Should We Pray for the Souls of the Dead?

From Taryn –

Hi–thank you guys so much for your ministry. I wanted to ask: I know that the concept of praying for the souls of the dead is based on verses from the Apocrypha and is not biblical, but when I was younger I reasoned to myself, “well, God is outside of time, so I’ll pray for them for before they died, and He can ‘apply’ it to back then.” Is this also unbiblical?

First, this is an understandable and natural thing for people to do. In everyday life we find a way to push away thoughts of death and eternity. We don’t take is seriously. But when someone we know or love dies, we suddenly are confronted with the reality of death and eternal life. People we love face eternity, and if there was anything we could do to help them, we would want to do it.

But here’s the truth: The Bible tells us what our eternal destiny is determined by what we do in this life. Our prayers for the souls of dead give expression to our own love, care, and concern for them – but they don’t really do the dead any good.

2 Corinthians 6:2

Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

Hebrews 9:27-28

And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many.

Ezekiel 18:20:

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

I understand that Roman Catholic theology may see this differently. They make much of the idea that God gave Peter – and every subsequent Pope or Bishop of Rome – the “keys” to heaven and earth. Therefore, in some sense, many Roman Catholics think that the pope has power over heaven, hell, and what they describe as purgatory. This is not Biblically true. Once a person passes from this life to the next, no person on earth – including the Pope – has the power to change their eternal destiny, not even in the power of prayer.

So again, this is something that we should view with some compassion. If there is a person who, in their grief, asks God to bless the soul of their deceased loved one, we understand, and we should be respectful of their grief.

Yet in the big picture we understand that our eternal destiny is settled in this life, in the here and now. God tells us nothing of “second chances” in the life beyond. Today is the day of salvation, and one of Satan’s most destructive lies is that there is no hurry.

What are the practical implications of being made “whole” in Christ?

Since Christ completes us (Colossians 2:9-10) and makes us whole (Isaiah 53:5), we are no longer “broken,” even though we sometimes sin. Are brokenness and weakness the same thing?

For those who have been given new life in Jesus Christ, the healing and restoration of our brokenness has already begun in us, by the work of Jesus. However, our salvation is not yet complete. Therefore, it is acceptable and proper for us as Christians to recognize the brokenness and weakness that remains in us, while at the same time acknowledging the profound work that Jesus Christ has done within us.

Sometimes theologians talk about the “already,” and the “not yet.” Many things in the Christian life fulfill that description. We are already born again by God’s Spirit and have new life in Him. But the working of that new life is not yet complete. There’s a sense in which it is still in the category of the “not yet.”

We believe that we are complete in Jesus Christ. Part of that is already accomplished fact, and part of that we say in faith, knowing that “He who has begun a good work in you will be faithful to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” That verse from Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us that the work of God is not completed in us until the day of Christ Jesus.

In the Christian life, we hold these things in tension. We don’t let it take us off-track by overemphasizing one or the other. We can overemphasize the fact that we have it now or we can overemphasize the fact that it is not yet complete. We hold both as complementary truths.

What is the “good work” mentioned in Philippians 1:6 that God began in us and will continue to work in us?

Philippians 1:6 – Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.

The good work that God has begun in us is the work of salvation. We understand that when God speaks of salvation in our life, it is a broad concept. It is not only our rescue from an eternal hell, and the right to be with God in an eternal heaven. Of course, that’s a precious and vitally important part. But the good work begins with the new life right here and right now: the forgiveness of sins, the membership that we have in God’s eternal family, the fellowship with God’s people that we enjoy, the adoption as sons and daughters into God’s family, the active righteousness of Jesus Christ that has been bestowed on us; I could go on and on.

The good work that God is going to do in us has already begun, and He promises to complete it in eternity. Our salvation is a definite reality in the present day. We don’t want to deny that. But the New Testament speaks of our salvation in three tenses: in the past, the present, and the future. We have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. All three of them are concurrently true. The good work that God has begun is the work of salvation in all its expressions: in our sanctification, in our holiness, in our growth in grace. These are things that should have a definite beginning in the life of the believer.

