by Bob Wilkin, originally published in the March-April 2003 Newsletter of the Grace Evangelical Society
In June of last year something odd happened in Loxley, Alabama. Pastor Orlando Bethel was preaching a funeral for a man who had died of prostate cancer. Pastor Bethel had a tough task, for the man who died had not been walking closely with the Lord.
Midway through his sermon, Pastor Bethel announced that the deceased had been a drunkard and an immoral man—and that he therefore was now in hell!
At this point, some of the mourners jumped up from their seats, dragged Pastor Bethel outside, and beat him up.
The police were called to break up the fight.
After the incident, Pastor Bethel’s wife defended his actions saying: “He is duty-bound as a minister to preach the gospel.”1
Abusing the Gospel and the Listeners
I don’t preach a lot of funerals. But I have done some. One funeral I conducted a few years ago for a young man who had died of AIDS presented me with the same sort of problem as the one the Pastor in Loxley faced.
Yes, we all—not just preachers—are duty-bound to preach the gospel. However, the gospel is the good news that Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe in Him. He said, “He who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). He did not say, “He who believes in Me and who lives a good life will get eternal life when he dies.” Eternal life is received the moment one believes. There are no strings attached. There is no lifestyle test. No matter how one lives, if he ever came to faith in Christ for eternal life, he is eternally secure.
So Pastor Bethel erred not because he spoke boldly, but because he spoke wrongly. I don’t know if the man being buried was a believer. But the fact that he had problems with liquor and with womanizing doesn’t tell us one way or the other whether he was a believer or not. David and Samson had trouble with women. Yet David was a man after God’s own heart and Samson is listed in the Hebrews 11 faith hall of fame. Some believers in Corinth died as a result of getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:30). Yet they were believers. Paul said they “slept.” That is a term reserved for the death of believers. It is never used in the NT to refer to the death of unbelievers.
In addition, boldness must not be confused with insensitivity. At a funeral, even if you are certain that the person had been a life-long unbeliever, no verse in the Bible tells us that we must report that the deceased is now in hell.
My approach in cases where I’m unsure of the spiritual condition of the deceased is to tell the audience what the departed person would want to say. “Joe would want everyone here to know that Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe on Him. There are no strings attached. The moment anyone believes in Jesus, he has—present tense—eternal life (John 6:47)…” I need not say whether the deceased believed or didn’t believe. The rich man Jesus spoke of in Luke 16 who died and went to Sheol makes it clear that even the unsaved dead want their loved ones to know the good news.
Don’t Imply that God Condones Sin
When I spoke at the funeral of the man who died with AIDS, I was careful to indicate that he had been away from the Lord. But, this I derived from his sisters who are solid Free Grace believers. I pointed out that he had come to faith in Jesus a number of years ago. Thus although he was not living as he should have been, he is with the Lord because eternal life is a free gift received by faith alone in Christ alone.
The family members accepted this quite well. In fact, they beamed. Everyone present knew the life he had lived. They knew he had emotional and spiritual problems in his life that led to his premature death. But they also knew he had come to faith in Christ.
If a man who died while out of fellowship with God goes to heaven, then all of us can say that is indeed good news. For who among us is free from sin? We may never have been drunk and may never have been guilty of premarital or extramarital sex. But does that mean we are without sin? Hardly. There are many Christians who are filled with barely controlled rage. Behind closed doors even some preachers are guilty of angry outbursts and temper tantrums.
You may not preach funerals. But you do have to deal with this question. It is important to avoid both unfortunate extremes. On the one hand, don’t imply that God condones sin. How we live matters. On the other hand, don’t distort the gospel like the Alabama preacher did and say that all sinners go to hell.
Discuss Eternal Rewards
In the funeral of the young man who died with AIDS, I don’t recall mentioning the doctrine of rewards. It didn’t seem appropriate in that context. However, if asked, I would have said that if his wayward lifestyle continued to the end, then he forfeited the right to rule with Christ and the related rewards that he would have received. Now if an immoral person repents and turns back to the Lord, then he can rule, though having lost much of the opportunity he could have had (Luke 15:11-32). He may rule over only one small city. But he will rule if he was confessing Christ and walking with Him at the time he went to be with the Lord (2 Tim 2:12).
Solomon died an idolater (1 Kings 11). Evidently that means one of the greatest kings of Israel and of this world will not be a ruler in the life to come. How sad. How we live has eternal consequences, even though eternal security is not at stake.
Our Western custom of having funerals with short (or long) sermons is an opportunity to remember the person who died and to remember the Lord Jesus and His soon return. It is a great time to proclaim the gospel, and in many contexts, the doctrine of rewards as well.
If I die before the rapture, I want the gospel clearly proclaimed at my funeral.
I’ve often joked that I want my epitaph to read, “See, I told you I was sick.” (I’m a recovering hypochondriac!) In reality I want something like, “Jesus said, ‘He who believes in Me has everlasting life.’ Bob did and he does.”