Facing Your Funeral
By David Feddes
It’s been said that more lies are told at funerals than anywhere else. Some funeral speeches make the deceased sound far better than they really were.
A eulogy might begin, “Beloved, we are gathered here to honor the memory of a wonderful man, Howard Hardheart. All of us who knew him will never forget him.” Meanwhile, someone in the audience is thinking, “I’ll never forget him, all right. I’ll never forget the way he ripped me off on that business deal. He made a pile of money and almost drove me into bankruptcy.”
The eulogy continues, “Howard was a family man, and he will be greatly missed.” The black-clad widow can’t help thinking, “A family man? My Howard? When I was Howard’s secretary, he left his wife and kids to be with me. And I can hardly count how many times he cheated on me.”
The eulogy goes on, “Howard Hardheart was eager to help others. He gave generously to charity.” An accountant in the audience is saying to himself, “Generous? As long as I kept Howard’s books, the only time he gave to charity was when he needed a tax write-off, and they always had to name something in his honor so his business would get some good publicity.”
The eulogy declares, “Now God has taken Howard to a far better place…” and a friend of Howard is thinking, “Hmmm. Howard didn’t seem to believe much of anything about God or heaven. About the only time he mentioned God was when he swore.”
The splendid speech ends with a flourish: “We may rejoice and be comforted that Howard Hardheart is enjoying the reward of his labors.” Those who really knew Howard may find themselves wondering just which of Howard’s “labors” qualify him for heaven.
How can funeral speeches make it sound so sure that a person who ignored God here on earth is now with God in heaven? Well, if you’re preaching at a funeral, you don’t want to speak ill of the dead. If you said that the person lived without God, that he died without God, and that he’s most likely doomed to an eternity without God in the fires of hell, it would upset family and friends. You want them to feel better, not worse, so you lie. More lies are told at funerals than anywhere else.
Some folks, though, may think that the eulogies are telling the truth, that everybody does make it to heaven in the end. That’s a soothing thought, but there’s just one problem: There’s never been a funeral speech yet that could really rescue a dead person from hell and bring him or her to heaven. If the deceased isn’t in heaven already, the most flattering funeral in the world won’t get him there. When you die, it won’t much matter what the eulogy says about you, or what people think about you. The only thing that matters is what God does with you.
Are you ready to face your own funeral? Are you sure that when you die, you’ll go to heaven?
Assuming You’re Okay
One approach to such questions is to avoid thinking too hard and just assume you’ll be fine. Assume that no matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter what you believe, no matter how you relate to God, everything is okay. Assume that most people end up in heaven, and assume that you’re going to be one of them. But what if heaven isn’t automatic? What if God doesn’t go along with your assumptions? Don’t base your eternal destiny on the lies you hear at some funerals, or on the false notion that all paths lead to heaven.
Some churches seem to have little interest in helping people to know God and receive eternal life. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. In a Time magazine interview, the bishop was asked, “What will be your focus as head of the U.S. church?” She replied, “Our focus needs to be on feeding people who go to bed hungry, on providing primary education to girls and boys, on healing people with AIDS, on addressing tuberculosis and malaria, on sustainable development. That ought to be the primary focus.” Now, those may be good things, but is the church’s primary focus to be just one more health and welfare agency? When a church leader offers a statement of focus without mentioning worship of Father, Son, or Spirit, without mentioning sin or salvation or eternal life, there’s a problem.
In the Time interview, Bishop Katherine took a clear stand on some things. She said, “I firmly believe that evolution ought to be taught in the schools.” She also affirmed her church’s decision to ordain gay bishops. But nowhere did she mention repentance or salvation through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Eventually the interviewer asked, “Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?” Bishop Katherine responded, “We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.”
