The subject I have been asked to write about was one of my greatest fears upon entrance into pastoral 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 I rejoice in the opportunity that the death of a believer opens for communicating the majesty of Christ and the glories of the gospel while comforting the family and friends and presenting salvation by grace to those who are lost but have come to “pay their respects.” But what about an unbeliever’s funeral? Believe it or not, I also count this an opportunity to appropriately, truthfully, and 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 to the realities of eternity and their need of the Savior.
Let’s address the challenge of an unbeliever’s funeral first. How do you preach the gospel at funerals for unbelievers? First, you must be committed to doing it. Second, you have to be compassionate while doing it. The implications will be obvious to any who listen 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 pronouncements about a person’s soul any more than we are allowed to give false assurances concerning his eternal state. Why? God alone is in the position of knowing that person’s heart and making pronouncements concerning his eternal destination — we do not know if perhaps he experienced a deathbed conversion. Instead, we are to preach the gospel and direct all in attendance to their need of the 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 his heart and his eternal destination. What I must do is make clear that entrance into eternal life is only through Christ.
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 clichés of sentimentality that we somehow think will comfort people. In funerals, pastors must preach as they would in any preaching opportunity. We are to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). 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 his Christianity as well as his lifetime contributions to give a brief eulogy. A well-given eulogy allows the preacher to focus on the gospel, the glorious truth of forgiveness because of the cross and the bodily resurrection of Christ. 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 that 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 you spend eternity?” 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 he has 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. 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 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 D.L. Moody told a New York journalist concerning the truth of the gospel and his approaching death: “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.”