Today is the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church. That act started a series of events which led to the reformation of sound doctrine and reclamation of the gospel which had become lost in the churches of that day. But something else noteworthy happened that day in that same town and church.
It was no act of vandalism for Martin Luther to nail his ninety-five theses to the church door. This was normal since the door acted as a bulletin board where community announcements were commonly posted. That day there would be hundreds of people filing through the door of that church building so it is possible Martin chose that very day and time of day for a reason. He wanted the announcement to be seen in order to begin much needed correction.
Why were so many people visiting the church building that day? There was something else very important happening just as it happened every year on that day. It was the eve of All Saints Day which featured an annual feast and celebration commemorating those martyred for Christ. But there was something more happening in Wittenberg than All Saints Day. There was something of great interest to be seen inside the church building.
Fredrick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, governor of that region, had amassed the most impressive collection of relics anywhere around. A relic is some article from one of those celebrated martyrs, saints, or apostles such as a piece of clothing, wood, or even a body part. Fredrick had 19,013 of them! It was taught by the Catholic church that anyone owning a relic or traveling to look at it was granted immunity from sin. Each relic was assigned a specific amount of time it knocked off a person’s sentence in purgatory. Of course this is a non-nonsensical, non-biblical teaching but it was believed by the masses.
On October 31, 1517 Fredrick put his relic collection on display for all to see. Not only did he enjoy the idea (though falsely) that the relics gave him immunity, he also made this available to all living in or traveling to his province. That day there would be hundreds if not thousands entering the church. On display would be a tooth from St. Jerome, four hairs from the Virgin Mary, a piece of straw from Jesus’ crib, a piece of gold brought by the Wise Men and one of the nails driven into Christ’s hands. There was even the mummified thumb of Jesus’ grandmother, St. Anne. The combined total in this collection of immunity from sin promised by the church was 1,902,202 years and 270 days knocked off their sentence in purgatory. Who wouldn’t want to make this trip to Wittenberg? But what a dark deception!
This would be one of the last times Fredrick’s display of relics would be viewed. For on this day Martin Luther’s protest against the Catholic Church’s heresy began the chain of events which opened the eyes of many to the true gospel and the rejection of relics. There is only one way a sinner’s guilt can be absolved; by the death and resurrection of Jesus when one repents of their sin and trusts fully in Christ’s sacrifice for them. Fredrick the Wise eventually came to see the truth of the gospel himself and destroyed his relics. No longer did he trust in them. No longer did he want to lead astray those living in his territory.
“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Galatians 6:14