“Nothing Other Than Sheer Life”: Martin Luther on Preparing to Die (1519)

In 1519, Martin Luther preached a sermon in which he offered counsel on the importance and manner of preparing to die. This message has become particularly relevant to me in light of the passing of a dear family member. In a day and age in which we try to shield ourselves as much as possible from death and dying, Luther’s exhortation to begin to prepare for death — even at a young age (as Luther was when he preached this sermon) — may seem a bit morbid and morose. I think, however, that Luther’s exhortation is wise counsel indeed, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Whether we like it or not, we will all die (barring, of course, the return of Christ), and since we know not the day of our death, it behoves us all to prepare ourselves for it. Are we not, after all, called by Jesus to take up cross and die daily as we follow him?

What follows is an excerpt from Luther’s sermon highlighting the centrality that he placed on Christ as our only hope in life and death. When we walk, or prepare to walk, through the valley of the shadow of death, the light of our path will be knowing that in Christ crucified and risen again we find “nothing other than sheer life”. It is Christ’s victory over death, and this alone, that can adequately prepare us for our dying day.

[S]ince everyone must depart, we must turn our eyes to God, to whom the path of death leads and directs us. Here we find the beginning of the narrow gate and of the straight path to life [Matt. 7:14]. All must joyfully venture forth on this path, for though the gate is quite narrow, the path is not long. Just as an infant is born with peril and pain from the small abode of its mother’s womb into this immense heaven and earth, that is, into this world, so man departs this life through the narrow gate of death. And although the heavens and the earth in which we dwell at present seem large and wide to us, they are nevertheless much narrower and smaller than the mother’s womb in comparison with the future heaven. Therefore, the death of the dear saints is called a new birth, and their feast day is known in Latin as natale, that is, the day of their birth. However, the narrow passage of death makes us think of this life as expansive and the life beyond as confined. Therefore, we must believe this and learn a lesson from the physical birth of a child, as Christ declares, “When a deathPortraitofLutherwoman is in travail she has sorrow; but when she has recovered, she no longer remembers the anguish, since a child is born by her into the world” [John 16:21]. So it is that in dying we must bear this anguish and know that a large mansion and joy will follow [John 14:2]….

Death looms so large and is terrifying because our foolish and fainthearted nature has etched its image too vividly within itself and constantly fixes its gaze on it. Moreover, the devil presses man to look closely at the gruesome mien and image of death to add to his worry, timidity, and despair. Indeed, he conjures up before man’s eyes all the kinds of sudden and terrible death ever seen, heard, or read by man. And then he also slyly suggests the wrath of God with which he [the devil] in days past now and then tormented and destroyed sinners. In that way he fills our foolish human nature with the dread of death while cultivating a love and concern for life, so that burdened with such thoughts man forgets God, flees and abhors death, and thus, in the end, is and remains disobedient to God. 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….

You must look at death while you are alive and see sin in the light of grace and hell in the light of heaven, permitting nothing to divert you from that view. Adhere to that even if all angels, all creatures, yes, even your own thoughts, depict God in a different light—something these will not do…. [Y]ou must not view or ponder death as such, not in yourself or in your nature, nor in those who were killed by God’s wrath and were overcome by death. If you do that you will be lost and defeated with them. But you must resolutely turn your gaze, the thoughts of your heart, and all your senses away from this picture and look at death closely and untiringly only as seen in those who died in God’s grace and who have overcome death, particularly in Christ and then also in all his saints.

In such pictures death will not appear terrible and gruesome. No, it will seem contemptible and dead, slain and overcome in life. For Christ is nothing other than sheer life, as his saints are likewise. The more profoundly you impress that image upon your heart and gaze upon it, the more the image of death will pale and vanish of itself without struggle or battle. Thus your heart will be at peace and you will be able to die calmly in Christ and with Christ, as we read in Revelation [14:13], “Blessed are they who die in the Lord Christ.” This was foreshown in Exodus 21[Num. 21:6–9], where we hear that when the children of Israel were bitten by fiery serpents they did not struggle with these serpents, but merely had to raise their eyes to the dead bronze serpent and the living ones dropped from them by themselves and perished. Thus you must concern yourself solely with the death of Christ and then you will find life. But if you look at death in any other way, it will kill you with great anxiety and anguish. This is why Christ says, “In the world—that is, in yourselves—you have unrest, but in me you will find peace” [John 16:33]….

