Erasmus Sarcerius: On Visiting the Sick

Erasmus Sarcerius (1501-1559) was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who studied under Luther and Melanchthon in Wittenberg. His activity during his career was chiefly as a superintendent. He labored to put Lutheran doctrine into practice in the church, and his efforts were lauded by the first generation of Lutherans. Not surprisingly his work faded into the background as it was largely local and fell victim to the vagaries of political shifts and confessional controversies. He did not expect anything different, however, often arguing that a work well-begun and not finished is far better than a work never begun. At the end of his life, Sarcerius published a pastoral theology which he wrote to give young pastors a leg-up into the ministry.

For your edification, here is the first part of his chapter on the visitation of the sick. It is the instruction that is to be addressed to the sick prior to receiving absolution and the Sacrament. There are several observations worth making initially. First, Sarcerius is principally concerned with ensuring that the patient knows the true character of sickness. Imagine a context in which death was much nearer and more imminent than it is for us today. It easily begins to seem like a part of the natural order, as harvest and slaughter are to farmers. Such an attitude towards death is an obstacle for the faithful to adequate preparation for dying.

Next, observe how Sarcerius is concerned to liberate the patient: you should make full use of medicine and doctors. God may indeed save you from sickness. If he does, it will likely be through means. It does not indicate a failure of faith to hope for good medicine and good doctors. On the contrary, it is a display of faith to make use of God’s creation towards the ends for which he has created it, so long as it is received with thanksgiving.

Finally, Sarcerius’ insistence on a confession from the heart may grate on us a bit, but notice how he parses it (revealing his background in pedagogy). Repentance from the heart is not a matter of sufficient feelings, but a posture over against sin. Do you wish that you had not sinned, and do you intend to do better?

My dear man, you now lie in God’s hands and don’t know which way God will take this, whether he will restore your health or pull you by death out of this life. Whether or not you regain your health, it is certain that you must someday die. You know what follows death. For you confess in faith that Christ sits at the right hand of the Father and will return to judge the living and the dead. You also confess that you and all men must await not just death but also God’s verdict and judgment on the last day. On that account it is necessary for you properly to prepare for such a journey, and pay close attention to this work which God has now put before you. For there is a big difference between human sickness and death and the sickness and death of a cow. The cow must also die and suffer all kinds of sickness as we can see, but that is all natural, and the cow experiences it not from God’s wrath. It is the cow’s nature that it cannot remain forever and eventually must suffer a mishap, get sick, and finally die. But when it is dead, it is over and there is nothing left to expect.

But man must suffer sickness and death on account of sin. For the Lord threatened Adam in paradise and said: In the day that you eat of the tree you will certainly die. You should note this and know it well: the sickness that you now suffer is not without danger, nor do you experience it naturally. It is the penalty for your sin, you who are a child of Adam, born in sin, bearing a sinful nature from your father and mother, and having spent your life in sin against God and his word. Therefore you have two things to consider. The first is the lesser – that you are free to use doctors and medicines, created by God for the good of man. You are free to pray to God that he may give them success. For experience compels us to  acknowledge that, just as in many sicknesses it is harmful to eat or drink this or that, God has also created many fruits, roots, herbs, and other creations, which have special power and salutary effect both inside and outside the body. Therefore it is not only not wrong, but also useful and good in sickness to seek and use the help of men, as long as you hold God to be the best and most reliable doctor and with every medicine see and hope for his help. That is the first, but the lesser of the things that you should now consider. The other is this: how you may be released from sin and the wrath of God. You must begin with this part. For because sickness is rooted in sin, the sin must first be done away with if you would help the body. And especially must sin be done away with if body and soul are to be helped. For sickness stops when death comes. But sin does not stop since God’s judgment is yet ahead.

So say to me now, do you confess that you are a sinner, and do you want to be free of both sickness and sin? I don’t doubt it concerning sickness. For anyone would gladly be free from what weighs on the body. Therefore show only whether you are sorry for your sin from your heart and that you want to be released from it. What do you answer? Do you confess that you are a poor sinner and that you have your whole life long done and intended much evil against God and his word and against your own conscience? Is it sorrow from your heart so that you wish you had not done it, and if God grants you further life, you will no longer do it, but rather more earnestly hold to God’s word and will and do better? What do you answer?

Here he answers: Yes.

Erasmus Sarcerius, Pastorale oder Hirtenbuch, trans. David Buchs, (Eisleben: Urbanus Raubisch, 1559), CLXXXIIr-v.

The consolation that Sarcerius offers to such a penitent will follow in another post.