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Luther’s Last Lesson for All

Martin Luther (1483-1546) achieved a great deal in his life. Most would trace all Protestant groups to him, even if they don’t belong to the denomination named for him, the Lutherans. Oddly enough, even though he began a movement which splintered Europe in two (or three or four) pieces, and had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church and made an outlaw, he died just blocks away from the house in which he was born as he was trying to settle one of his family’s problems. Yet his very last written words taught a lesson from which all Christians—Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox—can profit. And it was found in his pocket on a piece of paper after he died. But first the story of his last months.

[Much of the following information comes from James M. Kittelson’s Luther the Reformer, an excellent book for anyone interested in Luther. It has numerous paintings and sketches of people and places important to Luther; it includes a photo of Luther’s wife’s (Katie) wedding ring.]

Luther spent the majority of his teaching career at the University of Wittenberg. He studied and taught there from 1508-9, and returned in 1511 as professor. He remained until 1545 (the year before his death). By 1545, Luther was an old man who suffered with many ailments.

The beginning of the end was apparent in November of 1545. In that month, Luther taught his last class at Wittenberg. Ironically, the last book of the Bible he taught on was Genesis. He finished his last class with these words: "Here is the beloved book of Genesis. May God give grace that others after me do better. I can do no more, for I am too weak. Pray to God for me that he will grant me a good and blessed last moment."

After ending his classes, Luther traveled to his birth city, Eisleben, for the purpose of settling a family dispute with the local government officials. To make a long story short, taxes had been raised in the small territory where Luther’s extended family lived. Luther had written the officials in trying to resolve the problem, but to no avail. He finally agreed to come and mediate the dispute in person. He left on January 23, 1546 with his sons, but they turned back before getting to Eisleben.

Once there, Luther began the negotiations. By mid-February both parties agreed to a settlement.

In the evening of the day after the final papers were signed (February 18, 1546), Luther’s heart began to beat rapidly. He received some medication, and it quieted down. Luther then went to bed and slept.

Around 1 AM he woke up and began shouting: "Oh, dear Lord God! My pain is so great! Oh, dear Dr. Jonas (a close friend), I am certain that I will remain here in Eisleben where I was born and baptized!" Everyone rushed to his room. Luther began repeating over and over: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son." Dr. Jonas knew what was happening and asked Luther, "Do you want to die standing firm on Christ and the doctrine you have taught?" Luther answered, "Yes." At about 3 AM Luther died of a heart attack.

And his last lesson? In his pocket, Luther had a piece of paper on which he had written a number of sentences. The last sentence was "This is true. We are all beggars [before God]."

©2005 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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