I have the unique opportunity, when I preside at a funeral, to do genuine, powerful and evangelistic ministry. It is also a time in which I can be tempted to compromise truth, to curry favor with people instead of God, to unintentionally promote heresy and squander this unique opportunity.
One Sunday afternoon a while back I sat at my desk working on my evening sermon when the phone rang. One of our members had finally succumbed after a six month battle with brain cancer. I headed outside into the dreary Iowa dusk to go and visit with this family for a few brief moments. As I drove there, I was suddenly struck with an overwhelming awe. Here was a family in grief, in deep need, devastated at the loss of a wife, mother and grandmother, and it was my job to go and help these broken people. I was tasked with representing God and his comfort and grace.
Do we pastors have a more awesome privilege that this, to be the ministers of God to broken and hurting people at this most horrible moment? When death devastates, when grief reigns, we have the responsibility to serve as agents of God’s grace, to minister peace and comfort, and to bind wounds. We have no innate solutions; we can only minister the strength of the Lord and point people to the Spirit’s healing balm. But the moment of death and the funeral service that follows is one of our most important moments of spiritual impact.
The Dangers of Compromise
It is also a moment in which many of our number compromise the truth. I learned a lot from a funeral director who, as best I could tell, had almost no understanding of the gospel. He told me something one time as we rode together to the burial. “You preachers undo everything you preach on Sunday when you do funerals.” Obviously, my interest was piqued at this moment. He explained that we tell people on Sunday that they have to be good, but then when they die we preach them into heaven regardless of how they lived. Ignoring his works-based theology, I think he had discovered a jewel of truth. Too often, in our desire to minister comfort to a hurting family, we ignore the brutal truths that we preach every Sunday.
This same funeral director told me a story about what he and one of my deacons did to the pastor who preceded me at that church. As the pastor visited with the family, he was led to believe the deceased was a unique mixture of Billy Graham, Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi. In reality, he was a shiftless alcoholic and everyone knew it except the pastor. He preached the funeral and did the burial and was milling around after when the funeral director and deacon came up to him with concerned looks on their faces. “Pastor, we have a problem. We are going to have to open the gasket.” With a horrified look the pastor asked why. “Well, after the message you preached, I’m pretty sure we have the wrong body in the casket.
I live in an area dominated by denominations that practice infant baptism. At funerals in those churches I tend to hear that the deceased had his sins washed away at his baptism and is assured a place in heaven because of that. Even in churches that preach salvation by grace, the funerals often tend to skew toward baptism as the decisive event.
It would be great if we Baptists were above this. But I have heard preachers usher a departed soul into glory on the basis of a “decision” made in fourth grade that bore no sign of fruit as long as the person lived.
Worst of all, I have attended funerals at which the minister of the gospel seems to actually be ashamed of that gospel. When is the gospel more important than when we face death? Someone has departed and is either with the Lord or eternally separated. Is there a more important time to be faithful to the truth of the gospel than a funeral?
The Blessing of Death
Death is a horrible enemy – the last to be destroyed. Even Jesus wept at the death of a loved one. But when someone dies, doors that are otherwise closed suddenly spring open. People who never think about spiritual things are brought face to face with death and eternity. Those who never darken the door of the church put on their nice clothes and come to hear me preach. When I preach on Sunday, the congregation is predominantly saved people (professing believers, at least). But at funerals, I stand in front of lost people – some living lives of gross sin, others simply deceived by self-righteous religion. It is my best opportunity to be an evangelist.
My Convictions about Funerals
When I say what I am about to say, people look at me funny. I love doing funerals. I don’t like death and I am glad when the funerals are rare, but they are such opportunities for genuine ministry that I have grown to consider it a real privilege to do them.
Over the years, through trial and error (and a helpful, if theologically confused funeral director), I have come to develop some convictions about funerals. I believe that as I follow these convictions, I am more effective.
Remember Who We Work For
Despite what some folks on this blog might believe, I have a compassionate heart. It is not always easy to confront people with the harsh truths of death and judgment, and it must be done with tact and kindness.
But, when I do a funeral, I must remember for whom I work. I am not there first and foremost to please the family or make them feel good. I am there to represent God and the Bible and Truth. I am an agent of God’s truth and my chief responsibility is to him. I can preach an eloquent, emotional and uplifting message that wows the crowd, but if I do not speak the truths that please God I have failed in my task.
God does not demand that I be obnoxious or tactless. But he does demand that my first loyalty be to him and to the truth that flows from the Word.
It Is Not My Job to Determine a Man’s Eternal Destiny
Every family wants to hear the preacher’s assurance that the loved one that has died is in heaven with Jesus. It is my job to present the truth of the gospel and remind people that the only hope any person has in death is Jesus Christ and the Blood of the Cross.
But I do not have a paperback copy of the Lamb’s Book of Life and it is not my job to determine whether someone is in heaven or hell or to give assurances of that. I do not have the right to send people to heaven and shouldn’t act as if I do. I can relate a person’s testimony of salvation. I can share my observations of what I perceived to be evidence of a person’s relationship with Jesus Christ.
But I do not have the right to tell every family that they have the assurance of heaven, the resurrection and the great reunion in the future. I have done funerals for people I had every reason to believe were destined for hell. I did not, of course, say that. I just proclaim the gospel and tell every one of them that they need to repent and believe.
Confront the Most Common Heresy
I try to preach unique messages at each funeral. Yes, I have a format I use and I have been known to reuse a message or two, but I try to make each service personal, a distinctive tribute to the life of the departed and to the glory of the Savior.
But there is one thing I do at just about every funeral I preach now. We had convened at the home of a lady who had passed away, sharing a meal with the family and friends. As I was there, a former pastor called to greet the family. I spoke to him for a few minutes. I will never forget what he said. “I guess if she didn’t make it, no one is going to make it.” I was stunned. He was a Baptist pastor and yet a message of salvation by works permeated his words.
I saw a statistic a while back that disturbed me greatly. According to the study, 56% of people who identified themselves as Baptist believed that works had some part in their salvation. These are Baptists, folks. And more than half of them are trusting in their own works for salvation. Unfortunately, the messages that I have heard at funerals often, at least subliminally, feed that perception.
So, when I preach a funeral, I give a variation of this message:
“You loved Mr. Smith. You will cherish his memory. He was a good person in our eyes. But there is something I need you to understand. When Mr. Smith passed into eternity, his works meant nothing. As good a man as you think he was, he was not good enough to earn heaven by his own good works. Only someone who is sinless and perfect can meet the standard of God’s glory. Jesus did that. He lived a sinless life and offered himself for our sins, for Mr. Smith’s and mine and yours. When we stand before God, none of us will be able to claim that our good works, our baptism, our church membership or our acts of charity were enough to gain us heaven. It is only by repenting of our sins and trusting Jesus as Savior and Lord that any of us has hope.”
Here is my deepest conviction: if you are a minister of the gospel, then you owe it to the Father, to your Savior and to every soul who attends that funeral to make is absolutely clear that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works.
Don’t leave any doubt about that one.
Those of us who are ministers of the gospel have a unique privilege. We get to represent God to hurting people. But we also have the responsibility to make fidelity to God and his righteousness our highest priority.
Here is my prayer that we will make the most of these golden opportunities.
I invite your analysis of my convictions about funerals. I would also love to hear your funeral stories – like those I shared above.
Let’s talk about it.