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  • Ninety-Five Theses

the theses of Luther against the sale of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church, posted by him on the door of a church in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517.

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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023

The 95 Theses , a document written by Martin Luther in 1517, challenged the teachings of the Catholic Church on the nature of penance, the authority of the pope and the usefulness of indulgences. It sparked a theological debate that fueled the Reformation and subsequently resulted in the birth of Protestantism and the Lutheran , Reformed , and Anabaptist traditions within Christianity.

Luther's action was in great part a response to the selling of indulgences by Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest, commissioned by the Archbishop of Mainz and Pope Leo X. The purpose of this fundraising campaign was to finance the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Even though Luther's prince, Frederick the Wise, and the prince of the neighboring territory, George, Duke of Saxony, forbade the sale in their lands, Luther's parishioners traveled to purchase them. When these people came to confession, they presented the plenary indulgence, claiming they no longer had to repent of their sins, since the document promised to forgive all their sins.

Luther is said to have posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. Church doors functioned very much as bulletin boards function on a twenty-first century college campus. The 95 Theses were quickly translated into German, widely copied and printed. Within two weeks they had spread throughout Germany, and within two months throughout Europe. This was one of the first events in history that was profoundly affected by the printing press, which made the distribution of documents and ideas easier and more wide-spread.

Text of the 95 Theses

**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.

  • 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.
  • Martin Luther
  • Reformation

External links

  • The 95 Theses in the original Latin
  • The 95 Theses in English

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def of 95 theses

Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, wrote a document referred to as 95 Theses, that changed Western Christian religion forever. What made a devout monk openly criticize the Church? What was written in the 95 Theses that made it so important? Let's look at the 95 Theses and Martin Luther!   …

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Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, wrote a document referred to as 95 Theses , that changed Western Christian religion forever. What made a devout monk openly criticize the Church? What was written in the 95 Theses that made it so important? Let's look at the 95 Theses and Martin Luther!

95 Theses Definition

On October 31, 1417, in Wittenberg, Germany Martin Luther hung his 95 Theses on the door outside of his church. The first two theses were the issues that Luther had with the Catholic Church and the rest were the arguments that he could have with people about these issues.

Martin Luther and the 95 Theses

Martin Luther intended to be a lawyer until he was stuck in a deadly storm. Luther swore an oath to God that if he lived then he would become a monk. True to his word, Luther became a monk and then completed his doctoral program. Eventually, he had his very own church in Wittenberg, Germany.

95 Theses Martin Luther StudySmarter

95 Theses Summary

Over in Rome in 1515, Pope Leo X wanted to renovate St. Peter's Basilica. The Pope permitted the sale of indulgences to raise money for this construction project. Indulgences challenged Luther's view of Christianity. If a priest sold an indulgence, then the person who received it paid for forgiveness. The forgiveness of their sins did not come from God but the priest.

Luther believed that forgiveness and salvation could only come from God. A person could also buy indulgences on behalf of other people. One could even buy an indulgence for a dead person to shorten their stay in Purgatory. This practice was illegal in Germany but one day Luther's congregation told him that they would no longer need confessionals because their sins had been forgiven through indulgences.

95 Theses Martin Luther Hammer StudySmarter

95 Theses Date

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther went outside of his church and hammered his 95 Theses to the Church wall. This sounds dramatic but historians think it probably wasn't. Luther's theses took off and were soon translated to different languages. It even made its way to Pope Leo X!

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church was the only Christian church in existence at this time, there were no Baptists, Presbyterians, or Protestants. The Church (meaning the Catholic Church) also provided the only welfare programs. They fed the hungry, gave shelter to the poor, and provided medical care. The only education available was through the Catholic Church. Faith was not the only reason people attended church. At church, they could show off their status and socialize.

The pope was extremely powerful. The Catholic Church owned one-third of the land in Europe. The pope also had power over kings. This is because kings were thought to be appointed by God and the pope was a direct link to God. The pope would advise kings and could heavily influence wars and other political struggles.

When going forward, remember how important and powerful the Catholic Church was. This will offer context to the Protestant Reformation.

The first two theses are about indulgences and why they are immoral. The first thesis refers to God as the only being who can grant forgiveness from sins. Luther was very dedicated to the belief that God could grant forgiveness to anyone who prayed for it.

