Friday, August 12, 2005

Prayers for the Dead

In what Martin Luther regarded as his final confession of faith in his 1528 work against the Zwinglians, Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, he wrote as follows:

As for the dead, since Scripture gives us no information on the subject, I regard it as no sin to pray with free devotion in this or some similar fashion: ‘Dear God, if this soul is in a condition accessible to mercy, be thou gracious to it.’ And when this has been done once or twice, let it suffice. For vigils and requiem masses and yearly celebrations of requiems are useless, and merely the devil’s annual fair. (Luther’s Works, vol. 37, p. 369).

Luther’s approval of prayers for the dead given out of free devotion was shared in Melanchthon’s apology to the Augsburg Confession (article XXIV, 94), where he wrote:

Now, as regards the adversaries' citing the Fathers concerning the offering for the dead, we know that the ancients speak of prayer for the dead, which we do not prohibit; but we disapprove of the application ex opere operato of the Lord's Supper on behalf of the dead.

Despite this opinion, most Lutherans today follow the idea expressed in the WELS Q&A:

Our prayers for the dead are not to include prayers for their forgiveness or their salvation. For those who died in the faith such prayers are unnecessary. For those who died without faith they do no good.When a death is announced from the pulpit, we are asked to remember the family in our prayers, but not the actual dead.

The WELS opinion implies that any prayers for the dead would have to based on the idea that the dead are in some state between salvation and damnation, that is, purgatory. Since purgatory has no Biblical foundation, neither then would prayers for the dead. This opinion, while common, does not in fact settle the issue at all. The oft-cited verse from Hebrews 9:27 ". . . man is destined to die once and then face judgment . . ." indeed argues against purgatory, but is irrelevant to the issue of prayers for the dead. Even if the fate of one’s soul is decided for ever at the moment of death, with those believing in Christ being forgiven and those not believing bearing their sins, even so prayers for the dead deny no article of the Christian faith. How so?

The key is to remember that God is not bound by time. If I interview for a job that’s perfect for me on Monday, and wait a week to hear from employer, my prayers all that week are heard by God and are efficacious, even if the employer made the decision the very day of the interview. God can hear a prayer on Friday and reach back in time and bend the heart of an employer on the Monday previous; indeed to say that God hears a prayer at a particular time and then goes back in time to answer it is distortion of God’s true timelessness.

Apply this to our thoughts about those who have died. If a loved one died a year ago, and I pray for his soul this day, God is not bound by time and can hear my prayer and work on my loved one in his hour of death a year before, strengthening him in the faith if he has it, or creating faith where none existed before.

But one could ask, wouldn’t I know whether my loved one died in the faith or not? And isn’t praying for something whose event I know already a denial of God’s will? In some cases I certainly might. If I or a faithful and orthodox pastor was at the bedside of my loved one and witnessed him dying full of faith in Christ, it would be absurd and ungrateful to God to pray anything other than a prayer of thanksgiving for his salvation. On the other hand if we witnessed him on his deathbed firmly denying Christ, steadfastly persisting in atheism and self-reliance to the end, prayers for his salvation, however understandable, would smack of refusal to submit to God’s righteous judgment.

But realistically, how many of such cases can really be found? Far more typical is the loyal Christian woman in a mainline church who loved Christ but always indignantly denied the existence of hell, the occasional church-goer who is put into a coma by a stroke and dies without regaining consciousness, the Baptist missionary who spends all her strength winning souls for Christ and taught her converts to reject God’s word concerning baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the devout Christian man with an undiagnosed depressive condition who disappears for a day and is found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the grandmother who slipped into mindless senility years before her death, the writer who longed desperately for a faith she mournfully believed that God had never given her, the man of affairs who did great good for humanity and is cut down suddenly just as he seemed to be returning again to the faith of his fathers, a son baptized and raised in the faith who was drowned on a canoing trip with his live-in girlfriend. . . .

In such cases only simple-minded dogmatists would dare say for sure whether they are in heaven or hell. On what grounds then are we denied the right to pray for those we love, that in their moment of death they might remember the Gospel promise of God in Christ and cling to it? And if God tells us to pray persistently for all the concerns of our heart and especially for the salvation of all (Luke 18; Philippians 4; 1 Timothy 2), how can He be angry when we pray for the thing that weighs most on our hearts, something about which we genuinely do not know His will? And who can be confident denying that the prayers of loved ones, whenever they are offered, before, during, or after death, do not by God’s appointment, comfort and uphold those facing death without preparation and without full knowledge of God’s grace?For these reasons, for many years now I have believed that prayers for the dead (which are really prayers for those in the hour of death) are a true Christian practice, completely consistent with the evangelical faith, and have practiced this. As I have seen (on Luther Quest of all places), I am not alone in doing so.

Originally posted at Here We Stand