This article looks at Luther and the sacrament of penance, indulgences, and repentance

Source: Una Sancta, 1998. 4 pages.


October 31, 1517: Luther, accompanied by his friend John Agricola, leaves his monastery at Wittenberg and he walks to the other side of the town. His destination is the Castle Church. Luther has a big poster under his arm. The text of the poster is written in Latin, the language of the scholars of that time. And, arriving at the church, he nails the poster to the door.

Words that Change the World🔗

The date – October 31 is definitely not chosen at random. It is the eve of All Saints' Day. That day – November 1 will be a day of festivities. They will remember the foundation of the Castle Church. The public comes flocking from all sides. The relics of the Elector Frederick the Wise, collected in the inner part of the Castle Church, will receive a lot of attention. For adoration will be very beneficial. The visitor, who kneels and pays some (preferably much) money, will receive an indulgence and the funds of the church will do well out of this generosity dictated by fear. For the terror of the purgatory is hammered into people's heads. But now there is the opportunity to get rid of this fear. People can heave a sigh of relief. The very moment their money jingles in the box their souls will be delivered from purgatory. With the same determination as they have hammered this superstition into people's heads, Luther nails his ninety-five Thesis (topics for debate) against the sale of the indulgences to the door of the Castle Church. All the interested passersby can read: 'Disputatio pro Declaratione Virtutis Indulgentiarum', or, to say it in our language 'Disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences'. Ninety-five words that change the world. In the Thesis we find the basics of reformation, not only in church, but in society and social life as well.

Fiction or Fact?🔗

This is the way the story has been told to us. Till the sixties in our century it has been generally accepted that this historical fact marks the beginning of the Reformation. As students we had already to learn the date by heart: 'October 31, 1517: Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of the Castle Church; the Reformation begins.' In 1961, however, a catholic Luther researcher, Erwin Iserloh published a study in which he relegated to the world of fantasy the fact that Luther nailed his Thesis to the door of the church. He had several arguments to do so. It was Luther's friend and successor Philipp Melanchton who mentioned this event in one of his writings. But we also know that Melanchton was not an eyewitness of the event. He came to Wittenberg only in 1518 to become a professor at the university. The story was only told for the first time after Luther's death. Luther and his friend John Agricola had never spoken about the publication of the Thesis in this way. It is true, an announcement of upcoming disputes was regularly hung on the door of the Castle Church. So the publication of this document would be an invitation to a public debate as well. But no original copy of the Thesis has been found and the debate was never held. It is also highly unlikely that Luther would have done so. Publication of the Thesis in this way could have been interpreted as an open provocation of his superiors. And that was never Luther's intention, he only wanted to dear up some misunderstandings. Without realising however, his words stabbed the roman superstition to the heart.

One thing is sure: Luther wrote a letter to Albert, the archbishop of Mainz on 31 October 1517, enclosing a copy of the Thesis, protesting about the instructions Albert had given to the sellers of the letters of pardon. Today, the majority of Luther researchers agree that Luther did not nail his Thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on that day. But the sledgehammer blows of his words written in his Thesis are still of invaluable importance: "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite ('do penance'), willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance." (Thesis 1).

The Sacrament of Penance🔗

From the Thesis it will be dear that with Luther's opposition against the practice of the indulgences in the Roman church we get down to the very root of the reformation and Christian life.1Luther's struggle can only be understood against the background of the medieval doctrine of the sacraments. The roman church distributes grace in seven sacraments. Their believers are well looked after from the cradle to the grave. Immediately after birth they receive grace in baptism and just before death they receive the sacrament of the Extreme Unction; in between the other sacraments: Confirmation, Penance, Eucharist, Matrimony, Holy Rites. Amongst all the sacraments, the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation has an important place.

The Second Plank after the Shipwreck🔗

What is the sacrament of penance? The sacred and holy, ecumenical and general Synod of Trent says it in this way:

because God, rich in mercy, knows our frame, He hath bestowed a remedy of life even on those who may, after baptism, have delivered themselves up to the servitude of sin and the power of the devil, – the sacrament to wit of Penance, by which the benefit of the death of Christ is applied to those who have fallen after baptism ... Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as 'the second plank (of salvation) after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace'.

