I heard this story from Lutheran pastor and seminary professor James Nestingen. I will tell it as I remember it, filling in the conversation a bit as I go– but this was the gist of it.
A middle-aged woman was dying of cancer in a big city hospital. She received no visitors, and she was not accepting her fate very well. She wept day and night, and sometimes her loud cries could be heard down the hall at the nurses station. The nurses tried to help by offering her a sedative, but she did not want that. The nurses offered to call the hospital chaplain, and the woman did agree to that.
The chaplain came in and asked the woman if he could help her. She said, “I will soon be dead, and then what is next for me pastor? I am a terrible person, and I am afraid of going to hell.” Being careful not to offend her religious beliefs, he asked about her church background. She said, “I have no church background. I was baptized, and my parents dragged me to church for a few years, but that was it. I never believed in much of anything, but I have heard about hell, and I know that is where I am going.”
“Well,” said the pastor, “I can assure you, God is a God of love, and God loves you and accepts you, just the way you are. You have nothing to fear.” She stopped crying, listened quietly, and said no more. Finally, the pastor said a brief prayer and left the room. He told the nurses that he thought the woman would all right now, and they thanked him for his visit.
But the woman was not all right, and was soon crying as much as before. She made no complaints to the nurses, and was not asking anyone for anything; but it saddened the nurses to see her so distraught. They asked the dying woman if they should call the chaplain in for another visit. She said, “No, don’t call him back.”
The next day one of the nurses saw her pastor who was visiting one of his parishioners in the same hospital. She asked if he would stop in to see the woman, and he agreed to do so.
He went into her room and introduced himself and asked if she wanted to talk. “It’s no use,” she said, “It is too late. I have been a terrible sinner and I am going to hell and I deserve it. But I am afraid.”
“Well,” said the pastor, “the Bible says we are all terrible sinners, and you are right, you do deserve to go to hell, and so do I. But Jesus died to save us from our sins. Can I tell you about Jesus?” The woman nodded, and the pastor continued. He said, “The Apostle Paul wrote in the book of Romans, ‘While we were yet sinners, and enemies of God, Christ Jesus died for us.’ And do you know what Paul did before he became an apostle? He hunted down and persecuted the early believers in Jesus, even standing by and approving as one named Stephen was executed by a mob. But then Paul was saved. And the Bible says that if you confess your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus, you too can be saved. Do you want to confess your sins?”
The woman listened attentively, but was confused. “Confess?” she asked, “Now? To you?”
“No,” said the pastor, “Not to me, but to Jesus. But I will stay here to help you. Are you sorry for your sins, and do you truly repent of them?”
“Sorry, yes, I am sorry, nothing but sorry,” she said, “I am filled with regret; fear and regret and dread– I am feeling all of that right now.”
“Well, that’s a good start,” the pastor said. “The Bible says that fear is the beginning of wisdom, and that if are sorry for your sins you can be forgiven. You are fearing God’s judgment and you have deep sorrow for your sins, and so you are ready to repent. Shall we begin in prayer?” The woman bowed her head, and the pastor began. He invited Jesus into the room, and told Jesus that this woman was a terrible sinner, but that now she wanted to confess her sins. And then he encouraged her to begin, and begin she did. She started with how even as a child she was so mean to her parents, and then how as a teenager she ran away from home. She let them worry about her for months, not letting them know where she was or even if she was alive. To support herself, she had gotten into a life of prostitution, which she was involved in on and off for years. It was the only steady work she ever had. Along with that she lied, cheated, betrayed her friends, and stole, doing whatever she could to stay alive and support her drug habit. She had settled down a bit for a couple years, and even had a child. But the marriage ended and the child had long ago been taken away from her, and she made no effort to keep in touch. Her parents were dead, her siblings had quit trying to contact her, and her few friends were all either dead or too full of their own troubles to come and see her. She was alone with her regrets. Her confession was filled with such crying that the nurses came in a couple times to make sure everything was all right. Finally, she laid her head back on the pillow, exhausted and silent.
The pastor said nothing for a long time, and then finally said, “You have indeed been a terrible sinner, and God hates sin. But having confessed your sins, and being truly sorry for them, I can say to you, that in the mercy of Almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for his sake, God forgives you all your sins. The Bible says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, and that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.’ Do you believe in Jesus and are you willing to invite him into your heart?”, the pastor asked.
She replied, “I am not even sure what that all means, but yes, I want to believe. I want to be forgiven and I want to go to heaven and not to hell.”
“Just look to Jesus,” the pastor said, “just keep telling Jesus that you want to believe, and he will take care of the rest. When Jesus was on earth people came to him with even the smallest seed of faith, and he received them and blessed them. When Jesus was dying on the cross, a thief was dying on a cross next to him. And that thief came to Jesus then, just like you now, in the last hours of a miserable life. And all that thief said was, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and Jesus said some wonderful words to him. Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Let that be your simple prayer now and for whatever is left of your life; “Jesus, remember me.” And then, when you fall asleep in death you will wake up not in hell, but in heaven with Jesus. You have God’s word on it. ‘Today,’ Jesus said, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ That promise is for you too.”
The nurse who invited that pastor in told him later that the woman died peacefully a few days after that visit. And instead of hearing her constant crying, the nurses would hear her praying over and over again, “Jesus, remember me.” It was the only prayer she knew, but she had heard the story of how Jesus received and honored even such a simple plea for mercy as that, first prayed by another very bad person.
The love of God isn’t just an idea or a principal, like the first chaplain presented it, but it is to be found in a Person. And the love of God isn’t just an ointment that you can smear over everything that moves, like that first chaplain did, without any reference to that woman’s sinful life or her complete absence of faith. The love of God is received by faith and confession and repentance and prayer. That woman knew her sin needed to be taken seriously and dealt with, and that is what the second pastor did, along with calling her to faith in Christ Jesus. We know the love of God by knowing Jesus, and we come to faith in God through Jesus, who forgives our sins.
Faith isn’t just whatever you want it to be. Faith has a specific object and content, it is faith in something solid, in Someone who was here, and who had some specific things to say, both promises and commands. That Someone is Jesus Christ, the way and the truth and the life. Believe in Him and you will be saved.
1 John 1:8-9 — If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
John 3:16-17 — For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
Luke 23:39-43 — One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Jesus, 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 Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”