Now, this leads us to a significant question: What do we say of someone who claims to put their faith in Jesus Christ, yet there is no evidence of even a beginning of God’s good work of salvation? It’s fair for us and for that individual, especially, to ask the question, “Wait a minute, is this really true?” If God’s work in my life is real, there should be evidence of at least its beginning in my life. We don’t look for its perfecting yet; the perfecting and completion of our salvation isn’t going to happen until the day of Jesus Christ. But there should be evidence of the beginning of it.

Can an Orthodox Jew go to Heaven without accepting Jesus as the Messiah?

When an Orthodox Jew dies that is still waiting for the Messiah to come the first time, will they go to heaven?

Nobody who has consciously rejected God’s way of salvation in Jesus Christ is going to go to Heaven. That’s just the simple truth. Now there is a genuine discussion in the Christian world concerning people who have never heard the gospel, to whom Jesus Christ has never been presented. In theory, I could certainly include some Orthodox Jews in that category. They’ve just never heard the good news of Jesus. But again, that’s another discussion, because you can argue that they have the Old Testament – the Torah, the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures – right there in front of them.

But the Bible is clear: anybody who rejects the person and work of Jesus Christ is not going to Heaven. That is plain. For the present moment, we’re going to leave aside the discussion concerning those who have never heard. I would assume, although I couldn’t absolutely state, that the theoretical Orthodox Jew you’re describing is someone who has rejected the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Understand this. If we claim to love, honor, and trust God, but reject Jesus, then there’s something wrong in that claim. Because Jesus is the perfect expression of God to humanity. He is who He was when He walked this earth, and He remains so to the present day. The Bible goes so far as to tell us that if we want to know what the invisible God who dwells and reigns in Heaven is like, we must look at Jesus Christ. Therefore, if someone knowingly rejects Jesus, it is to reject God. For them to turn their back on Jesus is for them to turn their back on God.

Anyone who has consciously rejected the person and work of Jesus Christ is not going to Heaven. They will have eternity in separation from God, no matter what their religious background is. That would apply even to the Jewish people, the covenant descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

God desires a repentant heart more than animal sacrifice (Psalm 51:16). Were there sins that the blood of animals didn’t cover?

Psalm 51:16 – For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering.

The blood of animals could not cover any sin completely or perfectly. The sacrifice was an anticipation of the future payment, the future fulfillment to be brought about by Jesus the Messiah. There was no complete covering of sin from any animal sacrifice.

Here’s one way that we know this, explained in the book of Hebrews. We know this because the animal sacrifices had to be repeated continually. If a perfect payment for sins was made, the payment would not have to be repeated. We understand this principle by present-day financial debts. If you perfectly pay a financial debt, and your balance is at zero, how much more do you have to pay? Absolutely nothing. But if you don’t perfectly pay a financial debt, you must always pay more.

Only the work of Jesus could perfectly pay for even a single sin. Animal sacrifices were always intended to be temporary and imperfect, and to point forward to the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus Christ would make. He was the perfect sacrifice.

How should Christians view medical marijuana?

I will certainly agree with the idea that there can be a legitimate medicinal use for marijuana and the chemicals that are in marijuana, such as CBD. I believe that there’s a legitimate medical use for marijuana and some of the things that are in it. Here’s where I think we need to take care.

First, since marijuana is a mood-altering, and at least temporarily a personality-altering, substance, if it’s to be taken medicinally, it should be taken according to the directions of a medical doctor. Taking an aspirin on your own doesn’t do anything to alter your mood or personality, but marijuana does. If it’s going to be taken medicinally, it should be under a doctor’s direction and according to a doctor’s order. I don’t think somebody should self-medicate with marijuana, just like they shouldn’t self-medicate with alcohol. It’s just not proper. We shouldn’t self-medicate; it should be done under the direction and under the advice of a doctor.

But under those circumstances, I can certainly see why there may be a legitimate medicinal use for marijuana and its inherent substances. I’m no expert on these things, and I don’t want to act as if I am an expert. But from what I do know, apparently there are ways to get the medical benefits from the substances that are in marijuana, without the aspect of getting high, or having a temporarily altered state of consciousness or awareness or personality.

