We Are Beggars

Posted On November 15, 2017

On a slip of paper on the desk in the room where Luther died were found his last written words, “We are beggars. This is true.” Luther put the last three words in Latin. Before these two sentences, he had written, “Nobody can understand Virgil in his Bucolics and Georgics unless he has first been a shepherd or a farmer for five years. Nobody understands Cicero in his letters unless has been engaged in public affairs of some consequence for twenty years.” Then Luther makes the application to students of God’s Holy Word, “Let nobody suppose that he has tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently unless he has ruled over the churches with the prophets for a hundred years.”

Luther aimed these words at his students back in Wittenberg, who need to pastor for a full century—and that with the help of the prophets themselves—before they can grasp God’s Word. He also told these students that, as they read God’s Word, they are to, “bow before it, adore its every trace.”

Luther was twenty-three years old and a student at Erfurt when he held a whole Bible in his hands for the first time. He had hoped it would finally solve the question that had ricocheted through his head like a bullet: “How can I, a sinner, be right before God?” The Bible, however, did not answer his question or resolve his struggles. In fact, there’s every indication by Luther’s testimony that reading the Bible only intensified his struggle.

But once he laid hold of the text, he would not let go. Or, rather, the text would not let go of him. Luther once likened reading Scripture to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel. Jacob needed to learn who God was, to submit, to bow, to trust and obey. Finally, the angel just touched his hip socket. Match over. Luther’s wrestling with Holy Writ lasted for a solid decade. Then it was match over.

When Peter gave his startlingly right answer to the question of Jesus’ identity in Matthew 16, Jesus responded, “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 16:17). We often mistakenly say Luther discovered the doctrines of the authority of Scripture and Justification by faith alone. I’ve said it that way. But it’s not true. Like the angel reaching out and touching Jacob’s hip, God reaches down and reveals to us truth.

Think of what flows from this self-identifying statement, “We are beggars.” Humility, dependence, gratitude, generosity, even obedience—all come tumbling out of the realization that we are beggars. Luther wanted his students to see themselves as beggars. To come before Scripture, again and again, wrestling with it, bowing before it, and adoring its every trace. Hoc est Verum. We are beggars.

Dr. Stephen Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College.