Luther certainly did not intend his Ninety-Five Theses to be a call to reformation, for he did not want to cause a rift in the church. He merely wanted to be faithful to Scripture. In fact, the public discussion prompted by the posting of theses was merely the typical way in which debate took place in that time. Yet, the content of the theses that Luther posted were rather controversial. And because of the newfound technologies of the printing press and the cultural situation of the early 1500s, Luther’s ideas were carried throughout Germany and gave way to the German stream of the Reformation.
The Ninety-Five Theses were fueled by a controversy in the church regarding the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a statement made by the church that removed or satisfied the punishment for sin. Indulgences relied on the “treasury of merits.” According to this idea, many of the saints of the church died with more merit than they needed to enter into heaven. So, the excess merit was “stored,” and the Pope was the dispenser of these merits.
“Many Protestants are most familiar with Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith; however, his Ninety-Five Theses were about indulgences, papal authority, the authority of Scripture, and forgiveness of sin.”
People in the Medieval period were very concerned with the period of punishment in purgatory—a post-mortem punishment stressed in great detail by the church. They were not so much afraid of hell because they believed the forgiveness and blessing from their priest would guarantee them entrance into heaven. However, the pains of purgatory remained a reality they were scared to face. The church taught that before they would be able to enter heaven, they had to be cleaned of every sin they had committed in their lives on earth. Indulgences worked, then, to cleanse them from sin. The church made penance a sacrament, solidifying in the minds of the people that an indulgence would shorten their period of punishment to be endured in purgatory.
Luther’s main opponent in the indulgence controversy targeted in the Ninety-Five Theses was Johann Tetzel, an indulgence salesman hired by Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz. Albrecht agreed to sponsor the rebuilding of St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Rome, and the Pope agreed to grant a special indulgence that he could sell in order to raise the necessary funds.
Many Protestants are most familiar with Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith; however, his Ninety-Five Theses were about indulgences, papal authority, the authority of Scripture, and forgiveness of sin. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were primarily intended to facilitate discussion concerning the theology of indulgences. After several centuries of abuse of pastoral responsibility in the church, the practice of selling indulgences had grown into a scandal.
Luther saw a major pastoral problem in the selling of indulgences. It encouraged people in their sin and turned their minds away from Christ and God’s forgiveness and to buying forgiveness. Luther’s frustration with the church was with their claiming to have authority to control a person’s time in heaven or hell or purgatory. While Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses touched on an issue of every day practice and hit a nerve in the very depths of the structure of authority that existed in the Medieval church. The formal cause of the Protestant Reformation was the issue of justification and the material cause was ecclesiology, doctrine of the church.
“Luther’s frustration with the church was with their claiming to have authority to control a person’s time in heaven or hell or purgatory.”
The Ninety-Five Theses called the church to repentance and urged the leaders of the indulgence movement to direct their gaze to Christ, the only one who was able to pay the penalty due for sin: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” (Thesis 1). Instead of the treasury of merit that was for sale, Luther protested, “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God” (Thesis 62).
Of all the portions of the document, Luther’s closing (theses 92-95) is perhaps the most memorable:
92. Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where in there is no peace. 93. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross. 94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells. 95. And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.
Luther was ordered by the church to recant in 1520 and was eventually exiled and outlawed in 1521.
One of the greatest ways in which Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses affect us today—in addition to the wonderful inheritance of the five Reformation solas—is that they call us to thoroughly examine the inherited practices of the church against the standard set forth in the Scriptures. Luther saw an abuse, was not afraid to address it, and was exiled as a result of his faithfulness to the Bible in the midst of harsh opposition.