December 2017

December 2017

Prayers for the Dead?

I have to admit that, before becoming a pastor, I didn’t think a whole lot about the question of prayers for the dead. It seemed to me to be enough simply to trust in the mercy of God and know that He always does what He knows best. But when I started officiating over Christian funerals, and sometimes even over the funerals of those whose faith was, at best, in doubt, as I stood before the body lying in the casket, whether at the visitation or during an open-casket funeral at the funeral home, I felt compelled in my conscience to offer a brief prayer to God, prayer that He would have mercy upon this pour soul and, in His grace for the sake of Christ, receive the spirit of the departed into His kingdom. This has led me to investigate a bit more the Lutheran testimony to prayers for the dead. I have drawn three conclusions that I wish to share with you. First, it is not an ungodly thing to pray for the dead if such prayer is understood rightly. Second, the propriety of prayer for the dead hinges upon our uncertainty regarding the state of the deceased. Third, the value of prayer for the dead hinges upon our certainty regarding the mercy of God in Christ.

It is not a sin to pray for the dead, as long as we do not believe that thereby we can bring about eternal salvation for those who in this life did not believe in Jesus Christ. The Scriptures do not speak of prayers for the dead, either for or against. This led Martin Luther to preach in a sermon on the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19–31), “We have no command from God to pray for the dead; therefore no one sins by not praying for them; for what God does not bid or forbid us to do, in that no one can sin. Yet, on the other hand …, we will not and cannot restrain them, nor count it as sin, if they pray for the dead.” In the same vein, Philipp Melanchthon writes in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession that the Lutheran churches “do not prohibit” prayers for the dead (Ap. XXIV.94). God has left us free to pray or not to pray for the dead as our conscience directs.

We may pray for the dead because we are uncertain regarding the present state and final sentence of the deceased. We cannot peer into the hearts of the dead to see if they really believed in Jesus Christ. Only God knows that for certain. Those who professed faith in Christ may have been hypocrites, and those who did not profess faith in Christ may have come to repentance in their final moments. We don’t know, and that means we don’t know for absolutely certain whether our loved ones are in heaven or hell (though we can be joyfully confident regarding the salvation of those who professed faith in Christ and proved their faith with a godly life!). Praying for the dead, therefore, is similar to praying for a loved one who has just been involved in a disaster but whose fate is as yet unknown to us. If I know that a loved one is in a burning building, I will not hesitate to pray for him, even if it is entirely possible that he has already succumbed to the flames. As long as I am uncertain, I will continue to pray that God would deliver my loved one.

Going ever further, Luther, in the same sermon cited above, reminds us that “God has not permitted us to know how it is with the souls of the departed and we must continue uninformed as to how He deals with them…. For we are ever certain from the Gospel that many have been raised from the dead who, we must confess, did not receive nor did they have their final sentence; and likewise we are not assured of any other, that he has his final sentence.” We are not certain of anyone’s final sentence until the Last Day. Thus, because of our uncertainty, we may pray for the dead.

Finally, we may pray for the dead because we are certain of God’s mercy. Allow me to quote Luther’s sermon once more: “Now since it is uncertain and no one knows whether final judgment has been passed upon these souls, it is not sin if you pray for them; but in this way, that you let it rest in uncertainty and speak thus: Dear God, if the departed souls be in a state that they may yet be helped, then I pray that Thou wouldst be gracious. And when you have thus prayed once or twice, then let it be sufficient and commend them unto God. For God has promised that when we pray to Him for anything He would hear us. Therefore when you have prayed once or twice, you should believe that your prayer is answered, and there let it rest, lest you tempt God and mistrust Him” (emphasis mine). As uncertain as we might be concerning specific matters that remain unrevealed to us, we must always be certain that God is merciful for the sake of His Son and that He has commanded us to pray and has promised to hear us. God will not spurn the prayers of His faithful who long for the wellbeing of the deceased whom they love as themselves, according to His command.

If you would like to speak more with me concerning the propriety of prayer for your loved ones who have departed this life, please feel free to see me about it. It could be a source of comfort to have something we can still do for our loved ones, not just for their bodies, but also for their souls. But whether we pray for them or not, our hope remains in Him who alone is the resurrection and the life, even Jesus Christ our Lord.


Pastor Neuendorf