The Indulgences🔗

In this framework of the medieval sacrament of penance we can understand the practice of the indulgences. For 'an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.' Sinners are unable to do sufficient penance to atone their sins. For that reason it is necessary for the sinner to receive the forgiveness of sins from 'the treasury of merits', to which Christ, Mary, and the saints have contributed. The pope can distribute these merits of the saints. In earlier days for instance, people could receive an indulgence after they had put their lives at risk during the crusades. Later, financial sacrifice without any physical effort could gain an indulgence. With the money the clergy could finance the building or restoration of, for instance, churches, monasteries, hospitals. The indulgence trade assumed vast proportions. Pope Leo X sought to raise funds for the building of the St. Peter' basilica in Rome by indulgence sales. And Pope Leo had appointed Albert, the archbishop of Mainz to promote the sale of the indulgences in Germany. And archbishop Albert agreed, for he was in big financial trouble and he could have half of the benefits. The rest went to the pope in Rome. Frederik the Wise forbade the sale of indulgences in his domain, for he could sell his own indulgences linked to the relics of the Castle Church. But the citizens of Wittenberg went to other towns to buy those indulgences. And the man who took financial advantage of the situation was Johan Tetzel, who sold the indulgences of the pope in the area nearest Wittenberg.

Luther observed the bad effect of this sale of indulgences. People came to Luther to make their confession to him. But those people did not show signs of repentance for their sins. On the contrary, they produced indulgences that they had bought and obviously saw them as licenses to sin. Luther, however, declined to grant them absolution and decided to write his ninety-five Thesis and send them to the Archbishop Albert in protest of the indulgence sale. Within a fortnight Johan Grunenberg, Luther's printer, distributed printed copies, and in short time they found their way through Europe. And everyone could hear: "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite ('do penance'), willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance." (Thesis 1).

By Means of Faith🔗

The Ninety-five Thesis examined the presumptions, the value and the wisdom of the trade in indulgences.

A true Christian who is truly repentant has. remission from both the guilt and penalty of sin because he participates in the benefits of Christ (Thesis 16, 17). He has no need of letters of pardon and it is misleading to teach that buying indulgences is a good act when it is manifestly better to give the money to the poor (Thesis 41-45). At most the pope can only remit punishments imposed by the church during this mortal life (Thesis 20, 21, 24, 25); his authority cannot possibly extend beyond the grave of purgatory (Thesis 13-19, 22, 25). In any case, 'The Pope cannot remit any guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God...' (Thesis 6). Nor is there any such thing as a treasury of the accumulated merits of the saints. The 'true treasure of the Church is the holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God' (Thesis 62). And there is no more pointed question in the Thesis than in Thesis 82, if the pope can release souls from purgatory for the payment of money, 'Why does not the Pope empty purgatory for the sake of the most holy love and the supreme need of souls?' It is a fundamental mistake, says Luther, to suppose that the burden of the uneasy conscience is thrown off by performing what the church calls penance. Jesus, says the first thesis, did not say, 'Do penance', as the Latin Vulgate translation has it, but, 'Repent' and by that he meant 'the whole life of believers should be one of repentance'. It was a very grave matter indeed that sinners should be lured into a false security by the pardon-sellers. All those who believe themselves certain of their own salvation because of letters of pardon, will be eternally damned, together with their teachers (Thesis 32).

The Thesis were not intended to be a theological disquisition; they were topics for debate. So. Luther confined himself to specific points. He does not challenge the doctrine of purgatory. He does not question the scriptural basis of the sacrament of penance. He does not demand the abolition of indulgences. Nor does he mention faith and justification. But Luther's Explanation of the Ninety-five Thesis, published in August 1518, show how the Thesis are deeply influenced by his evangelical principles, as when he writes,

And this is the confidence that Christians have and our real joy of conscience, that by means of faith our sins become no longer ours but Christ's upon whom God placed all the sins of all of us. He took upon himself our sins... All the righteousness of Christ becomes ours... He spreads his cloak and covers us.2