That may sound smooth and sensible, but it’s wrong. I don’t just “practice the Christian tradition.” I trust the living God. I don’t just see Jesus as a “vehicle to the divine.” I know Jesus as the Lord who is divine. And when I see Jesus as the only way to heaven, I’m not putting God “in an awfully small box.” Jesus’ reality is bigger than the universe; Jesus is not a small box. The Bible says, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” The whole world needs Jesus. Christ himself said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). You might not guess it from listening to Bishop Katherine, but Jesus is the only way to be saved. You can take your chances on going to heaven without Jesus, but that’s a sure way to go to hell. Would you want to face your funeral and base your eternal future on the flimsy opinions of a female bishop who contradicts Christ?
Such sloppy, unbiblical thinking tends to produce empty churches on Sundays, hollow speeches at funerals, and large crowds in hell. When salvation through Jesus alone is not proclaimed and believed, then any words about heaven at a funeral are worthless. You may assume you’re okay because unbiblical bishops or ministers say you’re okay. But those unfaithful clergy won’t be the ones who determine your destiny after you die. Jesus will be the Judge.
Another approach to facing your funeral—the opposite of assuming you’re okay—is to be continually uncertain about where you’ll go when you die. Even if you believe there’s a heaven and a hell, it may not be at all clear to you where you’ll end up. You figure you can’t be sure where you’ll spend eternity until you die and actually get there. In the meantime, you may think, the most you can do is try to live a good life, go to the right church, go through the right rituals, and hope for the best.
Maybe your church has taught you to think this way. Some churches make uncertainty a part of their doctrine. They make it almost a virtue to be unsure of where you stand with God. If you say, “I’m sure I belong to God. I’m sure he accepts me as his child. I’m sure that I’ll go to heaven when I die. I’m sure that I’ll spend eternity with the Lord”—if you talk this way, these churches will say that you’re being presumptuous. They say that being sure is a bad sign. They say that aside from a few rare people who get a special experience straight from above, none of us can be sure of heaven until we actually make it.
If you accept that kind of thinking, certainty is almost impossible. How can you be sure? You can’t. You just have to wait and see. You can try your hardest to be good, you can take part in the ceremonies and sacraments of the church, you can hope that all of this keeps you in a state of grace and improves your chances, but you’ll never be sure until after you die. That may scare you a little—it may scare you a lot—but what else can you do? If you can’t be sure, you can’t be sure.
The church hands out just enough hope to keep you coming back, but never enough to make you absolutely sure you’re forever right with God. They make you depend on the church but don’t lead you into a direct, personal relationship with God. They don’t show you how to be absolutely sure of God’s love and your salvation. Should we accept the notion that it’s impossible to be sure, and perhaps do whatever the church prescribes to at least improve our chances?
Don’t believe those who say you can’t be sure of heaven, and don’t believe those who say that just about everybody goes to heaven. Here’s the simple truth. If you don’t know God personally in this life, there’s no chance you’ll live with him in the life to come. If you do know God personally in this life, there’s no chance you won’t live with him in the life to come. You can know your eternal future right now. God doesn’t leave you guessing. The Bible says, “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God [Jesus Christ] does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12). It’s that simple.
When the apostle Paul was near the end of his life, locked in prison facing certain death, he wrote one last letter. What did Paul say? Was he unsure about his future? Not at all. Facing his own funeral, Paul wrote, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Timothy 1:12). I know! I am convinced! That’s how sure Paul was of his salvation, and that’s how sure you and I can be.
Do you have that assurance? Are you sure of your salvation? If so, then you are happy indeed. If not, if you just assume that you’ll probably go to heaven (if there is such a place) or if you have a vague hope that with enough effort and help from the church you might make it, then know this: The Bible isn’t at all vague about the way of salvation, and you don’t have to be vague about whether you are safe. You can be sure.
Let’s look again at what Paul said shortly before he died. He said, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” Paul was sure. And why? Because he knew whom he believed. He believed in Jesus Christ, and nothing could change his mind.
If you want to be absolutely sure and absolutely safe, you need to believe in Christ the way Paul did. Then you can face your funeral without fear.
