by Dr. Martin Luther, 1517

Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences by Dr. Martin Luther (1517)

Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter. In the Name our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. 1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance. 2. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests. 3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh. 4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven. 5. The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons. 6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God's remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven. 7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest. 8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying. 9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity. 10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory. 11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept. 12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition. 13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them. 14. The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear. 15. This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair. 16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety. 17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase. 18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love. 19. Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it. 20. Therefore by "full remission of all penalties" the pope means not actually "of all," but only of those imposed by himself. 21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope's indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved; 22. Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life. 23. If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest. 24. It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty. 25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish. 26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession. 27. They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory]. 28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone. 29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal. 30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission. 31. Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare. 32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon. 33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope's pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him; 34. For these "graces of pardon" concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man. 35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia. 36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon. 37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon. 38. Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission. 39. It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition. 40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them]. 41. Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love. 42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy. 43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons; 44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty. 45. 45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God. 46. Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons. 47. Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment. 48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting pardons, needs, and therefore desires, their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring. 49. Christians are to be taught that the pope's pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God. 50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter's church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep. 51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope's wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold. 52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it. 53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others. 54. Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word. 55. It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies. 56. The "treasures of the Church," out of which the pope. grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ. 57. That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them. 58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man. 59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church's poor, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time. 60. Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church, given by Christ's merit, are that treasure; 61. For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient. 62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God. 63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last. 64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first. 65. Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches. 66. The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men. 67. The indulgences which the preachers cry as the "greatest graces" are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain. 68. Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross. 69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence. 70. But still more are they bound to strain all their eyes and attend with all their ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of the commission of the pope. 71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed! 72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed! 73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons. 74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth. 75. To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God -- this is madness. 76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned. 77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope. 78. We say, on the contrary, that even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater graces at his disposal; to wit, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in I. Corinthians xii. 79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy. 80. The bishops, curates and theologians who allow such talk to be spread among the people, will have an account to render. 81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity. 82. To wit: -- "Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of 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 reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial." 83. Again: -- "Why are mortuary and anniversary masses for the dead continued, and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?" 84. Again: -- "What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul's own need, free it for pure love's sake?" 85. Again: -- "Why are the penitential canons long since in actual fact and through disuse abrogated and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in force?" 86. Again: -- "Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?" 87. Again: -- "What is it that the pope remits, and what participation does he grant to those who, by perfect contrition, have a right to full remission and participation?" 88. Again: -- "What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?" 89. "Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?" 90. To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy. 91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist. 92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Peace, peace," and there is no peace! 93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Cross, cross," and there is no cross! 94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell; 95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.

This text was converted to ASCII text for Project Wittenberg by Allen Mulvey, and is in the public domain. You may freely distribute, copy or print this text. Please direct any comments or suggestions to:

Rev. Robert E. Smith Walther Library Concordia Theological Seminary.

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Looking at Wittenberg in the Time of Martin Luther

More by justin.

people traveling in a dessert

On Saturday, October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther—a 33-year-old Roman Catholic priest and theology professor at the University of Wittenberg—stood in front of the doors to the Castle Church and nailed a paper with ninety-five theses , handwritten in Latin.

Hoping to spark an academic discussion and to effect change in the church, his first point was that Christ the Lord calls for all of life to be marked by repentance.

1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

Little did he know that this 1,576-word disputation would eventually change the course of history through a reformation of the church and the culture.

Below is an interview with Carl Trueman, who holds the Paul Woolley Chair of Church History and is professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary. Among his books is  Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015)—with a foreword by renowned Luther scholar Robert Kolb and an afterword by America’s most famous Lutheran historian Martin Marty .

But before we get to our Q&A, let’s get oriented to the town and church in 16th-century Wittenberg.

Here is a painting from Lucas Cranach the Elder, who was friends with Luther and was a significant Renaissance artist. It is from 1536, nineteen years after Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Castle Church door. The perspective of the town is from the south, across the Elbe River.

The Castle Church is highlighted below:

We can zoom into this painting to blow up just the Castle Church:

Cranach also gives us a woodcut of the Castle Church itself, with much more detail, this time from the opposite perspective of the north (facing the Elbe River). We’ve highlighted in red the door where Luther is said to have nailed his theses:

Here is what the church looks like today with the old doors superimposed over it:

The original doors were burned in 1760 during a bombardment. In 1858, bronze doors were installed that have the Latin 95 Theses inscribed upon them. So this is what you would see if you visited the site today:

And here’s a closer view:

With that, I’ll turn it over to Dr. Trueman.

What was the function of the Castle Church in the town of Wittenberg?

The Castle Church ( Schlosskirche ) of All Saints was attached to the Elector’s castle in Wittenberg and served both as a church and as the university chapel where the professors would preach and where degrees were awarded.

Was it the only church in Wittenberg?

There was another church in the town—the Stadtkirche of St. Mary’s—where Luther preached his famous Invocavit sermons on his return from the Wartburg in 1522 and which helped stabilize the reformation and consolidate his authority.

On a more sinister note, the Stadtkirche also has a famous Judensau—an anti-Jewish carving in the stone wall to warn Jews to keep out. It remains today as a reminder of Germany’s dark past.

What were Luther’s roles at this time?

Luther was a man of numerous vocations.

He was not only a monk but also a university professor. This meant that he had for some years been lecturing on books of the Bible which had caused him to wrestle with the teaching of Scripture.

But he was also a priest, which meant that he had pastoral and sacramental duties toward the people of Wittenberg and thus constantly had to ask himself how theology applied in practice to ordinary people.

This combination of theological and practical reflection fueled his questioning of Johann Tetzel’s approach to indulgences.

Had Luther ever done this before—nail a set of theses to the Wittenberg door? If so, did previous attempts have any impact?

I am not sure if he had ever nailed up theses before, but he had certainly proposed sets of such for academic debate, which was all he was really doing on October 31, 1517. In fact, in September of that same year, he had led a debate on scholastic theology where he said far more radical things than were in the Ninety-Five Theses.

Ironically, this earlier debate, now often considered the first major public adumbration of his later theology, caused no real stir in the church at all.

What was the point of nailing something to the Wittenberg door? Was this a common practice?

It was simply a convenient public place to advertise a debate, and not an unusual or uncommon practice. In itself, it was no more radical than putting up an announcement on a public notice board.

What precisely is a “thesis” in this context?

A thesis is simply a statement being brought forward for debate.

Luther was bothered by the use of “indulgences.” What was that?

An indulgence was a piece of paper, a certificate, which guaranteed the purchaser (or the person for whom the indulgence was purchased) that a certain amount of time in purgatory would be remitted as a result of the financial transaction.

