For many people, October 31 is a time to celebrate a pagan holiday that has its origins in idolatry and witchcraft. However, for others (generally of the Reformed persuasion), it is a time to commemorate the work of Martin Luther and the Reformation, as it was on October 31 that Luther pounded his 95 Theses upon the cathedral door in Wittenberg. In this blog post, I will briefly introduce how Martin Luther came to write his Theses, what the Theses taught, and the response to those Theses.
You could say that it all began while Martin Luther was travelling to Erfurt one evening. During his travels a terrible storm arose. After having one of his friends die by either lightning or a duel Luther was afraid that he would die as well. He pleaded with St. Anne to save his life, swearing that if he was saved he would become a monk. It seems it was God’s will that Luther become a monk in order for it to be proved by his own personal experience that the Roman Catholic Church offers no comfort.
Luther joined the Augustinian Order of July 16, 1505.He threw himself into the regime of a monk with his whole heart. He was extremely strict with maintaining the rules of self-sacrifice and denying himself of all earthly comfort. He would beat himself with a whip, wear rough clothing, starve himself, and sleep outside in the winter with very few clothes. One time his friends had to quickly drag him back inside before he froze to death. Although he was a monk’s monk he never received any comfort or peace for his soul. He appeared constantly at the confessional always confessing his sins. Even the minutest sins he felt compelled to confess. Finally his confessor told him to commit something worth confessing, or stop bothering him.
God in His ultimate wisdom sent Johann von Staupitz to Luther, who helped him keep his sanity. Johann was the vicar general of the monastery. He knew a great deal about the Bible’s teachings on salvation and was considered a devout mystic. Johann directed Luther to the Scriptures and the forgiveness of sins through the cross. He encouraged Luther to become a priest and to study to become a Doctor of Theology. Luther in response said, “Your honour, Mr. Staupitz, you will deprive me of my life.” Staupitz replied, “Quite all right. God has plenty of work for clever men to do in heaven” (Hanko, 1999, p. 125).
In 1507, Luther entered the priesthood. One year later he was asked to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg. In 1512, he received a Doctors Degree in Theology. He taught his students from the books of the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. Since Luther had open access to the Scriptures he began to see differences between what the Church taught and what the Bible taught. Eventually Luther came to see, by the grace of God, that salvation was by faith in Christ’s death on the cross; on which Christ suffered all the torments of hell that the elect deserve.
Luther became especially angered by the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were the Church’s easy remedy for sin. Buy a slip of paper and your sins could be forgiven! As easy as one, two, three and none of the tedious penance work. Johann Tetzel was the salesman for Indulgences during Luther’s time. He even managed to create a marketing slogan to sell them; he would call out, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” (Sears, 2010, p. 197). He also said that, “the red cross of indulgence with the papal coat of arms, when erected in the church, had as much efficacy as the cross of Christ.” Not only that, but the Indulgence he sold could by the “grace and power from the pope, that though one had corrupted the Holy Virgin Mary, the mother of God, he could grant forgiveness . . . . provided the individual put into the box the proper amount of money” (Sears, 2010, p.197). But the work of Johann Tetzel tells us what the Indulgences were really about. It was not about the church wanting to have sins forgiven. It was the church wanting money. Pope Leo’s treasuries were empty and he was building his marvelous St. Peter’s Basilica. He needed money to complete the building project, so he went to selling indulgences.
This stirred up the wrath of Luther. The members of his parish were no longer coming to him to confess their sins or coming to his sermons. They just showed Luther the slip of paper they had which told them everything was alright regarding their salvation. Luther knew this was not right and it was by no means a small issue. This was about salvation. Luther in response to the sale of Indulgences wrote his 95 Theses.On October 31, 1517 Luther pounded his Theses on the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. It was quite a common academic practice to place discussion topics and articles on the cathedral door. The Theses were meant for discussion and debate among the academics of the town. Luther says this right on the Theses, “. . . the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg. . . . Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter” (Nichols, 2002, p.23). But it did not remain a discussion among the academics; it spread to a lot more people than just that. In days the Theses were being reprinted and distributed to everyone.
Luther, in his first point of the Theses, immediately strikes a heavy blow against Indulgences. He said the believer is called to a life of repentance. Thus, he is saying that Indulgences do not encourage repentance. They encourage moral slothfulness and laxity. Christ calls us to repent. Further not just a one-time repentance, but to live an entire life of repentance.
He next attacks the supremacy of the pope, saying “the pope cannot remit any guilt, except that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s work of remission.” (Nichols, 2002, p.25) Roman Catholic theology taught that guilt could only be forgiven by God, whereas the penalty of sin could be forgiven in this life through Indulgences or paid for in purgatory. However, Indulgence preachers such as Tetzel proclaimed that Indulgences could forgive guilt.
In Article 7, of the Theses it is still apparent that Luther has not come to the truth of the Priesthood of All Believers, as he approves the use priests as mediators between God and man. Throughout Articles 14 – 24 Luther specifically attacks the abuse of Indulgences. He does this through questioning the legitimacy of buying Indulgences for those already dead. It was one of the features of Pope Leo’s Indulgence that it could forgive sins of those already dead and thus free them from purgatory.
Luther argues that the Church has no authority in death. He says that complete remission of all penalties suffered in purgatory can probably be only remitted to the most perfect i.e. the very few. (Article 23). Luther concludes this section by saying that “the greater part of the people are necessarily deceived by that . . . promise of release from purgatory.” (Art. 24)
Luther proclaims those who preach indulgences to be in error. Luther mocks the marketing jingle that was quoted previously saying that “It is certain that when the coin jingles into the money-box, greed and avarice can be increased” (Art. 28) He states that, “They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.” (Article 32). In Article 39, Luther mentions the problem that he himself was having with Indulgences, being a priest. How can one order acts of penance to be done and at the same time have a free forgiveness? It is an absurd paradox!
