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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.”

Dr. Harry L. Reeder is senior minister of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Clay Gentry

commented on Oct 17, 2013

Thank you for sharing you advise. I especially liked your suggestion about using the decided bible. From my experience, preaching funerals for unbelievers is hard because usually I do not know them or the family. But as you pointed out, we preach the gospel nonetheless. How can one forget the wisdom of Solomon: "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity. Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart." (Ecclesiastes 7:2-7)

Tejado W. Hanchell

commented on Oct 17, 2013

Great article! I too, am grateful for the effective opportunity to share the gospel during funerals. There are always family members and friends present who may not otherwise be predisposed to be in a church. Their hearts are ripe for the gospel. Thank you for sharing!

Minister Sanders

commented on Oct 17, 2013

This is a wonderful article on how we can use the moment of sorrow to tell others about a Saviour that died and on the third day, how he rose again with all power in his hand! And that if they would right now let Jesus into the door of their hearts they too, will one day die and raise up overcoming Satan, the Flesh, The World, Sin and Death forever! God Bless Everyone of You On This Panel and Continue Standing on Wall For Christ!!!!!

Dennis Cocks

commented on Oct 17, 2013

I have preached many funerals. People are very aware of their mortality at this particular time so it is imperative of course to present the Gospel. There have only been two funerals that I have preached where someone didn't make a profession of faith when I invited them to accept Christ.

Douglas Hallman

commented on Oct 17, 2013

Pastor Reeder is right on. I use funerals as an occasion to comfort the grieving, honor the deceased but primarily to proclaim the Gospel. If the deceased gave a clear testimony of salvation I talk a lot about Heaven and the final experience of salvation to comfort the Believers and always present the plan of salvation for any lost. I often use John 14:1-6, Psalms 16, Psalms 23 and always read passages like 2 Cor. 5:1-10, 1 Thess. 4:13-18 because the Apostle Paul ends the section with "wherefore comfort one another with these words." What an honor Pastors have to minister to the body of Christ and those on the outside at a time like this. To miss the opportunity and merely blabber about how good so and so was, is foolishness.

Jonathan Mbuna

commented on Oct 18, 2013

Honestly I am moved by this article. My key lesson is using the Bible of the deceased. What a great opportunity. I know of some churches which throw into the grave the Christian's details like his/her church membership or a paper which has his/her titles or position and the the preacher says " "Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them"

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