Johann Spangenberg on Dying Well

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A “good death” and “good life” are not accomplished through personal striving but are grasped by faith in the promises of God.

One of the most important Lutheran theologians of the early Reformation was Johann Spangenberg. 

He was born on March 29, 1484 in the village of Hardegsen in Lower Saxony. Early on, he left to attend school in the nearby towns of Einbeck and Göttingen. He eventually entered the University of Erfurt, where Martin Luther was teaching at the time. Here Spangenberg was pulled into the movement of biblical humanism: the renewed push to study the Scriptures in their original languages. For some time, Spangenberg served as a school rector and preacher at the court of the counts of Stolberg.

Then something extraordinary happened. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses gained a wide audience, and the faculty at the University of Wittenberg began promoting evangelical theology. Spangenberg was an enthusiastic adopter of these new teachings, and in 1524, the people of Nordhausen called him to be their pastor. There Spangenberg was able to institute evangelical reforms, including significant improvements to the education system.

In 1546, the year of Luther’s death, Spangenberg became the superintendent of all churches in the county of Mansfeld. He saw that area through the troubled years of the Schmalkaldic War before meeting his own death on June 13, 1550.

Spangenberg lived at a time when death was a far more public matter. Disease, famine, and war regularly claimed the lives of young and old alike. The infirm typically lived and died in their family home, so there was no hiding the suffering of those about to depart. Not only did people seek eternal comfort for themselves, but they also needed to know how to help others through this most difficult passage. 

The art of dying well was therefore a popular topic in sixteenth century devotional literature. Spangenberg himself wrote fifteen funeral sermons for pastors to use. He also wrote a Booklet of Comfort for the Sick, the focus of this article.

A New Way of Dying

Prior to the Reformation, a dying Christian in Western Europe would seek assurance of salvation by confessing any outstanding sins and pursuing personal righteousness. To aid one in these endeavors, grace was given in the sacraments. Unavoidably, the question of whether one would be accepted into heaven came down to some version of, “What kind of person am I? What have I done with my life?” 

The sacrifice of Christ was certainly believed to be essential for personal salvation, but so was a purified soul. Dying with unconfessed mortal sins would ensure a future in hell, while venial sins could be gradually obliterated in purgatory. Only the purest of the pure would gain immediate access to eternal bliss.

Spangenberg’s task was to take the theology of the Reformation and apply it to the crucial final moments of a person’s life. But if you read his Booklet for Comfort of the Sick, you will find certain passages that sound little different from what came before them, such as when he writes, “The person who has always lived a good life cannot experience an evil death. A bad death does not follow a good life.” [1]

However, if one continues reading, the connection with the gospel becomes clear, for Spangenberg’s definition of a “good life” is shaped by the gospel. “To live a good life means in this case a Christian life, not a good life in the sense of the world. To die well means to die willingly. Faith produces [the ability] to die willingly. The fruits of faith produce [the ability to have] a good death.” [2] Therefore, a “good death” and “good life” are not accomplished through personal striving but are grasped by faith in the promises of God. A person who is assured of their salvation can surrender themselves to God’s will rather than frantically clinging to their earthly existence.

Consider another passage where Spangenberg writes that Christians should spend their lives “learning to die to what is created, to those things that might draw them away from the love of their Creator.” [3] This sounds as if salvation comes through a life of asceticism: painful self-denial that amounts to legalism. But Spangenberg is not suggesting we all starve ourselves and move to the desert. Rather, he is telling us not to look to earthly things for security, but to Jesus Christ himself, who ought to be the chief subject of our love. 

Spangenberg’s chief advice for assisting any dying person is to point them to the truths of Scripture, where they will find God’s promises powerfully declared. “You should impress some comforting passages from Scripture and the gospel on your memory, passages to use against all temptations.” [4] The devil will attack the Christian’s assurance at the end of his or her days, doing all he can to kill the gospel hope within them. The Word of God is the chief weapon against these attacks.

Gospel Assurance in the Sacraments

Spangenberg sees the sacraments as a key part of our assurance, not because they give us grace to perform the works necessary for salvation, but because as physical means attached to God’s unfailing word, in them we receive both Christ himself and therefore also his finished work. He points the reader first to baptism:

“In your baptism you have received a promise signed and sealed that your temptation, cross, suffering, and death do not belong to you, but they are Christ’s temptation, cross, suffering, and death. That means, as Christ has conquered all of them, and in the end he rose from the dead and lives eternally, so in the very same way you shall conquer the devil, death, sin and hell and every evil in the name of God, and awake again on the Last Day from the dead and live with Christ eternally.” [5]

The promises we received in baptism continue to aid us throughout life’s trials, even in the final struggle of death. “Remember also that God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (in whose name you are baptized), has promised you to be and remain next to you—with you in all temptations, fears, and misery—and to fight and battle in your behalf against all these enemies, and bring you finally through death, sin, and hell, to eternal life.” [6]

Spangenberg also notes the promises given in the Lord’s Supper, a sacrament which reveals the extent of our inviolable union with Christ. “He has fed you with his holy body for the eternal hunger,” Spangenberg writes, “and he has given you to drink of his precious blood for the eternal thirst.” [7] Elsewhere he says in a prayer,

“For this I have received a certain sign, the true body and the precious blood of your dear Son Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine. This sign will not let me down. I will not let it be taken from me. Even if the entire world stood against me, you, my God, are sufficient for me, with your promise. It does not depend on whether I am worthy or unworthy.” [8] 

The good news is that we do not stand upon our own righteousness at the hour of death, nor must we make a mad rush to cleanse ourselves of every sin. The debt has been paid. It is finished! Therefore, we can submit to death willingly and hopefully, knowing we will be raised to new life. As Spangenberg concludes,

“I lie in God’s power and am willing and prepared to live and to die according to his divine pleasure. I cannot help myself. I have not deserved it that he should help me. But I believe and hope that he will help me and save me by his grace for the sake of his dear Son, my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who has died for me and for the sins of the whole world and has made satisfaction for them.” [9] 

How great it is to serve a God who is the resurrection and the life!

[1] Spangenberg, Johann. A Booklet of Comfort for the Sick, and On the Christian Knight, trans. Robert Kolb (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2007), 53-5.
[2] Spangenberg, 55.
[3] Spangenberg, 61.
[4] Spangenberg, 61.
[5] Spangenberg, 69.
[6]  Spangenberg, 77.
[7]  Spangenberg, 81.
[8]  Spangenberg, 71.
[9] Spangenberg, 73.