The distinguishing mark of the Christian gospel is the revelatory nature of it. Our gospel is the revelation of what has been done for us, not a list of commands we must do or conditions we must meet. This truly sets it apart from every other gospel, making it the greatest good news in the world.
For this aspect of the gospel to be tested to its limit in the life of the believer, the deathbed serves us as the best testing ground. From a human vantage point, the deathbed is one of the saddest places to be in this life. Hope for the future has vanished, and the ticking clock on the wall only amplifies the reality. There is absolutely nothing that can be done except wait for that final breath. What news, if any, would bring hope to this situation?
In particular, this news must include three aspects:
(1) This news must deal faithfully with reality. It must meet the reality of death and sin head-on without wincing. The deathbed is the greatest earthly manifestation of these, and if your gospel fails, here is where it becomes most evident. Does your gospel see sin as the problem, or is sin simply a problem to overcome? Your gospel’s understanding of reality must coincide with the reality of the dying.
Dying is certain, and sin is indeed evil. The Christian gospel is not afraid of these, no matter how large they grow in our experience. Sin and death, however great they become, never outgrow the grace of God in Christ (Rom. 5:20).
(2) The good news for the deathbed must be about the gift of merit. If a gospel is proclaimed to a group of people that tells them they need to earn their way to heaven, the older the person is, the worse the news becomes to them. The young have energy and life, so to them this kind of gospel seems achievable. To the old, however, much of their energy is gone, and their days are short. This gospel is bad news to them. Then, take it to the deathbed and see how you fair. What can a dying person do with a gospel like that? They cannot get up from their bed to perform the necessary tasks, nor do they have enough time to produce enough works to merit heaven.
Merit is required before the judgement seat of heaven since we cannot enter heaven without righteousness. Since we are born in sin, sin is of our nature, and we only merit death (Rom. 6:23). There must be something that changes our reality so that we merit heaven.
It is at this point we see our need for the most important aspect of the gospel: the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In simple terms, imputation means to credit into one’s account. Christ’s merit is given to us apart from works, and to a dying person, this news is glorious. It means they do not have to work in any capacity to merit heaven, but simply by trusting Christ, His merit is credited to them. They do not need to get up from their beds—they don’t even have to move a muscle—and this merit is freely given to them.
(3) This good news must include assurance for the soul of the believer. Especially for those on their deathbed, the transfer of righteousness must be certain. Of course, salvation does not require the recipient to be assured of it in order for it to be true, yet assurance is a blessing and an accompanying grace of our salvation. It is given to us in the gospel, but our experiences do not always correspond with the truth.
However, if by faith, the dying person grabs hold of Christ, they have ample evidence to be assured of their salvation. Where works are required, the question always remains: Have I done enough? On the contrary, where everything is already done, assurance inevitably resides.
There are many examples of Christians who lay on their deathbed fully assured of Christ. As one of the first professors at Princeton, Archibald Alexander, lay on his deathbed, he said, “All my theology is reduced to this narrow compass, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” Likewise, Martin Luther’s last words narrow the scope of his theology into a simple phrase, “We are beggars, this is true.” Both these men serve as examples of Christians who fully believed the biblical gospel to their dying breath. They fully understood, as we ought to today, that we are not saved by some fantasy, nor by our own merits, nor without the means for assurance. We are saved through faith in Christ. This gospel is a deathbed gospel.