[Y]ou must not look at sin in sinners, or in your conscience, or in those who abide in sin to the end and are damned. If you do, you will surely follow them and also be overcome. You must turn your thoughts away from that and look at sin only within the picture of grace. Engrave that picture in yourself with all your power and keep it before your eyes. The picture of grace is nothing else but that of Christ on the cross and of all his dear saints.

How is that to be understood? Grace and mercy are there where Christ on the cross takes your sin from you, bears it for you, and destroys it. To believe this firmly, to keep it before your eyes and not to doubt it, means to view the picture of Christ and to engrave it in yourself. Likewise, all the saints who suffer and die in Christ also bear your sins and suffer and labor for you, as we find it written, “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the command of Christ” [Gal. 6:2]. Christ himself exclaims in Matthew 11[:28], “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will help you.” In this way you may view your sins in safety without tormenting your conscience. Here sins are never sins, for here they are overcome and swallowed up in Christ. He takes your death upon himself and strangles it so that it may not harm you, if you believe that he does it for you and see your death in him and not in yourself. Likewise, he also takes your sins upon himself and overcomes them with his righteousness out of sheer mercy, and if you believe that, your sins will never work you harm. In that way Christ, the picture of life and of grace over against the picture of death and sin, is our consolation. Paul states that in 1 Corinthians 15[:57], “Thanks and praise be to God, who through Christ gives us the victory over sin and death.”…

So then, gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell [1 Pet. 3:19] for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned when he spoke the words on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46]. In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure. If you concern yourself solely with that and believe that it was done for you, you will surely be preserved in this same faith. Never, therefore, let
this be erased from your vision. Seek yourself only in Christ and not in yourself and you will find yourself in him eternally…. He is the living and immortal image against
death, which he suffered, yet by his resurrection from the dead he vanquished death in his life. He is the image of the grace of God against sin, which he assumed, 613b7272dfd5cefc7d4e07ea48712bbdand yet overcame by his perfect obedience. He is the heavenly image, the one who was forsaken by God as damned, yet he conquered hell through his omnipotent love, thereby proving that he is the dearest Son, who gives this to us all if we but believe….

[W]hat more should God do to persuade you to accept death willingly and not to dread but to overcome it? In Christ he offers you the image of life, of grace, and of salvation so that you may not be horrified by the images of sin, death, and hell. Furthermore, he lays your sin, your death, and your hell on his dearest Son, vanquishes them, and renders them harmless for you. In addition, he lets the trials of sin, death, and hell that come to you also assail his Son and teaches you how to preserve yourself in the midst of these and how to make them harmless and bearable. And to relieve you of all doubt, he grants you a sure sign, namely, the holy sacraments. He commands his angels, all saints, all creatures to join him in watching over you, to be concerned about your soul, and to receive it. He commands you to ask him for this and to be assured of fulfillment. What more can or should he do?

From this you can see that he is a true God and that he performs great, right, and divine works for you. Why, then, should he not impose something big upon you (such as dying), as long as he adds to it great benefits, help, and strength, and thereby wants to test the power of his grace. Thus we read in Psalm 111[:2], “Great are the works of the Lord, selected according to his pleasure.” Therefore, we ought to thank him with a joyful heart for showing us such wonderful, rich, and immeasurable grace and mercy against death, hell, and sin, and to laud and love his grace rather than fearing death so greatly. Love and praise make dying very much easier, as God tells us through Isaiah, “For the sake of my praise I restrain it [wrath] for you, that I may not cut you off.” To that end may God help us. Amen.

[Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition, W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 392-402.]

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The Final Judgment (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 20)

Revelation 20:1-3, 11-15

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while…. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, xhe was thrown into the lake of fire.

