Listen here to “The Story of the 95 Theses” Part 1
Listen here to “The Story of the 95 Theses” Part 2
THE STORY OF THE NINETY-FIVE THESES
The great events of Bible and church history have not been the result of wise human planning, foresight or intuition. Nor have those involved been self-appointed or self-made heroes, but rather faithful Christians divinely-appointed according to God’s purpose and timing. For all has occurred under the providential orchestration of the mighty and merciful hand of Him “Who has all things under His feet” and “is the Head over all things to the Church” (Ephesians 1: 22). Our Lord alone moves hearts to respond to what is happening and needful, always with a higher and greater spiritual purpose. So it was with the events of our salvation and so it was with the great “watershed” events in church history and in our own Lutheran heritage.
In the story of the Reformation the Lord used many hearts and minds and hands to provide Martin Luther with the tools that were used in forging the events that changed religious history. Raised in a strong Roman Catholic home, Luther saw his childhood faith reinforced during his years in the Augustinian monastery. Yet, as he grew in his Spirit-created understanding of Scripture, he also grew in his awareness of his church’s departure from the true faith of the fathers and from God’s holy Word. Even in his studies he was influenced by “Biblical humanism” (efforts to restore original Christianity and to look to the Scriptures rather than the church and its leaders), upon which he leaned in his later lectures on Psalms and Romans.
In 1512, Luther began work in Wittenberg, both as a preacher at the Town Church and as a professor at the University of Wittenberg. There his approach to Biblical interpretation gradually moved from the scholastic and allegorical to the grammatical-historical. He began to realize that God was speaking to him directly and personally through His Word and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ formed the heart of God’s amazing revelation.
All this culminated in his “Tower Discovery” in 1514 as he was preparing his lectures on the inspired Apostle’s words in Romans 1: 16-17 “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; As it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.” Formerly, the term “righteousness of God” had filled his heart with fear and terror as an expression of God’s righteous judgment on sinners; Now he saw it in the Gospel context of God’s mercy having justified man in Christ. It was as if Paradise had been opened to him and he now began to search other Scriptures in the light of this Gospel discovery. The very law-condemnation under which he had lived and struggled in fear and despair throughout his life had now dissipated in the sunshine of God’s grace found in the Savior.
As one observes the personal and historical scenario that led up to the events of October 31, 1517, we see how the Lord led this young monk-turned pastor/professor through three critical stages which culminated in the “Reformation” – Awareness, Conviction and Commitment. Failure during any of these three stages would have drastically altered the course of church history. Yet, it was the Lord, not Luther, Who by the power of His Word and Gospel first “reformed” the heart of his servant and then orchestrated the blessed events of the “Reformation” that followed.
Both Luther’s strong Catholic upbringing as well as his monastery experiences left deep and profound marks upon his heart. It was, after all, his family’s church in which he had been molded throughout the impressionable years of his youth. He took very seriously all he had been taught – including a high regard for his church and its leaders. And even as he grew in his faith in Scripture as the ultimate authority in the church and in the Gospel of Christ’s redemption as the central and glorious message of God’s Word, lingering attachments to the church and to some of its teachings remained for years. With Luther, as with all of us, we are never a finished product (Philippians 3: 12-16), but truly the “Spirit’s work in progress.” Redeemed, justified, forgiven, righteous because of Christ (yes and Amen!), we also remain struggling, striving, growing and maturing Christians as we seek to conform to the image of Christ Himself.
Yet, through the power of the Spirit, Luther’s theology had undergone a major transformation. God was no longer perceived as an angry Judge waiting to crush sinners, but as a merciful Father Whose amazing grace has covered the repentant sinner with the robes of Christ’s righteousness. For Luther, grace evolved from a divine infusion that empowered man to live a meritorious life into an undeserved love that saves us in Christ; Faith changed from an intellectual awareness of truth to a heartfelt trust in God’s saving Gospel in Christ; The Bible was no longer simply a source of divine truth to be interpreted by the church or the pope, but the Spirit-inspired revelation and ultimate foundation upon which faith must rest; The true Church was not comprised of those with outward connections to Rome or to any other church, but only those with heartfelt faith-connections to Christ; Good works were not meritorious works that improved one’s spiritual standing before his God, but rather the natural, Spirit-produced fruits of faith and love in the lives of God’s children.
Over time, Luther garnered the support of the Wittenberg faculty and many of its students, including colleagues Nicholas Amsdorf (who faithfully stood by Luther), George Spalatin (a staunch confessor), Philip Melanchton (Greek & Hebrew scholar and Luther’s right hand man) as well as Elector Frederick The Wise (Luther’s Saxony protector). By the time the 95 Theses were posted, Luther had essentially the full support of the university. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the God-given support system and the various roles they played in the helping, encouraging, strengthening and protecting of Martin Luther as the Reformation story unfolded.
