“Whatever else you might say at the funeral of an unbeliever, do not leave out the Person and saving work of Jesus Christ. Preach the precious truths about the incarnation, the active obedience of Jesus, the passive obedience of Jesus, the atoning death of Jesus, the wrath propitiation of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus and the return of Jesus.”
Preaching at someone’s funeral is one of the most difficult aspects of pastoral ministry. It is all the more difficult when it is the funeral service of a loved one or a beloved member of the church. However, the most challenging of all is preaching the funeral of someone who was almost certainly an unbeliever. I recently heard about a minister who preached the funeral of a girl who had openly rejected the Christian faith. In the middle of his sermon, the minister who was officiating went off on a tangential rant about how awful our culture has become and about how America had lost its moorings and needed to return to its Christian roots. Whatever one might think about the cultural drift of America, preaching those things at a funeral (at any funeral)–let alone at the funeral of an unbeliever–is not what we are called to do as ministers of the Gospel. We should avoid any pre-packaged approaches to preaching a funeral message. So many things may come into play that will effect what passage a minister might preach, how long the sermon should be and what should be said and left unsaid. However, what we can agree upon is that preaching at a funeral is an opportunity to exalt Jesus Christ and teach men and women the foundational truths of the fall, judgment, redemption and resurrection. Here are a few things to which we might consider committing to if we are given the opportunity to preach the funeral of an unbeliever:
Talk about the Fall, Death and Judgment. Historically, funerals have been one of the only occasions where unbelievers will sit, for some length of time, and listen to someone proclaim truth. It seems as if they are becoming less and less so in our day. I have preached at funerals where many unbelievers were in attendance only to sense disdain as I preached the truth. Nevertheless, what Solomon said so long ago is still true today, “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” (Eccl. 7:2). A funeral is an opportunity to explain to men and women why all men die. Almost everyone will allow themselves to think and speak about how someone has died, but not about why they died. At a funeral, I want to dispel the notion that death is normal or something to be embraced. The Scriptures tell us that death is a great enemy–the last great enemy that Christ came to conqueror. While I would not preach about Hell in all of it’s dreadfulness per se at a funeral, the funeral of an unbeliever is a God-given opportunity to teach men about the consequences of the fall, death and judgment in general.
Exalt Jesus Christ. If you forget everything else in this post, please do not forget this point. Whatever else you might say at the funeral of an unbeliever, do not leave out the Person and saving work of Jesus Christ. Preach the precious truths about the incarnation, the active obedience of Jesus, the passive obedience of Jesus, the atoning death of Jesus, the wrath propitiation of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus and the return of Jesus. Preach Jesus as the sin-bearing, curse-removing Savior who calls men to Himself so thatt they may find rest for their souls (Matt. 11:28-30). Preach Jesus as the exclusive Savior–as the One who said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Preach the saving grace of God in Christ to hopeless and helpless sinners. This is the one task with which ministers of the Gospel have been entrusted.