At this point, did Luther have a problem with indulgences per se, or was he merely critiquing the abuse of indulgences?

This is actually quite a complicated question to answer.

First, Luther was definitely critiquing what he believes to be an abuse of indulgences. For him, an indulgence could have a positive function; the problem with those being sold by Johann Tetzel in 1517 is that remission of sin’s penalty has been radically separated from the actual repentance and humility of the individual receiving the same.

Second, it would appear that the Church herself was not clear on where the boundaries were relative to indulgences, and so Luther’s protest actually provoked the Church into having to reflect upon her practices, to establish what was and was not legitimate practice.

Was Luther trying to start a major debate by nailing these to the door?

The matter was certainly one of pressing pastoral concern for him.

Tetzel was not actually allowed to sell his indulgences in Electoral Saxony (the territory where Wittenberg was located) because Frederick the Wise, Luther’s later protector, had his own trade in relics.

Many of his parishioners, however, were crossing over into the neighboring territory of Ducal Saxony, where Tetzel was plying his trade.

Luther had been concerned about the matter of indulgences for some time. Thus, earlier in 1517, he had preached on the matter and consulted others for their opinions on the issue. By October, he was forced by the pastoral situation to act.

Having said all that, Luther was certainly not intending to split the church at this point or precipitate the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy into conflict and crisis. He was simply trying to address a deep pastoral concern.

Was Luther a “Protestant” at this point? Was he a “Lutheran”?

No, on both counts.

He himself tells us in 1545 that, in 1517, he was a committed Catholic who would have murdered—or at least been willing to see murder committed—in the name of the Pope. There is some typical Luther hyperbole there, but the theology of the Ninety-Five Theses is not particularly radical, and key Lutheran doctrines, such as justification by grace through faith alone, are not yet present. He was an angry Catholic, hoping that, when the Pope heard about Tetzel, he would intervene to stop the abuse.

So how did that act of nailing these theses to the door ignite the Reformation?

On one level, I am inclined to say “Goodness only knows.” As a pamphlet of popular revolution, it is, with the exception of the occasional rhetorical flourish, a remarkably dull piece of work which requires a reasonably sound knowledge of late medieval Catholic theology and practice even to understand many of its statements. Nevertheless, it seems to have struck a popular chord, being rapidly translated into German and becoming a bestseller within weeks. The easy answer is, therefore, “By the providence of God”; but, as a historian, I always like to try to tie things down to some set of secondary or more material causes.

The time was right for some kind of protest: anticlericalism , economic strain on all classes of society , and a growing resentment of tax money flowing south to Italy all helped to create an environment in which various groups—peasants, knights, nobility, intellectuals—all saw in Luther’s protest something with which they could sympathize.

Yet, even so, the revolutionary power of such a technical composition is, in retrospect, still quite surprising.

So what happened after he nailed the theses to the church door?

As to what happened next, well, the debate (ironically) did not.  But the theses were translated into German and within weeks were circulating throughout Saxony. They became a popular rallying point of protest, despite the fact that most of the readers would not really have understood them.

Procedurally, Albrecht of Mainz, the bishop responsible for this specific indulgence sale, sent an official complaint to Rome but, in an era of slow communication, this took time to arrive.  This bought Luther precious months to continue to develop his theology.

The next big event is really the Heidelberg Disputation, which took place at a regular chapter meeting of the Augustinian Order in April 1518.  It was there that Luther was really able to put his emerging theology on public display.

How important was the printing press in spreading Luther’s reforms?

The printing press is crucial. For the first time in history, news and ideas can be transmitted in a stable form across vast areas of land and throughout populations.

Of course, most people could not read. But Reformation pamphlets often had graphic (sometimes even pornographic) woodcuts which communicated even to the illiterate who were the good guys and who were the bad.  Thus, we have the possibility of mass movements and of the arrival of “popular opinion.”

Cheap print also fueled the rise of literacy, which was to be vital in the spread and establishment of Protestantism in the long term.

For those today who want to read the 95 Theses, what would you recommend?

The place to start is probably Stephen Nichols’s edition (with an introduction and notes).

Nevertheless, if you really want to understand Luther’s theology, and why it is important, you will need to look beyond the Ninety-Five Theses. Probably the best place to start would be Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church .

For Trueman’s recommendations on reading about the life of Luther, see this post for his recommended biographies.

This is a historically informed painting by Greg Copeland  (courtesy of Concordia Publishing House ) and can be found in Paul Maier’s excellent book for older kids, Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World .

Many thanks to animator and creative director Jorge R. Canedo Estrada for help with the graphical help on the city and church in Wittenberg.

Justin Taylor is executive vice president for book publishing and publisher for books at Crossway. He blogs at Between Two Worlds and Evangelical History . You can follow him on Twitter .

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Other Blogs

October 31, 1517: Luther’s 95 Theses Appear

Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg is one of the iconic images of the Reformation. In this essay, historians Volker Leppin and Timothy Wengert examine the best evidence for and against this famous story. In either case, it is correct to say that Luther posted the 95 Theses on October 31, 2017: that is the date listed on the cover letter that he mailed—posted—to local German bishops. 

Essay: “Sources for and Against the Posting of the Ninety-Five Theses” by Volker Leppin and Timothy Wengert, LQ 29 (2015), 373-398. All essays linked in this timeline are offered solely for personal and educational usage.

Text of 95 Theses

Image: Text of 95 Theses

Video: Timothy Wengert, “The Reformation: 500 Years Later"

August 29, 1518: Philip Melanchthon Arrives in Wittenberg

Philip Melanchthon’s addition to the University of Wittenberg in 1518 marked the beginning of Reformation partnership that lasted for more than a quarter of a century. In this reflection on his career, Heinz Scheible introduces readers to Melanchthon and corrects many of the misunderstandings that surround Luther’s longtime colleague and the Praeceptor Germaniae (teacher of Germany). 

Essay: “Luther and Melanchthon” by Heinz Scheible, LQ 4 (1990), 317-339.

Philip Melanchthon (colored woodcut, 1577)

Image: Colored woodcut of Philip Melanchthon (dated 1577) included into a German version of Melanchthon’s 1536 Loci Communes, rare book collection of Wartburg Theological Seminary. Photo by Martin Lohrmann, used with permission. 

June 13, 1525: War and Marriage

Amid the tumult of the Peasants War of 1524/25, Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora in a private ceremony in June 1525, a marriage which he viewed as an affirmation of life amid perilous times. Martin and Katie were married over twenty years, until the reformer’s death in 1546. Their relationship was characterized by mutual love and respect. In this essay, Martin Treu describes Katharina’s many major contributions to the Reformation.

Essay: “Katharina von Bora: The Woman at Luther’s Side” by Martin Treu, LQ 13 (1999), 156-178.

