Luther’s Ninety-five Theses – The Open Door to the Reformation

“In vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
Matthew 15:9

Dr. Martin Luther, born on November 10, 1483, roughly ten years before Columbus discovered the “New World,” was raised by his parents in the Roman Catholic faith — in the only Christian “faith” then known in Western Europe, from Italy and Spain in the south to England in the north, from France in the west to Poland and Czechoslovakia in the east. The Eastern Church and the Byzantine Empire had been largely decimated in the onslaught of Mohammedanism by the Saracens and by the Turks; the social and technical progress of the eastern empire was essentially set back to “zero;” and the Turks were now “knocking on the back door” of Europe, hoping to add the entire continent to the Ottoman Empire. But the Western Church and the “Holy” Roman Empire were united against the Turks and were undergoing a welcome change-for-the-better, politically and socially, which set the stage positively for intellectual and technical progress in its “secular” world and for what would eventually become known as “The Reformation” in its “spiritual” world.

There was growing “nationalism” in the countries that constituted the Holy Roman Empire, so that its central, largely arbitrary, temporal power, vested in the Emperor, was gradually being eroded away. Even the Pope of Rome, with his claim of absolute spiritual power, had been openly challenged by Occam (1280-1349), Wyclif (1320-1384), Hus (1369-1415), Hieronymus (1379-1416), Savonarola (1452-1498) and others — to their own personal peril and martyrdom; and abuses in the church, both in the system itself and on the part of its princes, were being discussed and protested even by common laymen. The feudal, two-class system of the Middle Ages was failing with the rise of the merchant class and of capitalism in which cash often trumped real estate and heritage in the establishment of power. The common people, formerly no better than slaves under the old system, began to enjoy personal identity and some individual freedom. And the Renaissance or “rebirth” of things intellectual — of learning from the classical past, of curiosity born of the inquisitive mind, of exploration beyond the known shores of civilization, and of zeal to search for, to question, and even to challenge the basis of authority, both of the state and of the church — was changing the way people thought about things.

This new zest for learning in the freed-up human spirit, this new “humanism,” was being championed by scholarly men like Reuchlin (1455-1522), Erasmus (1467-1536), Colet (1467-1519), and Thomas More (1478-1536). Even Emperor Maximilian I and Henry VIII of England supported this cause and fostered this new thinking — as long as challenges did not come too close to questioning their authority. And strangely enough even the Papacy, for the sake of scholarship, the arts, and increased interest in the classical languages, seemed to be a Renaissance institution. The time was indeed ripe for “the everlasting Gospel” (Revelation 14:6) to be restored to the people from whom it had been systematically hidden for a thousand years in the “Dark Ages.”

But all of these changes in society — some good, and some not-so-good — did nothing for man’s natural condition, his totally depraved state, in the sight of God. Man was still by nature, as he was born into this world, morally bankrupt, ruined in body and soul, without righteousness, inclined only to evil, spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God. His conscience bore imperfect witness to that fact, being his natural but unreliable spiritual compass beclouded by sin after the fall of Adam and Eve; God’s written Law, as recorded in Holy Scripture, confirmed that fact in clear and undeniable pronouncements of guilt, of God’s wrath, and of impending damnation; and the church constantly reminded its people of their deplorable condition, and even compounded their guilt, by adding to their charge countless “sins” against the “commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). As a result, people either denied their guilt outright according to their new-found humanistic “freedom” and lived even more wantonly in sin than they had before, or they lived in utter despair of God’s mercy, in perpetual grief, and in hopelessness of ever escaping the wrath to come.

And, while Luther should have been able to find in visible Christendom, marked by the Gospel and the Sacraments, comfort in the forgiveness of sins and peace with God through Christ, no rest for his conscience and no peace for his tortured soul was to be found in the church of the Roman Antichrist. The Gospel had been so masked with the teachings of work-righteousness, infused grace, the exercise of free will, human merit, temporal punishment, and the intercession of saints, that salvation by grace for the sake of Christ’s merit alone was effectively suppressed (though it still existed “on paper” in the written Gospel); and “faith” was characterized as obedience to Holy Mother Church rather than confidence of the heart in the mercy of God to poor sinners for Christ’s sake without the deeds of the Law. The Sacraments, too, were perverted so as to obscure the Gospel: Baptism was represented as being effective for the remission of “original sin” and of only those actual sins committed before its administration; and the Lord’s Supper was changed into “a real, though unbloody, sacrifice of the body of Christ for the sins of the living and the dead.”

