion for man, Lord, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. Mine eyes have been opened to behold thee, mine understanding to know thee, and my faith strengthened now to confess thee in thy sufferings. 'Remember me when thou comest into thy Kingdom.' One precious moment remains to urge a cry for mercy. I ask not for deliverance from this cruel death, only 'remember me when thou comest into thy Kingdom.'" Can your last hours plead thus with eternal justice,--after a life spent in the conscious rejection of your Saviour, and in doing despite to the spirit of grace, can you urge a suit like this? When agonized and confounded, you cry for mercy at the approach of death, the great distinctive and decisive character of your case will be this: that during your headlong career of sin, God called to you by the voice of your conscience from within, and by the ministry of His word from without, and you would not hearken; the Gospel was always enlightening you, the Holy Spirit was always impelling you, the gates of mercy visibly open before you, and you would not give heed, you refused obstinately, in despite of urgent entreaty and solemn and reiterated warning, to enter the ark of safety. You knew, all along, the way, you acknowledged the truth, but "you would not come to Jesus that you might have life."
There remains one more hypothesis with which we may qualify the statement of the case, and find it still entirely removed from the character of a death bed repentance. There is nothing in the Scriptural narrative which sets aside the supposition, and there are circumstances which seem rather to commend it to our acceptance, that this man before his imprisonment had been made aware of our Saviour's character, [17/18] had heard him speak "as never man spake," and witnessed those wonderful works, which "no man could do except God were with him," and that his mind recurring to and revolving these things while occupied with the solemn and spirit-moving reflections which the anticipation of his fate was calculated to inspire, had arrived at such a fixed conviction of the divine character and mission of our Lord, that his faith, stronger even than that of the Apostles who forsook him and fled, was unshaken by the circumstances of humiliation, in which was accomplished the great act of atonement, and enabled him to adore while the chosen followers forsook, and the multitudes were deriding their Redeemer. The only effect of this conjectural hypothesis, which, as I said before, there is no Scripture to affirm or disprove, would be to remove the idea of miraculous illumination, without which it is evidently impossible that he should by faith have recognized the Saviour of the world, unless he had a previous knowledge of his person, his doctrine, and his works. Without such a previous conviction, it is difficult to conceive how he could, at such a time, have justified the innocence of our Lord, and prayed to be remembered in his Kingdom; and to such an opinion, that of a previous repentance, seems a natural and almost a necessary appendage; and if, as the idea which connects the case with a death bed repentance necessarily supposes; if, I say, he had no knowledge of our Lord before he was crucified with him, it is clear that nothing but a miraculous illumination of his mind could have enabled him then to recognize and acknowledge Him. Now, observe, it is entirely inconsistent with every rational and scriptural idea of the divine dealing with souls to suppose that such a miraculous illumination, such a glorious distinction and favor, would have been bestowed upon a soul that was still impenitent--he must have repented before he knew his Saviour, even if he did not know him before the crucifixion; or, on the other hypothesis, if he had such a previous knowledge, [18/19] we have already shown that it is most reasonable to suppose a previous repentance likewise. Thus, my friends, adopt whatever conjecture you will in order to fill up the points in this man's religious history, respecting which the narrative gives us no information, it is unjustifiable on any ground of reason to consider his case as an example of deathbed repentance. It is a case which cannot be justly used, much less abused, in connection with that subject. We know that it is thus usually regarded, or rather allowed, among Christians, with the salvo, by way of precaution against abuse, that the Word of God exhibits one such instance that the dying sinner may not despair, and but one that the living may not too much presume on the Divine forbearance. But we have compared it with a death-bed repentance, and have found it in every important aspect entirely dissimilar; we have found it to resemble any repentance that can be enacted among Christians, rather than a delayed and dying repentance, and we have fortified our conclusion with decisive considerations which it is impossible to gainsay.
But what! is it not cruel thus to remove the only scriptural stay--the only ground of hope upon which the departing and desponding soul may be animated to exertion, and buoyed above the passive agony of despair? If it be not a truly solid and scriptural foundation, it should certainly be removed, though all the consequences which you deprecate should follow. Rendering no valuable aid to the dying, it should not remain to tempt the living impenitent onward to destruction. But all those sad consequences do not follow its removal. It follows simply that the word of God furnishes nothing either by declaration or by instance, directly to sanction the prospect of a death-bed repentance--neither does it anywhere pronounce it hopeless. The operations of the Holy Spirit are still left unfettered to any particular modes or seasons--unlimited by any definite bounds, and the mortal judgment that [19/20] should authoritatively attach an utter impossibility of saving repentance to any condition or hour, while reason remains, would be guilty of daring presumption. That which we have aimed at in this tract, is to remove a positive and conspicuous spectacle, the effect of which we conceive to be much more potent to encourage the living sinner in delay and presumption, than to protect the dying from the torpor of despair; as there is unquestionably a much greater disposition in sinful men to presume too much, than to trust too little, upon the long suffering and indulgence of heaven.
