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Life of Luther — The Final Years

Written by | November, 2018
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The ROAD TO REFORMATION

In observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we have presented
a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series concludes with this installment.

Luther’s life was very busy, and he was often in the center of much activity. In the final years, his life fell into a somewhat quieter routine, but he remained active to the very end.

His main activities continued to be preaching, teaching, and writing. He mounted the pulpit in Wittenberg until the end, and when he traveled, he was frequently asked to guest preach. But this tired him more, and it would happen from time to time that he cut himself short because of dizziness or other illness.

The classroom lectures on Genesis, begun in 1535, were reaching their end. He worried whether he would have time or energy to complete this extensive work, and indeed he barely did. He finished his last lecture only two months before his death. He gladly laid the pen aside and made no plans to continue with a new lecture series.

His writing slowed; he was not so quick to respond to every attack upon the Gospel. After all, how could he make his position clearer? But when he did write, it was often with a sharp and venomous quill. His deep disappointment that the Gospel was not being embraced more widely showed through in his strong language. And when the Gospel was attacked, he fired back. Duke Heinrich of Braunschweig was an active opponent of Lutheranism and was even accused of causing church-burnings in Lutheran territories. Luther scorched him. After the Pope yet again postponed convening a general council, Luther attacked him in the strongest terms. When it was rumored that Jews were seeking to convert Christians, he penned virulent attacks against them.

His last years also brought discouragement. Persistent reports of students and townspeople in Wittenberg acting immorally in life and deceitfully in business, rather than with Christian sobriety and integrity, troubled him. On one occasion, while gone from Wittenberg, he wrote and told Katie to prepare to move out since he was minded not to come back to Wittenberg. Melanchthon was sent to talk him down and bring him back.

Perhaps his deteriorating health—kidney stones, headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness, bouts of depression, and general fatigue—played a role in this discouragement and impatience. Luther also recognized that he was struggling with anger, that it was a force that drove him forward and gave him strength, but that it was also a weakness to be combated.

Luther’s personal life centered upon his family and friends. He deeply loved and and respected his wife, Katie. In his will, he left all his possessions directly to her and not, as was customary, to his children under the guidance of a male trustee. He trusted her to know what was best.

His children were a joy to him. When one died in infancy, he was crushed; when teenager Magdalena died of a sudden fever, he fled to his room utterly disconsolate.

Luther’s death came about in this way. Mansfeld was ruled by four brothers, who were counts. Luther volunteered to mediate an ongoing dispute among them; this was his hometown, after all, and his own family was being hurt by the discord. A first visit was unsuccessful. A second was arranged for January, 1546. The frigid trip took several days and weakened Luther. The negotiations resulted in agreement among the brothers but taxed Luther’s strength. On leaving Mansfeld, he had traveled but a short distance, to Eisleben, his birthplace, when he was taken with a sudden chill and confined to bed. On February 18, 1546, witnessed by his friend and fellow theologian Justus Jonas and Michael Coelius, the court preacher in Mansfeld, he confessed the faith he had long fought to defend. At about 3:00 a.m., he died.

On his person was found a note, which concluded, “We are beggars. This is true.” He was returned to Wittenberg and there buried in the Castle Church. The beggar had received his eternal reward.

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.