“Kattarina Lutterin” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526

Image: “Kattarina Lutterin” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526

June 25, 1530: Presentation of Augsburg Confession 

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V invited his protesting subjects to defend their faith at the 1530 imperial meeting in Augsburg. Composed primarily by Philip Melanchthon, the Augsburg Confession remains foundational for the preaching and teaching of Lutheran churches around the world today. Author Eric Gritsch (d. 2012) was a longtime professor of church history at Gettysburg Seminary and a noted ecumenical theologian. 

Essay: “Reflections on Melanchthon as Theologian of the Augsburg Confession” by Eric Gritsch, LQ 12 (1998), 445-452.

The Diet of Augsburg

Image: The Diet of Augsburg

September 1534: Publication of the German Bible

In a project that began with Luther’s translation of the New Testament (1522), the entire German Bible was published in September 1534. Though it often carries the name “the Luther Bible,” this translation was the work of a team whose members included Luther, Melanchthon, Caspar Cruciger, Johannes Bugenhagen, Justus Jonas, Matthäus Aurogallus, and Georg Rörer. Here Birgit Stolt studies Luther’s great ability to communicate both meaning and feeling. 

Essay: “Luther’s Translation of the Bible” by Birgit Stolt, LQ 28 (2014), 373-400.

Title page to 1541 edition of the German Bible

Image: Title page to 1541 edition of the German Bible

February 18, 1546: Death of Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s death in early 1546 occurred just as new challenges were developing for Lutherans: the Roman Catholic Council of Trent had just begun and Emperor Charles V was about to declare war against his Protestant subjects. In this context, Luther’s longtime colleague Johannes Bugenhagen preached a funeral sermon, which recognized the community’s grief and announced the same gospel that Luther spent his life sharing. 

Essay: “A Christian sermon over the body and at the funeral of the venerable Dr. Martin Luther, preached by Mr. Johann Bugenhagen Pomeranus, doctor and pastor of the church in Wittenberg,” translated by Kurt K. Hendel. 

Image: Martin Luther 

September 25, 1555: The Peace of Augsburg

Although Emperor Charles won the Smalcaldic War in 1547, an uprising organized by Moritz of Saxony in 1552 eventually brought about the Peace of Augsburg, which granted legal status to the faith of the Augsburg Confession within the Holy Roman Empire for the first time. On the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whose region, their religion), local nobility or city councils could choose to embrace Reformation teachings and practices. As examined in this essay by James Estes, Luther had laid the practical and theological groundwork for this cooperation between church and state as early as 1520.

Essay: “Luther on the Role of Secular Authority in the Reformation” by James Estes, LQ 17 (2003), 199-225.

Elector Moritz of Saxony, by Lucas Cranach the Younger

Image: Elector Moritz of Saxony, by Lucas Cranach the Younger

Later 1500s: Reformations outside Germany

From its outset, the Lutheran Reformation was an international movement. Reforms often included translation of the Bible into vernacular languages and new church orders that described how local communities would live out their gospel faith. Lutheran communities especially took root around Germany, Eastern and Central Europe, and Scandinavia. A taste of this diverse witness appears in this essay by Luka Ilić on the “Slovenian Luther,” Primus Truber.

Essay: “Primus Truber (1508-1586): The Slovenian Luther,” LQ 22 (2008), 268-277.

Primus Truber, woodcut by Jacob Lederlein, 1578

Image: Primus Truber, woodcut by Jacob Lederlein, 1578

June 25, 1580: Publication of the Book of Concord

On the fiftieth anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, German Lutherans published the Book of Concord as a way to affirm their faith and close an era of theological controversy. Its contents include the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s catechisms, and the Formula of Concord by second-generation reformers. From a Lutheran Quarterly issue dedicated to the publication of a new English edition of the Book of Concord, Irene Dingel examines the extent to which the Book of Concord met its goals.

Essay: “The Preface of The Book of Concord as a Reflection of Sixteenth Century Confessional Development” by Irene Dingel, LQ 15 (Winter 2001), 373-395.

Image: Title page to a 1580 edition of the Book of Concord, rare book collection of Wartburg Theological Seminary. Photo by Martin Lohrmann, used with permission.

1599: Philip Nicolai Publishes the “King and Queen of Chorales”

Congregational singing quickly became a hallmark of Lutheran worship, with early Reformation hymns composed already in the 1520s by people like Elizabeth Cruciger, Paul Speratus, and Luther himself. In 1599 the pastor Philip Nicolai published a pastoral work for plague survivors and included two hymns with it: Wachet Auf (Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying) and Wie Schoen Leuchtet (O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright), honored respectively with the titles “the king and queen of chorales.” The following essay introduces this Lutheran love of music: “Luther on Music.”

Essay: “Luther on Music” by Robin A. Leaver, LQ 20 (2006), 1-21.

“Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” by Philipp Nicolai

Image: “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” by Philipp Nicolai

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses Are 500 Years Old. Here’s Why They’re Still Causing Controversy

Five hundred years ago , on Oct. 31, 1517, the small-town monk Martin Luther marched up to the castle church in Wittenberg and nailed his 95 Theses to the door, thus lighting the flame of the Reformation — the split between the Catholic and Protestant churches. Luther’s act is taught as one of the cornerstones of world history, and remains a lasting symbol of resistance five centuries later.

But that’s not actually what happened — or at least that’s the argument of some historians, even as the Protestant world celebrates the anniversary.

“The drama of Luther walking through Wittenberg with his hammer and his nails is very, very unlikely to have happened,” says Professor Andrew Pettegree, an expert on the Reformation from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. “The castle church door was the normal noticeboard of the university. This was not an act of defiance on Luther’s part, it was simply what you did to make a formal publication. It would probably have been pasted to the door rather than nailed up.”

Peter Marshall would go even further. A historian of the Reformation at Warwick University, England, he believes there’s a strong case to be made that the Theses were never posted at all, and that the story was invented to suit the political needs of people who came later. “The incident was first recorded nearly 30 years after,” he says. “Luther himself never mentioned it. There was very little discussion of the nailing of the Theses before the first Reformation anniversary of 1617.”

In 1617, with the Thirty Years’ War on the horizon, a local ruler in the Rhineland area had the idea of organizing a centenary celebration to drum up Protestant solidarity, to increase his chances in the forthcoming fight with the Catholic Habsburgs. “It’s a very good example of history being made because of a current need to create a historical event,” says Pettegree, with an air of admiration.

But even if 2017’s big quincentenary isn’t quite what it seems, the legend that has grown up around the story of Luther nailing his Theses to the church door follows a precedent of historical events that have been remembered differently from the way they actually happened.

