Luther held on to the hope we have in Christ, whether in life or in death.
Paul E. Koelpin
In Luther’s medieval world, art of all kinds—both literary and visual—often served as a reminder that in the midst of life we are surrounded by death. We might wonder whether people really needed a reminder. The average lifespan was short in the early 16th century—perhaps only 35 years—in large part because epidemic disease could easily ravage a German village. And infant mortality was high. Coping with death was no easy matter.
Finding victory in death
It was even harder for a young man relentlessly troubled by his conscience. Martin Luther feared the moment of death. How could he face his end with any confidence? Spiritually sensitive and insecure, Luther retreated to the shelter of a monastery. The decision made perfect sense. It was not that monks lived longer, but monks observed a routine of patterned “holiness.” Such a life seemed to offer a ray of hope for his distressed soul. But try as he did—and he tried very hard—he could not find the peace for which he was longing. What lingered was the image of God as judge. Luther despaired of becoming righteous. How could he know he had done enough to be righteous in God’s sight?
Luther began a quest for an answer. He found it in the words of Holy Scripture. There, particularly in St. Paul’s exposition to the Romans, Luther discovered that God supplied the righteousness that sinners lacked. Paul wrote: “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22). A great exchange occurred on Calvary’s cross. Jesus bore the punishment for all sinners; sinners receive his righteousness. Christ’s victory becomes ours by the gift of faith. Luther’s Easter sermon of 1530 proclaimed both victory and peace. “This is why I do not worry,” he declared with confidence.
Facing the death of loved ones
Just months after he preached that sermon, Luther learned of his father’s death. When he received the news, he was a long way from where he wanted to be. He was staying at the Castle Coburg, on the southwestern edge of Saxony. Luther had wanted to be in Augsburg where supporters of the Lutheran cause had been summoned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to present a confession of their beliefs. But the Emperor had declared Luther to be an outlaw. He could live safely only in Saxony under the protection of the Elector of Saxony. Arrangements were made for Luther to be as close to the proceedings in Augsburg as he could get—the Coburg Castle, several days’ journey away but still in Saxony.
The spring and summer of 1530 were tense and anxious days. According to a well-founded account, Luther scrawled the words of Psalm 118:17 in Latin on the wall of his castle chamber—Non moriar sed vivam et narrabo opera Domini (“I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done”)—still memorialized at Coburg today. These words were a confession of Luther’s confident Easter faith. What the psalm writer trusted by promise, Luther knew by faith in Jesus Christ—a declaration that life in Christ is eternal and the days of life here have purpose.
All the same, dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy. After receiving the news of his father’s passing, Luther wrote:
This death has certainly thrown me into sadness, thinking not only [of the bonds] of nature, but also of the very kind love [my father had for me]; for through him my Creator has given me all that I am and have. Even though it does comfort me that [my father], strong in faith in Christ, had gently fallen asleep, yet the pity of heart and the memory of the most loving dealings with him have shaken me in the innermost parts of my being, so that seldom if ever have I despised death as much as I do now. (Luther’s Works [LW] 49:319)
Luther’s reaction was both human and devout. He grieved; he believed. He understood well how the Christian is “buried with [Christ] in baptism” (Colossians 2:12) and must constantly “die to sins” (1 Peter 2:24). For Luther the struggle with the sinful nature did not go away, it was merely transformed by the gospel from a life of failed and futile effort to a life of repentance and faith.
Twelve years later, in 1542, Luther’s 13-year-old daughter, Magdalena, died in his arms—another untimely death. He admitted at the time that his grief was almost too much to bear. Yet he comforted mourners with these words: “You should be pleased! I’ve sent a saint to heaven—yes, a living saint” (LW 54:432-3).
One of Luther’s biographers submitted that the faith of Luther turned the perception of his time on its head. Instead of a preoccupation with death, Christian faith allowed Luther to see that “in the midst of death we are surrounded by life.”
Paul Koelpin, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the fourth article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.
Luther still speaks
Luther correctly understood the connection between Good Friday and Easter. In an Easter sermon in 1530 he proclaimed, “Know ye, then—sin, death, devil, and everything that assails me—that you are missing the mark. I am not one of those who are afraid of you. For Christ, my dear Lord, has presented to me that triumph and victory of his by which you were laid low. . . . My sin and death hung about his neck on Good Friday, but on the day of Easter they had completely disappeared. This victory he has bestowed on me. This is why I do not worry about you.”
Wouldn’t it be something if Luther were standing in our pulpit this Easter? In a sense he does. When our pastor preaches, it will be the same glorious message that God restored to the church through Luther. Good Friday is nothing without Easter. And there could be no Easter without Good Friday. As the Reformer put it, “My sin and death hung about his neck on Good Friday, but on the day of Easter they had completely disappeared.”
On Good Friday the Savior said of sin’s payment, “It is finished.” On Easter Sunday the Father added his exclamation point by raising his Son from the grave. So what do we have to fear? For us, death is now like a snarling dog that can’t bite us for it has no teeth. For us, death is not a period at life’s end, but a comma, signifying more is yet to come. This is the victory that our crucified and risen Savior bestows on us.
Luther won’t be in our pulpit this Easter, but thank God the message he treasured from the Scriptures will be!
Richard E. Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.
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Author: Paul S. Koelpin & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 4
Issue: April 2017
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