The Scriptures teach us that a when a person dies, he immediately begins to experience eternity in one of two states: heaven or hell. The Christian experiences eternity as one filled with joy (heaven), although his body and soul are separated until his soul is reunited with a sinless, perfect, incorruptible body on the Last Day.
The Apostle Paul taught that those who have died in the faith are with Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:14). With such an understanding, many Christians conclude that prayers for the dead are unscriptural; after all, they are with Christ, so why do we need to pray for them? Today, that’s simply the worldview of most Lutherans living in North America.
What the Lutheran Confessions Say
According to our Lutheran Confessions, the above worldview has a proper understanding of events after death, but arrives at a faulty conclusion. For our Confessions state that praying for those who have died in the faith (usually called “the dead”) is not useless, that is, that such prayers are useful (Apology to the Augsburg Confession 24, para 96). Thus, to our Lutheran fathers, praying for the dead was not only scriptural, but something useful to do!
What our Confessions don’t tell us is why praying for those who have died in the faith is something useful. Thus, for us today, we need to investigate and see how and why our Lutheran fathers held such a worldview.
Scripture and Praying for the Dead
The sainted dead are part of the Church
The idea that Christians pray for the dead, that is for those who have died in the Faith, grew out of the idea of what it means to be in the Church. This worldview predates the collection of writings into what we call the Bible (the list of the books of the Bible was officially affirmed in 397 AD at Carthage in North Africa).
But what can we find in Scripture? First, if the souls in heaven ARE part of the Church, then we do find that Scripture does teach us to pray for those who have died in the faith.
- James 5:16: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed [referring primarily to spiritual healing].” The context of this passage refers to praying for those in the Church.
- Discuss: Are the saints in heaven fully healed?
- The Scriptures do not limit that our prayers should only be for those who are living in time. After all, when Jesus was rebuking the Sadducees for not believing in an afterlife, He said, “He [God] is not God of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive” (Luke 20:38). Those who have died in the faith are alive in eternity.
- The Apostle Paul wrote: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8). Those now in eternity with God also belong to the Lord, just as we do.
- Since the saints in heaven are part of the Church, who belong to the Lord, who are still alive, it makes sense that we pray for them since it’s natural for Christians pray for others in the Church.
The Apostle Paul prayed for a Christian who had died
When Paul was concluding his second letter to Pastor Timothy, he mentioned at least 15 people. Within that conclusion, Paul told Timothy to “greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus” (2 Timothy 4:19). That was the only “household” that Paul mentioned, indicating that was all that was left of Onesiphorus, “his household.” All evidence pointed to the conclusion that Onesiphorus had died; none of it points to the idea he was still living.
Earlier in 2 Timothy, Paul referred to Onesiphorus in the past tense: “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my imprisonment” (2 Timothy 1:16). In this verse, we find Paul referring to Onesiphorus’ household (again implying that Onesiphorus was no longer there, that he was dead) and then referring to Onesiphorus in the past tense. Those are two indicators that Onesiphorus had died.
Then in 2 Timothy 1:18, Paul says, “May the Lord grant that he [Onesiphorus] obtain mercy from him [the Lord] on that day.”
- For whom does Paul direct his prayer?
- What does Paul mean by “that day”?
- What does Paul ask that God do for Onesiphorus?
- How can Paul’s prayer shape our understanding of how to pray for the dead?
Earliest Church History
Church practice from the beginning (as far as we can conclude historically) has always prayed for those who have died in the faith. Although historical evidence is scanty (like all historical evidence from the early Church), we find examples that Christians prayed for those who died in the faith with nothing to the contrary.
Here are some examples that Christians pray for the dead from Church history (before the canonizing of Scripture in 397 AD):
- “The Bishop . . . does not offer prayers for the unsainted dead.” (St. Dionysius the Areopagite, died 96 AD, believed to have been baptized by the Apostle Paul)
- “As often as the anniversary comes around, we make oblations for the dead as birthday honors.” (Tertullian [160-225 AD])
- The Canons of Hippolytus (336-340 AD) explicitly mention prayers for the dead during the Divine Service.
- “Let us pray for our brethren who are at rest in Christ.” (Apostolic Constitutions [375-380 AD])
- Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386): “Then we pray for the holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and for all who have died in our communion, believing that the souls for whom prayers are offered receive very great assistance.”
- Ambrose (340-397) in his funeral sermon for the Emperor Theodosius (395): “Give perfect rest to Your servant Theodosius, the rest which You have prepared for Your saints.”
