Bavinck: Prayers For The Dead Undermine Christ’s Intercession

If the doctrine of purgatory is untenable, all offerings and prayers for the dead automatically fall with it. Veneration of the dead by sacrifices and prayers was common among pagans. Intercession for the dead became a practice among the Jews later (2 Macc. 12:40–45) and remains to the present. In the Christian church there soon arose the custom of wishing for the dead to receive peace, light, and refreshment (refrigerium) and remembering them in prayers and at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In the early period, this was done with respect to all without distinction who died in the Lord, and these offerings and sacrifices were solely memorial in nature. But gradually a distinction was made between the souls who were immediately taken up into heaven and others who still had to spend time in purgatory. Communion with the first then gradually began to be practiced by invocation and veneration, and with the second by intercessions, good works, indulgences, and Masses for the soul. In the ancient Catholic sense—as prayer to God that he would increase the blessedness of those who died in Christ and hear their prayers for the living, and simultaneously as commemoration of and communion with the dead—intercession for the dead was also approved by the Greeks, the Lutherans, Hugo Grotius, many Anglicans, and certain more-recent theologians.

But the Reformed rejected this intercession for the dead on the ground that their lot was unalterably decided at death. The fact is that neither the Old nor the New Testament breathes a word about such intercession. The only passage to which appeal can be made is 1 Cor. 15:29, where Paul mentions those who had themselves baptized ὑπερ νεκρων (hyper nekrōn). However, from this it cannot be inferred that such a baptism was received by the living for the benefit of the dead. There is no evidence whatever that such a practice existed in Paul’s time or later. True, Tertullian and others report that this custom was found among the followers of Cerinthus and Marcion; but in the first place the correctness of this report is subject to doubt and, second, [if it is correct] the implication is that it was a heretical practice that never found acceptance in the Christian church. Those who would use the text to support the right to pray for the dead should first of all begin by baptizing the living on behalf of the dead, so that that baptism could benefit them. Paul cites the dead as the reason why the living had themselves baptized. Because those who had died in Christ would rise again, because of what they stood for and on their behalf, the living who were believers had themselves baptized. The apostle here is only expressing the thought that baptism presupposes belief in the resurrection of Christ and of believers. Take away the resurrection, and baptism becomes an empty ceremony.

Intercession for the dead, therefore, has no basis whatever in Scripture, as Tertullian for that matter already recognized. For after he had discussed various church practices, including sacrifices for the dead (De corona militus, ch. 3), he added in chapter 4: “If, for these and other such rules, you insist on having positive scriptural injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer.” Because there is no prescription of [God] the Father, we have to content ourselves with the custom of the mother, that is, the church, which thus again receives a position alongside of and above the Word of God. Since, then, intercession for the dead cannot stand the test of Scripture, the question concerning its utility and comfort is no longer appropriate. All the same, these two things are hardly demonstrable. For though it seems a beautiful thing that the living can help the dead by their intercessions and make up for the wrong they have perhaps done to them during their lifetime, in fact this church practice takes Christian piety in a totally wrong direction. It gives the impression that—contrary to Matt. 8:22—caring for the dead is of greater value than love for the living; it credits one’s own works and prayers with a meritorious, expiatory power that is effective even on the other side of the grave and benefits the dead; it is based on and conducive to the doctrine of purgatory, which, on the one hand, especially among the rich, fosters unconcern and, on the other hand, perpetuates the uncertainty of believers; and in the minds of Christians it weakens confidence in the sufficiency of the sacrifice and intercession of Christ.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4, trans. John Bolt and John Vriend, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 638–39.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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One comment

  1. It’s simple. If the dead are saved, then praying for them is an insult to them and God’s mercy, because it suggests they need your prayers; if not, it’s an insult to God’s justice and, therefore, God.

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