by Timothy George
In early January 1546, at the age of sixty-two, Luther returned to the town of his birth, Eisleben, to settle a political dispute (really a family quarrel) between the princes of Mansfeld.
The journey from Wittenberg to Eisleben was eighty miles. Luther, in extremely poor health, was accompanied by his three sons, Hans, Martin, and Paul, as well as his trusted friend, Justus Jonas. Two days after their departure, while still en route, Luther wrote home to his wife Kate concerning the perils of the journey. Apparently warm weather had thawed the river, preventing travel directly to Eisleben.
Dear Kate, we arrived in Halle today at eight, but did not continue on to Eisleben because a big Anabaptist [the Saale River] met us with waves and hunks of ice. She fooded the land and threatened to rebaptize us. . . . We take refreshment and comfort in good Torgau beer and Rhenish wine, waiting to see whether the Saale will calm down. . . . The devil resents us, and he is in the water—so better safe than sorry.
Finally the river subsided, and the journey continued. On Valentine’s Day, February 14, Luther succeeded in effecting a reconciliation between the feuding princes. Three days later the agreement was signed, and Luther prepared to return to Kate and Wittenberg. Suddenly he was taken ill and fainted with fatigue. Apparently he knew that the end was near, as people at the gate of death often do. He remarked that little babies die by the thousands, “but when I, Doctor Martinus, die at sixty-three, I don’t think there’ll be more than sixty or a hundred in the whole world who die with me. . . . Well, all right, we old ones must live so long in order to look the devil in the rear.”
After the evening meal Luther made his way upstairs and lay down to pray. The pain grew worse. Friends rubbed him with hot towels. He experienced a series of attacks, and the doctors were summoned. After a few hours of sleep, Luther awakened in pain about one o’clock in the morning. He repeated in Latin Ps 31:5: “In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum, redemisti me, domine Deus veritatis” (“Into thy hand I commit my spirit; thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth”). Jonas asked him, “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ, and in the doctrine you have preached?” Luther responded loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, “Ja.” By daybreak he was dead.
Luther’s body was placed in a tin coffin and returned to Wittenberg where it was laid to rest in the Castle Church on the door of which Luther had posted the Ninety-five Theses nearly thirty years earlier. Melanchthon delivered the funeral oration, placing the fallen reformer in the widest possible context of church history, even salvation history. The Old Testament patriarchs, judges, kings, and prophets had been succeeded by John the Baptist, by Christ himself, and the apostles. Dr. Martinus was also to be counted in “this beautiful order and succession of supreme individuals on earth.”
Indeed, Melanchthon claimed, the pure Christian gospel had been most clearly set forth by five men: Isaiah, John the Baptist, Paul, Augustine, and Dr. Luther. Thus began what we might call the Protestant version of the canonization of Luther. Within a few years, a medal was published in Saxony that bore the inscription “Mart. Luther. Elias ultimi saeculi” (“Martin Luther: the Elijah of the Last Age”). Many people believed that Luther was the latter-day forerunner of the Messiah, that Luther’s life and career signaled nothing less than the approaching end of the world!
Despite these extremely laudatory claims, which were matched, of course, by equally defamatory attacks from Catholic detractors, nothing summarizes Luther’s life and legacy so well as the last words he is known to have written before his death in Eisleben. Walt Whitman once asked, “Why do folks dwell so fondly on the last words of the departing?” He then answered, “Those last words . . . are valuable beyond measure to con rm and endorse the varied train, facts, theories and faith of the whole preceding life.” After his death Luther’s friends found the following words scrawled on a piece of paper lying on the desk beside his bed:
Nobody can understand Vergil in his Bucolics and Georgics unless he has first been a shepherd or a farmer for five years. Nobody understands Cicero in his letters unless he has been engaged in public affairs of some consequence for twenty years. Let nobody suppose that he has tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently unless he has ruled over the churches with the prophets for a hundred years. Therefore there is some thing wonderful, first, about John the Baptist; second, about Christ; third, about the apostles. “Lay not your hand on this divine Aeneid, but bow before it, adore its every trace.” We are beggars. That is true.
Half in German, half in Latin: “Wir sein Pettler, Hoc est Verum” (“We are beggars, that is true”).
Luther’s whole approach to the Christian life is summed up in these last words. The posture of the human vis à vis God is one of utter receptivity. We have no legs of our own on which to stand. No mystical “ground of the soul” can serve as a basis of our union with the divine. We can earn no merits that will purchase for us a standing before God. We are beggars—needy, vulnerable, totally bereft of resources with which to save ourselves. For Luther the good news of the gospel was that in Jesus Christ God had become a beggar too. God identified with us in our neediness. Like the good Samaritan who exposed himself to the dangers of the road to attend to the dying man in the ditch, God “came where we were.”
We have spoken of Luther’s Anfechtungen, his struggles with the Devil, and the spiritual onslaughts that pursued him throughout his life. In such moments Luther found the grace of God most sustaining: “I did not come to my theology of a sudden, but had to brood ever more deeply. My trials brought me to it, for we do not learn anything except by experience.” Luther also wrote, “One who has never suffered cannot understand what hope is.”
Luther once remarked that his insight into the gracious character of God had come to him while he was “auff diser cloaca,” literally, “on the toilet.” While some scholars have interpreted this saying in terms of Luther’s acute suffering from constipation, we know that the expression in cloaca was a common metaphor in medieval spiritual writings. It referred to a state of utter helplessness and dependence on God. Where else are we more vulnerable, more easily embarrassed, and, in Luther’s mind, more open to demonic attacks, than when we are in cloaca? Yet it is precisely in a state of such vulnerability—when we are reduced to humility, when like beggars we can only cast ourselves on the mercy of another—that the yearning for grace is answered in the assurance of God’s inescapable nearness.
Time and again Luther proved the truth of this statement in his own experience: when, shut up in the Wartburg, the Devil was so real that he could hear him flipping chestnuts against the ceiling at night; when he was haunted by the demon of self-doubt and faced with the question, Are you alone wise?; when his body was wracked with illness and pain; when the church was besieged by war and plague from without, by heresy and schism from within. One of the lowest points of his life was when his beloved daughter Magdalena, barely fourteen years of age, was stricken with the plague. Brokenhearted Luther knelt beside her bed and begged God to release her from the pain. When she had died and the carpenters were nailing down the lid of her coffin, Luther screamed out, “Hammer away! On doomsday she’ll rise again.”
Luther had really said it all long before, in his explanation of the fourth of the Ninety-five Theses: “If a person’s whole life is one of repentance and a cross of Christ . . . then it is evident that the cross continues until death and thereby to entrance into the kingdom.” Luther’s legacy, unlike that of Francis, does not lie in the saintliness of his life. His warts were many; his vices, sometimes more visible than his virtues. Nor does his legacy depend ultimately upon his vast accomplishments as a reformer and theologian.
Luther’s true legacy is his spiritual insight into the gracious character of God in Jesus Christ, the God who loves us and sustains us unto death, and again unto life. “What else was Luther,” asked Karl Barth, “than a teacher of the Christian church whom one can hardly celebrate in any other way but to listen to him?”
Editor’s note: This is excerpted from Theology of the Reformers.
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