Martin Luther died a public death. His death was not public in the same way as his hero John Huss’ death was 131 years earlier. Huss was condemned a heretic by the Council of Constance, handed over to the civil authorities, and publicly burned at the stake just outside the Konstanz Cathedral. Like Huss, Luther was a priest whose life was transformed when he discovered the Bible. Like Huss, Luther was declared to be a heretic. The Edict of Worms (1521) labeled him an “outlaw,” and no doubt, he would have been handed over to authorities for execution, except for the providential hand of God. Martin Luther lived twenty-five more years during which he preached thousands of sermons, wrote books and pamphlets, continued his teaching at the University of Wittenburg, and translated the Bible into German. He lived a full life (by 16th-century standards), dying peacefully in the same town where he had been born sixty-two years earlier.
Accounts of Luther’s death were quickly published and disseminated to the public. Descriptions of his death are preserved in paintings (see here and here), a death mask (see here), and written reports, all of which testified that he died a “good Christian” death. Dying such a death was important in his day. How Luther died would either validate or contradict what he had taught.
Catholic propaganda sought to establish its own death narrative for Luther. Because he rejected several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church (such as papal infallibility, selling of indulgences, that justification was by faith and works), he was put on trial and told to recant his teachings. Luther would not recant, and was excommunicated by the Church, cutting him off from all the means of saving grace (according to Catholic doctrine), for he could not receive any of the sacraments. Catholicism teaches that excommunication is a “medicinal” action and not “vindictive,” a corrective measure to bring the exile back to the path of righteousness. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the exile can have an end (and the Church desires it), as soon as the offender has given suitable satisfaction.”
Because Luther was declared a heretic, his opponents made many attempts to portray his death as horrible, as opposite of a “good Christian” death as they could. Eleven months before Luther died, a printed letter in Italian reported his death. A copy of the letter came into Luther’s possession, which he translated into German and published with his remarks. According to this supposed eyewitness account, the day after Luther’s corpse was buried, his grave was opened and no body was found, but rather a sulfuric stench arose that made people sick. As a result, it was claimed, many who had followed him returned to the “holy Christian Church” (i.e., the Roman Catholic Church). Luther was rather bemused and wrote, “I felt quite tickled on my knee-cap and under my left heel at this evidence how cordially the devil and his minions, the Pope and the papists hate me. May God turn them from the devil!” (Theo. Hoyer, “How Dr. Martin Luther Died,” Concordia TheologicalMonthly, Vol. XVII, No. 2 (February 1946): 81-88). Other accounts of Luther’s death reported hearing shrieks, seeing devils flying in the air, and a flock of ravens accompanying the corpse on its journey from Eisleben where he died to Wittenberg where he was buried. Years later it was reported that Luther committed suicide. These false narratives never took hold because so many witnesses were there.
Some people expected that as Luther lay on his deathbed, he would recant his heresies and end his exile from the Catholic Church. Surely he would want to make peace with God and the Church before death brought the eternal damnation of his soul. Within a few hours of Luther’s death, five of the sixteen people who were present at his bedside wrote letters describing the scene. Luther died without any of the trappings of Medieval Catholocism. He did not request a priest to administer last rites. He did not dress himself as a monk as some did in hopes of gaining favor with God. When asked if he died faithful to the doctrine of Christ which he taught, Luther said, “Yes.” As death drew nearer, he prayed and recited Scriptures. It was reported that three times he quoted John 3:16. So peaceful was his death that those with him thought he swooned and relied on the attending doctor to establish that he had died. It was reported that when Luther died he was holding no consecrated objects like a rosary. His hands were empty.
Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, monk, and friar was converted by the gospel truth that “the just shall live by faith.” There was nothing he could do, nothing he could offer to remedy his guilty conscience and take away his sin. It was Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. The powerful message of Luther’s empty hands is expressed in a hymn written by Augustus Toplady, an Anglican cleric and theological descendant of the Reformation (he was an ardent Calvinist). Luther loved music and was a hymnwriter who taught his church to sing. Though written 231 years after his death, I can hear Martin Luther singing these words with his last fleeting breath:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.