To be sure, Luther had sought forgiveness in contrition, in works of penance, in subjecting his body to abuse, in obedience to church law, yea, in devoting his life to the church’s service in a monastic order to which he pledged faithfulness in poverty, chastity and obedience. He had sought it “by the deeds of the Law (Romans 3:20); but nothing that he was able to do, nothing that he thought he would be able to accomplish, nothing to which he had been directed by “Holy Mother Church” brought him peace of mind, release from guilt, the assurance of forgiveness, reconciliation with God, the anticipation of salvation, and real joy in being a child of God.

As a beneficiary of the new interest in learning, Luther became an avid student. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Erfurt in 1502 and his master’s degree in 1505. He originally intended to become a lawyer. But a series of catastrophic events in his life, including a brush with death, the death of a close friend, a pestilence in the city of Erfurt, and the well-known lightning strike that could have killed him — all of these made him more conscious of his own mortality, more uncertain of his relationship with God, and more fearful of his eternal lot. It was then in 1505 that he decided to suspend his plans for law school and to enter an Augustinian monastery to become a monk — hopefully closer to God, hopefully able by a consecrated life to merit God’s favor, hopefully to gain peace with God and rest for his guilty conscience.

But such was not to be. In fact, Luther himself wrote that he still did not know the grace of God in Christ, the forgiveness of sins that God granted to the world for Christ’s sake, the righteousness that is personally imputed to the believer by faith in His merits — even when he earned his Doctor of Theology degree in 1512! Only by his further study of Holy Scripture, particularly of those Gospel truths disguised by Rome under heaps of false teachings, did Luther finally “come unto the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4) and to saving faith in Christ’s vicarious satisfaction as having purchased the forgiveness he so earnestly sought — even though he still had much to learn, to accept, and to confide in concerning God’s grace to sinful men.

One can easily understand, therefore, why John Tetzel’s preaching and sale of indulgences was so troubling to Luther, as he saw many of his own flock surging after Tetzel, purchasing his worthless papers, and then claiming that, since they has “plenary indulgence” from all of their sins, they did not need to repent of anything, they did not need to confess anything, they needed no forgiveness, and they certainly did not need to amend their sinful lives out of gratitude to God for His forgiveness. Tetzel’s preaching did NOT limit indulgences to the remission of temporal punishments imposed by the church — the limitation that Rome says Tetzel exceeded when he claimed that his indulgences absolved the purchasers from ALL punishments and granted to them salvation. To grant absolution and salvation for money, to merchandise the grace of God, to set the coinage of the realm and the blood of Christ at parity in their ability to purchase the forgiveness of sins, was to Luther an outrageous blasphemy.

Luther’s original intention was not to ignite a conflagration with Rome; it was not to be an “in-your-face” effrontery or insult to the Pope and a challenge to his authority; and it was not to be the gauntlet of confrontation laid down by Luther in preparation for his establishment of a new church in competition with “the one holy catholic church” that Rome fancied itself to be. Luther’s theses were simply an orderly, respectful, and quite ordinary call for the scholarly debate of “theses” or propositions arising from the system of granting indulgences as rewards for acts of dedication, for acts of piety and mercy, for acts of support for God’s Church, and eventually for contributions of monetary support for the building of St. Peter’s in Rome, and for granting indulgences as blanket absolution for sins even before-the-fact and the guarantee of heaven to the bearer.