An Ongoing Process🔗

The foundation of the Reformation had been laid. Afterwards Luther argued that the sacrament of penance lacked the visible sign and the divine institution. And he added that in the end penance is nothing else than a way and return to baptism. The truth of God's promise received in baptism remains and penance is nothing else than, with repentance, returning to this promise of God's grace, declared and sealed in baptism. Therefore Luther hates the Roman characterisation of penance as 'the second plank of salvation after the shipwreck of baptism'. Luther calls this a dangerous and false opinion. It is the infamous error that baptism can lose its power and the ship would be broken. No way! The ship will not break. God's promises are immovable and invincible. But there are people who jump from the ship into sea and are lost. They are those people who abandon faith in the promise of God and dive into sin. But the ship of God's promise remains and sails further. Those who are saved, are saved not through 'the second plank of salvation', but are carried by the whole ship of God's promise of baptism unto life. The whole life of believers should be repentance (Thesis 1). And he adds in Thesis 4: this will 'continue until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.' The dying of the old man is 'crawl into baptism and come out of it daily'. When we live in repentance, we live 'in baptism', administered only once, but whose sign and effect remains. Therefore the life of a Christian is an ongoing process of faith in God's promise of the forgiveness of sins, declared and sealed in baptism.

An Eternal Covenant🔗

We find the echo of Luther's teaching about the heart of the gospel, in our creeds and liturgical forms. The Catechism calls the true repentance 'the dying of the old nature' and 'the coming to life of the new' (LD33). The repentance extends over the whole period of life when we confess that 'even the holiest have only a small beginning of obedience' (LD44). And it is as if we hear Luther himself, when we read in Art 34 BC that 'anyone who aspires to eternal life ought to be baptised only once. Baptism should never be repeated, for we cannot be born twice. Moreover, baptism benefits us not only when the water is on us and when we receive it, but throughout our whole life.' Therefore, the catechism urges us to a lifelong and faithful use of the sacraments (LD25).

And the supernatural working of God, whereby He regenerates us, in no way excludes or cancels the use of the gospel ... For this reason the apostles and the teachers who succeeded them, reverently instructed the people concerning this grace of God ... they did not neglect to keep them, by the holy admonitions of the gospel, under the administration of the Word, the sacraments, and discipline. Canons of Dort III/IV, 17

In our struggle of faith we are really comforted when we hear in the form of baptism that 'if we sometimes through weakness fall into sins, we must not despair of God's mercy nor continue in sin, for baptism is a seal and trustworthy testimony that we have an eternal covenant with God.'


Among reformed people nobody should feel attracted to the Roman medieval sacrament of penance. But in our time, we experience a similar temptation to lock up repentance or conversion in one moment. A moment of enormous emotional experience and tension, with the danger that –consciously or unconsciously – we are beyond the stage of ongoing repentance. Due to our experience we are assured of our faith ourselves. In our faith, we are almost unassailable. The covenant of God with the gracious promise of the forgiveness of sins and the sign and seal of this in baptism will disappear. Those who are already converted are not in need of covenant and baptism. And those who think they are not converted yet have no grip and comfort. With this train of thought even the resistance to pentecostalism quickly disappears.

The teaching of Luther is still a matter of great topicality. There is no other life for a Christian than a life of repentance, i.e. the daily denial of our old nature and the daily renewal of our new nature. In the words of Luther, the God given teacher of the church: "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite ('do penance'), willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance."


  1. ^ The background of this article is found in an article from prof. J. Kamphuis (emeritus professor dogmatics of the Theological University of our Dutch sister churches in Kampen), Luther over de boete (engl.: 'Luther about repentance'), in: W. Balke ao, Luther en het gereformeerd protestanfisme (engl. 'Luther and the reformed Protestantism'), 's-Gravenhage 1982, page 183- 206. I did not give extensive notes or references, but a lot is taken from this article from prof. J. Kamphuis. I have also used several websites about the life and works of Luther: The information about the 95-Thesis. Further literature used: TJ. Boersma, Het evangelic opnieuw ontdektDe betekenis van Luther voor de reformatie van de kerk, Groningen 1983; H.F. Vos, Exploring Church History, Thomas Nelson Inc. 1994; R Tudur Jones, The Great Reformation, from Wycliff to Knox – two centuries that changed the course of history; Inter-Varsity Press 1985.
  2. ^ R. Tudur Jones, o.c. page 35f.

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