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(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.139-41. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

As long as the time of our life in this world is devoured by the dragon of evil and guilt, time has no meaning for us. It returns upon itself in empty circularity and futility, unable to arrive at its true goal, unable to reach the fulness of life. But when the Kingdom of God invades our sin-infested time in Jesus Christ, the circularity of time is broken. That is why Jesus Christ is called Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, and that is why, in order to describe what happens when God’s perfect time breaks into the midst of our time, the Apocalypse uses a definite span of years. For the things concerning Jesus Christ have an end, a fulfilment. Now that Jesus Christ has come into our world all things move towards a climax, which will be the day of harvest both of good and evil. That is why the apocalyptic expression “thousand years” speaks of Satan being loosed again, for God insists on bringing all the work of evil to a head. Then the head of the serpent will be destroyed, and all its slimy body of sin and evil, which it had trailed throughout human history, shall be burned with everlasting fire….

On that day the books will be opened, the book of our past, the book of destiny, the book of life. Mysterious as it may appear, these are not really different from the heavily sealed book which was seen in the visions of the fifth and sixth chapters. The last judgments are all bound up with the judgments that even now shake the earth, though they mark the fulfilment and their end. As at the opening of that heavily sealed in the hand of God there were calamities and woes and plagues upon the earth, so here there are woes and calamities and judgments for all who have allowed themselves to be seduced by Satan and who have not taken refuge in the sacrifice for the sins of the world….

That is what St. John calls the second death — a terrible and a ghastly truth. But we dare not shut our eyes to it, although no one likes to talk about it or preach about it. However much there may be which we cannot understand about that mystery of iniquity and its judgment, it is quite clear from the Word of God that those who die in their sins do not pass out into nothingness and forgetfulness. There is time beyond death, time for the damned as well. And it is because there is such a thing as time beyond, that hell is so terrible. It is time that has denied itself fulfilment in Christ, and time therefore which has a dreary lastingness about it, for it can only double back upon itself forever in sulky, sullen memory of past sins…. Hell is God’s judgment upon those who ultimately choose evil, but even hell itself comes under the judgment of God. That is to us the ultimate inexplicability of evil, but St. John makes it perfectly clear that the holy love of God is against hell.

And what about those who have been sealed with the blood of Christ and whose sins have been covered?… Just because Christ has invaded time, that day will mean for the believer the fulfilment of all his faith and hope in the crucified and risen Jesus. The things concerning Jesus do have their fulfilment. Therefore that will be the day when the Church of the faithful shall be filled with all the fulness of God according to the power that works within her. If on that day we have Christ alive in our heart, then the book of destiny will be the book of life, for us. Christ the Lamb of God who bears away the sins of the world is He to whom all judgment is committed. In Christ, the day of judgment is the day of vindication, the day when those who have witnessed the good confession before the Pontius Pilates of this world will be enthroned with Christ in the judgment of all evil. As they have shared the reproach of Christ in His judgment by the world, so they will share with Christ in his judgment of the world…. Then let the devil shout himself hoarse in his accusations against us at the bar of judgment! The Christian has a cry that conquers the world, the word of his testimony and the blood of the Lamb. “It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again!” It is the power of the resurrection that prevails.

The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1)

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near…

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

As much as T.F. Torrance is remembered for his contributions in the world of academia, he was at heart, very simply, a preacher of the gospel. We do not really know Torrance if we know him only as theologian and scholar and not as herald and witness of Jesus Christ. One of the published collections of Torrance’s sermons is entitled The Apocalypse Today, auferstehungand, as suggested by this title, it reproduces a series of expositions of the book of Revelation in which Torrance sought to cut through many of the speculative and fanciful approaches to the Apocalypse and lay bare its central theme and focus: the revelation of Jesus Christ. Be blessed as you read what Torrance has to say about the message of Revelation 1:

