Interestingly, the subject that I have been asked to write upon was in fact one of my greatest fears upon entrance into the ministry. But today I consider it one of my greatest privileges. Why? Because of the historicity and glorious message of the atoning death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Obviously, I do not delight in the fact of someone’s death but in the opportunity that the death of a believer or an unbeliever opens for communicating the majesty of Christ and the glories of the Gospel while comforting the family and friends and also in presenting salvation by grace to those who are lost yet have come to “pay their respects.” But what about an unbelievers funeral? Believe it or not, I also count this an opportunity to appropriately and truthfully yet compassionately share the Gospel. I am constantly amazed at how wide the door opens for effective Gospel communication at the funeral of an unbeliever. Clearly, the preacher cannot “preach someone into Heaven” or give false assurances but there is a way to carefully turn everyone’s attention, in such a moment, to the realities of eternity and their need of a Savior. Let’s address the challenge of an unbelievers funeral first.
The first church I pastored was in Miami, Florida. I had moved to an area where I knew no one and the church I pastored was on the verge of closing. (The complete story can be found in the book From Embers to a Flame which gave rise to the From Embers to a Flame Church Revitalization Ministry.) So I needed to meet people in Miami who needed to know Christ. I employed numerous strategies. One strategy was to offer my services to local funeral homes for anyone who didn’t have a church home and the family needed a minister for the funeral of their loved one. I was aware of how challenging this would be but what I didn’t know was how fruitful this strategy would become in harvesting Gospel blessings in the lives of men and women, as well as maturing me in the ministry of preaching and leading funerals for unbelievers while caring for their families.
Preaching the Gospel at the funeral for unbelievers… How do you do that? First, you must be committed to doing it. Second, you have to be compassionate while doing it. Why? The implications will be obvious to anyone who listens to what you are thoughtfully yet pointedly saying about the Gospel. The eternal state of the unbeliever who has died is revealed by the truth of the Gospel. Let’s be clear. We are not called to make eternal pronouncements concerning the soul of their loved one any more than we are allowed to give false assurances concerning their eternal state. Why? Because we do not know their heart and God alone is in the position of knowing their heart and making pronouncements concerning their eternal destination. Furthermore, we do not know if perhaps they had experienced a deathbed conversion. We are to preach the Gospel and direct all in attendance to the realities of their own need of a Savior in light of eternity. The question from some would be, “don’t you have a responsibility to tell them that the unbeliever who died is under the judgment of God?” The answer is, “no.” We have a responsibility to say that any and all who have not put their trust in Christ are rightly under the judgment of God. The individual’s heart, I do not know. God alone is able and positioned to disclose and declare the condition of their heart and their eternal destination. What I must do is make clear that entrance into eternal life is only through Christ. Because the implications of this are so clear, I always try to take the time to comfort the family appropriately and relationally. This must be done with integrity (truth) and thoughtfulness (love). The third thought is simply summed up by stating that we cannot give any false assurances nor can we trample upon the grief and fragility of family members by being heavy handed.
So, what about the death of believers? I have a confession to make. It is all that I can do to sit in a funeral service where the preacher begins with sentimental clichés that we somehow think will comfort people. I have actually heard preachers say, “God has picked a flower which He needed for His bouquet.” “Don’t think God had anything to do with this.” “The reason we are here today is because God blinked.” Unfortunately, I’ve heard other such, perhaps well meaning but equally destructive and demoralizing statements. Pastors must, in funerals, preach as they would in any preaching opportunity. We are to “speak the truth in love.” To paraphrase a Puritan divine, “truth without love is barbarity and love without truth is cruelty.” Here is a practical suggestion to assist in this objective. Always encourage the family members to ask someone who knows the individual well and can testify to their Christianity as well as their lifetime contributions to give a brief eulogy. While the preacher in the sermon certainly desires to mention personal dynamics, relational incidents and anecdotal events, a well given family eulogy allows the preacher to focus upon the Gospel truth of forgiveness because of the Cross and the bodily resurrection because of the risen Christ whom we proclaim as our Blessed Hope. A family eulogy positions the preacher to comfort the family, encourage believers and evangelize any who are lost.
Personal remarks in the sermon are necessary and helpful, but remember, all true and lasting comfort comes in the Gospel promises of redemption and resurrection fulfilled in the death and bodily resurrection of Christ. Because Christ is risen, the one who has died is “home.” Everyone sitting in the funeral service is not. The question to them is, “Where will your eternity be spent?” One other practical suggestion. I love to use the Bible of the one who has gone to be with the Lord. I enjoy searching through it, securing notes from it and noting places in it where they have underlined or written thoughts. Then, I love to use it and let everyone know that I am using it in the funeral. At the graveside, after the benediction I always place the Bible into the hands of the spouse or closest relative while giving words of personal comfort.
The preeminence of Christ, our Redeemer and the truth of the Gospel with the glorious promise of the resurrection must be simply, thoughtfully and clearly articulated with compassion and conviction. Your challenge is that everyone in attendance has to undergo a paradigm shift. Most of your listeners’ believe their loved one or friend has just gone from “the land of the living” to “the land of the dying”. You must proclaim to them in the power of the Holy Spirit, through the truth of the Gospel based upon the historic reality of the vicarious atonement and victorious resurrection of Christ, that the exact opposite is actually true. They have not left the “land of the living” to go to the “land of the dying;” they have left the “land of the dying” to go to the “land of the living.” As stated by D.L. Moody to a New York journalist concerning the truth of the Gospel and his approaching death in light of declining health, “Some day you will read in the papers that D.L. Moody of East Northfield, is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now;”