The significance of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses to the Lutheran Reformation
“Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” —II Peter 3:18
As a youth, Luther was brought up by his devout Catholic parents, Hans and Margareta, in a very austere home with strict training and stern discipline, though not “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) centered in the Gospel. In spite of their meager financial circumstances, Luther’s parents were determined to provide their children, Martin and his six siblings, with a good education. So, as a young child, he attended the local Latin school in his hometown of Mansfeld, where his father was a copper miner. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to a kind of middle school in Magdeburg, about 43 miles to the north, where he and his schoolmates sang in the streets of the city to earn money for their room and board; and after a year there he was moved by his parents to Eisenach, about 150 miles southwest, where his mother had relatives, in hopes that they would be of some financial assistance to the youngster. Sadly the help never materialized, but the young Luther was befriended by a wealthy lady in the city who specially appreciated Luther’s singing voice and pleasant personality and took him into her home. In 1501 he went to study at the University of Erfurt, where as a diligent student he earned his bachelor’s degree in only one year and his master’s degree three years later, intending at his father’s urging to become a lawyer. Up to this point, Luther’s early years were rather unremarkable and typical of other young men preparing for a “professional” career. But, according to the course that the Lord had set for him, his life was about to take a decidedly different turn, for his own spiritual welfare and, as it turned out, for the great blessing of God’s people.
For us Lutheran Christians, most of whom grew up educated by pious parents (Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Ephesians 6:4) and taught by orthodox pastors “in the Word and doctrine” (I Timothy 5:17), it is difficult to imagine Luther’s spiritual life as a young man — brought up as “a faithful son of the [Roman Catholic] Church” in the darkness of ignorance, as a stranger to the Scriptures, in fear of God’s wrath and of Christ the Judge, and devoid of the peace and joy afforded to us by the precious Word of the Gospel. Both by the attacks of his own conscience and by the distorted view of Christianity taught by the church, Luther was spiritually depressed, emotionally miserable, psychologically morose, mentally distressed and in constant despair because of his inability to appease God’s just wrath against him because of his sins and many failings, and because he knew he could never satisfy God’s just demands and merit His favor. He had been brought up without any knowledge of the Bible and only came into contact with it at the age of twenty years while at Erfurt. And then he did not truly understand it, reading it with the perspective inculcated upon him by “Holy Mother Church.” Well could he have cried out with the Apostle Paul (and he probably did just that): “O wretched man that I am!! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death??!” (Romans 7:24).
When the unexpected death of a dear friend and the trauma of a violent thunderstorm teamed up to drive him to unremitting panic, he vowed in a prayer to Saint Anna that if she would spare him from a sudden and violent death and from the inevitable terror of having to meet his wrathful God, he would become a monk. Perhaps by availing himself of the Sacrament of Holy Orders (the Ministry) he might have hope of gaining God’s favor. Much to his father’s displeasure and the astonishment of his friends, he suddenly left the study of law and in 1505 entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, where he thought he could finally give due attention to the miserable condition of his soul. However, the ascetic lifestyle of monasticism, including the vow of obedience to Holy Mother Church and her clerical princes, performing the penances they imposed upon him and those which he imposed upon himself, gave him no peace of mind, no peace of conscience, and no peace with God. When he confided his spiritual misery to his mentor at the monastery, Johann von Staupitz, he advised Luther to study the Scriptures anew as a comfort to his soul and to see in them the mercy of God to poor sinners in Christ. This was something completely new to Luther; and even though, particularly in the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, he found the passages in which he discovered the doctrine of justification by grace for Christ’s sake through faith, Luther for quite some time did not fully realize that what he was learning from the Scriptures was in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Roman Church. Yet, by the grace of God, he continued to immerse himself in the Word of God, to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of [his] Lord and Savior” (II Peter 3:18), and to understand at length what it meant that “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17) and that “being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).
In the year 1507, Luther was ordained a priest and the next year was assigned a professorship at the new university at Wittenberg, where the study of the Scriptures and the task of lecturing on them to students of theology became his full-time occupation. In 1510 he was sent to the “Holy City” of Rome as a representative of his order and was deeply disappointed and frankly shocked by the unbridled immorality he observed there, especially among the leaders of the church; and yet his fidelity to the church did not waver. It was as if he had “blinders” on which prevented him from recognizing the soul-destroying doctrine and practice of the Papacy.
The year after his return from Rome to Wittenberg, Luther received the degree of Doctor of Theology and was called to be the preacher at the City Church in Wittenberg, the smaller of the two churches there, in addition to his duties as professor of theology. During the next five years Luther was busily immersed in the Scriptures, lecturing, preaching and teaching avid students and hearers the precious Gospel he had discovered, namely, that forgiveness of sins was not obtained by works of penance and satisfactions but alone by faith in the mercy of God won by Christ’s redemptive work —all the while firmly believing that he was faithfully serving the “Holy Father” in Rome and the “Holy Catholic” church of which he was the head… until a situation arose which aroused in Luther’s new man the need to address a horrible abuse that endangered the souls of his people! And it was his involvement in correcting that abuse which signaled the beginning of what we refer to today as “the Lutheran Reformation.”
