Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the Beginning of the Reformation
According to a tradition that may be traced to the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation began on October 31, 1517. It was on this day, so the story goes, that a young Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. While the publication of the theses is remembered even in the twenty-first century, not everyone recalls how it was used by God to start an important reformation of the church. What caused Luther to write the theses? What issues do they treat? What immediate effect did the publication of the theses have? Most importantly, why is it worthwhile for us today to recall this date in history, and what is its relevance to the modern church? In reflecting upon the beginning of the Reformation, I would like to recall three things:
first, Luther’s motivation for writing the theses;
second, the significance of the contents of the theses;
and third, the consequences of their publication.
We shall conclude with some comments about the value of knowing the theses today.
The reason why Luther composed the theses was that God by the power of his Holy Spirit led him to gain an insight into Scripture that had been obscured for generations. This insight developed over time, and may have dawned as early as 1513. In that year Luther was lecturing on the book of Psalms, and he noticed that they are to be read in a Christological way. That is to say, he saw that the Psalms point to the Lord Jesus as the only one who is able to bear the wrath of God for the sin of the human race. When he read the words, “in thy righteousness deliver me” (Psalm 31:1), Luther came to understand that God’s righteous deliverance comes only through Christ. In Psalm 22:1, to give another example, he read David’s well-known words, “why hast thou forsaken me?” Looking at this Psalm from the perspective of the New Testament, Luther realized that it points to the Lord Jesus Christ, who took on himself the iniquity of us all. Seeing that this book of the old dispensation shows that the way to salvation is not via works of the law but by way of faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice, Luther began to question the emphasis which the Romanist church placed on justification by works.
By 1515 Luther was rereading the book of Romans, which impressed upon him the justice of God, according to which He clothes the sinner with the righteousness of Christ. Then Luther realized that “the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith.” Luther thus became convinced that we must acknowledge our sins and inability to be righteous in ourselves, so that we seek our salvation outside ourselves. Now these scriptural teachings may seem obvious to us, but at the beginning of the sixteenth century they were being obscured. To be sure, this “reformation discovery” needed to be developed, but at the time of writing the theses, Luther had learned that Scripture teaches a righteousness different from that taught by the church of his day. In sum, the primary cause for composing the theses was the rediscovery of important biblical doctrines.
Closely related to this theological motivation for writing the theses was Luther’s reaction to practices that had arisen from false teaching. For it was also in response to the sale of indulgences that Luther was provoked to write. You will remember that an indulgence was a paper issued by the pope in Rome, on which is stated that the bearer is granted partial or complete remission of the punishment that is due to acts of sin. Indulgences released the sinner from earthly punishment imposed by the church. During the eleventh century these indulgences were granted to people returning from crusades to the “holy land” as a token of a completed good work.
After the eleventh century the sale of indulgences was developed into a wider practice and became part of a sacrament. The sacrament of suffering the punishment for one’s sin was called penance. Following a sinful act, the believer was to develop a contrite heart which caused him to confess his sin to the priest. Upon pronouncing the remission of guilt for Christ’s sake, the priest requested an act of satisfaction. By making satisfaction, the sinner experienced the temporal punishment for the sins that had not been removed by absolution. This act, or good work, could consist of fasting, prayers, alms, endowments, or purchase of indulgences.
By 1400 such remission of temporal punishment was granted to all who paid the church for it, and after 1476 indulgences could be purchased also for the dead in the supposed realm of purgatory. While the purchase of indulgences offered salvation to the people, to the church it provided vast sums of money that were used to finance wars, major economic projects, and the like. In the areas of Germany not far from Wittenberg indulgences were sold by Albert of Brandenburg, the would-be archbishop of Mainz. Pope Leo X had required him to pay 21,000 ducats to assume the new office, and Albert, who borrowed the money from a family of bankers, planned to pay off the loan by selling indulgences. The pope permitted this arrangement, as he needed the funds to complete the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. In exchange for supporting the construction of a proper resting place for the apostles and other saints, the advertisement said, buyers obtained a full remission of all sins.
Luther, as a parish priest concerned for his flock, noticed that people travelled to the nearby town of Marburg to obtain indulgences from the one appointed to sell them, John Tetzel. Luther saw that people preferred to purchase the external sign of piety rather than to show true repentance in their hearts. Teztel’s sales were not permitted in and around Wittenberg itself, because the governor, the elector Frederik (“the Wise”) of Saxony had financial concerns of his own. In order to build a new bridge over the river Elbe, and to maintain other holdings, he required considerable sums of money. Therefore Frederik obtained his own letters of indulgence from the pope, and planned to organize a festival for 1 November, when a special sale of indulgences would be held. To make the Castle Church an attractive venue, Frederik put on display a large collection of relics. Relics, you will recall, are remnants of saints or of the objects they used; to pray or confess in their presence was considered a good work. It is reported that more than 19,000 relics were set up for viewing. Those who viewed the relics on the appointed day, and made the required contribution, would receive a full reduction in time in purgatory for themselves or others.
