Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Most Damnable and Pernicious Heresy--Luther the day after Reformation Day

The day after Reformation Day
All Hallow's Eve, 1517, Luther had timed things appropriately. All Saints' Day, November 1, 1517 Duke Frederick put on a huge exhibition of his latest reliquary acquisitions--the latest additions to his bone collection--pilgrims coming to venerate (and pay handsomely for the privilege), earning 1000s of years off purgatory in the bargain. No coin collector could have been more devout; the duke was serious about his reliquary, and wanted to make Wittenberg into the Rome of Germany. Luther scholar Roland Bainton tallied the elector's treasury of merit: 


"The collection had as its nucleus a genuine thorn from the crown of Christ, certified to have pierced the Savior's brow. Frederick so built up the collection from this inherited treasure that the catalogue illustrated by Lucas Cranach in 1509 listed 5,005 particles, to which were attached indulgences calculated to reduce purgatory by 1,443 years. The collection included one tooth of St. Jerome, of St. Chrysostom four pieces, of St. Bernard six, and of St. Augustine four; of Our Lady four hairs, three pieces of her cloak, four from her girdle, and seven from the veil sprinkled with the blood of Christ. The relics of Christ included one piece from his swaddling clothes, thirteen from his crib, one wisp of straw, one piece of the gold brought by the Wise Men and three of the myrrh, one strand of Jesus' beard, one of the nails driven into his hands, one piece of bread eaten at the Last Supper, one piece of the stone on which Jesus stood to ascend into heaven, and one twig of Moses' burning bush. By 1520 the collection had mounted to 19,013 holy bones. Those who viewed these relics on the designated day and made the stipulated contributions might receive from the pope indulgences for the reduction of purgatory, either for themselves or others, to the extent of 1,902,202 years and 270 days. These were the treasures made available on the day of All Saints."

Luther had taken a great risk posting his 95 Theses decrying indulgences the day before. The duke was his patron, and though he appreciated the popularity his university had gained by Luther's bold teaching and preaching, this was too far. Luther was undaunted because he had seen through the whole hoax of indulgences and a righteousness earned by ones own imagined merit. “The church’s true treasure," he wrote, "is the merits of Christ in the gospel.”

From studying and teaching the Psalms, Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews, Luther had come to know that Rome had flipped everything around and had, thereby, done violence to the gospel, and that venerating the saints and their supposed merits was a supplanting of the merits of Jesus Christ. The realization was at first a personal one. “I must listen to the gospel," he wrote. "It tells me not what I must do, but what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for me.” 

Transformed by the power of the gospel and the gift of faith, Luther had to tell the Good News to others. And he did, as only Luther could do. “The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of men was the idea that somehow he could make himself good enough to deserve to live with an all holy God.”


Luther knew that the dukes exhibition scheduled for All Saints' Day, November 1, 1517 must be confronted. It was an affront to the gospel of grace, a supplanting of the authority of the Word of God, and an offense to true Christian worship. “The highest worship of God is the preaching of the Word, because thereby are praised and celebrated the name and the benefits of Christ.”

Finally, for Luther the risks to his person were worth it. Why? It was worth it because the Son of God is the only Savior and true friend of sinners. Johann Franck, German Lutheran pastor in the next generation expressed it this way: "Jesus, priceless treasure, fount of purest pleasure, truest friend to me."

Douglas Bond is author of a number of successful books, with LUTHER IN LOVE, forthcoming Winter, 2017, a biographical novel on Martin and Katharina Luther. Bond speaks at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours, including the LUTHER 500 TOUR, June 15-25, 2017.  



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