A few years ago, I received this unexpected request from one of my church members with multiple sclerosis: “When you have time, could you please do a Bible study on how to prepare for death?” This person knew that her condition was incurable and, although death still seemed a fairly long way off, she was anxious to receive advice on how to face it. I was taken aback by that request, but I should not have been. This was a very sensible idea. Why wouldn’t every church member be interested in such a Bible study? Yet, I could not remember the last time I preached or heard a sermon on that topic. The Bible is very upfront about the reality of death but also very clear that it is possible to die well. It is perhaps significant that one of the best-known Hebrew words in the Old Testament, the word shalom, which we associate with peace and well-being, first appears in the context of death (Gen. 15:15). Knowing how we may die “in peace” should be an important concern for us all.
As I reflected on this, I was struck again about how common that theme was in Christian sermons and devotional literature until about two hundred years ago. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, decisive breakthroughs in medical research, such as the discovery of germs and anesthetics, made death and pain feel more distant. For the first time in history, being healthy became the norm and being ill the exception. For most people in history, death was an ever-present companion. John Calvin, for example, gives a vivid description of how precarious life felt in his time:
Innumerable are the ills which beset human life, and present death in as many different forms. Not to go beyond ourselves, since the body is a receptacle, even the nurse, of a thousand diseases, a man cannot move without carrying along with him many forms of destruction. . . . Then, in what direction soever you turn, all surrounding objects not only may do harm, but almost openly threaten and seem to present immediate death. Go on board a ship, you are but a plank’s breadth from death. Mount a horse, the stumbling of a foot endangers your life. Walk along the streets, every tile upon the roofs is a source of danger . . . I say nothing of poison, treachery, robbery, some of which beset us at home, others follow us abroad.1
It is therefore not surprising that Christians felt the need to be trained in the ars moriendi (art of dying). In fact, the idea that the whole of life is a preparation to die was commonplace. As events in the world sometimes bring death considerably closer to us, I believe it is urgent for the church to recover the Christian ars moriendi. What we need in particular is not so much rehearsing general theological truths about death but precisely what that church member asked me: some practical advice on how to prepare ourselves for it. The Protestant Reformers and seventeenth-century Puritans can help us with this because they knew how to face death and how to think about it in concrete terms. They wrote a great deal on the topic but, for the sake of brevity, I will focus on Martin Luther, whose teaching on the matter sums up the Protestant ars moriendi.2
Luther’s view of the Christian life is attractive because of its concrete character. Luther was not simply a theologian of more abstract concepts such as justification but a pastor who preached and wrote to human beings of flesh and blood facing much hardship and who were never far away from death. Luther himself, like his contemporaries, did not expect to live for very long, and he thought he would soon die from illness or martyrdom. It is therefore not surprising that he preached and wrote about death throughout his life. As early as 1519, when he was only thirty-six, he wrote a series of exhortations for his sovereign, Elector Frederick the Wise, who was seriously ill.3 In that same year, he preached a famous sermon on preparing to die, and he no doubt preached many times on the subject. Practical considerations about dying are spread through his writings. We also have fairly precise information about Luther’s last days and his own death that allows us to know that he put into practice what he preached.
Luther can help us because he teaches us how to think properly about death both throughout our lives and when it is near. His insights can be summed up under four headings.
Be Confident but Realistic
First, Luther recognizes that death is frightening even for Christians. He is not so foolish as to believe that the fear of death can be neutralized by stoic fortitude, as certain atheists try to convince themselves. This is a conviction that is often found in his writings. For example, in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 15 preached on October 6, 1532, he says: “The heathens have wisely said ‘he is a fool who is afraid of death, for through such fear he loses his own life.’ This would be true if only a man could act on the advice. . . . They advise that nothing is better than simply cast all such fear aside, to rid the mind of it and to think: why worry about it? When we are dead, we are dead. That is certainly disposing of the matter in short order and completely extinguishing God’s wrath, hell and damnation!”4
Or again, in one of his table talks: “I do not like to see people glad to die. . . . Great saints do not like to die. The fear of death is natural, for death is a penalty; therefore, it is something sad. According to the spirit one gladly dies; but according to the flesh, it is said ‘another shall carry you where you would not.’ ”5
Yet, because Christ defeated death, Luther also knows that the death of a Christian is fundamentally different. As he says to Frederick the Wise in one of his fourteen consolations: “The death of a Christian is to be looked upon as the brazen serpent of Moses. It does have the appearance of a serpent; but it is entirely without life, without motion, without poison, without sting. . . . We do resemble those who die, and the outward appearance of our death is not different from that of others. But the thing itself is different nevertheless because for us death is dead.”6
This is why the Christian is able to prepare for death in a meaningful way. However, this preparation should take place throughout the whole of life, and this leads to Luther’s next insight.
Think of Death at the Right Time
This is perhaps the most insightful piece of advice and the most challenging for us today. The issue is not simply how to think about death but when. Luther’s oft-repeated advice is that we should familiarize ourselves with death while we are still healthy, while death itself still seems far away. Conversely, we should not stare at death when it is near us but rather focus on Christ. Now it is clear that most people today—sadly, including many Christians—do precisely the opposite. They studiously ignore death while healthy and are caught unprepared when it comes.