In 1517, Pope Leo X, in order to finance the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome, issued an “indulgence” or remission from the temporal punishment of sins which, the church taught, had to be endured either in this life or after death in Purgatory. This “indulgence” could be purchased by the people and serve the dual purpose of building St. Peter’s basilica and of gaining peace of mind and conscience against the anticipated horrors of protracted cleansing by fire in Purgatory after they died. The indulgences were plenary, granting life-long remission in advance for ALL temporal punishments. [The doctrine of indulgences from the temporal punishments of sins already forgiven is still taught by the Roman Church today (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, §1471-1473).] The sale of these indulgences was forbidden in the state of Saxony (where Wittenberg was located), but many people flocked to buy them in neighboring states from a “pitch-man” appointed by the Archbishop of Mainz in the name of the Pope. The man was a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel, who as part of his sales pitch scandalously expanded the warranty of the indulgence to cover those who had already died and sold forgiveness for sins not yet committed! This came to Luther’s attention when his people came to confession and, instead of confessing their sins and seeking forgiveness for Christ’s sake, demanded absolution from Luther for all guilt and from the eternal punishment they deserved, all on the basis of the paper they had purchased.
Luther was in disbelief that the Holy Father would have countenanced such “abuse” of his otherwise legitimate indulgences, and he preached against Tetzel’s “fraudulent” indulgences and against Tetzel himself, sincerely believing that, as a faithful son of the church, he was defending the Pope’s integrity and that the Pope would surely set things right if he were informed of Tetzel’s unscrupulous and scandalous marketing of the forgiveness of sins. On October 31, 1517, Luther called upon the clergy and theological professors to engage in a public examination and debate about the virtue of indulgences and the abuses being carried out in the name of the Pope, and he posted on the church door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg a list of ninety-five “theses” or talking-points to be considered in the debate. The theses were written in Latin, specifically targeted for the theologians, and were fastened to the door because it was the unofficial bulletin board of the university in Wittenberg. It was not his intention to have them translated into German, printed, and distributed throughout Germany for clerics and laymen alike to debate, but that is exactly what happened; and they ignited a virtual firestorm. The public debate or discussion that Luther desired never took place.
Luther later wrote concerning his initial motive and his desire to defend the honor of the Pope:
I was then a monk and a mad papist and so submerged in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope (Quoted in Hageman’s Sketches from the History of the Church). So great was the authority of the Pope in my eyes that I thought it a crime worthy of eternal damnation to disagree with him on the most insignificant point. And this godless notion moved me to believe that John Huss [a Bohemian reformer burned at the stake for heresy in 1415] was such an accursed heretic that even thinking of him was wicked. And for the defense of the Pope’s authority, I myself would have brought sword and fire to burn this heretic, convinced that I was doing God the best of service (Commentary on Galatians 1:15-17, cited in What Luther Says, § 3379).
It is striking to the reader of “early Luther” and particularly of his Ninety-five Theses how solicitous he was of the Pope and critical not of Roman Catholic doctrine nor of the indulgences themselves but only of their abuses. Luther indeed had to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of [his] Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” to discern “wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the doctrine which is according to Godliness” (I Timothy 6:3) and to isolate and combat the “good words and fair speeches [designed to] deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:18). In a preface to a collection of his earlier works in Latin, Luther wrote in 1545:
I pray the pious reader, and pray him for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he read this [edition] with discrimination, indeed, with much mercy. …In these writings of mine you will find how many and great concessions I at first, in all humility, made to the Pope, concessions which in later times and in these days I regard and execrate as supreme blasphemy and abomination. But I was alone at first and was certainly inept and unlearned for the handling of such great matters. (Luther’s Works, St. Louis Ed., XIV, 439).
It is interesting to note that as early as 1520, before Luther stood before the diet at Worms in 1521 and refused to recant what he had written and taught, he asked all bookdealers and readers to burn his earlier books on the indulgences controversy because at that time he did not yet know that the Pope is the Antichrist (Luther’s Works, Weimar Edition, cited by Plass in What Luther Says, p. 1367). He also wrote in his preface to The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520): “Two years ago I wrote on indulgences but in such a way that I now deeply regret having published the book” (Weimar Edition, V, 497). We should be grateful to God that He kept Luther a humble scholar, ready and even eager to confess his inadequacies and missteps along the way and zealous of being a perpetual learner of divine truth from the Holy Scriptures to the glory of God!
Nevertheless three important outcomes resulted under the mighty hand of God from Luther’s “well-intentioned” efforts: 1) The Pope and his adherents did not recognize Luther’s desire to be helpful in calling his attention to Tetzel’s abuses but demanded his immediate retraction of his objections, thus causing Luther to see their true spirit and to fight against it. 2) Luther’s objections immediately became the focal point of something quite different, namely, the impression that Luther was another upstart like John Huss of Bohemia (†1415) and wanted to establish a church in his own image —which of course was not true. It was the “reformation” of the church which he sought, not its “destruction.” And 3) Luther’s intensive study of Holy Scripture during the course of the initial controversy and then certainly thereafter brought to light the corruption of the entire papal system and the damning false doctrine and practice which had been hidden for centuries under the guise of holiness and preserved under the threat of papal power; and the “formal principle” of the Reformation was established that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is and must always be the only source and standard of Christian doctrine and practice.
Luther’s Ninety-five Theses themselves, hardly worthy of recognition as the beginning of the Reformation, were evidence of his engagement in a Scriptural examination of the Papacy and, though a mere spark in the spiritual darkness which had engulfed outward Christendom for well over a thousand years, the ignition of a cleansing bonfire which exposed the Roman Antichrist (II Thessalonians 2) and restored to God’s people the full truth of His precious Word, including especially the doctrine of justification by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, totally apart from the works of the Law (Romans 3:23-28; 4:5; 5:12-21; I John 2:2; Ephesians 2:8-9; II Corinthians 5:19; Romans 5:1; etc.). In the Lutheran Confessions comprising the Book of Concord of 1580, we find the documents written and agreed upon during Luther’s lifetime as the treasure-chest of Luther’s settled Scriptural position in doctrine and practice, the position so surely grounded “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20) that we still today gratefully subscribe to them without qualification “because they are a correct exposition of God’s Word in the matters they treat.”
— D. T. M