Luther's Wolves

I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Men will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth to lure the disciples into following them. Therefore be on the alert.
— Acts 20:29-31 CSB

Spotlight is Tom McCarthy's 2015 film about corruption and cover-up in the church and the efforts of the Boston Globe to reveal it. The film's title is appropriate. Sadly, when the spotlight is turned on the church, corruption is not usually hard to find.

What is true in our day, was true in Paul's day. It was equally true in Luther's time. False teaching, abuse of power, financial impropriety, and playing on the unsuspecting are themes in every generation.

This post puts the spotlight on some of the "wolves" in Luther's forest.

The Well-Intended Wolves

Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, was Luther's prince. A political leader with "simple and sincere piety," Frederick devoted his days to "making Wittenberg the Rome of Germany." He established the University of Wittenberg in 1502. Much good flowed from his rule. Unfortunately, some unintended evil leaked out as well.

Frederick made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1493. He returned with a relic. Relics were historical artifacts. Most often they were body parts of a deceased "holy person." To some this would seem "kind of creepy," but not in Luther's day.

Relics were treated like a holy side show. Patrons lined up and for a small price they could view the artifacts. And there was a bonus: Pay the price. View the relic. Obtain an indulgence, or pardon for sin.

Frederick was an avid collector. Lucas Cranach created an illustrated catalog of Frederick's relics in 1509. It included 5,005 "sacred particles" attached to indulgences that could reduce time in purgatory by 1,433 years.

  • One tooth of St. St. Jerome.
  • Four hairs of Our Lady, four from her girdle.
  • Seven hairs from the veil sprinkled with the blood of Christ.
  • One piece of his swaddling clothes.
  • Thirteen pieces from his crib.
  • One piece of gold brought by the wise men.
  • One strand of Jesus' beard.
  • One piece of bread eaten at the Last Supper.
  • One piece of the stone on which Jesus stood to ascend into heaven.
  • One twig of Moses' burning bush.

According to Bainton, Frederick's collection grew to 19,013 holy relics by 1520, enough to reduce purgatory by 1,902,202 years and 270 days, that is if one could pay the price.

Well-intended false teaching is still false teaching.  Frederick's actions, common throughout the church in the 15th and 16th centuries, actually steered people away from the grace of God and the necessity of true repentance.

The Wolves in Clergy Clothing

"There is nothing new under the sun" writes the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and that includes corruption among church leadership. Paul saw the wolves clothed as clergy, so did Luther. Two with notoriously sharp teeth were Leo X and Albert of Mainz.

Leo's lust for pleasure is well known:

Plays and shows, ballets and games abounded. No chance for a hunt was turned down. The papal treasury funded preeminent artists such as Raphael. Julius left a full treasury. Leo drained it in eight short years.

Leo's extravagance was problematic. St. Peter's basilica was being rebuilt; a difficult endeavor without the funds to pay for construction and decoration. No worries! Leo had a business plan. He sold indulgences (pardons for sin) to raise the necessary revenue.

Leo was not alone in this scheme. His colluding side-kick was Albert of Mainz (1514). Steve Nichols writes:

Albert of Mainz had already overstepped his bounds in taking two bishoprics at too young an age, and now he wanted a third--and the money and power that went along with them. It was against church law, however; only a papal dispensation could make it happen. Leo X and Albert were both businessmen who knew how to strike a deal.

Albert petitioned Leo for permission to sell the indulgence on the condition that half the proceeds returned to the pope to finance St. Peters. Perfect! Now all they needed was a director of sales. Enter John Tetzel, a 16th century "Wolf of Wall Street."

The Wolf of Wall Street

Johannes Tetzel was a savvy Dominican friar (member of a religious order). Bald, pleasantly plump, and pushing sixty, Tetzel was the Pied Piper of indulgences. Tetzel "sold heaven" to the church faithful and fearful who were looking for a way out of purgatory or hell itself.

Tetzel was part showman and part salesman. His pitch:

Listen now, God and St. Peter call you. Consider the salvation of your souls and those of your loved ones departed. You priest, you noble, you merchant, you virgin, you matron, you youth, you old man, enter now into your church, which is the Church of St. Peter. . . . 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." Do you not wish to? . . .

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from purgatory springs.

This was religious multi-level marketing at its worst. Everyone got a cut: the local church, Tetzel, Archbishop Albert and Pope Leo himself.

Luther saw through this shame. It was unbiblical, unconscionable, and unbelievable! What drove Luther's frustration was "not simply" that this teaching was out of step with the Word of God, but that this practice was so out of sync with the grace of God. 

The Tower Experience

Eric Metaxas' account of "The Tower Experience," a pivotal moment in the life of Luther, is important. At some point in early 1517, Luther was at the Tower at the Black Cloister in Wittenberg. Here he had a heated study upstairs and an outhouse (cloaca) downstairs.

According to Luther's account, he was literally "on the toilet" when God opened his eyes to the reality of the extravagant grace of God. Reflecting on this moment he writes:

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, "In it the righteousness of God is revealed," as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live." There i began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. . . . Here I felt that i was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates . . . .

Metaxas comments, "This is the earthshaking insight that gave Luther the solidest of all foundations in Scripture . . . . that it happened "upon the toilet" . . . made it a perfect illustration of his theological foundation.

The essence of Luther's reformation passion hinged on his understanding that the pope was offering the toilet while God was offering life that is truly life. Metaxas continues:

The cloaca was not only literally that place in the tower where he went to the bathroom but also the essence of this world, a world not merely begrimed with but filled with and consisting of sin and shit and misery and death. . . . [All] the marmoreal and golden splendor of the Vatican was nothing more or less that a monument to mankind's efforts to be as God . . . . It was all far worse than excrement could ever be, for it pretended to be good and beautiful and true and holy, and in reality it was not just not these things but the very bitterest enemy of them.

What seems so blatantly obvious to believers today -- that no human effort can merit God's favor -- was foggy in a world scattered and confused by howling wolves bent on satisfying their own appetites for power and prestige, comfort and ease.

Luther, heart enlightened and warmed by the extravagant love of God, saw through them. Then he confronted them the only way he knew how, but posting a notice on the church door at Wittenberg.

I'll address Luther's 95 Thesis tomorrow, but for now I ask you a question I pose to myself: "Is you devotion to God driven by a slavish obedience to a correct rendering of the the truth (absolutely important), or by the awe and wonder of the grace of God that would reach down into the toilet and pull you out?"

About this post: October 5-15, Shannan and I are traveling on a 500th Anniversary Reformation Cruise with friends from Lancaster Bible College, our educational partners for their Master of Arts In Ministry in Church Planting, which we offer at Spanish River Church. As part of our daily activity, I deliver a brief historical devotional with a view to adding value to our minds, hearts, souls. Click here to read more on Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Previous posts: Soul Struggle To Breakthrough.