The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Why pray for the dead?

Reader wrestles with present tense

Q: As a Lutheran, I was taught not to pray for the dead. For them it's too late. So why do we pray in the service for the Burial of the Dead: "Acknowledge ... a sheep of your own fold .... Receive him/her into the arms of your mercy ...." (Lutheran Book of Worship, 211)? A simple past tense would correct this faulty theology.

A: It's one thing to pray for those who have died that somehow they now enter into a saving relationship with God that they didn't have in life. It's quite another to commend to God one of our brothers or sisters whom we have known and lived with on earth.

It is, in a sense, our last prayer on someone's behalf, releasing a person to the Savior and thus letting that individual go from our care and responsibility. It's the faithful community on earth "transferring" the person into the care of that broader community of all the saints in heaven, who now await the final

This act at the conclusion of a funeral comforts the bereaved and acknowledges continuity between the church on earth and the church in heaven. We testify to this in the eucharist when we pray: "And so with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven we praise your name and join their unending hymn."

Using the present tense witnesses to the life that continues through death into the next dimension of eternal life. A difference exists between strict historical time that is past, present or future and liturgical time where these boundaries are blurred as a way of proclaiming the continuity, depth and mystery of salvation in Christ.

Martin Luther's great objection was praying to the dead saints and martyrs for their intercession on our behalf based on the presumption that they possessed excess merit that could be transferred to us.

Our salvation depends on God's mercy in Christ alone, not on any transfer of merits from one heavenly bank account to another. No one has an excess of merit that another can borrow since no one has accumulated any merit at all by living and acting in such a way as to have earned God's love and salvation. It's all a gift and our great freedom. Thank God.


Chris Cloutier

Chris Cloutier

Posted at 1:26 pm (U.S. Eastern) 7/26/2010

I enjoyed your very articulate answer. Thank you.

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February issue


Embracing diversity