The second thesis was directly calling out the Catholic Church. Luther reminds the reader that the church does not have the authority to forgive sins so when they sell indulgences, they are selling something they do not have. If God is the only one who can forgive sins and the indulgences weren't bought from God, then they are fake.

  • When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
  • This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

The rest of the theses are providing evidence of Luther's first two claims. These are written as arguing points. Luther opens the door that if anyone found fought in any of his points then they could write him and they would debate. The point of the theses was not to destroy the Catholic church but to reform it. The 95 Theses were translated from Latin to German and were read by people all over the country!

95 Theses Luther 95 Theses StudySmarter

Luther wrote the theses in a conversational tone. While it was written in Latin, this would not be for the clergy alone. This would also be for the Catholics who, in Luther's eyes, wasted their money on indulgences. Luther proposed a reform of the Catholic Church. He was not trying to strike out and create a new form of Christianity.

Martin Luther no longer believed that priests could forgive people of their sins on behalf of God. He had a completely radical idea that people could confess in prayer on their own and God would forgive them. Luther also believed that the bible should be translated into German so that everyone could read it. At this point, it was written in Latin and only the clergy could read it.

The Gutenberg Printing Press and the Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther was not the first educated person to go up against the Catholic Church but he is the first to start a reformation. What made him different? In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. This made information spread quicker than it had previously. While historians are still researching the effect of the printing press on the Protestant Reformation , most agree that the Reformation would not have happened without it.

95 Theses Effect on Europe

Luther was excommunicated from the church while the 95 Theses sparked the Protestant Reformation. This was also a political reform. It eventually took away the majority of the pope's power removing his role as a political leader and leaving him as a spiritual leader. The nobility began to break from the Catholic Church because they could then dissolve the church's landholdings and keep the profits. Nobles who were monks could leave the Catholics and get married then produce heirs.

Through the Protestant Reformation people were able to get a German translation of the bible. Anyone who was literate could read the bible for themselves. No longer did they have to rely so heavily on the priests. This created different denominations of Christianity that did not follow the same rules as the Catholic Church or each other's. This also sparked the German Peasant Revolt which was the largest peasant revolt at that time.

95 Theses - Key takeaways

  • The 95 Theses was originally a response to the sale of Indulgences
  • The Catholic Church was a social, political, and spiritual world power
  • The 95 Theses sparked the Protestant Reformation which eventually drastically diminished the power of the Catholic Church

Frequently Asked Questions about 95 Theses

--> what were the 95 theses .

The 95 Theses was a document posted by Martin Luther. It was written so the Catholic Church would reform.

--> When did Martin Luther post the 95 Theses? 

The 95 Theses was posted on October 31st, 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany.

--> Why did Martin Luther write the 95 Theses? 

Martin Luther wrote the 95 Theses so that the Catholic Church would reform and stop selling indulgences. 

--> Who wrote the 95 Theses? 

Martin Luther wrote the 95 Theses.

--> What did the 95 theses say? 

The first two theses were against the sale of indulgences the rest of the theses backed up that claim. 

Final 95 Theses Quiz

95 theses quiz - teste dein wissen.

Who wrote the 95 Theses?

Show answer

Show question

When were the 95 Theses written? 

October 31, 1517

Where was the 95 Theses posted?

Wittenberg, Germany 

When someone is removed from the Catholic church because of their actions it is called ________.


What were tokens that could be purchased by anyone that meant the buyer's sins had been forgiven?


Why did Pope Leo X allow Catholics to start back selling indulgences?

To Fund the restoration of St. Peter's Basilica

What was the first thesis about?

Only God can forgive people of their sins

What was the second thesis about?

The Catholic Church did not have the authority to forgive people of their sins

What were the third through ninety-nine theses about?

They were points that backed up the first two theses. 

What invention helped the spread of the Protestant Reformation?

What reformation was sparked by the Ninety-Five Theses?

Protestant Reformation 

Nobles broke from the Catholic Church then dissolved the Church's holdings so that they could keep the revenue.


Before the Protestant Reformation, there were plenty of denominations of Christians.

Which book did Luther translate into German that greatly influenced the Protestant Reformation?

Who did Martin Luther think that people needed to forgive their sins?