On the contrary, Luther understood that spiritual growth is a slow process that takes a lifetime and that facing death is something that has to be learned. This is why he encourages us to think often of our own mortality, to reflect on its cause and consequences and on its ultimate outcome for the Christian—the resurrection of the body. One interesting suggestion on how to do that is to meditate on our own death and when we pass cemeteries. In another sermon on 1 Corinthians 15—a fruitful chapter for reflections on death—Luther expands on the subject:
We must henceforth learn a new language and speech in talking of death and the grave when we die. It should not be called dying but being sown for the coming summer and that the churchyard or burial mound is not a mound of dead bodies but an acre full of grain, called God’s grain, which is to sprout again. . . . So then, when I see my father, mother, child or friend buried and lie under the ground, I, as a Christian, should not say ‘there lies a foul, decayed carcass or corpse, but: there lies my dear father, mother, child or friend; and today or tomorrow I shall lie there with them. What are they? Pure kernels of grain which will grow immortal and imperishable.7
This is a wise piece of advice but one that is hard to follow nowadays since everything has been done to hide death away. Once upon a time, graveyards would be located around churches so that everybody would pass them every Sunday. One can imagine that worshiping the Lord in a building surrounded by the graves of family members and friends would have helped people focus their minds on what they were doing and would have provided a concrete symbol of the union between the church militant here below and the church triumphant. Now, however, cemeteries and crematoria are hidden away, and this deprives us of an important opportunity for spiritual reflections. Nonetheless, we should make a point of thinking about death regularly and remind ourselves of the reasons that its sting has been taken away.
On the other hand, we should not focus on death when it is close but rather should focus on Christ. This is because a large part of the terror of death comes from the awareness of our sins and our guilt before God. The unbeliever has no alternative but to hope that there is no God on the other side to judge him. The Christian, though, has a different kind of certainty, and he can focus on Christ rather than on his sin. Luther explains in his famous 1519 sermon on preparing to die:
On our deathbed, it is neither fitting nor timely to brood over our sins; this we should do while we are living. But thus, the Evil Spirit turns everything upside down for us. While we are living and ought to have the picture of death, sin and hell constantly before our eyes he closes our eyes for us and hides these pictures. At death, when we should have only life, grace and salvation before our eyes, he opens our eyes for us first of all and then frightens us with untimely pictures to keep us from seeing the proper ones.8
This focus on “life, grace, and salvation” in Christ at death takes several forms. A practical and spiritual preparation and a focus on the means of grace.
Prepare to Take Leave Materially and Spiritually
Luther, like all Christian authors at that time, teaches that one important task Christians face at death is to put their own affairs in order, as far as possible, to make things easier for their loved ones: “First, since death marks a farewell from this world and all its activities, it is necessary that a man regulate his temporal goods properly or as he wishes to have them ordered, lest after his death there be occasion for squabbles, quarrels, or other misunderstanding among his surviving friends. This pertains to the physical or external departure from this world and to the surrender of our possessions.”9
Again, this is a challenging thought. Many people fail to do this and leave their family in a predicament simply because they cannot face the prospect of their own death. Therefore, putting our affairs in order is both a sign of faith (we can face death because we know where we are going) and of submission to Christ (we want to care not just about our own interests but also about the interests of others; Phil. 2:4).
Second, we must put our spiritual affairs in order, and an essential part of that is forgiving and asking forgiveness as far as possible: “Second, we must also take leave spiritually. That is, we must cheerfully and sincerely forgive, for God’s sake, all men who have offended us. At the same time, we must also, for God’s sake, earnestly seek the forgiveness of all the people whom we undoubtedly have greatly offended by setting them a bad example or by bestowing too few of the kindnesses demanded by the law of Christian brotherly love. This is necessary lest the soul remain burdened by its actions here on earth.”10
Luther takes Paul’s teaching seriously: “The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law.” (1 Cor. 15:56). If, as Luther says, nothing is more important than focusing our minds on Christ when death is near, it is essential to seek forgiveness and forgive others because guilt is a powerful obstacle to a good death.