Memorials, whether state-led, socially constructed or personal, often do more than simply commemorate an anniversary.

Over the centuries, that 1517 date has been seen in a number of different ways. During the 400th anniversary in 1917, for example, the First World War was raging. At that time, Marshall says, Germans saw Luther’s posting of the Theses “as a quintessentially German and nationalist action — he was ‘ unser Luther ‘, our Luther.” That idea, in turn, was used to bolster German nationalism and morale during the war.

Over the following decades, the image was co-opted for different political ends. “The Nazis also appropriated the imagery of the posting of the Theses for their own purposes,” Marshall adds. “They saw themselves overthrowing a corrupt old order.”

Ironically, Luther would have hated to be seen as the calculating revolutionary who overthrew the old order, and most historians agree he wasn’t looking to start a “Reformation” in 1517. “Luther always thought of himself as a good Catholic,” Pettegree insists.

Today it’s the Catholic and Lutheran churches, more so than nation states, that are taking the memory of 1517 in their hands. This time last year, on the 499th anniversary, Pope Francis joined leaders of the Lutheran World Federation in Sweden to hold a joint service in a spirit of unity after 500 years of division. “We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another,” he told the congregation.

Both churches are keen to use the anniversary to signal a definitive break with the past — another example of the way a memorial can be used for any number of ends.

“I suppose the danger with anniversaries is that they can serve to reinforce myths and entrenched narratives of the past, rather than encourage us to look afresh at historical events and processes,” Marshall says. “And there’s been a fair amount, especially in Germany, of uncritical celebration of the ‘achievements’ or ‘legacies’ of the Reformation — tolerance, liberal democracy, freedom of expression, scientific rationalism. All things Luther would have hated!”

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The 95 theses of Wittenberg. At the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation

In October 1517, Martin Luther set down his famous Wittenberg theses and began his reformation. This article closes the 500th anniversary and complements the dossier devoted to the subject in the April issue.  

Wittenberg Town Hall Square.

500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Luther published 95 theses in the city of Wittenberg, which today is also called "Luther's city" ( Lutherstadt ). In this way the young university professor wished to invite a scientific discussion on indulgences, as was usual in his time, but also to oppose points of Catholic doctrine.

How to save yourself?

As we enter the church in Wittenberg, a few words remind us of Luther's central message: " Salvation cannot be earned, neither by works, nor by sacraments, nor by indulgences. Believers are saved only through divine grace. No one can act as mediator between God and men, neither the Pope nor the Church. ". How does Luther arrive at this statement which summarily describes his doctrine?" We are pure matter. It is God who is in charge of the form; everything in us is worked by God. ". This affirmation, nuclear in his theology, has been maturing in him since his beginnings as professor of theology at the newly founded University of Wittenberg.

Luther's conversations with his spiritual director, John Staupitz, had a great influence on his theological thinking, although he would later separate from him, radicalizing his position. From him he learned to unite exegesis with dogmatic theology under the aspect of what both mean concretely, according to him, "for us", pro nobis and not so much in itself. 

Years later he would state: "I don't care what Jesus Christ is in himself, I only care about what he represents to me." . His whole doctrine will be reduced to the purely soteriological question; he is only interested in being able to answer this question: what must I do to be saved? 

In 1513, shortly after succeeding Staupitz as professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, Luther states that his doctrine The new theological approaches had begun thanks to the impulses received from him (cf. Volker Leppin, Die fremde Reformation. Luthers mystical Wurzeln , Munich, 2016, p. 46).

From there, he develops his theology, understanding the justification of the sinner from the famous "theology of the sinner". alone/us : Solus Christus, Sola gratia, Sola fide, Sola Scriptura. This radical affirmation of "only" implies that man cannot contribute anything of his own to his salvation. Not even blameless conduct, an exemplary life, a life of prayer or a search for God could change the divine will. Therefore, Luther concludes, " in case we do not belong to the group of the elect, we would irremissibly slide down the road to eternal damnation". .

In one of his famous "after-dinner conversations" ( Tischreden ), Martin Luther reflects aloud on what triggered his decision to post the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church on October 31, 1517. The Dominican John Tetzel had been commissioned by the Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht, to preach on the importance of indulgences for salvation. According to Luther, "Tetzel said nothing but true barbarities: indulgences would reconcile us with God and this would happen even in the case of lack of contrition and even without having done penance... These fantasies forced me to intervene". . In his opinion, the preachers of indulgences did so without taking into account the difference between the remission of guilt and the remission of penalties for sins, as evidenced by the ironic phrase often attributed to Tetzel: "At the ringing of the coin in the trunk, the soul from fire to paradise flies." . For the simple people, the confusion was widespread and theology did not help to provide a clear solution. These confusions led the theologian Luther to go public.

Indulgences

It is well known that Luther, as a young man, with his scrupulous conscience, thought he was committing a mortal sin if he skipped any of the mild monastic rules and customs or any of the rubrics of the liturgy. 

But where his scrupulosity was most manifest was in his restless and uneasy conscience. He was never at peace with himself, and he wanted to know for sure whether he was in God's grace or in sin. Well, now he reacts ardently to the confusion on the subject of indulgences, which seemed to him to be a swindle. These are his words: "Those who preach to simple people the entrance into heaven through indulgences are actually leading them to hell. The Pope himself should also be protected for contributing to these heresies." . 

The harm produced by the granting of indulgences consisted in the fact that the people, ignorant and rude, sometimes attended not so much to repentance and internal contrition as to the external work required, manifesting even more fear for the penalty than for the guilt. It was one of the many dangers of false religiosity against which Luther rightly protested, as had other Catholic preachers before him: Luther was not the first to criticize the traffic or sale of indulgences.

To counteract this situation, and with the pretense that they would serve as a basic manuscript for scholarly discussion, he published the 95 theses. According to the Protestant historian Volker Reinhardt (cf. Luther der Ketzer, Rom and the Reformation Munich, 2016, p. 67), today some experts again accept that Luther did indeed nail down the theses, as his fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon had claimed. At the same time he published a letter to Archbishop Albrecht, whom he considered to be the cause of the whole problem because of the assignment given to Tetzel to preach on the efficacy of indulgences. He accuses him of incompetence, especially for contributing to the confusion among the simplest people. 

Indeed, a dangerous consequence was the mixing of the spiritual with the economic, as happened when the ecclesiastical authorities realized that the granting of indulgences could become a copious source of income to build cathedrals, hospitals or bridges. The spiritual aspect of the granting of indulgences became even more obscure when great bankers, such as the Fuggers of Augsburg, intervened in the business, advancing credits to the Holy See in exchange for receiving an important percentage in the collection of indulgences.

