"The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day !" 2 Timothy 1:18
years this subject has perplexed not a few. It has loomed large in the public
heart if not the public mind, and it would appear that Christian leaders have
been somewhat inclined to make concessions to sentiment. Prayers for the Dead
were included in the Deposited Prayer Books by the Bishops and in introducing
the Prayer Book Measure (I927) in the House of Lords the Archbishop of Canterbury
justified their decision, declaring- "Certainly it is not false doctrine.
If I am asked why the change has been made, I reply simply 'the war.' Nobody
who had anything to do with the war and what it brought, the way in which
homes had been shattered and the craving desire there was everywhere for more
prayers, and for the introduction of Prayers for the Dead in that specific
form-that to my mind, is a sufficient answer."
IN recent years this subject has perplexed not a few. It has loomed large in the public heart if not the public mind, and it would appear that Christian leaders have been somewhat inclined to make concessions to sentiment. Prayers for the Dead were included in the Deposited Prayer Books by the Bishops and in introducing the Prayer Book Measure (I927) in the House of Lords the Archbishop of Canterbury justified their decision, declaring- "Certainly it is not false doctrine. If I am asked why the change has been made, I reply simply 'the war.' Nobody who had anything to do with the war and what it brought, the way in which homes had been shattered and the craving desire there was everywhere for more prayers, and for the introduction of Prayers for the Dead in that specific form-that to my mind, is a sufficient answer."
There will be many however, who will feel that, in spite of the authority of the speaker, the reason given for the introduction of prayers for the dead, is very far from being sufficient. The emotions of the public, aroused by a Great War, are surely not argument sufficient for such a practice. Deaths due to disease, maternal fatality and child deaths in India and China every year would not be much less than the total losses of the Great War. They do not occur so dramatically. The circumstances are very different but they are tragedies of great pathos which leave England largely unconcerned. If passing waves of emotion, sweeping over the populace are to influence doctrine and practice in the Christian Church to the extent indicated by such an innovation, then the Christian faith has ceased to be a revelation; it has degenerated to a superstition.
Whatever the public may or may not think, unless prayers for the dead are truly acceptable to God they are utterly useless. In such a matter there can be but one vital question beside which all other considerations are negligible. Does God ask of us that we should pray for the dead? The answer can be known from Scripture only; beyond the Word of God there can be nothing.
But having laid down such a principle we must be careful to look at the Scriptures without casuistry. Unless we are alert to the Holy Spirit, predilection and prejudice will not be without their influence upon us. Phillips Brooks urged upon his fellow preachers -"Say nothing, which you do not believe to be true because you think it may be helpful. Keep back nothing you know to be true because you think it may be harmful." In pursuance of that sound advice I have chosen as my text the only passage in Scripture which, to my knowledge, gives any credence to the doctrine and practice of prayers for the dead. It would seem from verse 16 of this chapter and from the greeting to " the house of Onesimus" in chapter 4, that Onesimus was dead when Paul sent his letter to Timothy. The evidence is not conclusive, but it is certainly not without weight. Without being absolutely certain I incline to the view that Onesimus was dead, in which case there is about Paul's exclamation a prayer for the departed. In view, however of the inconclusiveness of this one example in Scripture, it must be carefully examined in conjunction with other facts for the purpose of reaching definiteness in practice.
Let it be observed, therefore, that it's a prayer for a believer. Onesimus was a loyal disciple of Paul who paid tribute to his devotion and service. In order that I might be well informed on this subject an unknown person sent me a Romanist Catechism for my illumination. It is described as being " chiefly intended for the use of children in Catholic schools." The references in it to prayers for the dead are specially marked, and from them I learn that our attitude to the dead depends upon their condition. The saints in heaven are to be prayed to and they pray for us. The souls in purgatory, on the other hand, are to be prayed for. They need our assistance and we may have communion with them " by helping them with our prayers and good works." Our Lord had much to say about heaven, He was also explicit about hell, but He was silent about purgatory.
That place is a discovery of the Romanist. It is not a revelation of Scripture. Even the thief on the cross, whom, one would suppose, would require a period of purification in purgatory if there was such a place, was assured by our Lord, " Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise." He was to be with the Lord, and that gracious assurance on the cross gave him deep peace as he miserably died on the gibbet. But can we in common reason sustain this category of saints in Paradise and souls in Purgatory ? According to the differentiation of the Romanist, saints do not need our prayers, we need their good offices in intercession for us. The souls in purgatory, on the other hand, cannot intercede for us but they do need our intercession for them. Is there any one who dare assert what is the condition of any particular individual on the other side? If he be not a saint, but we think he is, then the prayers we offer to him are useless, while all the time nobody is praying for him to lift him out of purgatory. Or if we think he was hardly of the deep piety sufficient for him to be at once among the hierarchy of the blessed saints and in reality God has so exalted him, then all our prayers for him are unnecessary, while all his vast potentialities of intercession are being wasted because nobody knows he has them. Immediately you look a matter like this straight in the face, its ludicrousness is apparent. The believer who dies is " with Christ which is far better." In His loving arms we may leave our beloved believing departed without a fear.
Our good works cannot save another, for " None of us can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for him." As far as the Scriptures are concerned a man is either in Christ or out of Christ, and between those two conditions a great gulf is fixed which no human intercession can bridge. Whatever value prayers for the departed may have, Scripture gives no encouragement to believe that the issues of eternity can be altered by the prayers of those.left behind. Prayers for their loosing from purgatory are therefore prayers for a loosing which is impossible from a place that does not exist!
