The Final Days of Luther’s Life

luther_dead[Luther arrived in Eisleben] on the 28th of January, accompanied by his friend the theologian Jonas, who had been with him at the Diet of Worms, and by his two sons, Martin and Paul, the former now fifteen, and the latter thirteen, years of age. He was respectfully received by the Counts of Mansfeld, attended by a hundred and twelve horsemen. He entered that town of Eisleben in which he was born, and in which he was about to die. That same evening he was very unwell and was near fainting.

Nevertheless, he took courage and, applying himself zealously to the task, attended twenty conferences, preached four times, received the sacrament twice, and ordained two ministers. Every evening Jonas and Michael Coelius, pastor of Mansfeld, came to wish him good night. ‘Doctor Jonas, and you Master Michael,’ he said to them, ‘entreat of the Lord to save his church, for the Council of Trent is in great wrath.’

Luther dined regularly with the Counts of Mansfeld. It was evident from his conversation that the Holy Scriptures grew daily in importance in his eyes. ‘Cicero asserts in his letters,’ he said to the Counts two days before his death, ‘that no one can comprehend the science of government who has not occupied for twenty years an important place in the republic. And I for my part tell you that no one has understood the Holy Scriptures who has not governed the churches for a hundred years, with the prophets, the Apostles and Jesus Christ.’

This occurred on the 16th of February. After saying these words he wrote them down in Latin laid them upon the table and then retired to his room. He had no sooner reached it than he felt that his last hour was near. ‘When I have set my good lords at one,’ he said to those about him, ‘I will return home; I will lie down in my coffin and give my body to the worms.’

luther_bowing_to_zwingliThe next day, February 17, his weakness increased. The Counts of Mansfeld and the prior of Anhalt, filled with anxiety, came to see him. ‘Pray do not come,’ they said, ‘to the conference.’ He rose and walked up and down the room and exclaimed,—‘Here, at Eisleben, I was baptized. Will it be my lot also to die here?’ A little while after he took the sacrament. Many of his friends attended him, and sorrowfully felt that soon they would see him no more. One of them said to him,—‘Shall we know each other in the eternal assembly of the blessed? We shall be all so changed!’ ‘Adam,’ replied Luther, ‘had never seen Eve, and yet when he awoke he did not say “Who art thou?” but, “Thou art flesh of my flesh.” By what means did he know that she was taken from his flesh and not from a stone? He knew this because he was filled with the Holy Spirit. So likewise in the heavenly Paradise we shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, and we shall recognize father, mother, and friends better than Adam recognized Eve.’

luther_deathHaving thus spoken, Luther retired into his chamber and, according to his daily custom, even in the winter time, opened his window, looked up to heaven and began to pray. ‘Heavenly Father, he said, ‘since in thy great mercy thou hast revealed to me the downfall of the pope, since the day of thy glory is not far off, and since the light of thy Gospel, which is now rising over the earth is to be diffused through the whole world, keep to the end through thy goodness the church of my dear native country; save it from falling, preserve it in the true profession of thy word, and let all men know that it is indeed for thy work that thou hast sent me.’ He then left the window, returned to his friends, and about ten o’clock at night retired to bed.

Just as he reached the threshold of his bedroom he stood still and said in Latin,—‘In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum, redemisti me, Deus veritatis!’

The 18th of February, the day of his departure, was now at hand. About one o’clock in the morning, sensible that the chill of death was creeping over him, Luther called Jonas and his faithful servant Ambrose. ‘Make a fire,’ he said to Ambrose. Then he cried out,—‘O Lord my God, I am in great pain! What a weight upon my chest! I shall never leave Eisleben.’ Jonas said to him, ‘Our heavenly Father will come to help you for the love of Christ which you have faithfully preached to men.’ Luther then got up, took some turns up and down his room, and looking up to heaven exclaimed again,—‘Into thine hand I commit my spirit; thou hast redeemed me, O God of truth!’

Jonas in alarm sent for the doctors, Wild and Ludwig, the Count and Countess of Mansfeld, Drachstadt, the town clerk, and Luther’s children. In great alarm they all hastened to the spot. ‘I am dying,’ said the sick man. ‘No,’ said Jonas, ‘you are now in a perspiration and will soon be better,’ ‘It is the sweat of death,’ said Luther, ‘I am nearly at my last breath.’ He was thoughtful for a moment and then said with faltering voice,—‘O my heavenly Father, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God of all consolation, I thank thee that thou hast revealed to me thy well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in whom I have believed, whom I have preached, whom I have confessed, whom the pope and all the ungodly insult, blaspheme, and persecute, but whom I love and adore as my Saviour. O Jesus Christ, my Saviour, I commit my soul to thee! O my heavenly Father, I must quit this body, but I believe with perfect assurance that I shall dwell eternally with thee, and that none shall pluck me out of thy hands.’

luther_graveHe now remained silent for a little while; his prayer seemed to have exhausted him. But presently his countenance again grew bright, a holy joy shone in his features, and he said with fulness of faith,—‘God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ A moment afterwards he uttered, as if sure of victory, this word of David,*—‘He that is our God is the God of salvation; and unto God the Lord belong the issues from death.’ Dr. Wild went to him, and tried to induce him to take medicine, but Luther refused. ‘I am departing,’ he said, ‘I am about to yield up my spirit.’ Then returning to the saying which was for him a sort of watchword for his departure, he said three times successively without interruption,—‘Father! into thine hand I commit my spirit. Thou hast redeemed me, O God of truth! Thou hast redeemed me, O God of truth!’

He then closed his eyes. They touched him, moved him, called to him, but he made no answer. In vain they applied the cloths which the town-clerk and his wife heated, in vain the Countess of Mansfeld and the physicians endeavoured to revive him with tonics. He remained motionless. All who stood round him, perceiving that God was going to take away from the church militant this mighty warrior, were deeply affected. The two physicians noted from minute to minute the approach of death.

The two boys, Martin and Paul, kneeling and in tears, cried to God to spare to them their father. Ambrose lamented the master, and Coelius the friend, whom they had so much loved. The Count of Mansfeld thought of the troubles which Luther’s death might bring on the Empire. The distressed Countess sobbed and covered her eyes with her hands that she might not behold the mournful scene, Jonas, a little apart from the rest, felt heartbroken at the thought of the terrible blow impending over the Reformation. He wished to receive from the dying Luther a last testimony. He therefore rose, and went up to his friend, and bending over him, said,—Reverend father, in your dying hour do you rest on Jesus Christ, and stedfastly rely upon the doctrine which you have preached?’ ‘YES,’ said Luther, so that all who were present could hear him. This was his last word.

Luther's death mask

Luther’s death mask

The pallor of death overspread his countenance; his forehead, his hands, and his feet turned cold. They addressed him by his baptismal name, ‘Doctor Martin,’ but in vain, he made no response. He drew a deep breath and fell asleep in the Lord. It was between two and three o’clock in the morning. ‘Truly,’ said Jonas, to whom we are indebted for these details, ‘thou lettest, Lord, thy servant depart in peace, and thou accomplishest for him the promise which thou madest us, and which he himself wrote the other day in a Bible presented to one of his friends: Verily, verily, I say unto you, if a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.’*

luther_dead

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*J. H. Merle D’aubigné D.D. and William L. R. Cates, History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin (vol. 8; London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1878), 428–433.

About Jim

I am a Pastor, and Lecturer in Church History and Biblical Studies at Ming Hua Theological College.
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