Complexity of the problems

If we turn our attention to the content of the 95 theses, we can come to a first conclusion: we can recognize with Luther that the most relevant thing is not to look at the Christian's exterior satisfaction, but at his interior contrition. But Luther will go further by affirming that, if there is contrition, the penitent no longer needs to go to the confessor. The advice of John Staupitz and the readings of the mystic John Tauler affirmed that the penitent would not need to confess immediately if he makes a sincere act of contrition and there is no confessor at that moment; but Luther radicalizes this thought and affirms that the sinner would no longer need to confess his mortal sins orally. 

In the first thesis we can read: "Jesus Christ has said, "Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand"." and in the second: "These words are not to be interpreted as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, to that penance with oral confession and satisfaction which is performed thanks to the priestly ministry." . Already in them Luther eliminates at a stroke all priestly mediation between God and man. The practical consequence after having read the second thesis would be clear: "If penitence is understood in the biblical sense, the important thing is only repentance and not confession with the mouth or satisfaction with works." According to the Lutheran doctrine, the action of the priest between God and the sinner would not be necessary.

A difficult character

Martin Luther strongly rejected the abuses and errors of Tetzel's preaching and protested with absolute sincerity. But even if the theological doctrine of indulgences - considered in theology a complement to the sacrament of penance - had been preached with the greatest possible theological clarity, it could not fit into Luther's head, for from 1514 to 1517 the foundations of his Lutheran theology had been forged in his mind. Luther did not admit the merit of the good works of the saints or the value of satisfaction, and held, instead, that only by inner penitence and trust in Christ does one obtain full remission of guilt and punishment. He abhorred holiness by works. With his 95 theses he wanted to move the high dignitaries of the Church to sincere penance, but by means of polemical discussion and with the aim of annihilating indulgences and implanting Lutheran theology.

Before beginning the exposition of the 95 theses, Luther writes that he wrote them out of love for the truth and with the desire to clarify it. However, in the fifth thesis he polemicizes against the Pope: "The Pope will not and cannot remit penalties other than those he imposed at his discretion or according to the canons." . In the 20 thesis specifies: "What the Pope means by plenary indulgence is not the remission of all penalties at all, but only of those imposed by him." . There is also no lack of irony in the wording of some of his theses, such is the case of number 82: "Why does the Pope not empty purgatory, given his most holy charity and the utmost need of souls?".

A careful reading of the 95 theses allows us to appreciate the complex and tormented character of an author full of contradictions, of a pious monk who uses his rhetorical knowledge of sharp antitheses with humanistic knowledge, and at the same time is quick to use expressions of low human level. He describes himself on one occasion as tragic, nostrae vitae tragoedia .

Subjectivism

To conclude, let us recall the statements of Joseph Lortz, a world-renowned expert on Luther's life and writings. 

Lortz argues that while Luther had a deep knowledge of the Bible, he became a victim of his own subjectivism. In his efforts to understand what salvation means, he interpreted Holy Scripture in his own way and according to his own needs. He made selective use of biblical texts and often reduced the biblical message to simple formulas.

According to Lortz, Luther saw himself as an " prophet in isolation "and so he ventured, like the prophets, to interpret the biblical revelations according to his own needs. As a result, he did not always manage to grasp the fullness of the biblical messages.

His message, therefore, is not easy, and leads through complex paths to the Protestant vision of life and faith.

International University of La Rioja (UNIR)

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1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

Book of Concord

We Believe, Teach, and Confess…

95 Theses (1517)

Editor’s introduction.

1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

By dr. martin luther (1517).

Published in:

Works of Martin Luther: Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et Al., Trans. & Eds. (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol.1, pp. 29-38

Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.

In the Name our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

  • Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
  • This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.
  • Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.
  • The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
  • The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.
  • The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.
  • God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.
  • The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
  • Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
  • Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.
  • This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.
  • In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
  • The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.
  • The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.
  • This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.
  • Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.
  • With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.
  • It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.
  • Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it.
  • Therefore by “full remission of all penalties” the pope means not actually “of all,” but only of those imposed by himself.
  • Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;
  • Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life.
  • If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest.
  • It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty.
  • The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.
  • The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.
  • They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].
  • It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.
  • Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.
  • No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.
  • Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare.
  • They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.
  • Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him;
  • For these “graces of pardon” concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man.
  • They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia.
  • Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
  • Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.
  • Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission.
  • It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition.
  • True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].
  • Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.
  • Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.
  • Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;
  • Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.
  • Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.
  • Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.
  • Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment.
  • Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting pardons, needs, and therefore desires, their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring.
  • Christians are to be taught that the pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.
  • Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.
  • Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.
  • The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.
  • They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.
  • Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.
  • It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.
  • The “treasures of the Church,” out of which the pope grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.
  • That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them.
  • Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man.
  • St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church’s poor, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.
  • Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church, given by Christ’s merit, are that treasure;
  • For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient.
  • The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
  • But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.
  • On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
  • Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches.
  • The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.
  • The indulgences which the preachers cry as the “greatest graces” are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain.
  • Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross.
  • Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.
  • But still more are they bound to strain all their eyes and attend with all their ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of the commission of the pope.
  • He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!
  • But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!
  • The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.
  • But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.
  • To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God — this is madness.
  • We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.
  • It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope.
  • We say, on the contrary, that even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater graces at his disposal; to wit, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in I. Corinthians xii.
  • To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.
  • The bishops, curates and theologians who allow such talk to be spread among the people, will have an account to render.
  • This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.
  • To wit: — “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of 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 reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.”
  • Again: — “Why are mortuary and anniversary masses for the dead continued, and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?”
  • Again: — “What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul’s own need, free it for pure love’s sake?”
  • Again: — “Why are the penitential canons long since in actual fact and through disuse abrogated and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in force?”
  • Again: — “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?”
  • Again: — “What is it that the pope remits, and what participation does he grant to those who, by perfect contrition, have a right to full remission and participation?”
  • Again: — “What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?”
  • “Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?”
  • To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy.
  • If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist.
  • Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!
  • Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!
  • Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;
  • And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.

1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

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Martin Luther Might Not Have Nailed His 95 Theses to the Church Door

By: Becky Little

Updated: September 1, 2018 | Original: October 31, 2017

Dr Martin Luther, 1483-1546

October 31 isn’t just Halloween , it’s also Reformation Day —the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in Germany in 1517. His theses challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, and sparked the historic split in Christianity known as the Protestant Reformation . But 500 years later, scholars aren’t sure that the most dramatic part of the tale is true.

The new consensus is that he mailed his theses to an archbishop on October 31, but he probably didn’t nail them to the door to drive the point home.

The reason this is such a big deal is because the image of Luther nailing his 95 Theses to a church door is one of the main historical events people associate with the Reformation. Yet in a recently published book, 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation , Reformation historian Peter Marshall   argues that Luther probably didn’t deliver his theses so theatrically. And according to Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article on Martin Luther’s influence, much of the latest scholarship agrees that the event likely didn’t happen.

