It’s been almost 500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church. Yet, there are many misconceptions about what he was trying to do and what he was upset about.
First of all, Luther posted these as an invitation to debate and discussion (they were “disputations”), not as a declaration of war or separation from the Church. (His harshest words for the Pope would come later!) But secondly, what Luther objected most to were the expanded powers the Medieval Church had claimed, exploiting the ignorance and superstition of the people. For example, Luther argued that while repentance is indeed part of the whole of Christian life, the pope doesn’t offer anything other than what God offers us in Christ. Moreover, it was not the sale of “indulgences” that got Luther riled up; it was the sale of plenary indulgences. What’s the difference? Plenary indulgences offered blanket forgiveness from all penalties for all sins– even for the dead. Read Disputations 1, 6, 20-21, and 27:
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.
20. Therefore the pope, when he uses the words “plenary remission of all penalties,” does not actually mean “all penalties,” but only those imposed by himself.
21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
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.
And why was Luther concerned with this expanded power of the Medieval Church to offer “plenary indulgences”? One of the reasons was his fear that this would teach people to ignore love and acts of charity toward people in need! In other words, a Christian may begin to believe that he or she need not actually care for the poor; they could just buy an indulgence and “check the box” for their “good works.” Luther, after all, famously argued that while we are not saved by good works, we are saved for good works! Read Disuptations 41-51:
41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.
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.
43. 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.
44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man
does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed
45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him
by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but
46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need,
they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it
47. Christians are to be taught that they buying of indulgences is a matter
of free choice, not commanded.
48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs
and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.
49. Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them.
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.
51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.
Then, in a shrewd bit of logic and sarcasm, Luther says that in claiming these expanded powers, the Pope opens himself up to criticism. After all, if he had the power to empty purgatory, why not do it out of love instead of a desire for money? Read Disputations 81-82:
81. This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity.
82. Such as: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church? The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.
Finally, as Audrey Assad pointed out to me, when you read Disputations 94-95 below, it seems Luther was concerned with the assurance of peace and salvation being granted with no demands on our life. While we may have many things to say about the mistakes of the Medieval Church, this is a mistake that today many Protestants tend to drift into, no?
94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).
What parallels do you see in the Church today?
How might the Church of today– Protestant or Catholic– be in danger of repeating the mistakes of the Medieval Church?
How can we remember this day by loving the Church enough to call her– as Luther does in his final Disputations– back to following Christ?