In February 17, 1546, on his way back to Wittenberg, Germany after arbitrating a dispute, Martin Luther began to complain of sharp pain in his chest. The first attack passed, but a second quickly followed, and it soon became clear that he was nearing the end of his earthly life. Justus Jonas, a fellow pastor and close friend of Luther, asked him, “Reverend Father, are you willing to die in the name of Christ and the doctrine that you have preached?” Luther boldly responded, “Yes!” Before death could claim him, however, he put pen to paper one last time to inscribe those famous words which came to serve as the hallmark of his life: “We are beggars, that is true.” As the ink dried, the Great Reformer breathed his last, his dying words serving as a testimony to the living Christ whom he had so faithfully served.
For a life as monumental as that of Martin Luther, the comparison to a beggar might seem a little odd. After all, this was the man who, just a few decades earlier, had pounded home the nails to his 95 Theses, the hammer blows echoing throughout the Holy Roman Empire. This initial spark ignited the kindling of what came to be known as the Reformation. The fire that soon followed was one that not only devoured but also purified, as it called Christianity back to the authority of the Word and Jesus Christ, the only name under heaven by which humans might be saved (Acts 4:12).
I once heard it said that the two most brilliant individuals to ever live were Albert Einstein and Martin Luther, and not solely because of their intellectual capacities—though these were incredible enough. Rather, these men had to first “un-think” an entire system that had been in existence for thousands of years; only then could they re-think it. They had to “UN-form” before they could “RE-form,” and then they needed the boldness and strength to stand up against the forces that be. That takes courage. That takes fortitude. Both of these were qualities that Martin Luther possessed in plenty.
Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of Worms and refused to recant, despite the fact that his very life may have been at stake. He single-handedly made the very first New Testament translation into the German language while in hiding at the Wartburg Castle. He stood up to princes, defied edicts, and began a movement that eventually caused a split within the Roman Catholic Church that spread throughout the entire world. If there ever was a man who could look back on his life and proudly stand on his own merits, it was Martin Luther.
Yet, the words we hear from his deathbed are anything but prideful. Instead, Luther prostrates himself and acknowledges that he is nothing more than a humble servant of Jesus Christ. Luther’s words closely echo the teaching of Jesus in Luke 17:10: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
How utterly alien such a claim sounds in today’s culture, particularly in the West where autonomy is prized as a virtue! WE are the molders and shapers of our own identities, and it is entirely up to US to determine what legacy we will leave behind—or so we are told.
In a recent podcast, an evangelical Christian host excitedly introduced an exercise he thought everyone needed to try. Essentially, he said, you sit down with a blank piece of paper and write your own eulogy, including everything that you hope people will one day say about you at your funeral. He then went on to describe the real reason for doing this. The point of the exercise, he said, was to help you determine what kind of legacy you wanted to leave behind. In other words, what activities in this life will allow your name to live on after you’re gone? What makes you worthy of having your own personal statue sculpted?
As human beings we have an innate desire to prove our value by what we do. We continually feel the need to justify ourselves by demonstrating our worth through our works, so that at the end of our lives we can look at the list of everything we’ve done and find something worth eulogizing. The sum total of a person, we are told, is what they have accomplished. So all we can do is strive harder, harder, and ever harder. Yet we quickly forget the words of the prophet, who said in Isaiah 64:6 that all of this endless striving is in vain, because “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Even our best efforts will inevitably fall far short.
So maybe the legacy we leave behind should have nothing to do with us at all. Maybe, when people look back on our lives, what we want them to see isn’t our own accomplishments, but the finished work of Christ. If we think of our lives as paintings, we don’t want people to just look at the canvas and comment on the subject matter itself. Rather, we want them to admire the skill it took to craft such a masterpiece. We want them to gaze at the masterful intricacies of the brush strokes and ask in reverent awe, “Who painted this?” We are the paintings, but the only real credit belongs to the artist.
On our own merits, we will never accomplish enough, and we’ll never be able to stand on our own two legs. We are beggars, that is true. But here’s the thing about beggars: Beggars don’t need to stand at all. In fact, a beggar can do nothing on his own. The only thing a beggar can do is open his hands wide and receive what is placed in them. Luther knew that the gift that had been placed in his hands—faith in Jesus Christ—was the greatest treasure of all, and it was on that gift alone that he chose to stake his identity: A desperate, needy sinner saved by someone else, and not by any effort of his own. He knew his righteous deeds would amount to nothing more than a worthless heap, so he rested on Christ’s righteousness instead. St. Paul says it best in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
They say that beggars can’t be choosers. Thanks be to God, then, that he chose us first.
Lukas Kjolhaug serves as pastor of Bunker Hill Lutheran Brethren Church in Princeton, New Jersey.