But you might wonder, “What does it mean to believe in Jesus?” Almost everybody believes something about Jesus. You may believe he lived and taught nearly 2,000 years ago. You may believe he was a great man and an outstanding teacher. You may even believe that he’s the Son of God, that he did great miracles, that he died on a cross, and that he arose from the dead. Is this what it means to believe in Jesus? Is that all it takes to be saved? Well, it’s essential to know the facts about Jesus, to agree with what the Bible says about him, but really believing in him is something more. It is treasuring him and trusting him and entrusting yourself to him. True faith isn’t just something that flits around in your head but something that grips your heart.
So then, what does it mean to believe in Jesus? What does it take to know beyond a doubt that you belong to him? Let me explain it as clearly as I can. There are three basic elements.
Give Up on Yourself
The first is, give up on yourself. Don’t think you qualify for heaven on your own merits. Your sin is too serious for that. You’ve had sinful tendencies from birth. At times you’ve acted on those tendencies. You’ve offended God and other people, and all the flattering funeral speeches in the world can’t change that. People may try to remember you in the best possible light, but even as the eulogies are being said over your coffin, you will be standing before God’s throne, in the blazing light of his holiness, where nothing is hidden. The Bible says, “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). You can’t avoid God’s judgment, and you can’t survive it if all you have is your own record of achievement.
To have any hope of salvation, you must give up on yourself. The first step in faith is to know your sin and misery—the way Paul knew his. Paul wrote: “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me… making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:21-25).
Have you ever reached that point? Have you ever seen how wretched your sin is? Have you ever simply given up and cried out, “Who will rescue me?” If not, you don’t have a genuine, saving faith. If you’ve never felt guilty or ashamed, if you’ve never felt frustrated and helpless, if you’ve never felt dread at God’s wrath against sin—if you’ve never felt any of this, if you feel you’re basically okay, that you qualify for heaven pretty much the way you are—then I tell you on the authority of God’s Word that you are outside the kingdom of God.
Give up on yourself. Admit your sin, and accept the fact that nothing you do can make up for it. Before the apostle Paul met Christ, he thought he was quite a guy. He thought he was almost sinless and that if he did have sins, his good points would outweigh them. Paul grew up in a religious family, he had all the proper rituals, he was zealous to the point of being fanatical, he observed all the legalities. Paul thought he must be making quite an impression on God. But all of that collapsed when he met Jesus. Paul realized he was a sinner in need of pardon. All the things he’d been so proud of suddenly seemed worthless. He said, “I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own … but that which is through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8-9).
If you’re counting on your family background, or your own religious activities, or your church’s rituals to improve your chances of heaven, forget it. I say again on the authority of God’s Word: none of these things can make you right with God. You’re a sinner, and none of this can save you. So stop thinking you can save yourself and start looking for someone else to save you. That’s the first part of true faith: giving up on yourself.
Trust Jesus to Save You
The second part of faith is this: Trust Jesus to save you. Trust him to save you, personally. Believe what the Bible says about Jesus, believe the facts about his life and death and resurrection—but don’t stop there. With the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, apply those facts to yourself. Don’t just believe that Jesus lived a perfect life. Believe that he lived it for you, that God credits his perfection to you. Don’t just believe that Jesus died. Believe that he died to pay for your sins—yours! Don’t just believe that he rose from the dead. Believe that he conquered death for you—you personally! Believe that Jesus has done everything that you could never do for yourself. Give up on yourself, and trust Jesus to save you.
Maybe you’d like to do that but fear it’s impossible. You’ve given up on yourself, you feel God’s anger against sin, you want desperately to be saved, but you figure you’re too sinful, you’re too far gone, you don’t see how Jesus can possibly save someone like you. Well, friend, listen carefully: Stop asking whether you’re worthy to be saved, and start asking whether Jesus is worthy to be trusted.
British preacher Charles Spurgeon once said that the more filthy you are, the more you honor Jesus when you believe that he can make you clean. Think about it. If you have a minor sickness and you expect your doctor to help you get better, you’re not paying him any big compliment. But if you have a dreadful illness and you say, “Doctor, I’m going to die if I don’t get help, and there’s nobody better than you. You can heal me, I trust you, I’m willing to put my life in your hands”—what an honor, what a compliment to that doctor!
