Today is Reformation Day – the day we remember Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses that started the Reformation. Does the Reformation matter today? Indeed. Matthew Barrett at the Gospel Coalition blog gives us a helpful reminder of what Luther fought for and where we still must stand:
Four Hairs from the Head of Mary
There they sat. Relics. Lots of them. There was a cut of fabric from the swaddling cloth of baby Jesus, 13 pieces from his crib, a strand of straw from the manger, a piece of gold from a Wise Man, three pieces of myrrh, a morsel of bread from the Last Supper, a thorn from the crown Jesus wore when crucified, and, to top it all off, a genuine piece of stone that Jesus stood on to ascend to the Father’s right hand. And in good Catholic fashion, the blessed Mary was not left out. There sat three pieces of cloth from her cloak, four from her girdle, four hairs from her head, and better yet, seven pieces from the veil that was sprinkled with the blood of Christ. These relics and countless others (19,000 bones from the saints!), stood ready to be viewed by pious pilgrims. These relics were the proud collection of Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, Martin Luther’s prince. And they sat in the Castle Church at Wittenberg, prepared and ready for showing on All Saints Day, November 1, 1517.
But in the midst of this fanfare was the essential ingredient, namely, the procurement of indulgences. Veneration of these relics would be accompanied by indulgences reducing time in purgatory by 1,902,202 years and 270 days. An indulgence, the full or partial remission of punishment for sins, was drawn from the Treasury of Merit, which was accumulated not only by the meritorious work of Christ but also by the superabundant merit of the saints.
The Coin in the Coffer Rings
Needing funds to build St. Peter’s basilica, Pope Leo X began selling indulgences. But not any indulgence would do. He needed an indulgence for the full remission of sins, one that would return the sinner to the state of innocence first received at baptism. Even the horrors of years in purgatory would be removed. Not even a sin against the Divine Majesty would outweigh the efficacy of these indulgences. In short, if you had enough money, repentance was for sale!
There was no one so experienced as the Dominican Johann Tetzel to market such a once in a lifetime opportunity. Going from town to town with all the pomp of Rome, Tetzel laid the guilt trip on heavy: “Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance. . . . Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?'” And then came Tetzel’s famous jingle, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” With just a quarter of a florin you could liberate your loved one from the flames of purgatory and into the “fatherland of paradise.”
100 – 5 = 95 Theses
Martin Luther had enough. One year earlier, Luther preached against indulgences. This time, however, he would put his objections in writing. In 95 theses Luther exposed the abuse of indulgences. When finished, the theses were posted to the Castle Church door. Luther biographer Roland Bainton summarizes the 95 theses for us: “There were three main points: an objection to the avowed object of the expenditure, a denial of the powers of the pope over purgatory, and a consideration of the welfare of the sinner.”
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