What Luther’s Last Words Teach Us about Prayer

After the Reformer Martin Luther died, his friends who came to his room to remove his corpse found a note he had scrawled sometime in his final days: “We are beggars, that is true.”

With those scribbled phrases, Luther summed up his own hard-won theological perspective on what it means to be a human being: we are all utterly dependent on divine grace alone. Our supposed merits are insufficient to win us any favor with God. 

But Luther’s final sentence also expresses one of the chief themes of the Lord’s Prayer: far from being self-sustaining, we are needy creatures, reliant on energy from a source outside ourselves if we are to go on living. 

We are like beggars, whose only hope for food and shelter is the compassion of Another.

When Jesus teaches us to pray “Give us today our daily bread,” He is first of all training us to see ourselves in a certain way in relation to God. To the surprise of his status-conscious disciples, He insists, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). 

If there is one fact that is obvious about children, it is their dependence. Unless a parent or guardian provides milk for a baby, the infant will die. According to Jesus, that remains our true condition into our adulthood, whether we are conscious of it or not. 

Were God to withdraw his nourishment from us, we would not just slowly shrivel but immediately cease to exist.

A professor of mine described the Christian doctrines of creation and divine providence with the analogy of a plugged-in TV. If someone were to unplug the TV’s cord, it isn’t the case that the characters on screen would gradually fade, their words and gestures growing more and more sluggish until the screen went dark altogether. Rather, as soon as the TV’s connection to its source of power is cut off, the images cease to flicker. The TV has no electricity of its own; it projects its images only by constant connection to its electrical feed. 

We likewise are dependent on God’s continual “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3 KJV). That’s why the Lord’s Prayer includes the word “today.” 

It is not enough for God to kick-start the process of sustaining human beings and then sit back like a parent retreating into a book while the children race off to attempt some task or play by themselves. On the contrary, we rely on God’s provision [for] each moment of our lives.

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This post is adapted from The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying Our Father by Wesley Hill, available for pre-order now (releasing on November 6, 2019), along with other Christian essentials, through Lexham Press. 

The title of this post is the addition of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife.