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Reformation Relics


Reformation Relics

Catholics today believe in relics. They have classes of them. First-class relics are items associated with Christ’s life. Second-class are items owned by saints. And Third are objects that have come in contact with first or second class ones (www.catholic.com/qa/are-there-any-rules-governing-relics). Too much, huh? Fredrick the Wise, Luther's prince, had a collection of relics. "[B]y 1518 a total of 17,443 articles could be venerated, offering 127,709 years and 116 days of indulgences" (Reformation, Schwiebert, 179). In Luther’s day, the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg claimed to have a fragment of Noah's Ark, soot from the fiery furnace, wood from the manger, St. Christopher's beard hair and 19,000 other relics. The Pope had granted indulgence to all who visited the church on Nov. 1st. On Oct. 31 Luther nailed the 95 Theses (Krauth, Con. Ref., 2). Confessional Lutherans don’t believe in relics, but the Reformation has left them.

The Reformation left the answer to where one can find a gracious God? The answer before then was in doing what is in you first and then God assisting with His grace and the merits of the saints. Christ was portrayed as the frightful judge; Mary, and the saints after her, were approachable. In any case, you couldn’t be sure of your salvation. That’s presumptuous and made sense. Who doesn’t know that? Read the Reformation era hymn “All Mankind Fell in Adam’s Sin,” and tell me that Lutherans don’t know that “From hearts depraved, to evil prone, flow thoughts and deeds of sin alone.” How can such hearts take a first step toward God and no matter how much assisted by grace, by saints, by Mary herself can we ever be certain of being saved?

In the face of the utter hopelessness of our sinfulness and the sensibleness of being uncertain of one’s salvation hear Luther from 1520: "'I believe that the forgiveness of sins exists in that selfsame community [of the Church], and nowhere else; outside of that community nothing can help, no matter how many and great one's good works might be, to accord one the forgiveness of sins. But within such a community nothing can bring harm, no matter how many, how large the sins, and how often one has sinned; this remains the reality wherever and as long as one remains in’” the community of the Church'" (Short Form 1520, in Peters, Creed, 287).

Salvation was found for sinners in the Community of the Church, the Body of Christ. In Christ’s Body there was holiness of life. He kept every single law of God. Look above you. See even one demand of God, one to-do list from you, one requirement of man, that Jesus didn’t fulfill? No, Jesus fulfilled, kept, did, completed every single one of them. Look again. Is there one judgment of God that was not carried out on the Body of Christ hanging on the cross? Is there one sin, one lust, one worry, one fear, one mortal, venial, or criminal sin that was not lashed, beaten, and punished to hell and death on Christ’s body? No not one. So in His Body, which is the Church says Scripture, you’re free of the Law’s demands and punishments. Or to quote Christ Himself, “It is finished.” And God the Father wants you to be certain that within Christ’s Body, God is gracious to you. Any loving, though fallen father, wants his children sure of his love. Not even sinful, loving fathers want kids uncertain about that. How dare we think that, preach that, believe that about the true God in Christ!

A relic of the Reformation is where can I find for certain a gracious God, but the world has moved on from that question. In the 90s a seminary professor said no one asks that today. No, they ask: where in the world is God at all? I really didn’t take his point till after going to a half dozen Evangelical churches and reading several of their books. Then I heard the question they were answering. People pour into them; not to hear about a gracious God in Christ, either that was assumed or worse God had no reason to be angry with anyone. No, from Calvary Chapel, to Shoreline, to Brazos Fellowship, to Antioch, to Gateway, to Life Church they were answering where in the world was God. Even if they publicly identified with Calvinism and God’s eternal decree of salvation only for some, they still found God in the world where Evangelicalism does: in one’s feelings and/or works. Your Christian life, parenting, or dedication is proof of God.

O Evangelical and Calvinist churches do point to the cross and the empty tomb, but the connecting point is not found on this earth. It’s either in your decision or God’s decree and even more certainly it’s in your Christian living. That’s why they emphasize ‘how to’ in their teachings. What Christ completed on the cross and God the Father declared from the empty tomb, that the world’s sins had been atoned for and His wrath quenched, is not on earth today in Baptism, never in absolution, and certainly not in bread that is Jesus’ body and His blood that is wine. The latter is particularly important. Already in the late 16th century, the forerunners of the Nondenoms, Calvinists, and Evangelicals stated that when Luther was asked for his proof of the Real Presence of Christ in the Supper, "he could forever say nothing more than what Christ Himself said, 'This is My body," and some similar words from Christ's testament. They jokingly and mockingly called this 'Luther's Helen,' over which he stirred up a passionate controversy" needlessly (Apology of the BoC, 382). 

