What better way to mark the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation than to read Luther’s 95 Theses? They aren’t long. And you will find it rather surprising that these assertions criticizing the sale of indulgences proved to have such monumental consequences.
The theses do not reject the papacy. They do not deny the existence of Purgatory. They do not even reject indulgences, as such.
Scholars are not sure when Luther had his “tower experience” in which, while studying the Book of Romans, he had his gospel epiphany, that “the just will live by faith.” It may well have been after his protest of indulgences.
And yet, the sale of indulgences summed up the many interlocking problems in the medieval church that were in sore need of reforming. Most obvious is the financial corruption of Rome, including the overt oppression of the poor, who were being robbed of the little that they had–an indulgence cost about two weeks’ wages for an artisan–so that the Pope could build St. Peter’s basilica. But also we see how the Pope is exalting his authority and his power over that of God’s Word and the Gospel of Christ. We see the “treasury of the church”–the “superogatory” or extra merits of the saints that they don’t need for their salvation, which the Pope can supposedly credit to the account of Christians who buy indulgences, getting them out of Purgatory. Which Luther contrasts to the Gospel, the true “treasury of the church,” by which the infinite merits of Christ are credited to all Christians so as to grant full remission of sins.
So the theses raise issues of the nature of salvation, the locus of authority in the church, the authority of the Word of God, and the theological and moral corruption of the medieval church. No wonder the theses had the unintended effect of shaking up the church leadership. Though the deeper critiques and the fuller development of Luther’s evangelical theology would come later.
To understand what he is driving at and to make sense of some of the obscure references, read Luther’s Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, written some two years later, when he was further along in his evangelical convictions, though this is still early in that process.
A useful resource for modern readers is Kevin Armbrust’s The 95 Theses: A reader’s guide, made available by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
Also, for the context of Tetzel’s teaching–including the notion that Christians must still be punished by seven years in fire for every sin they commit, even though they have been forgiven for those sins–see our earlier post on the subject.
And if you aren’t up for reading all 95 of the Theses, in honor of the day, I offer you my favorites:
1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said “Repent”, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
27. There is no divine authority for preaching that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].
28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.
36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.
42. Christians should be taught that the pope does not intend the purchase of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.43. Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;
44. Because love grows by works of love, and a man becomes a better man; but by pardons he does not grow better, only escapes penalty.
45. Christians should be taught that he who sees a person in need, and passes him by, and then purchases pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.
46. Christians should be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep what is necessary for their own families, and should by no means squander it on pardons.
50. Christians should be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church be reduced to ashes than be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.
51. Christians should be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money.
53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who forbid the Word of God to be preached at all in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.
62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.
64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
65. Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly desired to fish for men of wealth.
66. Now, the treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they fish for the wealth of men.
79. To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.
81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it difficult even for learned men to defend the respect due the pope from false accusations, or even from the astute criticisms of the laity;
82. For example: — “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he can redeem 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.”
84. Again: — “What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow an impious man who is their enemy to buy out of purgatory the devout soul of a friend of God, when they do not allow that pious and beloved soul to be redeemed without payment for pure love’s sake or because of its need of redemption?”
86. Again: — “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealthiest of the wealthy, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?”
88. Again: — “What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does only once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?”
90. To repress these arguments and scruples 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.
92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace!
93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “the cross, the cross,” where there is no cross!
94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.
Illustration by Ferdinand Pauwels [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons