The Roman Catholic Church boasted of having (amongst other things) pieces of the original cross of Christ, milk from the breasts of the virgin Mary as well as Joseph’s old pants… Wittenburg itself had an amazing assortment of these religious relics which were sanctioned by the Church to convey days, weeks, months, years, centuries and even millennia of time off in the place of purging, just by viewing them, the time being measured by the value and importance placed upon the relic.
By the way, these indulgences are still in force in the Roman Catholic Church. In Rome today there are what is known as the Scala Sancta (the sacred steps), which according to Church tradition are the steps that led up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, which Jesus Christ stood on during his Passion on his way to trial. The stairs were, reputedly, brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 4th Century. Even today, plenary indulgence can be granted for climbing the stairs on the knees. Pius VII on 2 September 1817 granted those who ascend the stairs in the prescribed manner an indulgence of nine years for every step (there are 28 steps). Later on, Pius X, on 26 February 1908, granted a plenary indulgence to be gained as often as the stairs are devoutly ascended after confession and communion.
So much for Rome today then. Lets get back to Martin Luther. His last sermon made mention of these religious relics. Concerning this, Dr. R. C. Sproul writes:
[Luther] wondered, why is it that people are still spending their money on indulgences and on what Luther called the Pope’s second-hand junk? He said, the Pope is like a decoy duck, sitting on a pond with a great bag of tricks, seducing people with this nonsense. He wondered why it is that people ignore the Word of God and exchange it for Joseph’s pants…The power of God is not in Joseph’s pants. The power is in the Gospel. The Gospel is the power of God.
What relevance does that have for us today? We don’t see the evangelical church of our day rushing to depositories of sacred relics. Nobody’s looking for Joseph’s pants. Rather we have invested our time, our energy, and our money in more contemporary ways to improve the gospel. We look to programs, to Madison Avenue methodologies, to entertainment, to pop psychology, even to the establishment of Starbucks in the church to improve the gospel. Why do we do this? I think people in the church today are looking for exactly what they were looking for in sixteenth-century Germany. They went to Trier, they went to Aachen, they went to these relics because they believed that the relics had power. Every pastor wants to have a powerful ministry. And so we look to the latest program, to the latest method to give us a powerful ministry, forgetting where the Lord God omnipotent has put the power in the first place.” Always Reformed, p. 190, a festschrift for Dr. W. Robert Godfrey
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” – Romans 1:16