As the church had not developed an official teaching of penance and indulgences, Luther wished to engage fellow priests and theologians in a debate about the sacrament, and to that end wrote the ninety-five theses. The theses are statements of a perceived truth; fellow priests were to come forward with arguments and prooftexts in favour or against each statement. Thus Luther intended honestly and piously to promote the teaching of the church. But Luther hoped also to make a statement, for it was in reaction to Tetzel’s sermons announcing the sale of indulgences that he was provoked to write them. There has been some debate about the evidence for the posting of the theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31, but the consensus remains that Luther did issue them on this day. The fact that they were written in Latin shows that primarily theologians were the intended readers. Luther sent a copy of the theses to archbishop Albert, and wrote an explanatory letter to his ecclesiastical superior, bishop Jerome Schulze of Brandenburg. At the time he did not know that the theses would set into motion a re-examination of many doctrines and a popular rebellion against the Romanist church. The impact of the theses was much greater than Luther had imagined, and the question arises: what was it in the theses that caused so much reaction?
Having considered some of the causes for writing the theses, let us summarize next their contents. Unfortunately, no original text of the Ninety-five Theses Against Indulgences survives. 1 We do know that thanks to the newly invented printing press the theses quickly were multiplied and also translated into German; two copies of the theses in poster format and one in booklet form survive today. We do not have the space here to consider all ninety-five theses, and discuss only some of the most important ones, while noting others briefly. Even so, it will become clear that the contents of the theses are so significant that they may be deemed as signaling the start of the Reformation.
Thesis One reads as follows:
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Here Luther refers to Matthew 4:17 where the Lord Jesus says, “repent for the kingdom is at hand.” The Reformer interprets the text to mean not “perform an act of penance,” but to live a life that is marked by an attitude of sorrow for sin. In the Explanations of the Ninety-five Theses, published in 1518 as an unfolding of the concise statements, Luther quotes Romans 12:2 to show that repentance refers to the conversion of the heart: “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Repentance is not a sacrament, an act of confession and satisfaction, as the Romanist church seemed to teach; it is a radical change of heart which affects the entire life of the believer.
To make it clear that Matthew 4:17 is not a prooftext for the sacrament of penance, Luther posits a second thesis:
This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
While he does not say so explicitly, Luther hints at the conviction that penance is not even a sacrament. In other words, we see in its early form the criticism of one of the seven sacraments of the church; this criticism Luther later applied to other “sacraments” and the re-examination of all the sacraments became a hallmark of the Reformation. This thesis is a good example of a public statement that had greater impact later when its consequences were considered.
Having made these two claims, Luther wishes to warn the reader that true penance is important. Looking again at the text of Matthew (“repent for the kingdom is at hand”), Luther posits Thesis Three:
Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.
This important statement is included because Luther knew from Scripture’s testimony to his own conscience that it is not easy to live the life of a Christian. Yet there should be no inconsistency between our confession and our actions: one can’t claim to be a Christian and not act like one. Luther knows that the Lord Jesus also commanded believers, “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works” (Matthew 5:16); but such good works, he rightly argues, are the outward fruits of inner penance and of the working of the Holy Spirit. Luther reminds those who purchased indulgences and then lived like unrepentant people, that their outward actions should reflect inner faith.
In theses Five through Seven Luther treats the power of the pope. It should be noted that at this time Luther does not reject the office of pope altogether, but stresses its subservience to God. In theses Eight through Thirteen he advances the conviction that the church has no jurisdiction over those who have passed away. Once deceased, a person cannot be under the control of the pope or the clergy, and therefore cannot be affected by the indulgences that are bought for him. Theses Fourteen through Sixteen are equally important, for in them Luther suggests that purgatory is a creation of people’s own imagination. Indeed, he goes on to say in theses Seventeen through Twenty-Five, from the Scriptures or from reason nothing certain is known about purgatory. It follows that the indulgences granted by the pope cannot concern purgatory. Therefore, when preachers claim that indulgences free people from every punishment, they claim something about which they know nothing.
It is worthwhile at this point in the summary of the theses to observe that although ostensibly they deal with the sacrament of penance and the sale of indulgences, their significance is much greater. Indeed, they point to a questioning of the basic doctrines of justification and sanctification as taught by the Romanist church. How we are made righteous before God is the teaching of justification; during the Reformation the church learned that apart from works of the law we are righteous before God only by the instrument of faith in Christ and his merits. The letters of indulgence do not impart the grace of justification. The theses also concern the doctrine of sanctification. For it is true faith, worked by the preaching of the gospel and the operation of the Holy Spirit, that regenerates man and causes him to perform those works which God has commanded in his Word. While these biblical teachings were applied in the theses to the sacrament of penance and the sale of indulgences, in due time they would contribute to a complete reformation of doctrine and practice.