Jesus saves sinners. The apostle Paul described himself as the chief of sinners, because he had hated Christ and murdered Christians. But when the Lord showed Paul his error, he found that his past was forgiven and he was welcomed by Jesus. No matter how badly we’ve rebelled against God, Jesus forgives and saves those who trust in him.
Don’t insult Jesus by thinking he can forgive only minor sins. Jesus didn’t give his precious blood merely for minor offenses but to wash away the filthiest of sins. He didn’t unleash his resurrection power to deal only with small problems, but to overcome the greatest problem of all, death itself. So don’t let anything hold you back. Trust Jesus to save you. Trust him now. Say to him, “Lord, no matter how great my sins are, your grace is greater still. No matter how awful death is, your power is greater still. I believe that your death pays the penalty of my sins. I believe that your resurrection gives me eternal life. Save me, Lord, not because I deserve it, but because of your mercy and love.” Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.
Commit Your Life to Jesus
So far we’ve seen that the first aspect of saving faith is to give up on yourself and the second is to trust Jesus to save you. The third is this: Commit your life to Jesus. Accept him as your owner, your master. The Bible says that when you trust Jesus to save you, you are no longer your own. You were bought with a price. You belong to Jesus. Because you belong to Jesus, you need to renounce Satan and all his evil works, and give yourself 100 percent to Christ.
Real commitment is first of all a matter of the heart, but it leads to concrete actions of commitment. If you haven’t been part of a church, find a Bible-believing, Christ-centered church and commit to being a faithful member. If you haven’t been baptized, make a public statement of your faith and be baptized to seal that you indeed belong to Christ. Seek to know the Lord better through fellowship with other Christians and participation in the Lord’s Supper, and also through personal prayer and Bible reading. In all of this, surrender yourself fully and freely to Christ. Give him your soul, your body, your abilities, your relationships, your money, your everything—give it all to him. Commit yourself to learning and doing his will. Find your greatest treasure and pleasure in Christ.
If you claim to believe in Jesus but it has no effect on the way you live, you are fooling yourself. Your faith is dead. It’s worthless. Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mathew 7:21-23). You can call Jesus “Lord,” you can even claim you’ve had a “born again” experience, but if there’s no ongoing relationship to Jesus that changes your heart and the way you live, your faith is phony.
When you truly entrust yourself to Jesus, he takes over. His Holy Spirit moves in and begins to make major changes in the way you think and the way you live. He doesn’t make you perfect right away, but he makes a difference. He makes you more loving. He gives you a desire to honor God and help others. He gives you a hunger for God’s Word, the Bible. He gives you a dislike for sin and a longing to be like Jesus. Again, he doesn’t make you instantly perfect, but he does make a difference. And when you see the difference he’s making in you, you know that your surrender to him was genuine, you know that his Spirit at work in you is real, and you know that you will be perfect when you see him face to face.
So let me ask again: Are you ready to face your funeral. Are you sure? “Examine yourselves,” says the Bible, “to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Have you given up on yourself? Have you trusted Jesus to save you? Have you surrendered your life to him? If so, you can be sure. You belong to God, the Spirit of Christ is living and working in you, and nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate you from his love.
If you don’t yet have that assurance but would like to, then I invite you to say this prayer right now.
Lord, I am a sinner, by nature and by choice. I can’t do anything to earn your favor. So I turn to you, Lord Jesus, as my only hope. I trust your perfect obedience to be credited to me. I trust your blood to pay for my sin. I trust your resurrection power to give me eternal life. And now, Lord, I surrender my entire self to you. I will seek to obey your commands and follow where you lead. When I fail, forgive me and pick me up and guide me by your Spirit to become more and more like Jesus.
Thank you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for your great love and for the wonderful peace and assurance I can have in you. I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that you will guard what I have entrusted to you, until the day I see you face to face in your new creation. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.