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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.