In response to Luther’s criticism of the sale of indulgences in the first twenty-five theses, the question may arise, why were indulgences so attractive? In Theses Twenty-six through Twenty-nine Luther answers by stating that the sale of indulgences is based upon human greed, and not on the proper desire to perform good works. The church was abusing the practice only for its own financial benefit. There is no biblical basis for this “sacrament,” and Thesis Twenty-seven states that:
they preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
In Theses Thirty-one through Forty-seven, Luther argues that people erroneously believe that indulgences are to be preferred over deeds of charity; but the purchase of indulgences cannot be compared to works of mercy, and it is better to give to the poor than buy letters of remission.
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.(43)
Here Luther points back to the first thesis, in which we learn that repentance implies a complete lifetime of regret for sins and working for the glory of God. Here for the first time Luther asks the question, what constitutes a good work?
Or, what is the relationship between being saved and performing such works? We see again that while the immediate point is a comparison of buying indulgences and lending to the poor, the larger implication is that good works are performed only from faith which God in his grace grants to us. The later impact – by faith alone – would deal a serious blow to the church’s teachings of good works.
Another issue in the Reformation that is broached in the theses is the importance of the preaching of the gospel, something which the Romanist church had obscured. In Theses Fifty-three to Fifty-five Luther complains that the proclamation of the gospel was being hindered by the preaching of indulgences.
They are enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others. (53)
Injury is done the Word of God, when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word(54)
These two theses, and several others, respond to the stipulation in Albert’s instructions that sermons were not to be held in a town while the indulgences were being preached there. Of course, the aim was to prevent any competition from hindering the sales. Yet Luther knew that the true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God (62). During the middle ages the notion had developed that the work of Jesus Christ and of some saints was so effective that acts of goodness had been stored up by the church in a kind of treasure-house. From this bank, if you will, one could purchase good works in the form of indulgence letters. Luther responds to this teaching with the assertion that the most valuable possession of the church is the Word of God. The proclamation of the gospel of grace is the true treasure of the church, and it cannot be replaced by the bank of indulgences. In the remaining theses Luther addresses the abuses in the preaching of indulgences (67-80) and recounts the critical reaction to the trafficking of them (81-95).
As we consider the consequences of posting the theses, we note first that the impact which they had was much greater than their contents suggest. Luther himself was surprised at their effect, for he had not conceived them as an attack against the church or the pope. Luther’s letter to the archbishop and his own later reflections reveal that he wished to correct the misunderstanding of the indulgences.
Regardless of Luther’s intention, the theses had considerable impact. In part this was due to the recently invented printing press, which served to spread the theses in German translation quickly among people who already were disenchanted with the church. More importantly, those who read the theses, both common people and the clergy, saw that there was a lot more to them than appeared at first sight. They realized that the logical conclusions to many theses directly opposed the teaching of the church about the sacraments, purgatory, the power of the pope, forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and satisfaction.
Also Luther’s own thinking progressed between 1517 and 1518. Luther was reading Hebrews at the time, and as you know, this book speaks especially of the doctrine of Christ and his redemption. He was assured that the righteousness of Christ is not acquired by our own works, but imputed through faith worked in the heart by the preaching of the gospel. Luther’s understanding increased from a reaction to the good works of indulgence to a realization that all satisfaction is obtained only by the great highpriest. A sermon entitled On Indulgences and Grace, published in 1517, shows how Luther’s thinking was developing, for in one sentence he removes the links between contrition, confession, and satisfaction. God punishes sin, the sermon concluded, and no human has the power or right to remit it.
The Heidelberg Disputation (1518)
As a member of the Augustinian order of monks, Luther had to answer to his fellow priests and superiors, and in April 1518 he was called to defend his teaching. When his supportive superior, Johann von Staupitz, called the meeting, he advised Luther to tread softly by focussing on the doctrines of sin, grace and free will. At the time people did not realize that by questioning the efficacy of penance, the Ninety-Five Theses had anticipated also a criticism of the church’s teaching of these important doctrines. So we may say that yet another consequence of publishing the theses was that Luther himself was forced to take the next logical steps in applying Scripture to other teachings of the church. He prepared another twenty-eight theses for the disputation at Heidelberg. And in them Luther develops the teaching that sinful man is incapable of performing good works. To give only one example, the third thesis posits that “although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.” 2 Papal indulgences do not effect reconciliation with God. To support this thesis with Scripture, Luther quotes Psalm 143:2, “Enter not into judgment with thy servant; for no man living is righteous before thee.” Luther argues that since the works of man are mortal sins, salvation can come only by the grace of God, which is revealed in Christ. He argues further that God reveals Himself to man through the passion and the cross of Christ; it is only by faith that this act of atonement can become part of the life of the believer. We see that in this debate the impact of the theses is being felt, for now the consequences of their conclusions were expressed.