Secondly, the ideas and practices which have been the accompaniments of prayers for the departed are not of the character as would indicate their Scriptural warrant. If we cannot examine where the roots of the tree are we may judge somewhat by the character of the fruit it bears. With the Romanists prayers for the dead have always been, and still are, a means of income. Money for masses is often left by people in their wills, and it is a blasphemy to God and to religion to permit and encourage the idea that money, the god of this world, can also exert its influence in the world to come.
Tetzel was touring Europe at the time that Luther was being prepared by God for the Reformation. He declared that " indulgences not only save the living, they save the dead also." He used to declare from the pulpit that the dead were saying, " we are enduring horrible tortures! A small alms would deliver us. You can give it and you will not." And he would add, " The very instant the piece of money chinks at the bottom of the strong box, the soul is freed from purgatory and flies to heaven." Quite recently, a member of Rye Lane Chapel was in a Romanist church in Toulon and observed the verger blowing out the candles. There was no more money, he explained, to keep them burning. Such a system becomes a spiritual tyranny. Relatives are kept in spiritual and financial servitude to an institution, which should be a channel of peace, mercy and grace. And the very heart of that tyranny is prayers for the departed. In its results it cultivates a religion which fills men with dread of the unseen and deprives them of all the joy and hope which are the undoubted privileges of the believer through the grace that is in Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, it must be noticed that our Lord gives no command for prayers for the departed. "After this manner pray ye," said He, but there is nothing in the Lord's Prayer to suggest that we should pray to saints in heaven or for souls in Purgatory. On such a duty or privilege He is silent. Paul has much, to say on prayer. In his view, the ambit of intercession is extensive, but nowhere does he instruct the Christian Fellowships to pray for the departed. There is not, in the New Testament one word exhorting Christian men and women to pray for the dead. If the practice were necessary either for our own spiritual edification or for the blessesdness of those who are passed from us, surely the Lord would not have concealed from His disciples such a golden opportunity.He uttered deep truth beyond our understanding on other matters this could not be so deep and mysterious and deep that He could not reveal it to His own age, but must leave Protestants to stumble to the truth through the exciting of the human emotions. Yet this we are asked to believe. Inasmuch as Onesmius was a believer whose eternal welfare was beyond doubt, the prayer of the Apostle, if prayer it is, must be regarded as an indication of the Apostle's sense of gratitude for all the service rendered by Onesimus in the days when Paul's friends were few and when human help was invaluable.
The difficulty may be viewed from a practical angle. The basic value of all prayer is not merely intercession but dedication. Having uttered the petition the believer should solemnly dedicate himself to the furtherance of the purpose indicated in the prayer. To pray for spread of the Gospel demands my surrender for service to that end. Intercession without dedication is unavailing in heaven and it is demoralising on earth.
Supplication, if we are to grow spiritually thereby, must be harnessed to service. To plead for the lost, demands that we plead with them. To allow our petitions in prayer to be mere pious exhalations is to prepare for our speedy spiritual degeneration. When we bow our heads to ask God for blessing, we should be able to see clearly what is the corresponding service we must arise to render. When one has prayed for the departed what should one arise to do? The Romanist replies- "Give money to the Church." It is naivety but not reality, for who, having passed through bereavement, has not felt that awful sense of separation, a tragic regret for opportunities of service missed and the penetrating realisation that our loved ones are in a sphere beyond our reach and aid.
Not only should there be a dedication accompanying our intercession but all true prayer brings with it inspiration and power for the task. Prayers for the dead heighten emotion and they may encourage morbidity. They are likely to shut us up to the contemplation of our losses and to sap initiative and vitality especially that vitality born of the Spirit and expressing itself in a mighty passion for the redemption of those who are still with us on this side of the dark river. If it be true that we can help the departed by our prayers, to escape from purgatory to heaven, it is not improbable that our zeal for the lost whilst they are about us will be quenched. Nobody can escape the note of finality concerning the world to come that is so emphatic on the lips of our Lord. He speaks with authority that will not be denied, and He bids us know that it is perilous in the extreme to trust ourselves or our friends to spiritual expedients in the world to come, instead of coming ourselves and urging others to that acceptance of His salvation so clearly expounded in Scripture and so completely achieved by His Blood at Calvary. " It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this judgment."
What intelligible prayers we can offer for the departed it is impossible to conjecture. They are in a sphere beyond our comprehension and praying with understanding is beyond our powers. But we can pray for the living and plead with them. Why should our zeal for the souls of our beloved be pent up while they live, to be poured out in uninspired intercession after they are dead ? "Now is the accepted time, behold now is the day of salvation." Let us make the most of the " now"; "the night cometh when no man can work, " or pray. Prayers for the dead are at best, a doubtful doctrine and practice of Scripture, but pleading with the living is an unquestionable duty. The man who realises that duty and seizes every available opportunity to win men and women about him for the Lord Jesus Christ will be able, when they pass over, to trust them completely into the hands of the Loving Saviour. His conscience will be at peace because of the testimony, his fellowship with the Lord unbroken because the blood of his brother Abel will not cry out against him from the ground. Best of all, while prayers for the departed can never be encouraged by results, since none can tell us of their effectiveness, pleading with the living will be blessed by God's Holy Spirit to many to whom we speak. Life will be replete with that peace and joy that flow from a hallowed consecration to the supreme task for which God redeemed us unto Himself by His Son.
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