Written by: Frank Gantt pastor of St. Luke’s Ev. Lutheran Church in Lemmon, South Dakota.
“Since it has pleased Almighty God in His good providence to call this brother out of this present life, it is proper for us, before committing his body to the earth, to hear in our bereavement the admonition and comfort of God’s holy Word.”
The above words are the words the pastor typically reads to the family of the deceased prior to the funeral service. While not taken directly from the Bible, they do accurately reflect precisely what a funeral service is all about: admonition and comfort. The funeral service serves to admonish those present by teaching them to prepare for a blessed departure from this world, which can happen only through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. The funeral service also serves to comfort those present by assuring them that the death of His saints is a precious thing in the sight of the Lord, and that it is a blessed thing to die in the Lord.
Christ did not command His Church to conduct funeral services. The funeral service is something that the Church, in Christian freedom, initiated to recognize the faithfulness of God in giving eternal life to those who believe on the name of His Son. As such, it is more than a civil ceremony conducted to show honor to the deceased. It is a testimony that what God promises in His Word to do, He is faithful to perform.
It has often been said that the funeral service is for the living, not the deceased. That is certainly true in the sense that the Word preached at the funeral is for the benefit of those who still remain in a time of grace. Yet, what testimony to God’s faithfulness to give eternal life can a pastor make about one who had no Christian confession? What comfort can he offer to those listening? He might be able to invoke a few chuckles by relaying some comical event from the life of the deceased. He might get a few heads to nod affirming some kind act the deceased performed. But, at the end of the day, the deceased is still dead—the result and evidence of a
life of sin.
This is where the comfort of a Christian funeral (and a Christian’s funeral) stands out. At a Christian funeral, the pastor is able to offer genuine comfort to the survivors. Even though the evidence of sin lies before the congregation in the casket, the pastor is able to say without reservation that the dearly departed has gone to be with the Lord. It’s not because he did enough good things to balance out the sin he committed. It’s not because he left a sizable amount of his estate to charity. It’s not even because of how frequently he attended church. It’s because God sent His Son to take away his sin and so also to take away his death. It’s because the blood which Christ poured out on the cross was the sacrifice necessary to reconcile him to God. It’s because the Holy Spirit, through the washing of water by the Word, set him apart to inherit eternal life through faith in Jesus, who loved him and gave Himself for him.
When it is uncertain whether an individual took refuge in such grace of God, and especially when an individual rejected and spurned that grace of God, a pastor might well refuse to conduct a funeral for him, lest the impression be given that God’s grace isn’t so important after all. God’s grace is indispensable for eternal life, for it is by grace we have been saved through faith, and that not of ourselves—it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). Thus the Christian funeral is a celebration
of God’s saving grace and His