The Reformation of Death – October 2017
At the age of 46 Martin Luther got news that his father was seriously ill and seemed to be close to death.
Luther was some distance away, the weather in February in Germany made travel difficult, and because he was
considered an outlaw traveling put him in personal danger. It was impossible for him to travel at this point. So he
penned a letter to his father which testified to Luther’s deep feelings for his dad. He also demonstrated his deep
faith in God’s promises in the face of death.
He wrote, “God loves you more than you love yourself . . . Our faith is certain, and we don’t doubt that we
shall shortly see each other again in the presence of Christ . . . It is only a matter of an hour’s sleep, and all will be
different.” This letter from Luther to his father ended up being circulated among Luther’s friends and beyond.
Over the years many Christians found comfort in it as they confronted the loss of a loved one.
Can you imagine the tears through which Luther may have written this letter to his dying dad? He had
upset his father early on in life when he quit pursuing his studies to be a lawyer and left the world for a time to
withdraw into a monastery. Even at the time of his first Mass, Luther’s father was still not pleased with the idea of
Luther being a priest. But over the years their relationship warmed, especially as Luther come to discover the
abuses of the church and attempt to reform them. His letter expresses the warm love between child and parent
and the appreciation of a God who blessed each other with each other. Now this earthly relationship was drawing
to a close and Luther knew he likely would not see his father again.
Notice what “Lutheran” beliefs he points his father to as death drew near. First, he points to the love God
had for his father. A love so great that the object of God’s love is the entire world (John 3:16). A love so deep that
it involved the sacrifice of his one and only Son, Jesus (John 3:16 again). A love so rich that it covers over a
multitude of sins (1 John 2:2). Luther knew – and reminded his father – that God’s love makes all the difference.
Secondly, because of God’s love, there is a complete certainty for those who die in faith in Jesus as Savior.
The Holy Spirit works such a conviction in the heart of the individual that not even Satan can convince us
otherwise. Jesus promised that whoever believes him – even though they die – will live forever with him (John
11:26). Such God-given faith makes that a certainty because it is based on God’s promises.
Finally, Luther pointed his father to the quick and blessed change for those who die. Those who die in
faith in Jesus will soon be awakened unto eternal life. He is coming soon (Revelation 22:20). “An hour” as Luther
put it. Then the mortal believer will be made immortal. Those subject to perishing in death will be made
imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:53).
God blessed Luther and others in his day by reforming many abuses in the church and once again
returning to the pure preaching of God’s Word. Therefore, there was also a reformation of the view of death. No
longer viewed as the beginning of some suffering for not having done enough good deeds in life, it now was
simply the sleep in which believers would be roused on the Last Day. Jesus changed death by saving us from the
eternal consequences of it. The Spirit worked faith in the heart. The believer had certainty – certainty in death
even in the midst of the certainty of death. Luther taught it. Luther’s dad knew it. You believe it, too: this
reformation of death. Take comfort in it as you hold the hand of the dying in your life and look ahead to your own.
For after the “hour,” Jesus will make it all different, all better.