Luther’s questions and propositions about indulgences included the following: Were such indulgences legitimate? Did the church have the authority to grant them? Were indulgences for the remission of sins or only of temporal punishments? Just how far did the power of indulgences extend? Should indulgences be earned and/or purchased, or should they be granted freely? Why should especially the poor be solicited for money when they can least afford it and when what they have is necessary for the provision of their families? Are the indulgences the “greatest graces” distributed by the Church, or do they merely promote the financial gain of the Church’s princes and funding for the Church’s projects? — And then, putting the “best construction” possible upon the Pope, whose legitimacy he then still acknowledged, Luther stated: “If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the Pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; indeed, they would cease to exist.” Surely the Pope could not countenance nor would he support the current abuse and fraud in the sale of indulgences for the remission of sin and guilt!

Luther not only had a lot to learn at that point of the teachings of Scripture regarding all those things; he also was soon to discover that the forces of Rome would be consolidated against him in defense even of the abuses that he questioned, challenged, and of which he begged relief for God’s people.

Luther’s Ninety-five Theses were scarcely a solid theological product! This is why few Lutherans have ever seen them and why few Lutheran pastors distribute them on Reformation Day for their people to read. Few of the theses set forth the principles of God according to His Word in its truth and purity! Few of them set forth the truth without the admixture of error! Few of them really challenged the Pope to stop “cold” the trafficking in indulgences. The theses were NOT Luther’s “Declaration of Independence” from Rome as some historians have characterized them! And Luther’s hammer with which he posted those theses in the customary way of attaching documents to his “bulletin board” was NOT really the oft-romanticized “gavel” whereby he called the Church to order on the basis of God’s Word. Luther’s Theses were merely his “foot-in-the-door,” as it were, his “toe-in-the-water” to gauge whether the Church of Rome would heed the Word of God; whether it would repent of its abuses; whether, truly penitent for the false doctrine it had taught, defended, and forced upon poor consciences for a thousand years, it would cling to the merits of Christ alone for forgiveness; and finally whether it would bring forth appropriate fruit by correcting its position, removing its offenses, and holding fast the form of sound words in full accord with Holy Scripture as the only source and standard of divine truth.

The real and enduring work of the Reformation came a bit later when God’s Word was recognized to be the authority over the Pope, when thetical statements were written and set forth on the basis of Scripture, not as “discussion points” but as take-it-or-leave-it declarations of Divine Truth. THAT confrontation of error and of errorists by stalwart confessors of Scripture — who refused to back down, refused to compromise the truth, refused to accommodate error, refused to recant God’s inerrant truth even at their own peril — came later: At Worms, at Marburg, at Augsburg, at Coburg, at Schmalkalden, at Leipzig — as well as everywhere the true Gospel was assailed and perverted, everywhere the power of men was pitted against the power of God, everywhere “the doctrine according to Godliness” (I Timothy 6:3) was supplanted by “the doctrines of men” (Matthew 15:9). The Reformation was a movement; it was a process; it took time; and it took growth in grace, in knowledge, in spiritual understanding, and in courage on the part of its footsoldiers — all granted by the Holy Spirit through the means of His Word, “the power of His might” — to “put on the whole armor of God” for the ability to “stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11).

The REAL Reformation was not embodied in the Ninety-five Theses of Luther but in the stalwart declaration of the confessors in 1580 — a declaration that Luther by God’s grace would have gladly and humbly subscribed with his own hand, a declaration that he had already made poetically as a paraphrase of Psalm 46 in his Battlehymn of the Reformation (TLH 262):

“We have no intention of yielding aught of the eternal, immutable truth of God for the sake of temporal peace, tranquility, and unity (which, moreover, is not in our power to do). Nor would such peace and unity, since it is devised against the truth and for its suppression, have any permanency. Still less are we inclined to adorn and conceal a corruption of the pure doctrine and manifest, condemned errors. But we entertain heartfelt pleasure and love for, and are on our part sincerely inclined and anxious to advance, that unity according to our utmost power, by which His glory remains to God uninjured, nothing of the divine truth of the Holy Gospel is surrendered, no room is given to the least error, poor sinners are brought to true, genuine repentance, raised up by faith, confirmed in new obedience, and thus justified and eternally saved alone through the sole merit of Christ.” (Triglotta, Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration XI, p. 1095.)

— D. T. M.