I think that’s an important thing to recognize. As much as somebody can do it without altering their consciousness or personality or awareness, the better it is for them. I don’t have a sophisticated vocabulary when it comes to talking about drugs and the effect that they have, so forgive me for the imprecision of my vocabulary.

What are some good things you’ve seen come out of the madness of the last three years?

On the one hand, it’s very sad that there seems to be less confidence in our human institutions than ever before. Less confidence in governments, in public health organizations, in people who claim to speak for science, in economists, and all these things. There is less confidence in human institutions, and I understand that there’s a downside to that. But friends, isn’t there a wonderful upside to that?

Our confidence in God and His Word can and should be at an all-time high. We understand who God is and what He’s doing in this world. Even though we don’t understand the details, we understand that God is at work in the world. Anything that contributes to just a greater confidence in God and His work at all is something that we can and should be grateful for. So that’s one thing.

I also see that God has given a whole new toolbox of opportunities to churches and ministries in our day and age. We know how to do online ministry better than ever. We’ve worked through tough issues. Maybe some of us in the world of church and ministry feel like we fumbled them or haven’t handled them well. But you will hopefully be equipped to handle similar things better, should they come up in the future. There’s a lot that we’ve learned during this time.

But I would also say this: in Jesus Christ, times of pressing and trial don’t kill us – and even if they were to kill us in the here and now, they wouldn’t kill us for eternity. Rather, they press us on toward the Lord. They are the cause of growth and death to self. Friends, those are always good things.

I see that God is doing good things. He’s shaking the institutions and the confidence of man. He’s bringing us to a greater understanding of what we can do to trust in God and in His work. He’s giving us a new toolbox of ministry that we can use. And He’s really working in this to help us die to self. Death to self is always a good thing in the Christian life.

What is your favorite worship hymn?

There are so many wonderful hymns, but my favorite would have to be, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Have you ever sat down and read the lines to that beautiful hymn? “Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see / Cherubim and seraphim casting down their crowns / All Thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea.” We could go on and on. But there are so many great and wonderful hymns.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done this, but for a season in my devotional life, I would read and even sing a lot of hymns. It was a wonderful part of my devotional routine. My devotional routines are sort of always changing. I haven’t had been locked into the same devotional routine over the decades. My emphasis now is to read and meditate on a lot of the Psalms, and of course, I daily spend wonderful times of prayer, and prayer with my wife. But hymns are beautiful.

In Genesis 17, why did Abraham circumcise Ishmael? Was this part the New Covenant?

In Genesis 17, Abraham circumcises his sons as a sign of the new covenant. We see that he includes Ishmael in that. What does that mean? Are Ishmael and his descendants part of the new covenant?

I’m going to correct you on a few things in your question.

First, you say that “Abraham circumcised his sons as a sign of the New Covenant.” But here’s the point. No, circumcision is not a sign of the New Covenant. It is, as stated, the sign in the seal of the Abrahamic covenant. I’m sorry for kind of picking on this point, and I don’t mean to pick on our questioner personally. But I see a clear distinction in the Bible between the Abrahamic Covenant, the Old Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant. And I’m not saying that there’s no overlap between these four covenants; there is certainly some overlap, but they are distinct covenants.

Ishmael and Isaac had circumcision impressed on them because they were members of Abraham’s household. Now, not every person in Abraham’s household received the covenant and passed it on to their descendants. This is why we speak of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, followed by the 12 covenant sons of Jacob, who became the 12 tribes of Israel.

Everyone in Abraham’s household was circumcised, including his servants. We understand that they didn’t share in that covenant in the same way. They shared in the blessing of Abraham by being part of his household, but they did not receive the Abrahamic Covenant as an inheritance to pass on to their subsequent households.