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Martin Luther and the 95 Theses

By: History.com Editors

Updated: June 6, 2019 | Original: October 29, 2009

Martin LutherMartin Luther, (Eisleben, 1483, Eisleben, 1546), German reformer, Doctor of Theology and Augustinian priest, In 1517, outlined the main thesis of Lutheranism in Wittenberg, He was excommunicated in 1520, Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Wittenberg castle church his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (31/10/1517), Colored engraving. (Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

Born in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483, Martin Luther went on to become one of Western history’s most significant figures. Luther spent his early years in relative anonymity as a monk and scholar. 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 Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds—was to spark the Protestant Reformation. Although these ideas had been advanced before, Martin Luther codified them at a moment in history ripe for religious reformation. The Catholic Church was ever after divided, and the Protestantism that soon emerged was shaped by Luther’s ideas. His writings changed the course of religious and cultural history in the West.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was born in Eisleben, Saxony (now Germany), part of the Holy Roman Empire, to parents Hans and Margaretta. Luther’s father was a prosperous businessman, and when Luther was young, his father moved the family of 10 to Mansfeld. At age five, Luther began his education at a local school where he learned reading, writing and Latin. At 13, Luther began to attend a school run by the Brethren of the Common Life in Magdeburg. The Brethren’s teachings focused on personal piety, and while there Luther developed an early interest in monastic life.

Did you know? Legend says Martin Luther was inspired to launch the Protestant Reformation while seated comfortably on the chamber pot. That cannot be confirmed, but in 2004 archeologists discovered Luther's lavatory, which was remarkably modern for its day, featuring a heated-floor system and a primitive drain.

Martin Luther Enters the Monastery

But Hans Luther had other plans for young Martin—he wanted him to become a lawyer—so he withdrew him from the school in Magdeburg and sent him to new school in Eisenach. Then, in 1501, Luther enrolled at the University of Erfurt, the premiere university in Germany at the time. There, he studied the typical curriculum of the day: arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and philosophy and he attained a Master’s degree from the school in 1505. In July of that year, Luther got caught in a violent thunderstorm, in which a bolt of lightning nearly struck him down. He considered the incident a sign from God and vowed to become a monk if he survived the storm. The storm subsided, Luther emerged unscathed and, true to his promise, Luther turned his back on his study of the law days later on July 17, 1505. Instead, he entered an Augustinian monastery.

Luther began to live the spartan and rigorous life of a monk but did not abandon his studies. Between 1507 and 1510, Luther studied at the University of Erfurt and at a university in Wittenberg. In 1510–1511, he took a break from his education to serve as a representative in Rome for the German Augustinian monasteries. In 1512, Luther received his doctorate and became a professor of biblical studies. Over the next five years Luther’s continuing theological studies would lead him to insights that would have implications for Christian thought for centuries to come.

Martin Luther Questions the Catholic Church

In early 16th-century Europe, some theologians and scholars were beginning to question the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. It was also around this time that translations of original texts—namely, the Bible and the writings of the early church philosopher Augustine—became more widely available.

Augustine (340–430) had emphasized the primacy of the Bible rather than Church officials as the ultimate religious authority. He also believed that humans could not reach salvation by their own acts, but that only God could bestow salvation by his divine grace. In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church taught that salvation was possible through “good works,” or works of righteousness, that pleased God. Luther came to share Augustine’s two central beliefs, which would later form the basis of Protestantism.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church’s practice of granting “indulgences” to provide absolution to sinners became increasingly corrupt. Indulgence-selling had been banned in Germany, but the practice continued unabated. In 1517, a friar named Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences in Germany to raise funds to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The 95 Theses

Committed to the idea that salvation could be reached through faith and by divine grace only, Luther vigorously objected to the corrupt practice of selling indulgences. Acting on this belief, he wrote the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” also known as “The 95 Theses,” a list of questions and propositions for debate. Popular legend has it that on October 31, 1517 Luther defiantly nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. The reality was probably not so dramatic; Luther more likely hung the document on the door of the church matter-of-factly to announce the ensuing academic discussion around it that he was organizing.