Early Lutheran Church History
The historic practice within the Lutheran Church had prayers for the dead in their Prayer of the Church. For example, if we were to look at a typical Lutheran service during Luther’s lifetime, we would find in the Prayer of the Church not only intercessions, special prayers, and the Lord’s Prayer, which are still typical today in Lutheran worship, but also prayers for the dead. (See Elmer Kiessling’s book, The Early Sermons of Luther and Their Relation to the Pre-Reformation Sermon by Zondervan, 1935, pg. 32, reprinted by AMS Press and available on Amazon.)
The most negative comment Luther made about prayers for the dead were made in the context of Luther speaking against purgatory and indulgences, both of which Lutherans reject. He wrote:
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 are merely the devil’s annual fair. [Luther’s Works, Volume 37, pg. 369]
And then we have the statement in our Confessions, which all Lutheran pastors and congregations vow to uphold, that such prayers are not useless, meaning that they are useful for the Christian to pray (Apology to the Augsburg Confession 24, para 96).
Prayers for the Dead in the LC-MS
Refresh the soul that has now departed with heavenly consolation and joy, and fulfill for it all the gracious promises which in Your holy Word You have made to those who believe in You. Grant to the body a soft and quiet rest in the earth till the Last Day, when You will reunite body and soul and lead them into glory, so that the entire person who served You here may be filled with heavenly joy there. (Starck’s Prayer Book, Revised Concordia Edition, pg. 345 [Johann Friedrich Starck (1680-1756), published by CPH in English in 1921 and reprinted in 2009])
The funeral service in Lutheran Service Book has this prayer:
Give to Your whole Church in heaven and on earth Your light and Your peace. . . . Grant that all who have been nourished by the holy body and blood of Your Son may be raised to immortality and incorruption to be seated with Him at Your heavenly banquet.
Proper Prayers for the Dead
To pray that a dead person’s time in Purgatory will be shortened is a bad example of what a prayer for the dead was meant to be. Within Roman Catholicism, such a prayer for the dead fits their theology and so is part of their theology in their prayers for the dead.
However, when Lutherans pray for the dead, it confesses that those for whom we pray are at rest with Christ, for we would not pray for someone whom we believe is outside the Church. The prayer is a strong “Amen” back to God, saying: “These saints now rest with you; bless them ever, O Lord! They now rest with You; remember them on the Last Day!”
If someone should object to praying for something that one already has, then he should also stop praying the Lord’s Prayer. For then there would be no need to ask for daily bread “this day.” Yet, even though God meets our needs, we are told to pray such a prayer.
Appendix: What We Lost When We Stopped Praying for the Dead
Prayers for the dead–especially at a funeral–comfort those still living on earth. It does so because it affirms the communion of saints. It also helps provide psychological “closure” for those grieving. It allows those who are mourning to cry out to God in prayer for the loved one who has died. Such prayers have therapeutic value.
Our View of Salvation became Two-Dimensional
By not praying for the sainted dead, it’s easier for us to conclude that their salvation has already happened. After all, they are in heaven and have no chance of falling away from the faith, which is true. However, although saved, their salvation has not fully taken place. That will happen on the Last Day when body and soul will reunite and God will create a new heaven and a new earth. That is when the fullness of their salvation will happen. That’s when they (and we) will finally be what God intended us to be when He created us: sinless, perfect, and complete persons in body and soul living in divine communion with Him.
What does that mean? It means that the saints in heaven are still living in faith, awaiting the fullness of their salvation to take place on the Last Day, just like we are. So, by praying for them, that practice helps us to understand that they, too, are still awaiting the fullness of their salvation, just as we are.
Our View of the Church Became Flattened
When we stopped praying for the dead, our understanding of what it means to be Church changed. In Christ’s Church, an inseparable division does not exist between the Church Militant and Church Triumphant in all areas. For example: The saints in heaven pray to God as we do (Revelation 6:9-10). They are the great cloud of witnesses encouraging us to run the race of faith (Hebrews 12:1). They are those who rejoice “in heaven over one sinner [on earth] who repents” (Luke 15:7). Although in eternity, they are not fully disconnected from our lives.
When we don’t pray for those who are in God’s eternal presence, our poor practice of prayer begins to shape what we believe. We naturally begin to think that an insurmountable breach exists between the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. We can begin to think in terms of two churches: the one in heaven and the one on earth.
The Church includes those in the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. We are in one Church. We are all one in the love of God the Father. Whether we are in time or in eternity, as members of the one, true Church, we still belong to the same family, and are still called to help bear one another’s burdens. One does not stop being a member of the Church simply because he happens to die. Death does not sever the bond of mutual love that links together all the members of the Christ’s Church.
A later, and shorter, look into this topic is here. It does include some information not is this lesson.