This debate was important also for the influence the Ninety-Five Theses had upon others, for many of the younger Augustinian monks and those partial to the evangelical cause were convinced of the truth of Luther’s arguments. Most notably affected was Martin Bucer, the reformer of Strasbourg and later acquaintance of Calvin. He was impressed by the biblical evidence Luther adduced, by his courtesy and willingness to listen, and his courage. The influence of the theses was spreading.
The Hearing at Augsburg (1518)
It is not surprising to learn that Pope Leo X reacted differently to the Ninety-Five Theses. In October 1518 the Roman Council began an official trial when it sent cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate, to examine Luther at Augsburg. Luther went there knowing that those who are declared heretics face burning at the stake. Briefly put, at Augsburg Cajetan ordered Luther to recant his errors and to recognize papal authority. The interrogation was fruitless; Luther left before decisions were made about him, and quit the city before he could be arrested. Thus within a year of the publication of the theses, a rift developed between the pious monk Luther and his superiors in the church.
The conflict between Wittenberg and Rome escalated, and in the following year, 1519, Luther debated with the Romanist theologian, John Eck in Leipzig. Now Luther had the boldness to develop what was already implied in the theses, namely that the authority of the pope was limited to being a human institution without divine right. He also declared that the councils of the church had erred in the past and would do so again. Thus, like the authority of the pope, the power of the church is subject to the Bible. By the end of the year Luther also explained that penance was a non-biblical sacrament. In short, the impact of the theses was that Luther now drew the logical conclusions to many of them, and championed sola Scriptura.
In response to Luther’s daring development of the theses, the Romanist church quickened the process against him. In June 1520, Pope Leo X issues an official decree stating that he will excommunicate Luther unless he recants within sixty days. He also orders the burning of all Luther’s writings, to which the reformer responded by burning copies of the canon laws and the papal decree, thereby making the break with the pope and the Roman Catholic church. By January 1521 the pope excommunicated Luther from the church, an act which forced the secular governor, emperor Charles V, to consider burning Luther at the stake. He ordered Luther to appear before him for a final hearing in April of 1521, at the city of Worms.
The Diet of Worms (1521)
The Diet of Worms in 1521 may be seen as the climax of events started by the publication of the theses, and it demonstrates the impact which they had. At this meeting, emperor Charles V asked Luther two simple questions:
Are you the author of the works which led the pope to excommunicate you?
Are you prepared to withdraw anything in them, and so to recant your teaching?
Luther’s books had been piled on the table, and Luther’s assistant requested that their titles be read aloud. Luther responded that the books on the table and as read off were indeed his, and that he had possibly written a few more. After reflecting for a day upon the second question, Luther said that since the matter concerns his own faith, the salvation of his soul, and the Word of God, he could not recant. To quote Luther,
unless I am convinced by the testimony of the holy Scriptures or by evident rational grounds, for I do not trust the pope or the Council alone (since it is well-known that they often erred and contradicted themselves), I will be bound by the scriptural passages I have quoted. My conscience is captive to the Word of God, and I cannot and do not want to recant anything because it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand. May God help me. Amen.
While Charles V consulted about the penalty for Luther, the reformer received a special escort from Worms to a safe place where his life would not be threatened. The emperor proceeded with his edict, declared Luther a heretic, and made him an outlaw. However, Frederik the Wise, being a powerful ruler in the empire, did not act on the edict, and Luther – who had been taken to the safety of the Wartburg castle, could continue to promote the reform of the church. While there would be many more developments, we may say that the edict of Worms represents the final break between the Wittenberg reformers and the Roman church.
What, we may ask, does it benefit us to know and remember what happened on October 31? Or, what is the relevance of the theses and their impact for reformed people today? The main point of Luther’s theses was that indulgences may not be considered a sacrament of total forgiveness; while modern Protestants have little difficulty in appreciating this, they may be inclined to think that outward actions have some efficacy or arise from one’s own motivation. In other words, are we not inclined to create rules and requirements which, when we keep them, give us the feeling that we have satisfied God? It was not for nothing that the first thesis read
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Are we humbled by our sins, and is repentance a daily undertaking visible in our lives? These questions were posed in the theses, and they are relevant today.
On the other hand, do we adore God sufficiently for the grace that He has shown in sending his only Son? Do we acknowledge our inability to do any good, and realize the necessity of Christ’s intercession? To put it differently, do we have true faith, the firm conviction and knowledge that Christ has died not only for others but also for me? It will be clear, I think, that when we commemorate the Reformation we should not merely recall what God performed in history, but see the importance of his deeds for us as individuals and as a church today. As reformed believers, therefore, let us continue to reform our lives according to God’s will.