I read a church sign that said, “Practice what you preach so your Pastor doesn’t have to lie at your funeral!” I don’t normally like quippy church sign sayings but that one has stuck with me over the years. It’s true; there are an awful lot of exaggerations of good and oversights of bad at funerals.
People only want to remember the best parts of their deceased family and friends. Focusing on the best and ignoring the worst is normal. But what do you do when called upon to do a funeral for an unbeliever? What about when their bereaved widow would rather you pretend they were a believer, with all evidence pointing to the contrary? Here are a few principles I’ve learned after preaching several funerals under these circumstances.
1. You can’t eulogize somebody into heaven.
No matter how hard you try the time for accepting Christ is this life and personally. A crying widow is heartbreaking but it’s not her pain but Christ’s, and that acquired by faith, which affords someone the prize of Heaven. (Hebrews 9:27-28) Celebrate the person’s life but don’t pretend they were a Christian if they were not.
2. Don’t perpetuate myths.
Many unbelievers are incredibly good people but just because grandma says Ol’ Joey must be in heaven because he was a good man doesn’t make it so. The Creator of all things is the only judge on such matters, not grandma. A lot of people are trusting in their relative goodness to gain access to Heaven. Don’t preach Joey into Heaven for the sake of not trampling upon people’s mythological versions of Christianity.
God saves according to grace alone through faith alone. You may not be able to straighten out everyone’s bad theology in one sermon but at the very least don’t reinforce it. Offer up a straightforward presentation of the biblical portrait of salvation by grace through faith. Truth needs no defense. State the pure Gospel affirmatively. Don’t attack a false gospel.
3. Don’t be overly dogmatic about who is or is not saved.
Do not state who is or is not saved. While there may be absolutely no evidence of salvation in Ol’ Joey’s life please, please, please, don’t claim the role of God in assuming that any man knows for certain the condition of another soul or relationship with Christ.
Grandma may insist upon clinging to the notion that the little boy she loved so dearly is in Heaven, even though he grew up to be a self-centered idolatrous man. You’re not going to talk her out of it by insisting Joey can’t be in Heaven. You’ll just make her dislike you and retreat further into her bad theology. It is better to use the funeral of an unbeliever as a platform to proclaim a pure Gospel than to assume the judgment seat that only God can occupy. You don’t have to say, “Joey’s in Hell,” to tell people how to get to Heaven.
Whether the deceased was an unashamed believer and lived in a manner consistent with her beliefs or she was an avowed atheist, a funeral sermon should celebrate the dead and point people to the risen. People are grieving the loss of someone they loved in this life. Gaining Christ and heaven doesn’t mean they’ll see them again but it does mean they can have a hope the deceased never knew.
Preaching Christ at the funeral of an unbeliever requires the subtle art of careful preaching. It’s as much about what you don’t say as what you do say. Celebrate the person then use careful transitions to point people to Jesus with statements like, “This life will end someday for all of us. How can we be prepared?”
Preaching Christ at the funeral of an unbeliever must be surgical. Don’t lose the audience by dwelling on the person’s lack of faith. Celebrate their loved one and then point them to Christ. There yet remains time for them to receive Christ and have the eternal reward that comes to sinners as a free gift through faith in Jesus.