Commemoration of Blessed Martin Luther: Confessor and Reformer of the Church
Martin Luther, born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany, initially began studies leading toward a degree in law. However, after a close encounter with death, he switched to the study of theology, entered an Augustinian monastery, was ordained a priest in 1505, and received a doctorate in theology in 1512. As a professor at the newly-established University of Wittenberg, his scriptural studies led him to question many of the church’s teachings and practices, especially the selling of indulgences. His refusal to back down from his convictions resulted in his excommunication in 1521. Following a period of seclusion at the Wartburg castle, Luther returned to Wittenberg, where he spent the rest of his life preaching and teaching, translating the Scriptures, and writing hymns and numerous theological treatises. He is remembered and honored for his lifelong emphasis on the biblical truth that for Christ’s sake God declares us righteous by grace through faith alone. He died on February 18, 1546, while visiting the town of his birth.
In 1546 Luther set out for the counts of Mansfeld because they had summoned him to settle a dispute. Before he reached Eisleben, he became quite ill because it was at the end of January. On Feb. 17 he began to be very ill, being quite heavy of chest. With him were his three sons, Johannes, Martin, and Paul, and some other friends including Justus Jonas, minister of the church at Halle. Although he was quite weak, he ate lunch and supper with the rest. During supper he spoke about various matters. Among other things he kept asking this: “Will we recognize each other in eternal life?” When they wanted to learn this from him, he said: “What happened to Adam? He had never seen Eve, but when God made her, he was drowsy and fell into a very deep sleep. When he awoke and saw her, he did not ask who she was or where she came from, but said that she was flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones. But how did he know that? He declared this, being filled with the Holy Spirit and endowed with the true knowledge of God. In the same manner, we, too, will be renewed through Christ in the other life, and then we will know our parents, wives, children, and whatever it is much more perfectly than Adam knew Eve.”
When he left the table to pray, as was his custom, the pain of his chest began to increase. Then, at the advice of some, he drank a unicorn’s horn of wine and slept peacefully for an hour or two on a small cot in the stove room. When he awoke, he went into the bedroom and again settled himself to rest. He greeted his friends, who were there, and told them: “Pray God to preserve for us the teaching of the Gospel, for the pope and his council are planning harsh things.” After he said this, he became quiet and slept for a while, but after midnight the pressing pain of his illness aroused him. He complained about the pain in his chest and, perceiving that the end of his life was now imminent, he implored God with exactly these words:
“Heavenly Father, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, God of all consolation, I give You thanks that You have revealed Your Son, Jesus Christ, to me. I have believed in Him, I have confessed Him, I have loved Him, I have praised Him, whom the pope and the remaining crowd of the wicked persecute and insult. I ask You, my Lord Jesus Christ, receive my poor soul. Heavenly Father, though I am being plucked out of this life, though I will now have to put aside this body, yet I know for certain that I will remain with You forever and that no one can pluck me out of Your hands.”
Not much after that prayer, when He had commended His spirit into God’s hands once and again, he slowly departed from life as if going to sleep, with no pain of body that anyone could notice. That fatal year of Luther was his sixty-third, a year which generally is quite dangerous.
Johannes Sleidanus, De statu religionis et republicae, Carolo quinto, Caesare commentarij (Basel, 1556), quoted in Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces XXV, On the Church, § 297.