This article first appeared in a special issue of the Standard Bearer on the Reformation under Martin Luther, October 15, 2016 (vol.93, #2).
The Ninety-five Theses
More than anything else, what do we need in order to live happily in this world and to die in peace? Is it not the certain knowledge that our many sins, which are so great and terrible, are forgiven by God because of the death of Christ? Is it not the assurance that after this life we will go to be with Christ because not even death can separate us from His love? All who receive this gospel of salvation through Christ by a true faith have joy and comfort in life and in death. This gospel of the glory and grace of God, which assures us of our forgiveness in Christ, was lost in the Middle Ages. But our faithful God restored it to His church in the sixteenth century through many mighty men, beginning with Martin Luther and his Ninety-five Theses.
The Evil of Indulgences
In 1517, and for many years prior to it, the people of God were robbed of the only true comfort of the gospel by men such as John Tetzel, and indeed by the entire system of Roman Catholicism. Tetzel was a Dominican monk commissioned by Albert the Archbishop of Mainz, with the support of a bull of Pope Leo X, to preach and sell indulgences. The sale of indulgences went back hundreds of years and was supported by the medieval scholastic theologians. But it developed over time from bad to worse.
Indulgences had to do with penance, one of the seven sacraments of Rome. Jesus began His earthly ministry calling men to repent (Matt. 4:17). In the Latin Vulgate, the Greek word for “repent” was translated poenitentium agite (“do penance”) and explained to be a sacrament. Penance required three actions for one to receive remission of sins: contrition, confession (to a priest), and satisfaction (by good works). God alone could forgive the eternal punishment of sin. But the church had control over temporal punishments, including purgatory. For the church to grant a man remission of temporal punishments, to shorten his suffering in purgatory, that man had to do penance, that is, be sorry for his sin, confess it to a priest, and make satisfaction by doing good works.
Enter indulgences (letters of remission). If we could ask, “What are indulgences, Sir Tetzel?”, we would hear him say, “Well, if you give money to the church, I will give you a letter on behalf of the pope that cancels some of your punishments in purgatory (or some of the punishments of your loved one who is in purgatory!). If you do not want to be bothered with doing good works, consider this: you can purchase indulgences instead of doing good works!”
And if we could respond, “How can that be, lord Tetzel?”, he would say, “Very simply, the pope, the great Vicar of Christ, has at his disposal a vast treasury filled with the superabundant merits of Christ and the saints, and he will reckon some of them to your account, if you pay! Do you want to suffer in the flames of purgatory?! How can you in good conscience enjoy your life while your dear, deceased mother is enduring the fires of purgatory?! Buy indulgences! For as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
In 1517, in nearby Wittenberg, there was a man who was beginning to see the light of the true gospel, and he was infuriated with Tetzel. Already on October 31, 1516 Martin Luther had preached a sermon warning people not to trust in indulgences. But in the Fall of 1517 he felt the need to do something more to expose this evil, by starting a public debate to bring it to an end. He wrote ninety-five theses, succinct statements against the abuses of indulgences. By this action God lit a flame that would ignite the Reformation of His church and again put the “true treasure of the church,…the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (thesis 62) into the hands of His people.
“The True Treasure of the Church…”
Luther’s Ninety-five Theses are a doctrinal treasure, yet at the same time still strangely Roman Catholic. The theses are like a diamond mined out of the earth, but still in need of refinement. Luther himself later lamented about “how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business. I was then a monk and a mad papist, and so submersed in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope.”1 At this early date, the dawn of the Reformation, “Luther had as yet no idea of reforming the Catholic Church.”2
In the Ninety-five Theses he does not condemn indulgences as such, only the abuse of them; he does not talk about justification by faith alone; he still believes in purgatory; and he still acknowledges the power and authority of the pope. For example, he writes in thesis 71, “Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.”3 In thesis 16, “Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.” Again, in thesis 50, “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.” Luther gave the pope the benefit of the doubt that he had good motives for selling indulgences.