“Not only were there no eyewitnesses; Luther himself, ordinarily an enthusiastic self-dramatizer, was vague on what had happened,” Acocella writes . “He remembered drawing up a list of ninety-five theses around the date in question, but, as for what he did with it, all he was sure of was that he sent it to the local archbishop.”

Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church

The fact that he might’ve mailed his theses rather than nailing them to the church door, while perhaps a bit disappointing, doesn’t change their impact. In the theses, Luther condemned the church’s selling of “indulgences,” which was based on the the idea that people could buy forgiveness for their sins. Instead, he argued that humans could only reach salvation through faith, and that the Bible, not the clergy, was the foremost religious authority. 

These ideas shaped a new branch of Christianity, called Protestantism. Broadly defined, Protestants make up 37 percent of the world’s 2.18 billion Christians, according to the Pew Research Center.

True or not, the iconic image of Luther defiantly nailing his theses to a church door continues to reverberate as a symbol of religious freedom. In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. , echoed its symbolic power by placing a list of his demands on the door of the Chicago City Hall. It’s even become something of a meme: The Simpsons once aired a Halloween episode in which Lisa accidentally creates a functioning society in a petri dish, and excitedly observes that “one of them is nailing something to the door of the cathedral.”

The delivery method of the 95 Theses is not the only aspect of Luther’s life that scholars are reexamining. Historians have also been delving into his brutal anti-Semitism. In addition to the theses, Luther wrote a book called On the Jews and Their Lies , in which he posited that Jews were a menace to Germany. Scholar Dietz Bering , whose new book explores Luther’s anti-Semitism, told Public Radio International that Luther advocated burning Jewish synagogues and homes, confiscating Jewish money, forcing Jewish people into servitude, and expelling Jewish people from Germany.

Many of his fellow Protestants rejected these ideas at the time, but in the early 20th century, the Nazi Party would use them to demonstrate that anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany. Speaking on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that Luther’s anti-Semitism is part of his theological legacy, and should never be glossed over, reports the Times of Israel .

“That is, for me,” Merkel said, “the comprehensive historical reckoning that we need.”

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Martin Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses

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  • Historical Events and Milestones
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Martin Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses

On October 31, 1517, a momentous event took place in the small town of Wittenberg, Germany. That would ignite a theological and cultural revolution—the posting of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church. This act, seemingly simple at the time, had profound implications, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

What Were the Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517?

Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, also known as the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” were a list of propositions or arguments challenging the practices of the Catholic Church, particularly regarding the sale of indulgences. In essence, Luther questioned the idea that individuals could purchase their salvation through monetary contributions to the Church.

The Ninety-Five Theses encompassed various theological points, but their core message revolved around the belief in salvation by faith alone, rather than through external works or financial contributions. Luther’s theses laid the foundation for what would become the theological principles of Protestantism.

What Caused 1517 Luther to Post His 95 Theses on the Church Door at Wittenberg?

Several factors contributed to Martin Luther’s decision to post the Ninety-Five Theses:

  • Indulgences Controversy : Luther was deeply troubled by the sale of indulgences, which promised the remission of sins and a reduction in time spent in purgatory in exchange for monetary donations. This practice had become a major fundraising tool for the Church.
  • Theological Convictions : Luther’s growing theological convictions led him to challenge what he saw as unbiblical practices within the Church. His studies of the Bible had led him to the conclusion that salvation was a gift from God, received through faith alone.
  • Desire for Debate : Luther initially intended the Ninety-Five Theses to spark a scholarly debate within the Church. He sought to engage in a theological discussion about the sale of indulgences and related matters.

What Did Luther Nail to the Castle Church of Wittenberg Door in 1517?

While the popular image depicts Martin Luther dramatically nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door. Historical evidence suggests that the specific act of nailing may not have happened in the dramatic fashion often portrayed. Instead, Luther likely sent the theses to the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, Albert of Brandenburg, as well as posting them in the customary manner for academic debates, which included placing them on the church door.

The act of posting the theses on the church door served as an invitation for academic and theological discussion, which was common practice in the university town of Wittenberg.

What Did Martin Luther’s 95 Theses Say?

The Ninety-Five Theses covered a range of theological and ecclesiastical issues, but their central themes included:

  • Indulgences : Luther criticized the sale of indulgences and questioned the Pope’s authority to grant them.
  • Faith and Salvation : Luther emphasized that true repentance involved a transformation of the heart and a reliance on God’s grace for salvation. He argued that salvation was based on faith alone, not on deeds or contributions to the Church.
  • Theological Challenges : Luther challenged the Church to engage in a theological debate on these matters. Expressing his desire for clarity and reform within the Church.

The Ninety-Five Theses, written in Latin, were quickly translated into German and spread throughout Europe, thanks to the newly invented printing press. They ignited a theological firestorm, prompting widespread discussions and controversy.

The Impact of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses

The posting of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. A religious and cultural movement that profoundly reshaped Western Europe. Here’s how Luther’s action transformed the world:

  • Religious Transformation : The Protestant Reformation led to the establishment of Protestant denominations, including Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism, as alternatives to the Catholic Church.
  • Religious Freedom : The Reformation contributed to the development of the idea of religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
  • Printing Revolution : Luther’s ideas spread rapidly thanks to the printing press, making information more accessible to a wider audience.
  • Cultural Impact : The Reformation influenced art, literature, music, and education, leaving an indelible mark on Western culture.
  • Political Changes : The Reformation had political repercussions, including the Wars of Religion and the emergence of nation-states.

In conclusion, Martin Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517, was a pivotal moment in history.

Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses was not merely an isolated incident. It was a seismic shift that challenged the entrenched religious order of the time. Luther’s critique of the sale of indulgences and his emphasis on salvation by faith alone triggered a chain reaction of theological transformations. These developments ultimately set the stage for profound changes in Western culture and society.

As we reflect on this historic event, we cannot help but recognize its enduring significance. Martin Luther’s act of dissent transcended his time and place, shaping the very foundations of modern Western thought and belief. The ripple effects of his actions continue to resonate today, reminding us of the power of one individual’s courage and conviction to spark change on a global scale.

For a deeper exploration of this topic, you can visit Britannica’s page on the Ninety-Five Theses .

Martin Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses

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The Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther October 31, 1517, Wittenberg, Germany 1 The Ninety-Five Theses The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences Posted: October 31, 1517 The Eve of All Saints Day Castle Church Wittenberg, Germany

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Reformation Day, annually occurring on October 31, honors Luther's posting of his 95 Theses on the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. This holiday is largely exclusive to Protestants as a commemoration of the origin of the Protestant Reformation.

