The true treasure of the church

This year, with the 500th commemoration of the Reformation, is a year wherein we consider in particular the figure of Martin Luther. Not only is the Reformation commemorated, but so also Luther’s exceptional theological contribution to the Reformation; and not only is Luther foregrounded, but the focus is on his 95 theses; and often not even necessarily on the content of the theses themselves, but rather the socio-political implications that the Reformation would have for church and society.

The theses are after all the reason why the Reformation is commemorated this year; the spark that would ignite the theological debate about the selling of indulgences (but with this also some broader debates: regarding church practices, church structures, and church authority) in the Catholic church; the reason why entire towns – such as Wittenberg in Germany, where Luther had lived and worked – are readied this year for numerous international Reformation celebrations.

There is, in other words, much that can be said; and much that has already been done, in order to commemorate the Reformation, and Luther, and the 95 theses. Yet the question remains: would and could this be the point of the theses themselves? How do we celebrate the Reformation this year?

Does this involve preaching and attending sermons about the classical five sola’s? Or posting (and liking) Facebook photos taken in front of the church door in Wittenberg, where Luther supposedly nailed the 95 theses? Perhaps this means organising a movie night within congregations where we can be newly impressed by Joseph Fiennes’ portrayal of Martin Luther, in the film Luther (2003)? Or maybe this means to become a fan of the rebel Luther – a 16th century Ché Guevara who challenges Empire, and wins?

It is therefore well worth reading the 95 theses in this year. And if one happened to be reading the theses, it may be well worth paying attention to the 62nd thesis.

This specific thesis reads, in Latin, as follows:

Verus thesaurus ecclesie est sacrosanctum evangelium glorie et gratie dei.

“The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of God’s glory and grace.”

The use of the word ‘treasure’ (thesaurus) is neither accidental nor innocent. Other references to this, in the 95 theses, makes this very clear. In total Luther refers to ‘treasures’ 7 times (in theses 56, 59, 60, 62, 64, 65, and 66). Not only does thesis 62 form the center of the 7 references to treasures – with 3 references before, and 3 references after – but it is also the only reference, in the entire document, where Luther adds a word: ‘true’ (verus).

His point is unmistakably clear. There is no confusion for him regarding the treasure(s) of the church. The gospel is the treasure of the church; and no assurance of salvation, even those given by the church and pastors of the church, can be bought. Salvation is not just one more treasure among many treasures of the church; it is the true treasure of the church, argues Luther in thesis 62. It is the real treasure, the only treasure, the treasure that matters to the church; the most valuable, important, precious – for the church. No indulgence letters, or false self-assurances, or tithes, or offerings, can buy our salvation. The gospel is the gospel of grace – the thesis in question qualifies this even further, as the grace of God (gratie dei). It is grace that cannot be bought, but that can only be received – from God.

The gospel is the true treasure of the church.

Some weeks ago, on 5 July 2017, the World Communion of Reformed Churches – together with the Lutheran World Federation – signed the Wittenberg Witness. The goal of the declaration, states the declaration itself, was to confess – in Lutherstadt (the city of Luther), in the church where Luther himself preached regularly, in the tradition of Luther and the Reformation – the gift of unity to the church and the commitment to unity by the church.

The 34-year-old Martin Luther writes the 95 theses not with the intention to cause church schism, or to establish a new church, or even to enhance his own public reputation. Instead he realizes, he is convinced, that he cannot remain silent, cannot say nothing, when the gospel itself is offered for sale.

This would be the theme for the Lutheran World Federation’s meeting earlier this year in May, in Namibia: “Liberated by God’s grace”. Three subthemes would be added: (1) “Salvation – not for sale”; (2) Human beings – not for sale”; and (3) “Creation – not for sale”. The message is clear: the gospel is not up for sale. The good news of our salvation, of God’s grace that is given abundantly to us, is the true treasure of the church.

In this year Luther’s words are perhaps a timely reminder: the true treasure of the church is the gospel. And “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).