- When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.1
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther announced his intention to debate this and other statements to the scholarly world of his day. He probably did not imagine the fierce storm of consequences his ninety-five debate theses would unleash. But he was prepared to stand for the truth he found in Scripture, and as we all know, the world was transformed as a result. Ironically, it appears as though this debate never itself took place. Yet unbeknownst to Luther, these theses would provoke such controversy that the world would never be the same.
Before I move on to unpack the need for these statements, I feel duty-bound to point out the almost weird circumstances of our own gathering tonight. You see, here I stand on October 12, 2016 or 498 years, 10 months, and 12 days later to tell you all about it. If our timing isn’t quite in perfect harmony with this momentous event, I hope that at least our intentions are. Perhaps in a couple weeks you can dress up like a medieval European and go collect candy while carrying a scroll and a mallet or something. I’ll let you decide what you want to do with that, especially since next year will be the 500th-anniversary of the 1517 Ninety-Five Theses.
Luther’s 95 Theses (Hubner) (from Wikimedia Commons)
Contributing Factors in Late Medieval Europe
Much had led up to this moment. In our time together tonight, I want to briefly outline the build-up to this moment, which should also give some perspective on its significance. To understand the Protestant Reformation, we will need to place it in its context, which will involve examining some of the cultural, historical, and theological backgrounds of the day. Of course, one key concept was the doctrine of justification.
Medieval Doctrine of Justification (from Reform and Conflict2)
According to medieval Catholic teaching, there were seven sacraments. These seven sacraments included baptism, the Eucharist (or Communion), penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction (or last rites).3 These seven sacraments were understood as divinely instituted means by which God’s grace was communicated, or extended, to the worshiper. These sacraments were understood as “signs” which in some way administered God’s grace to the sinner.
The doctrine of justification was especially important. To be justified is to be righteous in God’s sight, which consequently means that one could have hope of eternal life in heaven. In the Middle Ages, justification was understood not as an event, but as a process which took place over the duration of a person’s life. Facing the ever-present reality of death, medieval theologians were particularly interested in working out how it was that one could be made right with God. As Heinze explains below, this process absorbed much more than a penitent sinner’s earthly life:
According to the church’s teaching, the process of justification began shortly after birth, when babies born to Christian families were baptized. It was believed that the sacrament of baptism provided forgiveness for original sin and created faith. Before baptism, a person was unable even to respond to God’s call, but after baptism he or she could respond and cooperate with God. Justification was understood as meaning “to make righteous”; God provided the means by which people were made righteous, but the individual also contributed. The sacraments were the vehicles God used to infuse grace to sinners, beginning with baptism.
Throughout life, sacraments aided in the process of justification. When an individual sinned, as all people did frequently, the sacrament of penance offered the opportunity for forgiveness and restoration. It consisted of two parts: the confession of sins and “satisfaction.” One was expected to be contrite, that is, to be sorry for one’s sins and confess them to a priest, who offered absolution, which removed the guilt or the eternal punishment for sin. Yet there remained a temporal punishment that was dealt with by satisfaction, which the priest prescribed and which might consist of alms-giving, prayers, going on pilgrimage, or some other meritorious work.
When sinners came to the end of their earthly lives, they were offered the sacrament of extreme unction. After death they went to one of three possible places. Those who had rejected God’s grace, or had never received it, would go to hell, where they would suffer eternal torment—often vividly portrayed in painting, sculpture, and popular literature. Those who lived exceptionally saintly lives, and for whom the process of justification had been completed by the time of their death, would go directly to heaven. The majority of people, however, had not done sufficient satisfaction or penance to expiate the temporal punishment of sin, so they would go to purgatory, where the works of satisfaction would be completed. Once that had happened, they would go to heaven; so although the suffering of purgatory was excruciating, it was temporary—in contrast with the unending suffering in hell.4
This problem of insufficient satisfaction led to many ways in which people attempted to shorten time in purgatory. These practices all involved the services of the church. One way was through special masses held on a person’s behalf after their death. This typically involved a significant financial expense, and thus was primarily available to the wealthy through designated bequests. Because few could afford the expense of arranging for special masses, others chose to go on pilgrimage or view relics. Many in Luther’s region took advantage of this opportunity because Frederick the Wise of Saxony possessed a remarkably large collection of relics that he housed in the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Finally, people could shorten time in purgatory through the purchase of indulgences. Although originally these were restricted as rewards for significant acts of piety, by the late Middle Ages these were available for purchase and could be applied towards one’s own sins or the sins of those already dead and in purgatory.5
Understanding Luther’s 95 Theses
Modern bronze doors of the Wittenberg Castle Church (from Flickr user Phil Camill)
Too often today, we misunderstand the nature of the Ninety-five Theses. With the advantage of hindsight, we look back on the Theses and see in them the Protestant Reformation as a fait accompli. Yet when we take the time to read the Theses we discover that they are far less revolutionary than we would expect. In the important work A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions by Denis R. Janz, we find this helpful word of interpretive caution:
While this is the most famous document of Luther’s Reformation, it is not the most important. It is a series of theses for an academic disputation, written in Latin for a university audience. A close reading shows that in them Luther rejects neither indulgences as such, nor purgatory, nor the sacrament of penance. Their importance lies in the fact that they are a small initial step that stirred up an international furor and thereby set in motion the dramatic events that followed.6
I’d like to take you through a close read of these theses together, as time permits. We will not comment on all of them, but I hope that by carefully considering this important source text we will be able to understand what Luther attempted here, and how this first small step would then precipitate a massive program of reform that would eventually turn the world upside down. So here are the Ninety-five Theses, interrupted occasionally with some commentary:
Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place. He requests that those who cannot be present to debate orally with us will do so by letter. In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
- When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
- This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
[In order to understand thesis 1, we must read it in light of thesis 2. The significance of Luther’s first thesis comes from the fact that the Latin Vulgate translated the text in question with “do penance,” rather than “repent.” As we shall see, one of Luther’s key concerns here has to do with how the church teaches repentance.]
- Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.
- The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self, that is, true inner repentance, until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
- The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.
[A major concern in the Theses is to assert as Luther does here that the authority of the pope is subordinate to the authority of God through the Scripture. In many ways, his concern is that the teaching of the church regarding indulgences and penance distorts the gospel by over-emphasizing the significance of papal remission of temporal penalties. In other words, the indulgences are primarily concerned with violations of canon law, rather than violations of Scriptural command.]
- The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.
- God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to his vicar, the priest.
- The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to the canons themselves, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
- Therefore the Holy Spirit through the pope is kind to us insofar as the pope in his decrees always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
- Those priests act ignorantly and wickedly who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penalties for purgatory.
- Those tares of changing the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory were evidently sown while the bishops slept [Matt. 13:25].
- In former times canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
- The dying are freed by death from all penalties, are already dead as far as the canon laws are concerned, and have a right to be released from them.
- Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.
- This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near the horror of despair.
- Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.
[In the section that follows, theses 17–21, Luther argues that the benefit of indulgences accrues merely in purgatory, and that despite appearances purgatory itself is, by definition, a limited time of suffering for those who will ultimately be saved.]
- It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.
- Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.
- Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.
- Therefore the pope, when he uses the words “plenary remission of all penalties,” does not actually mean “all penalties,” but only those imposed by himself.
- Thus those indulgence-preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
[Having declared that the preaching of indulgences propagates this error, Luther now continues to unpack the real significance of indulgences.]
- As a matter of fact, the pope remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to canon law, they should have paid in this life.
- If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.
- For this reason most people are necessarily deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty.
- That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese or parish.
- The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.
- They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
- It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
- Who knows whether all souls in purgatory wish to be redeemed, since we have exceptions in St. Severinus and St. Paschal, as related in a legend.
[The following theses focus on the real implications of indulgences. Luther goes on to show how genuine penitence is more significant than indulgence letters, notwithstanding the genuine benefit that he attributes to papal exonerations (thesis 38).]
- No one is sure of the integrity of his own contrition, much less of having received plenary remission.
- The man who actually buys indulgences is as rare as he who is really penitent; indeed, he is exceedingly rare.
- Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
- Men must especially be on their guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to him.
- For the graces of indulgences are concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man.
- They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unChristian doctrine.
- Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
- Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.
- Nevertheless, papal remission and blessing are by no means to be disregarded, for they are, as I have said [Thesis 6], the proclamation of the divine remission.
- It is very difficult, even for the most learned theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the bounty of indulgences and the need of true contrition.
[In much of what follows, Luther’s concerns echo his complaint in Thesis 39. The practice of selling indulgences sends a mixed message, he complains, and so people easily misunderstand the nature of the sacraments. In this regard, note especially Theses 40 and 41.]
- A Christian who is truly contrite seeks and loves to pay penalties for his sins; the bounty of indulgences, however, relaxes penalties and causes men to hate them—at least it furnishes occasion for hating them.
- Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.
[Beginning in Thesis 42, Luther describes his vision for the teaching program of the church. He wishes that the church clarify the true relationship of indulgences, penance, and genuine penitence. Note, however, that Luther is not yet exclusively emphasizing the priority of internal spiritual repentance. In Thesis 40, he insists that the truly contrite Christian “loves to pay penalties for his sins”—in other words, true Christians love doing works of penance.]
- Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy.
- Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
- Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties.
[This idea that works of love make a man “better” becomes a theme that Luther works out over several lines. Nevertheless, it is still important to recognize that Luther sees a spiritual benefit to works of charity.]
- Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
- Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.
- Christians are to be taught that the buying of indulgences is a matter of free choice, not commanded.
- Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.
- Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them.
- Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence-preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
- Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.
[Now, perhaps, Luther has truly “left preaching and gone a-meddling.’” Does the pope truly prefer devout prayers to the people’s money? If, as Luther supposes at this point, he truly does, then it is not at all clear to outside observers. In what follows, Luther mounts a theological argument for the relative significance of indulgences and the gospel.]
- It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.
- They are enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.
- Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.
- It is certainly the pope’s sentiment that if indulgences, which are a very insignificant thing, are celebrated with one bell, one procession, and one ceremony, then the gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.
- The treasures of the church, out of which the pope distributes indulgences, are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ.
- That indulgences are not temporal treasures is certainly clear, for many [indulgence-]preachers do not distribute them freely but only gather them.
- Nor are they the merits of Christ and the saints, for, even without the pope, the latter always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outer man.
- St. Laurence said that the poor of the church were the treasures of the church, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.
- Without want of consideration we say that the keys of the church, given by the merits of Christ, are that treasure;
- For it is clear that the pope’s power is of itself sufficient for the remission of penalties and cases reserved by himself.
- The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.
[Here in Theses 60–62, Luther argues that the “true treasure of the church” is the gospel promise of God’s glory and grace, along with the power of the keys which the church argued belonged to the pope (based upon Matt. 16:18–20). In Theses 63–66, he provides a provocative and eloquent contrast between the true treasure of the gospel and the treasure of indulgences.]
- But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last [Matt. 20:16].
- On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
- Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth.
- The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men.
- The indulgences which the demagogues acclaim as the greatest graces are actually understood to be such only insofar as they promote gain.
- They are nevertheless in truth the most insignificant graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross.
- Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of papal indulgences with all reverence.
- But they are much more bound to strain their eyes and ears lest these men preach their own dreams instead of what the pope has commissioned.
- Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed;
- But let him who guards against the lust and license of the indulgence-preachers be blessed;
- Just as the pope justly thunders against those who by any means whatsoever contrive harm to the sale of indulgences.
[As much as we Protestants today love and identify with the contrasts of Theses 65 & 66, we must not forget that Luther is not arguing (yet) that the church ought to abandon indulgences. His primary concern is that the church needs to properly teach their relative value, a value which he still sees as a real thing.]
- But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use indulgences as a pretext to contrive harm to holy love and truth.
- To consider papal indulgences so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated the mother of God is madness.
- We say on the contrary that papal indulgences cannot remove the very least of venial sins as far as guilt is concerned.
- To say that even St. Peter, if he were now pope, could not grant greater graces is blasphemy against St. Peter and the pope.
- We say on the contrary that even the present pope, or any pope whatsoever, has greater graces at his disposal, that is, the gospel, spiritual powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in 1 Corinthians 12[:28].
- To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence-preachers, is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy.
- The bishops, curates, and theologians who permit such talk to be spread among the people will have to answer for this.
- This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity.
[In Theses 82–89, Luther lists popular objections and complaints proceeding from the sale of indulgences. His concern, again, is that indulgences create unnecessary problems for those responsible to teach doctrine.]
- Such as: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.”
- Again, “Why are funeral and anniversary masses for the dead continued and Why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded for them, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?”
- Again, “What is this new piety of God and the pope that for a consideration of money they permit a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God and do not rather, because of the need of that pious and beloved soul, free it for pure love’s sake?”
- Again, “Why are the penitential canons, long since abrogated and dead in actual fact and through disuse, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences as though they were still alive and in force?”
- Again, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
- Again, “What does the pope remit or grant to those who by perfect contrition already have a right to full remission and blessings?”
- Again, “What greater blessing could come to the church than if the pope were to bestow these remissions and blessings on every believer a hundred times a day, as he now does but once?”
- “Since the pope seeks the salvation of souls rather than money by his indulgences, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons previously granted when they have equal efficacy?”
[In Theses 90–95, Luther’s rhetoric reaches a peak of emotional intensity and forcefulness. Note, however, that while he firmly rejects the improper teaching of indulgences (#90, 91), he continues to affirm the life of penitence (#94, 95).]
- To repress these very sharp arguments of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies and to make Christians unhappy.
- If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist.
- Away then with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! [Jer. 6:14].
- Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!
- Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell;
- And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace [Acts 14:22].7
Having now considered the full force of Luther’s argument, I hope that you can see how when he writes that “the entire life of believers [is] to be one of repentance” (Thesis 1), he means something quite a bit different than you or I would if we were to utter that statement.
However, Luther has now publicly identified himself in a matter of debate that addresses a core practice of the church during his time. Although he did not realize it at the time, this set him on a trajectory that would eventually lead, not only to irreparable fissure within the church of his day, but also to the complete revolution of modern European society. Tomorrow night, we will consider in more detail how Luther’s irrepressible desire for personal assurance led him to rediscover the great themes of the gospel itself. I hope you’ll join us.
Denis R. Janz, A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts With Introductions, Second Edition, 2nd Revised edition edition. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 88.↩
Rudolph W. Heinze, Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion (AD 1350-1648), ed. John D. Woodbridge et al., The Baker History of the Church 4 (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2004), 35.↩
Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 4 edition. (Malden, MA ; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 164.↩
Heinze, Reform and Conflict, 35–36.↩
ibid., , 37–38.↩
Janz, A Reformation Reader, 88.↩
From LW 31, 25–33, as provided in ibid., , 88–93.↩