Dennis Ngien is research professor of theology at Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, and author of Luther as a Spiritual Adviser: The Interface of Theology and Piety in Luther's Devotional Writings (Paternoster, 2007).
"Not all Christians face death so courageously. In the past 20 years, I have conducted and preached at more than 150 memorial and funeral services. I have sat beside numerous deathbeds, with people terrified by the sight of the final conflict. For me, it is no wonder that Scripture calls death "the last enemy."
This brother, now advanced in years, is battling cancer and is face to face with his own death. Knowing how fierce this last battle can be, I sent him one of the most helpful meditation guides I've known: Martin Luther's "A Sermon on Preparing to Die." In this sermon, Luther provides pastoral counsel to his closest friend, Mark Schart, who was troubled by thoughts of death. His counsel contains a great deal of wisdom for today."
The Three Temptations
Luther believed that death becomes ominous because the devil uses it to undermine our faith. He haunts us with death in three ways.
First, the Devil taunts us with the remembrance that death is a sign of God's wrath toward sinners. "In that way, [the devil] 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."
Luther's remedy for this first temptation is to contemplate death all the more, but to do so at the right time—which is not the time of death. Instead, he exhorts us to "invite death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move"—that is, in our daily lives long before death threatens us. Conversely, Luther counsels Christians to banish thoughts of death at the final hour and to use that time to meditate on life.
Second, the Devil magnifies our accusing conscience by reminding us of those who were condemned to hell for lesser sins than ours. This, too, casts us into despair, so that we forget God's grace in the last hour. Again Luther admonishes us not to deny our sinfulness, but to contemplate it during our lifetimes, as is taught in Psalm 51:3: "My sin is ever before me." The devil closes our eyes to our sin during our lives, just when we should be thinking of it. He then opens our eyes to the horrible reality of sin and judgment in the final hour, when our eyes should be seeing only grace.
Third, the Devil plagues us with the prospect of hell, specifically by increasing the soul's burden with haunting questions concerning election. He prods the soul into undertaking the one thing forbidden—delving into the mystery of God's will. In this undertaking, the devil "practices his ultimate, greatest, and most cunning art and power," for he "sets man above God" so that we look in the wrong place for assurance of election. In this respect, delving into the mystery of election is never a good practice, but especially not when one faces the final enemy.
How do we banish these devilish images and see only grace? Luther exhorts us to contemplate the image that saves: Jesus Christ, who "overcame death with life." In addition, he encourages us to contemplate the deaths of those who died in God's grace, such as the saints before us. The more one fixes one's gaze on such pictures, the more death appears "contemptible and dead, slain and overcome in life. For Christ is nothing other than sheer life, as his saints are likewise."
Luther says to look to Christ is to see grace, because "the picture of grace is nothing else but that of Christ on the cross."
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.
Luther also says that when facing death's agonies, we should find support in the fellowship and faith of the church.
The experience of dying, though intensely personal, cannot be handled privately without our being crushed. As each person contends with death, we should not desert him or leave him to die alone. In the deafening loneliness of death, we "shout in the ears" of the dying to assure them of our companionship. In fact, God, Christ, angels, saints, and the entire congregation "shout" with us. The eyes of the entire communion of saints are upon the dying to empower him to go through the unavoidable. The annihilating voice of death, then, can drive us into the arms of Christ. The voice of the law that incites sin, death, and divine wrath is replaced by the voice of the gospel. That voice is like a lamp shining in darkness until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts (see 2 Peter 1:19–20)—and it makes dying much easier.
Death, for Luther, is "the beginning of the narrow gate and of the straight path to life" (Matt. 7:14). Although the gate is narrow, the journey is not long. Luther elaborates:
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, … so man departs this life through the narrow gate of death. … 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.
RC Sproul comments...
"This road through the dark valley may be traveled safely when we are assured of its end. We do not have to deny the pain of grief and death. On the contrary, it is the harsh reality of death that makes the heavenly mansion so glorious: "So it is that in dying we must bear this anguish and know that a large mansion and joy will follow."
While we should be aware daily of the inevitable reality of death, we can live as those who have been freed from the curse and sting of death. Luther wisely reminds us to ponder "the heavenly picture of Christ," for in Christ, we have passed from death to life. Death is no death to the believers whose lives are hidden with Christ in God."