Preaching the Gospel at Funerals
The most helpful advice I ever received about preaching at a funeral for someone I didn’t know is: “Don’t preach them into heaven. Don’t preach them into hell. Just preach the gospel for the people who are there.” This principle captures our task regardless the kind of funeral we do. Ironically, though we focus on remembering and celebrating the life of the deceased, the funeral service is ultimately for those who attend.
The sermon is where the gospel must be preached clearly. Only when we can personally have confidence in a person’s conversion should we feel comfortable to speak of the heavenly reward he/she has now received. If there is any uncertainty in your mind, which will almost necessarily be the case when preaching the funeral of someone you’ve never met, it’s best to focus on the gospel for your hearers. It’s better to resist the temptation to provide a false comfort that you have little or no basis to give.
A funeral sermon should not exceed 20 minutes and should highlight these three categories, preferably expounded from a text or texts of Scripture:
1) Acknowledge the need to grieve.
The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11) is particularly helpful on this point. If Jesus weeps at the loss of a friend, we should, too. I often share the time my father sat me and my wife down once we found out we had miscarried with our second child; he exhorted us to take time to grieve over this child, instructing us how to do so.
Don’t ever presume that people realize that grief is appropriate, or that they know how to work through their grief by simply talking about their deceased loved one. In actuality, many do not want to talk about them because of the hurt felt in loss. Many pastors know that often, years later, people learn the value of this process, eventually working through the grief with some pastoral guidance.
2) Make the hope of the gospel clearly known.
True hope in the midst of grief cannot come apart from the hope we have in the gospel. This is why the second and third portion of a funeral sermon focuses on Christ’s person and work. Whatever text you choose to preach, make sure you are able to focus on the clear elements of the gospel: God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness and deserving judgment, Christ’s perfect personhood and atoning work to save us, and our essential response to repent and believe upon Christ.
3) Call your hearers to respond to the gospel.
To do so appropriately and effectively, you must prepare by knowing as much as you can about your hearers as well as the deceased. You should assume Christians and non-Christians are present. You should assume they all have come with a preconceived understanding on how we receive eternal life. For example, I have done a funeral where ninety percent of those in attendance were devoted Catholics, another where most attendees were Mormons, and another where no one in the building had ever stepped foot in a church.
In every case, I explained the gospel clearly, called my hearers to repent of their sins, believe upon Christ, and trust in him. Yet, in each of these different situations, I approached calling them to respond to the gospel differently, depending upon their preconceived understanding of the “good news.” Exhort them to grieve. Preach the gospel clearly and simply. Help them understand their need for Christ as death is before them. Call them to repent and believe.