Again, that’s talking about the Abrahamic Covenant. We must recognize that circumcision is said to be the sign and the seal of the Abrahamic Covenant. Nowhere does it say that it is the sign or the seal of the New Covenant. As a matter of fact, nowhere does the Bible say that baptism is the sign of the New Covenant; nowhere. That is completely absent. The Bible does not say that baptism is the sign or the seal of the New Covenant. And friends, if I am misinformed, and somebody can give me a chapter and verse where it says plainly that baptism is the sign in the seal of the New Covenant, I’d be happy to see it.

In fact, I would say that Jesus gave us a specific sign of the New Covenant: the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper of communion. He said, “This is the sign of the new covenant.” The New Covenant was not given a sign in baptism, but rather in the Lord’s Supper.

The covenant of circumcision was applied to all the males in Abraham’s household; obviously, Ishmael could not be excluded from that, so he was included, as well was Isaac, who was the covenant descendant of Abraham. The covenant connected with circumcision was the Abrahamic covenant, which later transitioned into the Old Covenant, because it was also a command under the Mosaic law. But the Mosaic law was made with the covenant descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I just want to make it clear that the covenant of circumcision is never said to be a sign in the seal of the New Covenant.

Can we create art and a beautiful home if it’s for God’s glory?

I’ll give you a very quick and direct answer to that question: Yes, absolutely. Art and beauty are things that glorify God. These are things for which God gives us a desire, as men and women who are made in His image. Being the people of God, we should have an even greater heart for these things. We serve a beautiful God who has put a lot of beauty into this world. It’s proper that whatever domain God gives us authority over is marked by the order, the beauty, and the art in which God expresses Himself so beautifully and powerfully throughout all creation.

I would give an unreserved Yes to your question. These are things that should belong to us as Christians. God bless you in your desire to create art and to make a beautiful home. I think it honors God, and it gives glory to Him. I think it delights God. These are wonderful, legitimate pursuits for a believer.

Who decided that the Holy Spirit is a personality?

Who decided that the Holy Spirit is a personality? I am having a hard time believing it should be Spirit and not the spirit of God in me as an imager of Him.

I’m glad you asked this question; it comes up from time to time. Who decided that the Holy Spirit is a personality? I would simply say that God decided. The Holy Spirit is presented to us repeatedly in the Word of God as a distinctive Person; not as a force, not as a thing or a power that just dwells in us, but as a Person. Therefore, it’s entirely appropriate to speak of the Person and the work of the Holy Spirit. Now, I understand that for some of us, it’s difficult to get our head around the idea. How can a Spirit be a Person? But this is no problem for God.

We know that in some respects, even though angelic beings can and sometimes do take on a material appearance, they are spirit-beings, and they’re certainly persons. So, there is a definite personality to the Holy Spirit. Repeatedly in the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit is referred to with the pronoun “He.” You’ll never see the pronoun “She” applied to the Holy Spirit. God identifies the Holy Spirit in the masculine and as a Person. Of course, we’re not trying to say the Holy Spirit is a man, but God represents the Spirit of God to us as a Person, and in the masculine, not in the feminine or neuter sense. We’re also told that the Holy Spirit can be grieved, He has a will, He makes decisions, He guides and leads. These are all things that persons do, not non-personal powers.

As much as possible, we want to take our understanding of who God is from the Bible itself. And God helping us, that’s exactly what we’ll do. When we do that, we understand that the Holy Spirit is a Person, not an impersonal force or power.

How should Christians think about psychotropic medication such as used to treat depression and anxiety?

I can give my opinion, and I’m happy to do that with the caveat that I’m not a doctor. I haven’t done in-depth research on the subject. All I can speak to you is what medical doctors have spoken to me, and some of what I have observed.

First, there can be a real and legitimate place for psychotropic medications, things that deal with real problems and difficulties in brain chemistry. Because although there is certainly a spiritual aspect to the brain and the mind, there’s also a biological aspect to it. So, there is a legitimate place for such medications, we can believe that. At the same time, we can believe that, in general, they are wildly over-prescribed. I think both things can be true.

I’m not going to speak to the individual use. That has to do with an individual’s assessment by a hopefully wise and ethical doctor. But we can also say that, in general, these things can be widely over-prescribed in the Western world.

