Luther's Counsel for the Sick and Dying
It’s all about the conscience. Once we understand that, so much of what Martin Luther wrote, taught, preached, and acted on makes more sense, especially when it comes to the spiritual counsel he provided to others. For Luther the Gospel was not given as advice for religious seekers but as balm to troubled consciences, including those of people facing sickness and death. Theodore Tappert, in the forward to his collection, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, says that from the onset of the indulgence controversy in 1517 to Luther’s death in 1546 “lay a rich lifetime of pastoral activity” (pg. 13).
Luther’s practice of the art of ministry, especially for the dying and grieving, was consistently aimed at a person’s experience of Anfechtung (the conscience troubled to the point of despair or torment) and Trost (consolation). When we hear Luther use that word “conscience,” though, we need to be careful. He’s not talking about a miniature devil and angel on your shoulders whispering in your ear like in the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. He means, instead, your sense of yourself in relation to others: before the world (coram mundo), before other people (coram hominibus), and especially before God (coram deo). The demands of the Law in this life bear down on us and make us doubt our standing. Our inability to fulfill the Law calls our very existence into question. There is no time more likely to cause a troubled conscience than an encounter with sickness or with our last enemy, death — and certainly no better time to bring the consolation of the Gospel.
While Luther is known as a teacher and reformer, his career was steeped in the pastoral practice of quelling consciences: in his classroom lectures, in his prodigious theological output, in the stream of sermons he preached, and in his letters to the sick in dying.
When we read Luther’s letters to the sick and dying, we find that his practice reinforces the advice he gave about dying to Mark Schart, a generous donor to the reformer’s Augustinian order and to the University of Wittenberg. The prince’s counselor, Georg Spalatin, had asked Luther to write something that would salve Schart’s fear of dying. The result was “A Sermon on Preparing to Die,” which is 500 years old this month (LW 42:99ff). The sermon is Luther’s variation of the late medieval ars moriendi, the treatises on the art of dying, but as usual, Luther took what he received and turned it inside-out, so that it shifted from a series of demands and became a bestowal of God’s gracious promise.
In the sermon, Luther recommended that we begin our preparations for death by having our temporal lives in order. He wanted to prevent breaking open of family fault lines and the squabbling and wrangling over inheritances that occur so often. That means having our finances in order. It also means seeing to it that rifts with others are healed, both by forgiving others and asking forgiveness ourselves. Finally, Luther sought to turn Schart’s “eyes to God, to whom the path of death leads and directs us.” All this is to stem death’s power to invoke fear and unfaith:
We should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move. At the time of dying, however, this is hazardous and useless, for then death looms large of its own accord. In that hour we must put the thought of death out of mind and refuse to see it…The power and might of death are rooted in the fearfulness of our nature and in our untimely and undue viewing and contemplating of it.
The best way to avoid death’s temptation to despair is to become grounded in the unmitigated mercy of Christ. It’s the only thing strong enough to push back against Sin’s accusation, the threat of hell, and the certain slamming of death’s door.
In the pastoral care within his letters to the sick and dying, Luther takes up a spot at the head of a grand queue of those walking point, accompanying troubled consciences who face their end. He said that at our deaths we ought to be convinced that we’re not alone, for we’re watched over by a great many eyes: “first, the eyes of God and of Christ himself…then also, the eyes of the dear angels, of the saints, and of all Christians.”
To his own father, whose health was on the verge of total collapse, Luther the son became Luther the preacher, distilling the Gospel for which he had desperately fought into a few pithy sentences that serve as the essence of his Reformation proclamation:
Let your heart be strong and at ease in your trouble, for we have yonder a true mediator with God, Jesus Christ, who has overcome death and sin for us and now sits in heaven with all his angels, looking down on us and awaiting us so that when we set out we need have no fear or care lest we should sink and fall to the ground. He has such great power over sin and death that they cannot harm us, and he is so heartily true and kind that he cannot and will not forsake us (Tappert, 31).
Luther explained to his father that he wrote in order to “become a participant of your faith, temptation, consolation, and thanks to God for his Holy Word.” In other words, Luther saw his calling as standing alongside his father when illness stretched him to the point of breaking and shaped him to the form of Jesus on the cross. Luther later reported that the pastor back home in Mansfeld had read his father the letter and asked the old man if he believed it. Hans Luther replied, “Of course! If I didn’t believe it, I’d be a knave” (Tappert, 33).
The most intimate encounters recorded of Luther’s pastoral care of the sick and dying are those within his own household. After Luther’s marriage, the former Augustinian monastery teemed with children, extended family, and whatever stray dog of a theologian he happened to encounter that day. Among the residents of the Lutherhaus was his wife’s aunt, Magdalene von Bora, who had been a nun and escaped the convent at Nimbschen with Katie Luther. As she lay dying in 1537, Luther asked Tante Lena, “Do you recognize me and can you hear me?” When he saw she was lucid, he said, “Your faith rests alone on the Lord Jesus Christ…He is the resurrection and the life…You will not die but will fall asleep like an infant in a cradle, and when morning dawn, you will rise again and live forever.” To those in the room, Luther declared, “It is well with her, for this is not death, but sleep” (Tappert, 45-46).
Five years later, Luther faced the need to comfort his own dying fourteen-year-old daughter, Magdalene, who was named after Tante Lena. He confessed to others his own inability “to rejoice from my heart and be thankful to God.” Yet he gripped tightly the promise of his daughter’s heavenly destination. To others he said, “Children do not argue. They believe what they are told. To children everything is plain. They die without anxiety, without complaint, without fear of death, without great physical pain, just as if they were falling asleep.” So Luther steeled himself to find a way to bring her attention to her heavenly Father with just a snippet of conversation: “Magdalene, my little daughter, you would gladly remain here with me, your father. Are you also glad to go to your Father in heaven?” (Tappert, 50-51)
Little Lenchen’s death was a heavy blow that lay Luther low for months. To a pastor whose parishioner was bedeviled by an unceasing depression, Luther advised pastoral practice that would have been useful in his own case. The pastor, Severin Schulze, should take a few other faithful elders, making sure that he was “clothed with the authority of the ministerial office,” and lay hands on the afflicted man. After reciting the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, they were to boldly remind the Lord of His command to come to Him in the day of trouble: “Graciously deign to free this man from all evil, and put to nought the work that Satan has done in him, to the honor of thy name and the strengthening of the faith of believers.” After laying on hands again, they were to assert the promise of Mark 16: 17-18, “These signs shall follow them that believe; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” If they repeated the process three times each day, three days in a row, Luther was confident it would work because it was what had happened with a cabinetmaker in Wittenberg (Tappert, 52).
When it comes to the literal end for each of us, Luther wrote to Urban Rhegius, who was suffering from “a thorn in the flesh,” about why he was compelled to bring his friend comfort and consolation in the face of a conscience roiled by illness: “But why should I write all this to you, who are Christ’s? Only because a brother must speak to his brother, and each must give the other his hand in this vale of tears, until the day comes for which we long” (Tappert, 41).
A century after Luther, the British thinker Thomas Hobbes described life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Luther might have agreed with the last three adjectives when it comes to our life under sin, but he refused to let those in his care experience life as solitary or poor. His calling was to join with others dead in sin and bring them the riches of the Gospel, so that they might have the confidence of true faith.