I was digging through some of my computer files the other day, and I found an old discussion from the Catholic Answers boards. The question asked was as follows:
“I have heard from several people within the last couple of years that Luther died a Catholic and was administered last rites. I had never heard of this before. Is there a historical basis for either of the assertions??? Thanks and God Bless.”
“I read somewhere (though I don’t know if the source was accurate) that he asked for last rites. But there is the fact that he was excommunicated at the time, so he would have been unable to receive the sacraments. If this is true though, it's pretty funny because Lutherans and other Protestants only have two sacraments, and last rites is not one of them.”
A dramatic deathbed change of heart is emotionally compelling. I myself had a close family member (my brother) who actually may have accepted Christ in his dying moments. I won’t know this side of eternity whether or not that change of heart really occurred. Imagine what a Luther-change-of-heart-on-his-deathbed would mean to Catholic apologetics! If Luther was administered last rights, he was admitting that works were necessary: that is, Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to a sinner. Rather, Luther would be admitting that one must literally become holy, in order for God to view a person as holy. The sacrament of last rights would take away mortal sin. One is therefore not saved by faith alone, but by faith and the process of becoming sanctified.
Well, it isn't true. Luther’s friend Philip Melanchthon recorded this final prayer uttered by Luther:
“My Heavenly Father, eternal Compassionate God, you have revealed to me your beloved Son our LORD Jesus Christ whom I have known, of whom I have acquaintance, whom I love, and whom I honor as my beloved Savior and Redeemer, whom the Godless persecute, dissipate, and reproach. Take my Soul to you. This he said three times: 'Into your hands I commend my Spirit, you have redeemed me God of truth. And God so loved the world…”
Luther’s friend Justus Jonas also recorded this prayer, but added a bit more to it: Luther made one last jab at the Pope, and those enslaved to the papacy. A contemporary and enemy of Luther, the Roman Catholic polemicist, Cochlaeus, commented on Luther’s last prayer as recorded by Jonas. Cochlaeus lamented:
“…[W]hat shall we say of Luther’s last prayer… ‘Oh my Heavenly Father’ (he says) ‘God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, God of all consolation, I give thanks to You, because You have revealed Your beloved Son Jesus Christ to me, in Whom I believe, Whom I have preached and have confessed, Whom I have loved and praised; Whom the abominable Pope and all impious people revile, persecute, and blaspheme, etc.’ Here let Jonas inquire of all corners of the Councils, to see whether he shall be able to find in the writings of any Christian a dying man's prayer of this sort, in which anyone at all thus boasts of himself, thus in comparison to himself condemns and accuses all those who, under the Pope, have worshiped Christ, thus attacks and slanders the Shepherd of the Church, the Supreme Pontiff.
Or is it not rather to be believed, that soon after these words of Luther's Christ the Judge said to Luther's soul, just now snatched from his body in death itself, 'From your own mouth I judge you, you wicked servant - since you yourself earlier both said and wrote that you heard Christ's voice in the Pope, Who was speaking and governing in him? Moreover, let that man be anathema and cursed, who speaks against the truth of the Apostolic privileges. Moreover, I aver that there are more good Christians under the Pope - nay, rather, every good Christian; and that under the Pope is the true Christianity, and what is more, the true kernel of Christianity. Therefore, what hope of salvation can a man so hardened possibly have, and one who persists, to the very end, against charity, in his heresy, schism, and rebellion, and in his everlasting hatred against the Pope, and so breathes out his stubborn and obstinate soul? For not only does the judgment of Christ and of Paul, Cyprian, Augustine, and others like them, attested many times over, judge him, but also his own speech and the judgment of his own mouth. Therefore, Jonas stupidly and impiously praises him for this prayer.” [Source: Luther Lives: Two Contemporary Accounts of Martin Luther (New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), 348-349].
Cochlaeus was familiar with the contemporary accounts of Luther’s last days, and those closest to Luther never mentioned he ever recanted or received last rights. Heiko Oberman begins his famous biography Luther: Man Between God and the Devil by giving an account of Luther's death:
"Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?" Yes," replied the clear voice for the last time. On February 18, 1546, even as he lay dying in Eisleben, far from home, Martin Luther was not to be spared a final public test, not to be granted privacy even in this last, most personal hour. His longtime confidant Justus Jonas, now pastor in Halle, having hurriedly summoned witnesses to the bedside, shook the dying man by the arm to rouse his spirit for the final exertion. Luther had always prayed for a "peaceful hour": resisting Satan—the ultimate, bitterest enemy—through that trust in the Lord over life and death which is God's gift of liberation from the tyranny of sin. It transforms agony into no more than a brief blow.
But now there was far more at stake than his own fate, than being able to leave the world in peace, and trust in God. For in the late Middle Ages, ever since the first struggle for survival during the persecutions of ancient Rome, going to one's death with fearless fortitude was the outward sign of a true child of God, of the confessors and martyrs. The deathbed in the Eisleben inn had become a stage; and straining their ears to catch Luther's last words were enemies as well as friends.
As early as 1529, Johannes Cochlaeus, Luther's first "biographer," had denounced Luther in Latin and German as the seven-headed dragon, the Devil's spawn. Slanderous reports that he had died a God-forsaken death, miserable and despairing, had circulated time and again. But now the end his friends had dreaded and his enemies had longed for was becoming reality. Who now would lay claim to Luther and fetch him, God or the Devil? While simple believers imagined the Devil literally seizing his prey, the enlightened academic world was convinced that a descent into Hell could be diagnosed medically—as apoplexy and sudden cardiac arrest. Abruptly and without warning, the Devil would snip the thread of a life that had fallen to him, leaving the Church unable to render its last assistance. Thus, in their first reports, Luther's friends, especially Melanchthon, stressed that the cause of death had not been sudden, surprising apoplexy but a gradual flagging of strength: Luther had taken leave of the world and commended his spirit into God's hands. For friend and foe alike his death meant far more than the end of a life.
Shortly after Doctor Martinus died at about 3:00 A.M. on February 18, Justus Jonas carefully recorded Luther's last twenty-four hours, addressing his report not to Luther's widow, as one might expect, but to his sovereign, Elector John Frederick, with a copy for his university colleagues in Wittenberg. Had Luther—born on November 10, 1483, as a simple miner's son—died young, history would have passed over his parents' grief unmoved. But now his death was an affair of state. The day after his birth—the feast of St. Martin—he had been baptized and received into the life of the Church as a simple matter of course, but now there was open dispute over whether, having been excommunicated by the pope, he had departed from this world a son of the Church.
In the last days before his death Luther had been the cheerful man his friends knew and loved. He had successfully completed a difficult mission: a trip from Wittenberg to Eisleben to mediate in a protracted quarrel between the two counts of Mansfeld, the brothers Gebhard and Albert. Hours had been spent sitting between the parties, listening to the clever reasoning of administrative lawyers—a breed he had despised ever since his early days as a law student in Erfurt. After two tough weeks of negotiation, the parties had narrowed their differences and a reconciliation had finally—though only temporarily—been achieved. So there was reason to be cheerful. Luther had suspected that he would die in Eisleben, the place of his birth. But this did not worry him, although he was quite sure he had little time left: "When I get home to Wittenberg again, I will lie down in my coffin and give the worms a fat doctor to feast on." By highlighting the skeleton within the human body, late medieval art had urgently reminded everyone that health, beauty, and wealth were only a few breaths away from the Dance of Death. The "fat doctor" was well aware of this, not as a moralistic horror story, but as a reality of life poised on the brink of eternity. [Source: Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 305].