A medical doctor once gave me his own personal estimate about Santa Barbara, the community where I live, that approximately a third of our city is on antidepressants. Without wanting to deny the legitimate use of such a thing to any individual, you can say that, in general, such things can be over-prescribed.

God has put our spirit in connection with our bodies, and bodies can need medical treatment. Sometimes the medical treatment that our body requires can affect things that are non-material like our mind and our brain. There’s a legitimate place for that kind of treatment and inquiry.

What promises in the Bible are for the Jews only?

Different Christian traditions, and different Christian approaches to interpreting the Bible, will give you different answers to that question. I’ll give you the answers that I understand from my own study of the Scriptures.

The promises of being restored to the land of Israel belong to the covenant descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Again, there are differing opinions of that in different Christian traditions, but that’s my understanding. God gave straightforward promises of the land to the covenant descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Throughout all the Hebrew Scriptures, and extending even into the New Testament, there are promises that remain for those covenant descendants.

Another promise is that before the glorious return of Jesus Christ there will be a turning of the Jewish people to their Messiah, Jesus Christ. We find this referenced many times in the Old Testament, and many times in the New Testament. That promise is for the Jews only. There is no such general promise to all the Gentile nations, not in the same way or manner.

God gave a special privilege and stewardship to the Jewish people, the covenant descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They would be the carriers of His revelation to the world, the people who would bring forth the Messiah, and they would have an enduring role in His unfolding plan of the ages. God has ordained all these things for the Jewish people. Their status as being the chosen people doesn’t mean they were chosen for universal salvation but for this enduring role in God’s unfolding plan of the ages. That choosing of them that has been sometimes a blessing and a burden at the same time.

Can you recommend some good history books?

In the midst of the confused “cancel culture” relativism of today, what are some true history books that you may recommend?

I’m going to recommend to you the best Christian history that I’ve ever read. It’s in two volumes, and it’s called “A History of Christianity” by Kenneth Scott Latourette. This is an amazing development of the history of Christianity. I would recommend it without any reservation.

There are others. Dr Bruce Shelley’s book, “Church History in Plain Language,” is good. I would encourage you to read broadly and read discerningly. I’m not into “presentism,” which means judging or writing off figures of the past because of modern ideas and convictions, even if those modern convictions are godly and biblical. We need to understand the past as it is; not to excuse, and certainly not to condemn, but at least to understand things in their context.

I’m 18 and I desire to propose my girlfriend this year. Can you offer me some biblical and practical advice?

I don’t know much about your situation. I don’t know if you have a way to make a good living for yourself already. I don’t know if you can provide for a family in the way that a man should be able to provide, or at least substantially provide; maybe your wife will need to work for a period of time. I don’t know if you’re in a position to provide or if you’re in a position to lead, so I can’t speak to those things.

Let me just tell you how it was for me. My wife and I got married when we were relatively young. I was 20 years old when we got married. And for me, it was a blessing. Now, I can’t apply that to everybody. Every life situation is different. The last thing I want to do is push someone into marriage before it’s time for them. But I’ll say what it was for me. It was a blessing for me and my wife to “grow up” together. Let’s face it, when you’re in your 20s, you still have growing up to do. I suppose, in some sense, we have growing up to do our entire life. But it was a blessing for my wife and myself to build a life together.

I know that that just isn’t a matter of choice. We can encourage people to get married young, but some people might say, “Well, I would love to, but I’m not young anymore.” And other people might say, “I want to get married young, but I don’t want to marry the wrong person.” Absolutely.

But I would say it’s a good thing, if God brings you the right person, to build a life together in your young years. That’s something that God can really use. Practically, spend time with people who have marriages that you admire. Don’t expect to have the same marriage that they have right away. It takes time to build such a thing. But God will use those years and build something wonderful and beautiful.

I have no idea how long your engagement will be, or when you’re planning on getting married. But my prayer for you is that God blesses you, gives you wisdom, and guides you and your soon-to-be fiancée, and that you really try to spend time and learn from people who have marriages you respect, because that is indeed a great blessing.