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The Protestant Reformation was an event that began long before Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. Voices of criticism against the established Church grew into a chorus during the centuries leading up to the Ninety-Five Theses. The key complaints were the Avignon Papacy, the doctrine of infallibility, papal avarice, simony, the Papal Schism, the sale of indulgences, veneration of the saints and of relics, and ideas regarding the Eucharist and the Church’s emphasis on works rather than faith. Luther’s writing of the Ninety-Five Theses simply provides historians a convenient starting point, if one can exist, of what we now call the Protestant Reformation. However, Luther’s bold action was actually a reaction. Rather than credit, or blame, Luther for starting the Reformation, one might more accurately place such credit or blame on the Church itself. It was the fundraising plans of Leo X and Albrecht of Brandenburg, the salesmanship of Johann Tetzel, and the reaction Luther received for questioning their actions that sparked the Reformation. Luther’s introduction of the Ninety-Five Theses by nailing them to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, according to the traditional account, was a reaction to an ecclesiastical and political situation that caused the opposing sides to unavoidably collide. Church officials painted themselves into a corner, which in turn cornered Luther, who struck back.

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Historical background to the Heidelberg disputation On Halloween 1517 the instigator of the Protestant Reformation posted 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg in the context of a proposed theological debate he wished to organize. It is thought to be around this time that Martin Luder changed his name to Luther, ostensibly so that it might resemble the Greek word for freedom (elutherius), probably also in view of what his original family name meant in his native tongue. The 95 theses had focussed on the practice of clergy selling indulgences, being certificates believed to reduce the temporal punishment in "purgatory" for sins committed by the purchasers or their loved ones. I won't expand on that here but in an earlier post I showed that although the burning away of dross for the purpose of purification and punishment is a biblical concept, it cannot be measured in earthly time or degree. The practice of believers doing penance or contributing money to alleviate post-mortem suffering cannot be traced back beyond the beginning of the 2 nd millennium. By the middle ages it had become a profitable business: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs", a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel, papal seller of such indulgences having been tasked with raising money for rebuilding St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Such practices and their doctrinal/biblical basis were clearly open to question. Dr Luther, by that time a highly regarded monk who had risen to become Professor of moral theology at Wittenberg university believed that at the very least the matter should be debated. What further aspirations he had at that point of challenging the authority and teaching of the Catholic Church or breaking away from her are also a matter for debate, but the following year the theological scope of his enquiry was broadened, and that is where the 28 theses come in. These are set out below (my highlighting) and can be verified HERE , for some may not entirely believe what they are reading:

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This document study gives a brief historical account of Martin Luther's 95 Theses and exposits sections of it in a concise manner. Luther's transition from priesthood to professor, without his knowledge, would remarkably change his life, and, the entire Christendom.

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Martin Luther 95 Theses

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

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On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his now-famous 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

This was not an act of defiant vandalism but was instead a fairly common occurrence for inviting academic discussion. The 95 points that Luther wished to have discussed are not all equally controversial. Many are rather mundane, some are difficult to understand in our time, and still others would not even be held by Luther himself in later years. Nevertheless, this event and the results of it are what lead to the Protestant Reformation.

These are the words that sparked the Reformation:

Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.

In the Name our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.

3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.

4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

5. The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.

6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.

7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.

Door at Castle Church in Wittenberg

8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.

9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.

10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.

11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.

12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.

13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.

14. The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.

15. This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.

16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.

17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.

18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.

19. Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it.

20. Therefore by “full remission of all penalties” the pope means not actually “of all,” but only of those imposed by himself.

21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;

1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

Meet Martin Luther, the audacious Reformer who, out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, set the world ablaze. In this volume, Drs. R.C. Sproul, Stephen J. Nichols, and thirteen other scholars and pastors examine his life, teaching, and enduring influence.

22. Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life.

23. If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest.

24. It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty.

25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.

26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.

27. They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].

28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.

29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.

30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.

31. Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare.

32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.

33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him;

34. For these “graces of pardon” concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man.

35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia.

36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.

37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.

38. Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission.

39. It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition.

40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].

41. Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.

42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;

44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.

45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.

46. Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.

47. Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment.

48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting pardons, needs, and therefore desires, their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring.

49. Christians are to be taught that the pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.

50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.

51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.

52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.

53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.

54. Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.

55. It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.

56. The “treasures of the Church,” out of which the pope. grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.

57. That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them.

58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man.

59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church’s poor, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.

60. Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church, given by Christ’s merit, are that treasure;

61. For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient.

62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.

64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.

65. Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches.

66. The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.

67. The indulgences which the preachers cry as the “greatest graces” are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain.

68. Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross.

69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.

70. But still more are they bound to strain all their eyes and attend with all their ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of the commission of the pope.

71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!

72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!

73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.

74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.

75. To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God — this is madness.

76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.

77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope.

78. We say, on the contrary, that even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater graces at his disposal; to wit, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in I. Corinthians xii.

79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.

Copy of Martin Luther's 95 Theses

80. The bishops, curates and theologians who allow such talk to be spread among the people, will have an account to render.

81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.

82. To wit: — “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of 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 reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.”

83. Again: — “Why are mortuary and anniversary masses for the dead continued, and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?”

84. Again: — “What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul’s own need, free it for pure love’s sake?”

85. Again: — “Why are the penitential canons long since in actual fact and through disuse abrogated and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in force?”

86. Again: — “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?”

87. Again: — “What is it that the pope remits, and what participation does he grant to those who, by perfect contrition, have a right to full remission and participation?”

88. Again: — “What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?”

89. “Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?”

90. To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy.

91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist.

92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!

93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!

94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.

Learn More about Martin Luther:

  • The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther (Free eBook)
  • The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther by Steven Lawson (Book)
  • The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (Video lecture from Steven Lawson)
  • Martin Luther: Lessons from His Life and Labor (Sermon from John Piper)

This English translation of Luther’s 95 theses is from Works of Martin Luther, ed. and trans. by Adolph Spaeth, et al.

The main blog image was painted by Greg Copeland is from Paul Maier’s Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World .

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Clayton Kraby

Hi, I'm Clay. I created ReasonableTheology.org to explain sound doctrine in plain language and help make theology more accessible for the everyday Christian. Thanks for stopping by!

Although I am not a Christian, in fact, I’m not religious, I have a keen interest in theology and I acknowledge there is a spiritual dimension to life. A very vague term, I realize…

I have always wanted to read the theses of Luther. They are astonishing! This man was certainly brave; he must have known he was putting himself in grave danger. And I can feel the breath of his righteous anger and indignation across the centuries.

All religion aside, he speaks here for the common man against the hypocrisy and greed and self-serving justifications of the clergy. He speaks truth to power, in other words.

