Looking Back with Luther

“We are beggars, this is true.”

The story passed down through history is that these words were scribbled down by Martin Luther on a piece of paper and stuffed into his pocket while he was lying on his deathbed.

You can imagine what he was thinking. He was a weary pilgrim at the end of his allotted time on earth, about to enter eternity and join the church triumphant. Facing the blessedness of eternity before the throne of God, he had opportunity to look back on his life, a life that we would describe as “saintly.” After all, he played a crucial role in starting the Reformation in Europe. But how would Luther have described his lifetime of laboring on behalf of the church?


Standing before the pearly gates, what did he have that he could offer in exchange for his salvation? His devotion to his work on behalf of the church? What about his prayer life? Would that suffice? He understood that in the face of eternity all of his work in this life—even his best works—were still completely lacking. He was a poor, weak, weary pilgrim completely dependent on the mercy of God. In his biography on Luther, Carl Trueman described Luther’s last moments as follows: “Against the vast canvas of eternity, in the face of God, and in the context of God’s gracious revelation of himself in Christ, Luther was but a small child, barely touching the surface of the ocean of God’s mercy. Which is, one might say, exactly what he would have hoped to be.”[1] Luther humbly accepted the fact that he was completely dependent on his Savior for saving mercy, and in that reliance he confidently faced death. Remember as well that this was at the very heart of the Reformation. Luther saw the error of Rome’s doctrine of works righteousness when he struggled to “do enough” to be justified before the righteous God. He realized that it wasn’t up to him to do anything. God justified him through the sacrifice of Christ.

In this context then Luther saw himself as a beggar. We ought to view ourselves the same way—and not just when facing death. The end of another year gives us the opportunity not only to celebrate the birth of our Savior, but also to reflect on the year gone by. We take stock of all that has happened. We reflect on thoughts we had. We remember words we spoke. We think of actions we carried out. When we reflect on all of this, we realize that even our very best works were polluted with sin. Our best works are but filthy, tattered rags when compared with the white, pristine robes of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.

What is our best work? I think many of us would answer that worship is our best work. But how good is that work in reality? Do we take the time to prepare ourselves before worship so that we are in the proper state of mind when we enter God’s house? When we hear the law read every Sunday morning, do we drift off because we’ve heard it Sunday after Sunday? When we recite the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday evening, is our heart truly speaking or just our lips? Do we worship God through congregational prayer or do we doze off because it’s “long prayer?” Do we consider the giving our gifts during collection as a part of worship, or is it our “break time” to finish reading the bulletin? Then there is the sermon. God is speaking to us through the preaching of the gospel, yet we find ourselves so easily distracted.

Is there anyone who can truly say he does not struggle with anything listed above?

But there it is. Even what we would call our best effort, our best work, our worship, is polluted with our own thoughts and desires.

We truly have nothing of ourselves that we can offer to God.

The only thing we can offer is what we have been given.

Salvation in Jesus Christ.

So as we reflect on our life at the close of another year we confess with Luther—in thankfulness for God’s abundant “ocean of mercy”— “We are beggars, this is true.”


*Ryan is the managing editor of Beacon Lights

[1] Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 194.