In Articles 42 – 51, Luther engages in what Christians should be taught about Indulgences. Rather than spending their money on Indulgences they should be giving it to the poor. He goes as far to say that those who pass a begging man to instead give their money to buy Indulgences, buy the judgment of God. (Art. 43, 45) Christian are supposed to use their money for their families first, then if they have any money left, they can buy Indulgences. (Article 46) Luther says that Indulgences are useful only if Christians are taught that they are not supposed to put their trust in them, but put their trust in God.
That Luther had not yet come to a firm opinion about the use of Indulgences is apparent. This is especially obvious in Article 71, where he says, “Let him who speaks against the truth of papal pardons be anathema and accursed!” Luther at this time still believed that there was such a thing as a useful indulgence, but vehemently condemned their abuse.
Some of the very last points on the Theses are series of questions against the Roman Catholic teachings. Such as: Why does the pope not empty purgatory if he has that power? (Article 82) Why are masses said for the dead? (Art. 83) Why does the pope not build the Basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than using the money from the poor? (Art. 86)
Initially, not much happened after Luther published his Theses. When the Pope heard of the Theses he simply considered it as a monk’s dispute. Eventually however, several meetings were called to discuss the Theses.
The first of such was the Heidelberg Disputation. This was a gathering of the Augustinian Order in 1518, to discuss the Theses. Martin Luther also used this time to challenge the churches teaching on freewill and the merit of good works. Nothing much really happened out of this besides Luther gaining several friends. One of whom was Martin Bucer who would eventually bring the Reformation to the city of Strasbourg.
After the debate Rome began to look more closely into the issue. They ordered a man named Prierio to answer the Theses. He attempted to write a tract to refute the teachings of Luther, but rather than basing his arguments on Scripture, he largely appealed to the authority of the church and its councils. He said, “Whoever does not rely on the teaching of the Roman Church and of the Roman Pontiff, as the infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures themselves derive their strength and authority, is a heretic” ((Hanko, 1999, p. 126).
Then the Pope ordered Luther to go to Rome where they could examine his views. Frederick, the Elector of Saxony, refused to let Luther go. He would become Luther’s protector throughout the Reformation. Since Luther would not go to Rome, Rome came to him through a man named John Eck in 1519.
The debate between Luther and Eck has come to be known as the Leipzig Disputation. This did not go very well for Luther. Eck was very skilled in debate and thus won the discussion. The discussion simply ended in Luther being accused of Hussitism.
All these debates eventually climaxed into the issuing of the Bull of Excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church in 1520. The Bull, called Exurge Domine (Arise of Lord), mentions one of the Pope’s favorite pastimes; hunting wild boar. The Pope calls on God to, “Arise, O Lord and judge Thy cause. A wild boar has invaded thy vineyard” (Shelley, 2008, p. 237). Almost all of Luther’s teaching were condemned and deemed heretical by the Bull. As the Bull made its way throughout Germany it received opposition. At Erfurt, the students threw copies of the Bull in the water to see if it would float. Other times the bearers of Exurge Domine had to hide because their lives were in danger. Luther himself responded by burning the Bull with the works by Roman Catholic theologians. He said, “They have burned my books, I burn theirs.” (Shelley, 2008, p. 237)
All these different responses eventually climaxed into the Diet of Worms in 1521. The Diet of Worms was a meeting of all the various dignitaries from Germany to decide once and for all what to do about Luther. Luther had a safe-conduct from Charles V. Luther later remarked, “I was fearless, I was afraid of nothing; God can make one so desperately bold, I know not whether I could be so cheerful now.” (Hanko, 1999, p. 127 – 128) Luther was not asked to defend his position, but was simply asked whether the books on the table before him were his. Luther said they were his. Next he was asked if he was willing to recant his teachings and beliefs. Luther asked for a day to consider the proposition. The Diet responded that he must reply by tomorrow. The next day as Luther was walking down the hall to the room where he was going to respond an old warrior came up to him. He told Luther, “My poor monk, thou art going to make such a stand as neither I nor any of my companions in arms have ever done in our hottest battles. If thou art sure of the justice of thy cause, then forward in God’s name, and be of good courage: God will not forsake thee” (Hanko, 1999, p. 128). Luther told the Diet the words that have become famous.
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen.”
The Diet did not receive the right number of votes to have Luther put to death and thus he was never put to death by the Church.
Luther’s stand for the truth caused a dramatic reformation in Christianity. It must be remembered however, that Luther did none of this in his own strength. It was all by the grace and providence of God. God in His ultimate wisdom gave Luther the boldness to stand against thousands and proclaim the truth that salvation is by faith alone. This Reformation Day, we should not so much hail the achievements and boldness of Luther, but we should praise and give thanks to the Lord for granting Luther that boldness. For, without the grace of God, we would be nothing but weak and sinful men, guided by this and that sinful desire. Thanks be to God for His wisdom and grace!
- Hanko, Herman. Portraits of Faithful Saints. Grandville Michigan: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1999
- Nichols, Stephen. Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2002
- Luther, Martin. The Table Talk of Martin Luther. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1979
- Sears, Barnas. The Life of Luther. Green Forest, Arkansas: Attic Books, 2010
- Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language Third Edition. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2008