Yet when we read the Ninety-five Theses with the benefit of knowing the doctrinal development that followed, we can see the diamond clearly enough. We see here “the mighty working of an earnest mind and conscience intensely occupied with the problem of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, and struggling for emancipation from the fetters of tradition.”4 Luther cuts through the system of his day, and lays his finger on the heart of the matter, when he writes in thesis 62, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” The true treasure is not an invisible treasury of extra merits that the pope can grant to those who pay. But the true treasure is the holy glad tidings of the grace of God in granting full remission of sins to all who repent and turn to Christ. For, as he writes in thesis 36, “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters”; and in thesis 37, “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.”
One historian writes,
Luther’s Theses stated that even the Pope had no special powers beyond those declaratory powers given to all the priesthood. God was placed once more into the foreground as “the Lord over life and death.” Once the soul had left this life, asserted Luther, no Catholic canon controlled it any longer. Religion was once more restored to a personal relationship between man and God, a spiritual inner attitude in man known only to God, between which the clergy with their sacerdotal system could not intervene.5
Thus, in reply to Tetzel’s audacious claim, Luther wrote in thesis 28, “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.”
“The Entire Life of Believers…”
Furthermore, Luther criticizes the outward show of religion in regard to penance and indulgences. In the first three theses, he writes,
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. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.
Luther was appalled at what he observed among his people in Wittenberg: the bold waving around of indulgence letters and the claim of being forgiven, while continuing in awful sins. Already on February 24, 1517 Luther preached a sermon at Wittenberg in which he “deplored the fact that people were regarding sin so lightly and that they seemed to have so little fear of punishment. He added that indulgences should perhaps be called an Ablass,6 because they permitted people to sin.”7 Luther emphasized the true meaning of repentance: when Jesus said “repent,” He meant that the entire life of believers must be an ongoing repentance, a constant changing of the mind followed by those outward mortifications of the flesh required, for example, by the apostle in Colossians 3:5.
Followed also by good works! Luther warned that “papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest the people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love” (thesis 41). “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” (thesis 43). “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” (thesis 45). Luther was not only zealous for the true doctrine of the gospel, but also for the Christian life of good works.
The Relevance of the Theses
Clearly, then, the Ninety-five Theses are powerfully relevant to us today. They call us to remember what our true treasure is, “the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” in Jesus Christ. Let us not put more value on money and what money can buy! Let us not put trust in what money can buy, as so many customers of the indulgence market did. We have a marvelous treasure in the gospel of Christ. We have the full and free remission of our sins by faith in Christ. We have the blessed assurance that after this life we are not headed to purgatory, but have a place in glory with Christ.
Moreover, the theses call us to a life of repentance and good works. Let us not be deceived. Let us not think that we can go through the motions of outward religion, sitting in church on Sunday, saying a prayer before we eat, and so on, while also indulging our sinful desires and laying up for ourselves treasures on earth. Luther shouts to us down the corridors of history, “The entire life of believers is to be one of repentance! He who gives to the poor does better than he who has an empty show of religion!”
Still more, the theses call us to take our stand on the Word of God, and to be always reforming. We do well to examine regularly, in the light of Holy Scripture, the system of doctrine and life that we call our own. We who are church leaders, let us examine whether we are preaching the Word of God faithfully, or perpetuating and developing errors. Errors develop. The idea of indulgences went from bad to worse until it became a monstrous evil. Let us learn from Luther how to be courageous, to stand and speak the truth, if need be, in the midst of overwhelming opposition.
On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Although no public debate took place in Wittenberg, as Luther had proposed in the introduction to his theses, loud voices from the Romish side strongly condemned them. But God used them to kindle a flame that would purify His church and once again display the diamond of the gospel that had been hidden for so long. Surely, the anniversary of this event, known to us as Reformation Day, is worthy of remembering and celebrating in profound thankfulness to God every year.
1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950), 157.
2 Schaff, 144.
3 All quotations of the theses are from Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Ed. Timothy F. Lull, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 21-29.
4 Schaff, 158.
5 E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times: The Reformation from a New Perspective. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), 320.
6 German word meaning “indulgence” but in the sense of “permission, tolerance.”
7 Schwiebert, Luther and His Times, 313.
Rev. Dan Holstege (Wife: Leah)
Pastorates: First, Holland, MI - October, 2010; Missionary to the Philippines - July 1, 2016Website: www.prca.org/missions/foreign/philippines
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