Then, the most important thing to do is focus our attention on the perfect sacrifice and righteousness of Christ and grasp the certainty of salvation that we have in Him. This can be done through prayerfully using the ordinary means of grace that the Lord has given His people to help them live and therefore to help them die as well. This includes appropriating the truths and promises we find in God’s Word: “Gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned when he spoke the words on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure. . . . Seek yourself only in Christ, and not in yourself, and you will find yourself in him eternally.”11
Hang On to the Sacraments
For Luther, the sacraments always were of fundamental importance in sustaining his faith, and he encourages Christians to draw comfort from them in the face of death. This is perhaps the piece of advice that sounds most alien to our ears because contemporary evangelicals, whatever their denomination, do not share Luther’s view of the sacraments. Yet, despite the theological gap between us and Luther on this point, we can learn something from him. Thus, Luther memorably defines the meaning of the sacraments at the end of his sermon on preparing to die, “God wants the sacraments to be a sign and testimony that Christ’s life has taken your death, his obedience your sin, his love your hell and overcome them.”12
The sacraments teach us the absolutely objective value of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, a value that does not depend in the least on our own worthiness or even our own understanding but which can be appropriated by faith:
It [the sign] points to Christ and his image, enabling you to say when faced by the image of death, sin, and hell, “God promised and, in his sacraments, he gave me a sure sign of his grace that Christ’s life overcame my death in his death, that his obedience blotted out my sin in his suffering, that his love destroyed my hell in his forsakenness. This sign and promise of my salvation will not lie to me or deceive me. It is God who has promised it, and he cannot lie either in words or in deeds.” He who thus insists and relies on the sacraments will find that his election and predestination will turn out well without his worry and effort.13
This is surely one of the main accomplishments of the Protestant Reformation: the realization that those signs—be it the waters of baptism or the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper—are not so much a sacramental mechanism to make salvation possible but the concrete representation of what Christ has accomplished for us to give us the certainty of our salvation throughout our lives and, most importantly, at the point of death.
Luther concludes his sermon: “We ought to thank him with a joyful heart for showing us such wonderful, rich, and immeasurable grace and mercy against death, hell, and sin, and to laud and love his grace rather than fearing death so greatly. Love and praise make dying very much easier, as God tells us through Isaiah, ‘For the sake of my praise I restrain my wrath for you, that I may not cut you off.’ To that end may God help us. Amen.”14
Luther’s Own Death
As I said at the beginning, we know enough about Luther’s death to know that he was able to get that peace and certainty that he preached about. There are numerous reports and accounts of Luther’s death, but the most important eyewitness accounts historically are those left by Luther’s friend Justus Jonas and Michael Coelius, a preacher from Mansfeld. Jonas and Coelius left detailed accounts of Luther’s last moments because they realized that the way Luther died had enormous significance for the future of the Reformation. Many people at the time, especially his enemies, were convinced that the way he faced death would reveal whether he was sent by God or the devil. The honesty of Jonas and Coelius’ account of Luther’s pain and fear is all the more remarkable. I will not retell the story in detail, as it has been told many times before, and readers who want to know more about it may start with Stephen Nichols’ article “Martin Luther’s Death and Legacy.”15 However, a few details are worth mentioning in relation to what Luther taught about preparing to die.
He died on February 18, 1546, age sixty-two, in difficult circumstances. Sadly, he was away on pastoral business, far from his beloved wife and family. From what can be ascertained, he died from an attack of angina pectoris. He had been plagued with numerous health problems throughout his life and, more than once in the previous years, he thought he was about to die from a heart attack or kidney stones. He suffered from an attack of severe chest pain from late evening until the middle of the night, and Jonas and Coelius do not hide in their account that, as Luther was lying sweating he was seized with the fear of death. However, he managed to control himself and commend his “little soul” to Christ, affirming his conviction that death could not snatch him away from God’s hand. Echoing the words of Simeon, he said, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.” Finally, he repeated three times Psalm 31:5 (“Lord to you I commit my spirit”), a commonly used verse for funerals, and he became silent. Then he lost consciousness and his friends were unable to revive him. Jonas and Coelius shouted, “Reverend father, are you ready to die trusting in your Lord Jesus Christ and to confess the doctrine you have taught in His name?” Luther uttered a distinct “Yes!” After this, he responded no more.
Luther’s death was a vindication of his teaching. He showed that, as he had always taught, death was a painful and frightening process, but it could be overcome in Christ. May the Lord help us to prepare ourselves so that we may be ready to answer a distinct “Yes!” to that same question when the time comes.
- John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, 1.17.10. ↩︎
- Throughout this article I refer to the Weimar edition of Martin Luther’s complete works (Weimar Ausgabe or WA). The “Fourteen Consolations” and the famous sermon on preparing to die referred to below are also available in the American edition of Luther’s Works (Concordia Publishing House), vol. 42. ↩︎
- “Fourteen Consolations for Them That Are Laboured and Laden” (1519). ↩︎
- WA 36, 539. ↩︎
- WA 408. ↩︎
- WA 118. ↩︎
- Sermon on 1 Co 15.36, 22nd December 1532, WA 36, 641. ↩︎
- WA 2, 687. ↩︎
- WA 2, 685. ↩︎
- WA 2, 686. ↩︎
- WA 2, 690. ↩︎
- WA 2, 692. ↩︎
- WA 2, 692. ↩︎
- WA 2, 697. ↩︎
- Stephen Nichols, “Martin Luther’s Death and Legacy,” Ligonier Ministries, February 21, 2021, accessed December 10, 2021, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/martin-luthers-death-and-legacy. For a fuller account of Luther’s death, see volume 3 of Martin Brecht’s voluminous biography: Martin Luther, The Preservation of the Church 1532–1546 (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1993), 373–76. ↩︎