My favorite is #45: “Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.” And how relevant still.

Thank you for the chance to read these.

Thanks, David. Luther certainly showed bravery in standing up against the doctrinal error of his day. There is a new documentary on Luther you may find interesting: https://www.lutherdocumentary.com/

Thanks for reading and commenting!

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IMAGES

  1. Half a millennium away: Martin Luther’s 95 theses 500 years on

    1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

  2. PPT

    1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

  3. October 31, 1517: Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg

    1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

  4. Always Reforming

    1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

  5. Luther: Theses, 1517. /Nthe 95 Theses Which German Religious Reformer Martin Luther Nailed To

    1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

  6. Martin Luther (1483-1546). German reformer. Luther hanging his 95 Stock Photo: 69346562

    1517 luther 95 theses wittenberg

VIDEO

  1. Lutherstadt Wittenberg

  2. Ansturm zum Reformationstag

  3. Reforming Faith: Martin Luther's 95 Theses

  4. #Reformationstag 2017 in Wittenberg

  5. Der Beginn der Reformation in Wittenberg

  6. Margot Käßmann besucht die Synode der EKHN

COMMENTS

  1. Ninety-five Theses

    The Ninety-five Theses ( 95 Theses) or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences [a] is a list of propositions for an academic disputation written in 1517 by Martin Luther, then a professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany.

  2. Ninety-five Theses

    Ninety-five Theses, propositions for debate concerned with the question of indulgences, written (in Latin) and possibly posted by Martin Luther on the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church), Wittenberg, on October 31, 1517. This event came to be considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. ( See Researcher's Note .)

  3. Martin Luther posts 95 theses

    On October 31, 1517, legend has it that the priest and scholar Martin Luther approaches the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nails a piece of paper to it containing the...

  4. PDF The Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther October 31, 1517, Wittenberg

    Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father, Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place.

  5. Martin Luther and the 95 Theses

    But in 1517 Luther penned a document attacking the Catholic Church's corrupt practice of selling "indulgences" to absolve sin. His "95 Theses," which propounded two central beliefs—that the...

  6. 95 Theses

    by Dr. Martin Luther, 1517 Martin Luther - Project Wittenberg Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences by Dr. Martin Luther (1517) Published in: Works of Martin Luther: Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et Al., Trans. & Eds. (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol.1, pp. 29-38 _______________

  7. Martin Luther's 95 Theses

    Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place.

  8. 1517 Luther Posts the 95 Theses

    Sometime during October 31, 1517, the day before the Feast of All Saints, the 33-year-old Martin Luther posted theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The door functioned as...

  9. The 95 Theses and their Results (1517-1519)

    Background From 1514 Luther was not only theology professor at Wittenberg University but also the priest at the City Church in Wittenberg. So he was also responsible for the salvation of his parish. Luther observed that many people in Wittenberg were not coming to him for confession any more.

  10. Looking at Wittenberg in the Time of Martin Luther

    On Saturday, October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther—a 33-year-old Roman Catholic priest and theology professor at the University of Wittenberg—stood in front of the doors to the Castle Church and nailed a paper with ninety-five theses, handwritten in Latin.

  11. Luther's 95 Theses (1517) · BookOfConcord.org

    Luther's 95 Theses (1517) Editor's Introduction: The Ninety-Five Theses, composed originally in Latin, were posted by Martin Luther on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517.

  12. 1517-1617

    Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg is one of the iconic images of the Reformation. In this essay, historians Volker Leppin and Timothy Wengert examine the best evidence for and against this famous story.

  13. Martin Luther's 95 Theses: How the World Will Mark 500 Years

    The date was Oct. 31, 1517, and Luther had just lit the fuse of what would become the Protestant Reformation. His list of criticisms, known as the 95 theses, would reverberate across world history ...

  14. Martin Luther's 95 Theses

    These complaints are now called the 95 Theses. On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Church of Wittenberg and sent copies to the higher authorities of the Catholic ...

  15. Did Martin Luther Nail His 95 Theses to the Church Door?

    Five hundred years ago, on Oct. 31, 1517, the small-town monk Martin Luther marched up to the castle church in Wittenberg and nailed his 95 Theses to the door, thus lighting the flame of...

  16. The 95 theses of Wittenberg. At the beginning of the Lutheran ...

    The 95 theses of Wittenberg. At the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation EN Support us Subscribe Articles: 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Luther published 95 theses in the city of Wittenberg, which today is also called "Luther's city".

  17. 95 Theses (1517)

    It was put up in the 19th century as a memorial. The theses were originally hand-written, but very quickly were printed and distributed throughout Europe. Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences by Dr. Martin Luther (1517) Published in: Works of Martin Luther:

  18. Martin Luther Might Not Have Nailed His 95 Theses to the ...

    October 31 isn't just Halloween, it's also Reformation Day —the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in Germany in 1517. His...

  19. www.luther.de: Legends about Luther: 95 Theses

    Legends about Luther: Nailing the 95 Theses. October 31, 1517: Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg with hammer strokes which echoed throughout all of Europe. This act has been portrayed numerous times thoughout the centuries, and until the 21st century it was accepted as fact.

  20. Martin Luther's 95 Theses

    Martin Luther 's 95 Theses of 31 October 1517, although they have since come to represent the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, were not written to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church but were simply an invitation to clergy to debate any or all of the propositions listed.

  21. Martin Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses

    On October 31, 1517, a momentous event took place in the small town of Wittenberg, Germany. That would ignite a theological and cultural revolution—the posting of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church. This act, seemingly simple at the time, had profound implications, sparking the Protestant Reformation. What Were the Ninety-Five […]

  22. The Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther October 31, 1517, Wittenberg

    Reformation Day, annually occurring on October 31, honors Luther's posting of his 95 Theses on the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. This holiday is largely exclusive to Protestants as a commemoration of the origin ... 1517, Wittenberg, Germany Theses #15 - 82 are the core arguments by 26. The pope does very well ...

  23. Covenant Pres OKC on Instagram: "Presbyterians celebrate the tradition

    1 likes, 0 comments - covpresokc on October 29, 2023: "Presbyterians celebrate the tradition that grounds their faith on Reformation Sunday. It is alway..."

  24. Joshua West on Instagram: "Happy Reformation Day! On October 31st in

    On October 31st in the year 1517 Martin Luther nailed his paper called "..." Joshua West on Instagram: "Happy Reformation Day! On October 31st in the year 1517 Martin Luther nailed his paper called "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," also know as the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.

  25. Martin Luther's 95 Theses

    On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his now-famous 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This was not an act of defiant vandalism but was instead a fairly common occurrence for inviting academic discussion. The 95 points that Luther wished to have discussed are not all equally controversial.