When a soul departs in a repentance which, though inspired by the near approach of death, presents nothing to our eyes to dim the humble hope of its acceptance, it is not only the privilege, but the duty of survivors to behold its flight in the spirit of that charity and trust, above and beyond which indeed the instances are comparatively rare, that our feeble judgments should mount into confidence. But, my dear reader, it is in a far different spirit that the procrastinator should contemplate the probable portion of his own soul, should the Providence of God allow to him the opportunity of that dying repentance which we admit to be in its nature possible. We speak not now of the natural tendency of continued sin and rejection of the Gospel to make the heart callous to all divine appeals and influences, and beget the spirit of hardihood which was exemplified in the impenitent thief. I speak not now of its natural tendency, on the other hand to diminish the influence of the Holy Spirit and provoke its final withdrawal. I speak not now of the process whose beginning they may observe in their own souls, and its completion in others--the process by which men contract a familiarity with sin--soon feeling easy and perhaps glorying in offences which, at first, caused uneasiness of mind; and by degrees their consciences are hardened more and more, till at last, when they lie down on the bed of sickness, they lack both the will and the power [20/21] to ask forgiveness of their sins, and they can neither pray nor strive, but yield up their spirits in sullen obstinacy, or in howling despair. I speak not now of the tendency of bodily languor and distress to distract and enfeeble the mind, and incapacitate the soul for any effort. I speak not now of those frequent visitations in which the advances of disease are rapid and violent, and often its first blow is to stupify or derange the mental faculties, and the wretched sinner, before he thinks of seeking his Saviour, is unable to recognize the friend who weeps in helpless sorrow over his pillow. I speak not now of those awful catastrophes where wrecked vessels pour out their hapless hundreds to struggle with the waves, where the sweep of the tornado or the stealthy march of the pestilence surprises its victims, but leaves no time or space for reflection or prayer--of those sudden dispensations too numerous to name, which warn us, "that in the midst of life we are in death," and that at any moment in the earth, in the air, in the waters, in our food, our sleep, any where in the broad realm of nature, or in the hand of our fellow-man, there may lurk a death to dispatch us, without a supplication and without a thought, to that unseen world whence no traveller ever returns to warn of its scenes of woe, or tell of its mansions of rest and joy. But granting that almost by miracle you escape all these formidable obstacles to what you call a death-bed repentance, granting that the whole process with which your imagination adorns the close of a life, all of whose vigor and freshness you intend shall be the world's, shall be effected; granting that Death, in accommodation to your wishes, should approach visibly enough to alarm you to reflection, and gently enough to permit serious, calm, and deliberate consideration, and slowly enough to allow you to bend all the energies of the soul to the contemplation of heavenly and eternal things, even then, with all these concessions, very few of which, you well know, are ever realized, even then, I say it now to your cool and sober judgment, [21/22] and I say it deliberately and calmly, this completed task would be a poor, poor reliance for eternity, for meeting its dread and changeless solemnities.
I appeal to your own observation, perhaps to your own experience, in some of its developed, and not to be forgotten, results. Have you not at least witnessed instances when the sufferer, whom Death threatened, prayed and strove, and was finally satisfied that he had obtained peace with God; and the company rejoiced, and the nearest and dearest to his bosom were comforted, and the minister who rendered his ghostly assistance and counsel saw nothing to deprive him and them of this hope and consolation? Shall we go on? Shall we pursue the detail to the close of life's fitful dream? You would add that he died and was received to everlasting glory, borne on the pinions of angels in triumph to the bosom of Abraham. No, my friend, he recovered, and as his health returned, and his spirits revived, his religion vanished, and his conduct since has told the world, has told angels, has told God, that his purposes of piety were like the early dews of the morning which pass away. He had no idea of returning to God so long as the world could offer a lure, or pleasure present a temptation. His was the religion of the sick room, that which you call a death-bed repentance, in which the heart of the subject, and the watchful eye of human observation, could detect no alloy or defect; but, after all, it was base metal--worthless in the eye of that God "to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid"--worthless, too, in the view of men, as soon as the tree could be known by its fruits. Ask those whose professional observation of the religion of a sick room has been close and extensive, ask physicians and clergymen, and they will tell you that in nine cases out of ten, when the soul is satisfied, and to human judgment there appears no defect, the repentance which death, if it occurred, would sanctify, life, if it is prolonged, exposes in its emptiness and worthlessness. [22/23] Who will deliberately trust his only hope of salvation to such a rotten stay, when he has perhaps been brought down to the very bars of the pit without being even then effectually moved to set about his repentance; after being driven by the terrors of dissolution to lay up his treasures in Heaven and then awoke with returning health to find it was but a dream, and to testify by renewed rebellion his gratitude for deliverance from the jaws of death? But you, perhaps, are not guilty of this folly; you would rather postpone your soul's salvation to a "more convenient season" than the present--it is not to the precarious change of a death-bed that you would have fixed it. But what period then have you allotted to it? Why will you not set about it immediately? Simply, because you imagine that time is before you, and you have health and vigor of mind and body to pursue the more grateful objects, and the more acceptable pleasures of the world. And will it not be so, for the same reason, until you think you have no time before you, and until infirmities of body shall disqualify you alike for the duties and enjoyments of life, and imbecility of mind shall put it beyond your power to appreciate the force of an argument, or be touched by any appeal made to the conscience--be moved by the hope of eternal life, or alarmed by the fear of everlasting death? Shall we continue our remarks to expose the danger and folly of such a course, a course for which the Word of God affords no justification, and which your own understanding condemns? To plead with you in such a case, to assail you by arguments, to urge you by the warnings of conscience, and to move you by affecting appeals to your sympathies, you ought, and perhaps would, consider as insulting to your reason, and your common sense.
If your convictions, then, are in agreement with the conclusions to which we have arrived in considering the case of the penitent malefactor, if they accord with the results which your own observations have derived from witnessing the scenes which the [23/24] closing hours of life most generally disclose to your view, let me entreat you no longer to put to hazard the blood-bought interests of your soul, but to consider and act without further delay upon this warning assurance of Holy Scripture! "Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation." "To-day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts."