When he told others of his own experience, he would inevitably make this point–if he had hit the rocks and cracked his skull and died, his church-going friends would have said, ‘Alas, poor Jock; he heard the gospel so often, always resisted it, and then died so suddenly, there’s no hope for him.’ They wouldn’t have known that it was as he was falling, while he was in flight, he was perceiving and finding the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. His point I make my own to you today and it is this, that we don’t know what is happening in the minds and hearts of our loved ones in their last days and hours. When we’re there at the bedside we’re concerned for them as they get nearer and nearer to death. We are praying for them and thanking God for them. We feel unworthy of the love they have showered upon us, and we hold their hands and stay there as they sleep, or slip into unconsciousness or into a coma. We read a psalm aloud; or we read the promises of Christ; we read John 14, and we pray. We don’t know what is happening within them at the end. We always say that we expect many surprises in the great day. Some we never expected to be in heaven will be there, while others we thought would certainly be there might be absent.
I am affirming now that there is such a reality as salvation at the eleventh hour. I know that there is great danger from affirming such a truth, that sinners will take comfort from it and plan to live their whole lives without Jesus Christ because they think that at the end of a life lived in defiance of God they will actually want to say a prayer for forgiveness and for the gift of eternal life. I believe that many will die suddenly; I believe that the drugs they are taking will kill any clear thinking about God in their lives. I believe that the sense of hypocrisy in beginning to do what they have studiously avoided doing for seventy years will be so great that they won’t speak to God.
Yet my chief concern now is this - don’t downplay this incident. It’s very important. Don’t become a Pharisee or the Prodigal Son’s older brother as you ‘tut tut’ the mercy of Jesus Christ in saving a common thief at the end. There is salvation at the eleventh hour; it is a reality. I met an old friend one or two summers ago on her annual visit to Aberystwyth. Her father was over 100 years of age, and at 97 he had begun to change, after decades of proud atheism, to openness to hearing her words and prayers. Now he will ask her about the words she said to him in the morning; he will hum a hymn-tune and ask her what are its words. He, whom she never saw make any gesture of affection to her mother, is now willing to receive a good-night kiss, and he will speak some warm words of appreciation to her. At over a hundred, salvation could be coming into his life.