Helen, the woman who launched a 1,000 ships, i.e., started the war between the Trojans and Spartans, was what Luther made the doctrine of Jesus’ Body and Blood being on the altar, in your hand, and mouth. All this discord in the Protestant world over what a Catholic would say: that Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ given for Christians to eat and drink. Why did Luther go to such lengths? Because while both Satan and Christ are present in the world, “only Christ the Son is corporally present” (Oberman, Between God and, 156). And that’s in Holy Communion.

Where in the world today is God? Lutherans and Catholics answer in the Waters of Baptism, in the words of Absolution, and on the altar in Christ’s Body and Blood. And that’s why I like to listen to Catholic radio. They take seriously God being in the world today in these places. Now, those of you who like to listen to Christian radio, have to admit why you do: Because they sing of how they see, know, and feel God’s presence in their heart, their joy, their peace, their love, in their life somehow. I, by contrast, point you to God’s presence in the cold waters of Baptism; the passionless words of Absolution; and tasteless bread and cheap wine.

So what’s to be done? The answers to where can I find a gracious God and where I can find Him on earth are true Reformation relics, but so is the middle ground between Catholic and Evangelical. Being in the middle were tempted by both sides: seeing the Holy Christian Church on earth with Catholicism and the good vibrations of Protestantism. The pure doctrine of justification over against that of Catholicism and the pure doctrine of the Sacrament of the Altar over against the Evangelicals and Calvinists who deny the real presence. These are the 2 chambers of a healthy Confessional Lutheran heart. Having open Communion makes you ill in both chambers because by communing Catholics you deny that a gracious God is only found in God for Jesus’ sake and by communing Protestants you deny that Jesus is really on your altar. 

It’s always hard to stand in the middle. I don’t mean be a ‘moderate’ but to maintain the truth against the error on either side of it. As to the certainty of our salvation: We stand between no certainty of salvation in Catholicism and the Protestant certainty of salvation either in your decision to ask Jesus into your heart or in God’s degree in eternity. Protestantism bases your certainty either on man’s decision to follow Jesus or on God’s decision in His hidden will. We stand between them in Jesus. God didn’t place His Son under obligation to keep laws given to mortals and didn’t punish, dam, and die Him so you could be uncertain. But neither does He base your certainty on you deciding something, you feeling something, or you doing something that proves either your decision to be saved or God’s decision to save you. No, your certainty is based on what Jesus did in life and death and left to you on earth in Water, Words, Bread and Wine. In these, and in the use of these, you have His promise to be graciously with you always even to end of the age. How does a parent assure a child shaking from a nightmare? I’m here with you. God does no less.

With the Lord’s Supper we again stand in the middle. If you can’t see this then the US military is smarter than you. They authorized Catholics and Protestants in general to have separate Communion services. Then when Lutherans showed their doctrine of Communion was different from both of theirs, they alone among Protestants could have separate Communion services. So we stand between Catholics who confess the Real Presence but then offer it to appease an angry God and Protestants who say there is no bodily presence of Jesus on earth, let alone in your mouth, but only in heaven. We confess we eat the very Body Jesus gave into death on the cross to pay for the sins of the world, and we drink the very Blood Jesus shed on the cross to cover the sins of the world. We don’t offer them to appease an angry God but we eat and drink them in thanks that the Body and Blood of His Son are given to us here as proof that God was appeased 2,000 years before. You see, we have the joy, the peace, the love the Evangelicals are singing of, but we have them in the tangible flesh and blood of Jesus on earth today in His Supper.

Some years ago we adopted from the Reformation the Latin motto VDMA, the Word of the Lord Endures Forever. During Luther’s time Fredrick the Wise, the guy who at first had all the relics, had VDMA sewn on clothes. During this time princes and emperors picked mottos describing their life's goal. Emperor Maximilian, known for overplaying his capabilities had "Hal Mass", "Keep yourself in check." Charles V had pillars of Hercules and the motto: "Plus Ultra", "Go beyond the ultimate." Fredrick’s life’s maxim was "Tantum quantum possumí" i.e. "Do all you can." But his coins showed his true faith. They had the letters "CCSN": "The cross of Christ is our salvation" (Reformation, Schwiebert, 174). With that in mind, look at the bulletin cover. Don’t you think Luther’s head should be small and the crucifix huge? That’s a true relic of the Reformation. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Reformation Day (20211031)