The 95 Theses, which would later become the foundation of the Protestant Reformation, were written in a remarkably humble and academic tone, questioning rather than accusing. The overall thrust of the document was nonetheless quite provocative. The first two of the theses contained Luther’s central idea, that God intended believers to seek repentance and that faith alone, and not deeds, would lead to salvation. The other 93 theses, a number of them directly criticizing the practice of indulgences, supported these first two.

In addition to his criticisms of indulgences, Luther also reflected popular sentiment about the “St. Peter’s scandal” in the 95 Theses:

Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?

The 95 Theses were quickly distributed throughout Germany and then made their way to Rome. In 1518, Luther was summoned to Augsburg, a city in southern Germany, to defend his opinions before an imperial diet (assembly). A debate lasting three days between Luther and Cardinal Thomas Cajetan produced no agreement. Cajetan defended the church’s use of indulgences, but Luther refused to recant and returned to Wittenberg.

Luther the Heretic

On November 9, 1518 the pope condemned Luther’s writings as conflicting with the teachings of the Church. One year later a series of commissions were convened to examine Luther’s teachings. The first papal commission found them to be heretical, but the second merely stated that Luther’s writings were “scandalous and offensive to pious ears.” Finally, in July 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull (public decree) that concluded that Luther’s propositions were heretical and gave Luther 120 days to recant in Rome. Luther refused to recant, and on January 3, 1521 Pope Leo excommunicated Martin Luther from the Catholic Church.

On April 17, 1521 Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms in Germany. Refusing again to recant, Luther concluded his testimony with the defiant statement: “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.” On May 25, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V signed an edict against Luther, ordering his writings to be burned. Luther hid in the town of Eisenach for the next year, where he began work on one of his major life projects, the translation of the New Testament into German, which took him 10 months to complete.

Martin Luther's Later Years

Luther returned to Wittenberg in 1521, where the reform movement initiated by his writings had grown beyond his influence. It was no longer a purely theological cause; it had become political. Other leaders stepped up to lead the reform, and concurrently, the rebellion known as the Peasants’ War was making its way across Germany.

Luther had previously written against the Church’s adherence to clerical celibacy, and in 1525 he married Katherine of Bora, a former nun. They had five children. Although Luther’s early writings had sparked the Reformation, he was hardly involved in it during his later years. At the end of his life, Luther turned strident in his views, and pronounced the pope the Antichrist, advocated for the expulsion of Jews from the empire and condoned polygamy based on the practice of the patriarchs in the Old Testament.

Luther died on February 18, 1546.

Significance of Martin Luther’s Work

Martin Luther is one of the most influential figures in Western history. His writings were responsible for fractionalizing the Catholic Church and sparking the Protestant Reformation. His central teachings, that the Bible is the central source of religious authority and that salvation is reached through faith and not deeds, shaped the core of Protestantism. Although Luther was critical of the Catholic Church, he distanced himself from the radical successors who took up his mantle. Luther is remembered as a controversial figure, not only because his writings led to significant religious reform and division, but also because in later life he took on radical positions on other questions, including his pronouncements against Jews, which some have said may have portended German anti-Semitism; others dismiss them as just one man’s vitriol that did not gain a following. Some of Luther’s most significant contributions to theological history, however, such as his insistence that as the sole source of religious authority the Bible be translated and made available to everyone, were truly revolutionary in his day.

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  2. Why Did Martin Luther Write “The Ninety-Five Theses?”

    Martin Luther wrote “The Ninety-Five Theses” because he was dissatisfied with several practices of the Roman Catholic Church, including the sale of indulgences, the abuse of priestly power and the power of the Pope. He also argued that fait...

  3. What Did Martin Luther Protest Against?

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  6. Ninety-five Theses

    The Ninety-five Theses (95 Theses) or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences is a list of propositions for an academic disputation written in

  7. 95 Theses

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  8. 95 Theses: Definition and Summary

    Luther opens the door that if anyone found fought in any of his points then they could write him and they would debate. The point of the theses was not to

  9. Martin Luther's 95 Theses

    Written by German theologist Martin Luther, the 95 Theses detailed Luther's opinions about the teachings of the Christian Scripture, also known as the Bible

  10. Martin Luther and the 95 Theses

    His “95 Theses,” which propounded two central beliefs—that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only

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    Luther wrote his radical “95 Theses” to express his growing concern with the corruption within the Church. In essence, his Theses called for a

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