Martin Luther was dying. Of course, they weren’t sure, but the old man himself thought so. For years he had been troubled by a variety of ailments – ringing in his ears, dizziness, a sore on his leg that wouldn’t heal, and arthritis. In 1537, he almost died from kidney stones. For a week, he couldn’t urinate and the pain was excruciating, but God spared him and he lived for another nine years in spite of everything that vexed him. This time, however, it was his heart – chest pains. He had had episodes of angina before, but now the pains were both powerful and persistent. The first attack came around 8 p.m. and the second several hours later. Physicians were summoned and medicine administered. Nothing worked. Early in the morning of February 18, 1546, the great Reformer was dead.
But how did he die? Not with yelling and screaming and protests, but with prayer and in peace. He thanked his merciful and heavenly Father that He had revealed Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ, in whom Luther believed, whom he loved, and whom he preached, confessed, and praised. The dying man also took comfort from the Bible, especially from a few passages that he kept returning to through the night: Psalm 31:5 (which is often used by Christians when dying and reminds them of the last words of Jesus), “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. You have redeemed me, O God of truth”; and John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Like Simeon when he held the Christ child in his arms (Luke 2:29) so Luther, believing in that same Christ, was ready “to depart in peace.” And so he did.
Shortly before the end, his friend and colleague, Justas Jonas, along with the pastor in that place, Michael Coelius, roused him one last time to ask him if he still confessed Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as Savior and Redeemer – the doctrine that he had preached and taught for so many years – and Luther answered distinctly, “Yes.” It was probably the last word that he spoke.
Luther is rightly famous for his earlier confessions – before the Swiss reformer, Huldrych Zwingli, in 1529 regarding the Real Presence of the body and blood of Jesus in communion, and before the emperor Charles V in 1521 that he would not retract his writings since he was bound to the Word of God. But neither of these – nor any other – was more important than the last one, made on his deathbed – just because it was his last one. Pose or pretense was impossible now. Only one thing mattered: his relationship with God. Luther did not offer anything he had done, his publications, lectures, sermons, catechism, not even his confessions. None of them mattered, indeed, could not matter, because Luther recognized himself as a sinner, someone whose works – even if people would admire them for centuries – were always marred by self-interest, self-seeking, self-love.
As he lay dying, just one thing mattered to Luther, rather just one person mattered, the world’s only Savior, Jesus Christ. He and only He had taken on Luther’s worst enemies, the forces of hell: Sin, Death, and Devil – and defeated them utterly, absolutely, completely. The cross was the battle, the empty tomb the victory. That was why Luther could – and anyone can – die so confidently. Jesus Christ had overcome that unholy triumvirate and reconciled Luther to his heavenly Father. With sin forgiven, heaven flew open. Eternal life and resurrection at the end of time were waiting for Luther – just as they are for each one of us.
Luther was certainly special in life. The world will remember very few of us (more likely, none) who are alive today 500 years later! But we can all meet death just like Martin Luther and end up in the same place. What Jesus did for Luther, he did for everybody. And it’s all ours through faith in Him.