The Ninety-Five Theses
2017 is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation because 31st October 1517 marked the true commencement of this movement. On the final day of October 1517, the Augustinian Monk, who was also Doctor of Theology, in the University of Wittenberg, went to the door of the Castle Church where he was priest to nail his paper. By publishing his document, which became known as the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther was asking questions and laying down propositions as the basis for debate. The actions of Tetzel, the indulgence seller across the River Elbe, had convinced the Augustinian that the Church needed to be reformed, and so he intended to set the process in motion. Luther’s propositions were quickly interpreted as being an attack upon the authority of the Papacy by both his supporters and his enemies. Therefore, the Ninety-Five Theses were propelled into legendary status as the first salvoes aimed at the Papacy as the Reformation struggle commenced.
What then was the true significance of this document that Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church on 31st October 1517?
Let us attempt to understand the flow of spiritual arguments which runs through the ninety five propositions.
Propositions 1 -4 : The Necessity of Repentance
At the outset, Luther proclaimed that true Christianity can only exist within an atmosphere of genuine repentance:
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” (Proposition 1)
He did, however, separate true repentance from penance. This was understandable as he himself for years scrupulously practised penance, without coming to true peace because repentance had not truly been practised. His first contention, therefore was that the true Christian must turn from his sin, and that this repentance must begin in the heart, before it can be evident in the life.
Propositions 5 – 7 : Forgiveness is the Act of God Alone
In this section, he launches his first attack on the Papacy:
“The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties…” (Proposition 5)
“The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God…” (Proposition 6).
With the Pope claiming to be head of a Priestly System with claims that he could act in the place of God as Christ’s Vicar or representative, Luther’s statements were revolutionary. He was attacking the established order by claiming that only God could forgive, and that He does so apart from the Pope and his Priests. The German Monk was, in effect, showing the people how they could have a new relationship with God, much deeper and more profound than anything that had been experienced within Christianity, on a widespread scale, for hundreds of years.
Propositions 8 – 20 : Doubts About Purgatory
At the heart of the Papal System is Purgatory, where the souls of the faithful must languish until their sin is purged in flames as hot and fierce as hell itself. By offering to reduce the term in Purgatory through the penance, confession, indulgences and Masses, the Papacy exercises tremendous power over individuals. What makes this section of Luther’s theses so important is that he asks questions regarding this doctrine which had not been posed for many years and never in so public an arena.
“Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love. ” (Proposition 19)
“Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.” (Proposition 20)
Luther was beginning to apply the Scripture to the teachings of the Church. Is Purgatory taught in the Word of God? He was laying down a basis for future debate, that the Church must be subject to the authority of Scripture.
Propositions 21 – 93 : The Wickedness of Indulgences
The previous twenty propositions are preparatory for this, the main body of Martin Luther’s arguments. He was provoked into this paper by the actions of Tetzel, the indulgence vendor, and so he must state his real objections to this practice. The passion which Martin Luther felt as he penned his paper is felt, even by the casual reader of the English translation:
“They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.” (Proposition 27)
“It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased…” (Proposition 28).
“It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.” (Proposition 52).
These passionate utterances reveal the true reason why Martin Luther penned these arguments. He was concerned for the souls of men and women. He was incensed that Tetzel, supported by Leo X and Albert of Brandenburg, was offering Germans false hope. As one who had discovered true hope through God’s Grace, Luther felt obligated to expose this practise as the fraud for which it was.
Therefore, in denouncing indulgences, Luther returned to his opening remarks on true repentance:
“Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.” (Proposition 36)
One can see how the idea had taken root in Luther’s theology, that the individual can enjoy a personal relationship with God without the Pope and his Priests, because this was the state of grace that he himself enjoyed.
In the main body of his document, the German Theologian also insisted upon the primacy of the Word of God, which had been undermined by the Church.
“Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.” (Proposition 54)
From this statement, it is apparent that Luther believed that the preaching of the Word must be central because this alone reveals the mind of God and His will for our salvation:
“The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God”. (Proposition 62)
Luther, however, held out hope that Tetzel had gone beyond his remit, and that Leo X would appreciate Luther’s criticisms. At this stage, the thought of a separate fellowship outside the fold of Rome was not in the German Monk’s thinking:
“Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” (Proposition 50)
Unwittingly, however, while holding out hope for the Church, Martin Luther was attacking the Pope with venom because Leo X knew very well what Tetzel was doing, and this was the way in which the Vatican would interpret the theses.
In this section on indulgences, Luther spoke with the certainty of a prophet, a man who knew God and was convinced of truth:
“Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.” (Proposition 70)
“But let him who guards against the lust and license of the indulgence preachers be blessed.” (Proposition 71)
While the Pope claimed to speak for God, this German Monk had a greater assurance that the man who speaks for God’s Word is the one who is in the right. Therefore despite his lowly standing in the eyes of the Church, he was convinced of the unshakeable ground that underpinned these arguments. He would need this confidence, many times over, in the difficult years that lay ahead.
This section on indulgences concludes with a series of sharp and pointed questions. One can visualise his quill writing more vigorously as his mind assesses the full import of what he is writing. As he comes close to the end of his famous paper, he poses statements more thought provoking than those which he has previously written. He returns to the subject of Purgatory and Papal Authority, nailing the coffin lid on these fundamentals of the false church:
“Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” (Proposition 82)
Propositions 94 – 95 : Christ Alone
In conclusion, Luther, rather gloriously, turns the gaze of the reader, away from falsehood to Christ, who alone is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6):
“Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.” (Proposition 94)
The Christian does not need Papal remissions and papers of indulgence; Christ alone is all that the soul requires. In many respects, this was Luther’s personal testimony. He sounded this trumpet because of his commitment to Christ.
His final proposition signalled that the way ahead would not be easy because the opposition would be intense. Nevertheless, he called for supporters who were willing to stand for Christ in this battle for truth:
“And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).” (Proposition 95)
“Who is on the LORD’S side? let him come unto me.” (Exodus 32:36)
“Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
This quotation from Acts is insightful as it reveals Luther’s intentions. He may not have been aware of the full ramifications of what he was doing when he nailed his paper to the Castle Church Door at Wittenberg. He was, however, fully aware that he was attacking the full orbed power of the Papacy, which had denied the Gospel of Grace. He was setting himself on the path of Reform, intending to return the Church to the early days of the Apostles. As they suffered persecution, so he himself showed a willingness to embrace suffering in order that Christ’s cause might flourish in the world.
In these days of growing spiritual darkness, is there a people willing to stand with Christ and His truth? Can we hear the call of Christ from the lips of Moses?
“Who is on the LORD’S side? let him come unto me.” (Exodus 32:36)