On October 31, 1517, a seemingly insignificant action ignited a theological explosion in Germany that changed the course of Christianity. An obscure monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a document of ninety-five theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg. Luther contended against the selling of indulgences, basically a fund-raising scheme, a church bake sale on steroids.
The practice of Johann Tetzel, who sold indulgences to collect money for the bishop of Mainz, in particular provoked Luther’s ire. As Luther pointed out in Thesis 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.
Announcements routinely were nailed on the church door, but Luther’s went to the heart of the abuses and excesses of the Roman church. The idea of indulgences went to the heart of what it means to be forgiven and to be declared right with God, to be justifies. The first five theses set the stage:
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.
4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self, that is, true inner repentance, until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
5. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.
As a younger man, Luther had been deathly afraid of dying outside of God’s forgiveness. He would go to his priestly confessor, seeking absolution for what many would deem the most insignificant sins. He so wore out his confessor that Luther was told not to return to the confession booth till he had something worthy of confessing!
Luther, however, came to understand the reality of justification through faith alone in Christ alone. He recognized the biblical teaching that the person who repents and believes on the crucified Christ is justified, counted righteous, in the sight of God. “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).
The church’s pronouncing the forgiveness of sins not only for the one who paid the indulgence but also for deceased family members who may be undergoing punishment in Purgatory was contrary to the teaching of Scripture, so Luther protested:
36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt,11 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.
There would be much that Luther would refine about his theology, but on October 31, 1517, he placed his vocational security and even his earthly life in jeopardy in standing upon the Scriptures. When later called upon to renounce his positions, Luther responded,
Since your most serene majesty and your high mightiness require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear to me as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning— unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted—and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.
Luther would allow the Scriptures alone to determine his beliefs:
Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.