Should we pray for the dead?
“Please pray for the repose of his soul.” This is a very common request that one reads in scores of obituaries that are published every day. Accompanying that request may be a scheduled mass, or novena, for the deceased. Behind this is the practice of praying for the dead. This, of course, is rooted in the belief that, through prayers for the dead, there can be change in the course of the soul of the dead loved one. If this is a valid hope, nothing can be more loving than to spend time praying for the departed.
Is there a basis for this hope in the Word of God? The Roman Catholic Church, chief proponent of this practice, admits that this practice is linked with its notion of purgatory. In the Roman Catholic Encyclopedia entry in “Prayers for the Dead,” it asserts: “Catholic teaching regarding prayers for the dead is bound up inseparably with the doctrine of purgatory and the more general doctrine of the communion of the saints, which is an article of the Apostle’s Creed.” The practice of praying for the dead, by this assertion, stands or falls on the validity of the doctrine of purgatory.
This is not the place to refute this belief in a purgatory. Suffice it to say that this is what drove the Reformation of the 16th century which led to the division of Catholics and Protestants. Catholic clerics used this doctrine to swindle the superstitious population of precious money on promise that the souls of their loved ones will spring from purgatory once the money rings on the coffer.
The Catholic doctrine of and practice of prayer for the dead is built on the sinking sand of lack of assurance. This is contrary to the assurance of the gospel and salvation that saving faith brings about. Lack of assurance is the fruit of salvation by human merit and works. Whereas assurance grows out of the certainty of the saving work of Christ received by faith. “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25 NKJ). Salvation is not contingent on human works, but guaranteed by what Christ has accomplished.
The Bible teaches that death is the final closure of moral opportunity. The time to be saved is now. If salvation is not received now, there is no post-mortem salvation opportunity. “It is appointed to men to die once, and after this, the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
Prepare for a good death
The Puritans make a different emphasis that believers should be doing. That is to prepare to die in a way that is glorifying to God. This is, unfortunately, a well-nigh absent note. It may be generally because we do not want to discuss such an unpleasant subject as death – even among Christians. There is so much more amusement in life, that some are loathed to think of abandoning this in death. This is unrealistic.
No matter how silent we may be about dying, and studiously avoid its mention, we will still die. It is still the one appointment with providence that we cannot avoid. For the Puritans, the way to prepare for death is not only that one is assured of his salvation. It is, in the language of Paul, “with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20 NKJ).
Richard Baxter wrote the classic Dying Thoughts at a time that he was sick, and thought that he was dying. The Lord spared him then, but he bequeathed to the Church an immortal plea for believers not only to be sure of heaven. It is imperative that when we are close to death, we have a life and testimony that will point the living to the Lord we have served faithfully in our lives.
Will the Lord be magnified in our dying?