Many Christians have heard of Martin Luther’s declaration titled “The 95 Theses”, but unfortunately most of those persons have never actually read through the entire 16th century document. Protestants of nearly-all denominations hail it as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, but upon reading Luther’s statements and learning about the aftermath of it, the assumptions may be challenged. For one, Luther was still a strong Catholic at the time of his writing of the 95 Theses, and officially remained part of the Roman Catholic Church for 3-4 years after his challenge of the Pope and of Rome.
The papers that Luther nailed onto the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517 focus primarily on the selling of papal indulgences. An indulgence was when a monetary gift was given to a parish in exchange for the sinner to not have to serve the priest’s mandated “punishment” after the repentant sinner received his absolution of sin from the priest. And of course an indulgence granted by the Pope carried much more weight and significance than that from a priest or bishop.
One of the main problems was that many in the masses believed (wrongly) that they could somehow pay a “fee” for their sins to be forgiven. This was not the case within the Catholic Church, however it is evident that some local priests and bishops may have taught otherwise in order to fill their coffers.
The following are certain numbered statements that I’ve selected for this column, along with this writer’s comments (in italics, in paranthesis).
7. God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest.
8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to the canons themselves, nothing should be imposed on the dying. (One of Luther’s main problems was that some priests and bishops were charging monies to allegedly free the person’s deceased relatives from purgatory.)
16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.
17. It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase. (From these sentences it is clear that Luther at this time did believe in purgatory, which today is not a Protestant doctrine.)
21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
24. For this reason most people are necessarily deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty.
27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory. (This is an oft-quoted Protestant statement which begat the Reformation.)
32. Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
34. For the graces of indulgences are concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man.
36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
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.
38. 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.
41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love. (Here Luther shows his concern that many Christians in his day were misunderstanding the Church’s teachings on indulgences.)
42. 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.
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.
54. Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.
56. The true treasures of the church, out of which the pope distributes indulgences, are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ.
76. We say on the contrary that papal indulgences cannot remove the very least of venial sins as far as guilt is concerned.
84. 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?”
86. 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?”
90. 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.
91. 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.
It took the Pope 3 years to reply officially to Luther, which I am sure instigated and infuriated Martin. The response did agree with many of Luther’s statements, but demanded that Luther recant 41 of the 95 declarations within 60 days. If he would not, in writing, then Luther would be excommunicated from the Church. Luther was very disappointed and angered to read this, and he did not recant, and even went so far as to call the sitting Pope the Antichrist.
This short article will not teach all there is about Luther, or his 95 Theses. However it is my hope that any Christian, be it Protestant or Catholic, will simply read, study, and pray regarding this important historical church document. Your own faith may be questioned, but eventually should be strengthened in the process.