At its very heart Revelation means the unveiling of jesus Christ. That is the significance of the first verses in this chapter, and it is the clue to the whole book. The unveiling of Jesus Christ implies that He has already been veiled – which is one of the facts of the Incarnation. God the Son has come amongst us in such a fashion that the full glory of His divine majesty is veiled in the humanity of Jesus. In a very real sense God was concealed in Jesus, veiled behind His flesh and suffering. How could it be otherwise? Moses looked only upon the divine glory when covered under the shadow of God’s hand. But in Jesus, God Himself has entered the shadow, in order to draw nigh and reveal Himself to us. Such veiling is a necessary part of His unveiling, for He can be unveiled to us only as we are forgiven and healed of our darkness. It is through the “veiled” Son of God, the suffering servant, that God’s sublime glory is fully revealed in the Cross and Resurrection…

it is about that vision that St. John takes up his pen to write – and human language seems so impotent for the task. The Apostle reaches out after all sorts of symbols and pictures to try to convey the full reality of Christ, but in the end he has to fall down as one dead. The words that he has left us still bear even in their grammar the traces of a mighty impact, but John was bidden and empowered to write. Frail though the human langue is, it bears to us here under the inspiration of the Spirit a sacramental description of Christ. It gathers up in simple earthly analogies the One whose nature is akin to our own, and yet points out beyond to the Eternal Son who transcends all symbols and words in the lustre of uncreated light.

That light John had seen for the first time in Galilee, when he thought of it as the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. Now he speaks of a blinding reality, a countenance as the sun shineth in its strength, in His right hand seven stars, hair white as wool, eyes as a flame of fire, and feet ike burnished brass, as if they burned in a furnace. No wonder the Old Testament saints said they could not see God and live, for God is a consuming fire. And yet that is how we must see God even in the face of Jesus Christ if we are to be saved by Him: in the full blaze of His Holiness and Majesty. He has eyes like a flame of fire that search the heart consuming evil with its flame. he has words like a sharp two-edged sword, words which cut and cleanse, and a voice that swells in regal command like the voice of many waters. And yet, in spite of all that dread eternal light, John did not fail to recognize at its heart one like unto the Son of Man. Behind the thunder of the trumpet he heard unmistakably the gracious voice of Him who spake like no other man. In the depth of that burning vision He discovered one touched with the feeling of his own human infirmity and he knew it was Jesus, for Jesus remains man even as the Lord of glory.

If we haven’t understood the point of Revelation yet, let me put it into simple terms: it’s all about Jesus! This is why the book begins with a special blessing for those who hear and keep its words. In Revelation, we are brought into personal communion with Jesus Christ and, through him and by the Spirit, with the Triune God himself. It is Christ whom we meet and see and hear in this book, and the appropriate response is not speculation on future events or fancy charts and graphs but awe, love, and adoration. To him be glory and honor and blessing and praise forever and ever, Amen!

Athanasius, the Cross, and How I Am Finding Hope in the Shadow of Death

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This week, my family and I are preparing to return to our church-planting ministry in Italy after a three month furlough in the US. This is both an answer to prayer and a request for more prayer. What I means is this: what was originally supposed to be a three month period dedicated to visiting and reporting to our supporting churches turned out to be essentially a three month medical leave as I faced some serious and debilitating health issues. I am thankful that God has graciously allowed me to see some improvement, enough at least that I feel able to return to Italy. At the same time, concerns remain, and I would be lying if I said that I have no anxiety about leaving the medical resources and support network that I enjoy here in the US.

Of particular concern is the fact that this summer I was diagnosed with three abdominal aneurysms. Back in June I had gone to the emergency room on account of abdominal pain that was nearly making me delirious. While not the cause of the pain, the CT scan that I underwent in the ER revealed three aneurysms in my abdominal aorta and iliac arteries. Needless to say, my wife and I were a bit in shock. When we met with a vascular surgeon in July, we were told that the best course of action at this point is simply to monitor the aneurysms on a regular basis to chart their growth. From what I understand, given the size of the aneurysms, the risks of performing a repair operation outweight the benefits. The vascular surgeon assured me that I am in no imminent danger.

Although I was, and am, reassured to some extent by his expert opinion, I am unable to eliminate all sense of fear and doubt. Sure, the odds of a rupture occurring are low. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that I have what amounts to a time bomb in my body that at any moment could potentially explode, small as the risks may be. Moreover, this is only complicated by the fact that this week I am leaving a place where I have immediate access to superior health care and going to another place where…well let’s just say, I’d be better served by staying where I am.

The upshot of all this is that I have thought quite a bit about death in these last three months, and especially this week as I prepare to enter a situation in which I may not have access in sufficient time to life-saving medical intervention should any of my aneurysms rupture. The vascular surgeon was quite clear: the majority of people who manifest symptoms of an aneurysm rupture do not make it to a hospital in time. How much more then do I risk in going to a country where the last time I went to the emergency room with severe abdominal pain (which can be one of the signs of a ruptured aneurysm!), I was not even able to be seen by a doctor and simply had to go home after waiting many fruitless hours. I do not want to depict the situation in overly dramatic terms, but I also do not want to paper over reality with an illusion. Although I can’t say that I’m walking in the valley of death’s darkness, I can say at least that I am walking in the valley of death’s shadow.

While it is not consuming me, this concern is certainly on my mind as we pack our bags to leave. Something that has helped me to deal with it, as I have been re-reading Athanasius’ famous work On the Incarnation, is his description of, to borrow the title of another famous work, ‘the death of death in the death of Christ”. Fear of death is perhaps the most primal and instinctual of all human fears. It is that which to some degree underlies all of our other fears and anxieties. And it is precisely this fear that Christ has defeated and destroyed in his death and resurrection. Athanasius writes:

For that death is destroyed, and that the Cross is become the victory over it, and that it has no more power but is verily dead, this is no small proof, or rather an evident warrant, that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and that they all take the aggressive against it and no longer fear it; but by the sign of the Cross and by faith in Christ tread it down as dead. For of old, before the divine sojourn of the Saviour took place, even to the saints death was terrible, and all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Saviour has raised His body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ tread him under as nought, and choose rather to die than to deny their faith in Christ. For they verily know that when they die they are not destroyed, but actually [begin to] live, and become crucifixion-abstractincorruptible through the Resurrection. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.

And a proof of this is, that before men believe Christ, they see in death an object of terror, and play the coward before him. But when they are gone over to Christ’s faith and teaching, their contempt for death is so great that they even eagerly rush upon it, and become witnesses for the Resurrection the Saviour has accomplished against it. For while still tender in years they make haste to die, and not men only, but women also, exercise themselves by bodily discipline against it. So weak has he become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed. For as when a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquered him; so also, death having been conquered and exposed by the Saviour on the Cross, and bound hand and foot, all they who are in Christ, as they pass by, trample on him, and witnessing to Christ scoff at death, jesting at him, and saying what has been written against him of old: “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting.”[1]

I find great comfort in these words inasmuch as they faithfully reflect the biblical witness to the death-destroying work of Christ. As I prepare to leave this week, I am attempting to follow the wise advise of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who observed that one of the biggest sources of our fear and anxiety is the fact that we listen to ourselves rather than preaching to ourselves. These words from Athanasius preach to me, and I am pondering them, and through them the Scriptures themselves, with the hope that the truth that they communicate will sink deep into the marrow of my bones. Even though I don’t feel like it, I am endeavouring to rejoice with Paul that death has lost its victory and the grave no longer has any sting. I am trying to remind myself, over and over again, that I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live. In Christ I have already passed through death and into resurrection; so why should I fear death?

It is this hope that is enabling me, despite my fear and trepidation, to take up my cross and follow wherever my Savior leads, even if he takes me into the valley of the shadow. I do not say this to exalt myself. Far from it. I often feel like the weakest person I know. But I share this so that it might encourage you and also so that I will come to believe it a little more myself.

*By way of a postscript, my travels and subsequent readjustment to life in Italy may result in a slowdown, if not a bit of silence, here on the blog. Never fear, however, for I fully intend to continue to post when I return to Italy, and I plan on doing so by returning to my series on Reforming Calvinism. Stay tuned!

Prayers are also greatly appreciated for my family and I during this transition – for our travels, our readjustment, and for my continued health concerns.

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[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 50–51.