We don’t have to pray for someone who has died whilst sinning. Prayer will not benefit him, and our master St John said: “There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that.” (1 John 5:16).
If a thief climbs up the walls of a house in order to burgle it, and falls down and dies in the process, the Church would not pray for him. And if drug smugglers get into a fight with the police and get killed during this fight, the Church does not pray for them either. And if a person who has an intelligent mind and commits suicide, the Church does not pray for him.
Therefore, if the Church can be sure that the person has died whilst in the act of committing a sin, it doesn’t pray for him.
But in other cases, it would certainly pray for someone who had died, so that he could at least depart from the world having been absolved by the Church, so that he is no longer bound in any way. That person is then left to the mercy of the One who searches men’s hearts and the One who knows all secrets.
It is as if the Church is saying to God: this person has been released from our side by the authority to loose and bind which You gave to us (Matt. 18:18; John 20:23), and so we leave him now to Your mercy and to Your knowledge which is beyond ours.
The Church also prays on behalf of the one who is passing on, for him to be forgiven any sins which he may have committed which weren’t of the degree that leads to death, according to the instruction of the apostle.
As an example of this St. John said: ” If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death. ” (1 John 5:16-17)
So what are these sins that do not lead to death?
They are uncompleted sins, sins that have not been fully carried out. They may be sins of ignorance, sins committed unintentionally, or sins that are latent, or sins of negligence, for example.
We pray in the Trisagion saying:
[Forgive, absolve and pardon us, O God, for the wrongs we have done intentionally, those we have done knowingly, and those we have done unknowingly, the secret and the open.]
But unintentional sins, sins of ignorance and unseen sins are nevertheless still sins (because they violate God’s commandments and require forgiveness and prayer).
In the Old Testament, we see that even in the case of sins committed unintentionally without knowing, as soon as one became aware, one had to offer a sacrifice so that they might be forgiven. (Lev. 4:2,13,22-23).
The Church prays that the Lord would forgive any of these sins of ignorance or of negligence, or any sins committed unintentionally and unknowingly, which those who have passed over might have committed.
The Reciter says in the psalm: “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. ” (Ps. 19:12) It is for these hidden faults which the person is not aware of having, that the Church asks forgiveness on his behalf.
Let us suppose that a person has died suddenly without having had a chance to confess, or that he has forgotten to confess some sins, and therefore hasn’t received an absolution for them. The Church can give him absolution and asks forgiveness for him, in the Prayer for the Departed.
The Church, therefore, prays for the sake of the departed out of a kind of compassion, because no-one is without sin, even if his life on earth lasts only one day (and this is a phrase which comes in part of the Prayer for the Departed).
David said: “If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness… ” (Ps. 129:3-
4) And he also said: ” Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, For in Your sight no one living is righteous. ” (Ps.
143:2) So if this is the situation, that there is no servant without a fault, and no master who is not forgiving, we pray for those who have passed away [Being human beings who put on the body and lived in the world].
We pray for everyone in this state, since only God is good. We ask for forgiveness and then leave the matter to God, always knowing that any human being might perhaps have repented even if it was at the hour of his death.
But for those who have died in the act of committing a deliberate sin, without having repented, we do not pray, since our prayers in these circumstances would be going against God’s goodness and justice.