Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?'So the last will be first, and the first last." - Matthew 20: 15-16 (ESV)
The Bible makes things so clear for us beloved. It is not God's desire that anyone should perish but all come to the faith in Jesus Christ. Most unfortunately will not. This is also abundantly clear. Narrow is the way that leads to eternal life and few are those who find it. Yet despite this truth we ought to be on the side of what God wants, not what man might choose. Yes the passing of someone allows a door to preach the Gospel but deciding who is going to hell is an assumption that only presents the law to those outside the faith who also need to hear who saves them from the law. Offering up the obligatory RIP however does not declare anything. It simply acknowledges the very same hope that God has. That everyone might come to faith before their end. It is not a statement of fact, saying someone will rest in peace. It is not a demand. It is a hope; a prayer if you will. Not a prayer that God will change His mind but rather that the recently departed had changed theirs.
It strikes me as sad that when someone who was very worldly passes away that Christians can sometimes seem gleeful in their conclusion that they are hell-bound. It seems almost too easy to focus on the life lived in rebellion rather than the Savior who had to reach into our own rebellion once. I can only assume that the issue is one of timing then. Jesus spoke directly about this in the Parable of the Workers in the vineyard:
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, 'You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.' And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.' And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.'But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. - Matthew 20: 1-14 (ESV)
The point our Savior was making is that salvation can occur at any point in someone's life. It is God who draws and offers the gift of salvation yet look at the reaction of some of those who had been there longer. They resented the fact that some came in at the end. So we come to the key verses today. God can choose what belongs to Him, not us. Who are we to begrudge the generosity of God? More to the point of this writing - who are we to begrudge the possibility of someone accepting His generosity on their deathbed? Shouldn't we be joyful? Shouldn't we be hopeful? Shouldn't we be prayerful? I think the overall biblical answer is yes beloved.
Consider the story of the two criminals on the cross. Talk about leading a sinful life! What must they had done to deserve death by crucifixion? Surely it could not have been a small matter as this was the most reviled method of execution. In their approach to their impending death we see the stark contrast of what is available to all:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." - Luke 23: 39-43 (ESV)
The first criminal represents the broad path that the vast majority of people find themselves on. They will remain defiant until the very end. They will mock the gift of salvation that is offered to them. They will curse the God that is willing to save them. The second criminal however is like the Publican from the Parable of the Pharisee and Publican. Humble and penitent. Acknowledging finally the God that created him. As he hung there bleeding and dying he called out to Jesus in the simplest of terms and was assured paradise. He was one of the vineyard workers who was found at the 11th hour. He represents how deep and wide the mercy of God is and that should be marveled at by Christians and celebrated.
Now here comes the difficult question. We all agree that essentially we are all one of these two criminals. Saved and unsaved. The only difference between me and the second criminal is timing. That said, how do we know which of these someone is who has just died? The answer beloved is we do not. It does not matter if they lived their life like hell and deserved the same crucifixion as this criminal. The grace of God extends to them as well. Many will be like the first criminal and never come to faith, even when death has come for them. But some will. Some will be like the second criminal and call out to Jesus to remember them in His kingdom and the Bible assures us that He will! Hallelujah!
But of course we do not know who will and who will not. Which is why there is nothing more Biblically hopeful than simply saying, rest in peace. There is nothing more sincerely prayerful than saying rest in peace. God knows if they will but we hope so as believers. We hope that at the 11th hour this wayward son came home. If he did beloved then the Father will run to greet him as He did for us on that day long ago when we were just as lost. He will clothed him in a righteous robe as He once clothed us. These facts should not cause resentment, like we saw in the true prodigal son, the one that never left. He is very much like the vineyard workers who were hired at the beginning of the day.
Rest in peace is not turning a blind eye to a sinful life beloved. It is acknowledging that right up until the 11th hour, God is willing to. That is the Gospel.