Luther and his 95 Theses

October 31, 2023

Luther and his 95 Theses

In 1508 Luther was sent, by the head of his Augustine order, to Wittenberg to study theology, and at first, he thought this was ridiculous. Luther was on the verge of losing his faith, and he was enrolling in studies on Christian doctrine and practice? It sounded crazy. However, Luther would be taken back to the source of orthodoxy and orthopraxy—the Scriptures. Not many in Luther’s day were able to read the Bible, because it was in languages they did not know. Over time, he began to study the books of Psalms, Galatians, and Romans. And it was through them, Luther’s perspective on God, Christ, and himself began to change. As he studied these books, it was as if scales dropped from his eyes.

Luther’s reading of Scripture also began to alter his view of salvation, as monergistic (accomplished by God alone), rather than synergistic (the divine and human cooperating). This change caused conflict, when, in 1516, Luther began to criticize the abuse of the practice of indulgences. At this time, these were certificates granted in the name of the Pope. Upon payment and devotional duties, a person could secure time off in Purgatory, for oneself or a loved one.

One promoter of indulgences was Luther’s sovereign, Prince Fredrick of Electoral Saxony. He allegedly had nearly 19,000 bones from various early church Fathers—Jerome, Chrysostom, Augustine, and many others. He also claimed to have four strands of hair from Mary the mother of Christ, four pieces of cloth from her girdle, one bit of Jesus’ beard, one crumb of bread from the Last Supper, and much more. Those who consistently viewed these relics, on the designated days, could get indulgences that reduced one’s time in Purgatory. In purchasing this certificate, merit from Christ, or the saints of old, could be credited to the payee’s account or to another. To Luther, this kind of transaction was hogwash, and his teaching and preaching in 1516 reflected it.

Things got a lot worse when in 1516-17 Pope Leo X allowed for the sale of an indulgence in German lands, to help pay for the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The task of marketing it was given to a fiery preacher named Johann Tetzel. He was vulgar and profane at times, but he was an excellent salesman, using jingles like “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs,” He argued, the sale of one of his indulgences could even forgive the sin of someone who raped the Virgin Mary herself.       

However, he was not allowed to sell this indulgence in Fredrick’s territory. That would have taken away from the revenue the Prince obtained from his relics. Luther’s parishioners simply crossed the river and purchased Tetzel’s indulgence in nearby lands. Luther preached against such actions and then wrote a tract called A Disputation on Scholastic Theology.  It had 97 theses, which presented a detailed attack against late medieval theology. Virtually no one outside Wittenburg paid any attention to it.

Until October 31, 1517, when Luther called for a debate on the abuse of indulgences, by nailing 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. In it, Luther was not attacking the Pope. He believed the indulgence preachers were going too far. They were doing things in the name of the Roman See, and Luther assumed, if he knew, he would not approve. In addition, Luther did not anticipate his 95 Theses would cause much of a stink in the church. He saw his posting on the church door in Wittenburg as an opportunity for local discussion amongst ecclesiastical nerds. Luther was wrong, in part, because he underestimated the media of the day. Printers got ahold of his theses, made copies, sold them, translated the original into German, and marketed more.

How did Luther begin his 95 Theses?When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther started with the need for ongoing repentance. He started from the position of man’s sinfulness. He is not righteous enough to trade his ‘good works,’ in the form of indulgences, for grace from God. To do so, would cheapen divine grace (1 Pet. 1:18-19), belittle Christ’s work (1 John 2:1-2), and be inconsistent with Scripture (Eph. 2:8-9). Given man’s sin, repentance was always the place to begin, and so it is for us.

For Luther, his conviction regarding Scripture was an emerging one. The Bible alone was becoming his final authority, instead of the Pope, councils, and private interpretations. It alone, by the Spirit, was mighty to save. This is something we need to remember. God’s Word is powerful (Heb. 4:12). It declares to us the Law, which convicts, the Gospel, which comforts, and the Law again, which trains. Scripture placards before us Christ and his Cross. It gives us the hope of the resurrection and sets before us the life to come. The Spirit uses the Bible to save and to sanctify. The Word must be central to our lives. It must be central to CPC.

After the Reformation had already taken off, Luther explained how it all happened, “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise, I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer … the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all … I did nothing: I left it to the Word."

Do you want reformation in your soul and family? Do we want to see it in our church and community? The Word is what we need. Heed the phrase made popular by Augustine’s conversion, “Tolle lege, tolle lege!” “Pick up and read, pick up and read!” Or, to use another Latin phrase “Audite et accipietis, audite et accipietis.” “Listen and receive, listen and receive.” 

— Pastor Clif