It is difficult to know how the Reformation story would have played out, were it not for one catalyst which seemed to spark the Reformation flames and set the 16th century religious world ablaze. And that one great catalyst was the indulgence. Indulgences appear to have had a medieval origin during the Crusades as the popes, seeking to encourage soldier enlistment, offered full absolution to all who fought in these holy wars. Soon it was expanded to include all who would pay the equivalent sum of sending a soldier on a crusade. Following the Crusades and facing the loss of this lucrative source of income to build the magnificent St. Peter’s Church in Rome, the Papacy sought ways of continuing the indulgence trade. Roman Canon Law decreed that penance consisted of the following: heart contrition over sin, oral confession, priestly absolution and good works which proved one’s confession sincere. The purchase of an indulgence would now fulfill the good work requirement and reduce or even avoid the sin-punishment of purgatory by providing the super-meritorious works of the saints to appease God over sin. Over the next century, indulgence procedures were fine-tuned, including lavish sales rituals and official papal letters for all, as well as expanded coverage for those already languishing in purgatory.
Many were the voices of those both within and outside the church raised in opposition to the growing promotion and popularity of indulgences. Yet, because of both papal authority and the church’s fiscal dependence upon them, little was done to curb this growing evil. Throughout Germany, including Saxony, Archbishop Albert of Mainz, who had incurred heavy debt with the purchase of his position and who received a portion of all indulgence income, heavily promoted the cause, often through local monks. One of these, a Dominican monk named John Tetzel, worked the area around Wittenberg. Arrogant and experienced, he blasphemously boasted that he had saved more souls through indulgences than St. Peter had done through the Gospel. Large, pompous and a born salesman, his description of intense purgatory pangs followed by the proclaimed ritual of indulgence relief (“As soon as the money clinks in the chest, the soul flies into heavenly rest”), left poor souls clamoring to buy. The indulgence charge would depend upon the church’s classification of each person’s financial status with the very poor actually paying very little.
“In those days, indulgences were so respected that when an indulgence agent came to town, the papal bull was carried on a velvet or gold cloth, while all the priests, monks, councilmen, teachers, students, men, women, girls and children met him carrying flags and candles and singing while they marched in procession. Meanwhile all the bells in town rang, and as the procession entered the church, the organ played. A red cross was placed in the middle of the church on which the papal papers were hung, etc. In brief, one could not have received and entertained God in a more impressive fashion than this.” (Myconius’ “History Of The Reformation”).
While Luther had deep concerns about indulgences, his concerns only increased when he saw the Archbishop’s sales instructions to his peddlers. He was convinced that Albert misrepresented the church’s position. And when some of his Wittenberg members proudly displayed their indulgence letters to excuse their sins, Luther the shepherd became more outspoken. In his sermons, pastoral counseling and the classroom, he highlighted the very real indulgence soul-dangers – in encouraging sin and work-righteousness and thereby obscuring the true Christ and the Gospel from the people.
Fully convinced of the anti-Gospel influence of indulgences, Luther now sought to organize and express his thoughts in print to share with others – first and foremost his colleagues on the Wittenberg faculty. His hope was to generate discussion and debate and ultimately to lead the church to reject the Archbishop’s excessive and worldly indulgence position. To maximize exposure Luther chose the day (October 31, 1517) before the great church holy day (All Saints Day) to post his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door. Foot traffic would be heavy and perhaps some might pause to read his 95 theses. Originally written in Latin (and soon translated), they were entitled “Disputation On The Power and Efficacy Of Indulgences”. Little could Luther have imagined how far-sounding that hammer blow on the church door (Thanks also to the printing press and spiritually hungry souls), would soon resound throughout Germany and much of Europe.
The response was predictable. While the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy sought to dismiss this as the heretical machinations of a young and rebellious monk that would soon disappear if ignored, both Albert of Mainz and his cohorts saw this as a threat to their positions and well-being. Tetzel replied that Luther should be burned at the stake and his ashes scattered over the waters of Germany as a warning to all who dared challenge the holy church. Counter-theses he prepared were soon burned by the students of Wittenberg. At the same time, a stunned Luther watched as his theses touched a spiritual nerve in the hearts of many who realized the truth of his claims.
Some key theses were:
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” He intended the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. 32. All who believe that letters of pardon make them sure of salvation will be lost eternally, along with their teachers. 36. Every Christian who truly repents of his sins is fully free from punishment and guilt without indulgence letters. 62. The true treasure of the church in the holy Gospel is the glory and grace of God. 82. If the pope lets souls out of purgatory for the sake of money, why doesn’t he do it for the sake of holy love.
Years ago, upon first reading the 95 theses, I felt they could easily be combined or condensed. Yet their essential message remains Biblical and timeless: Spiritual and eternal judgment belongs only to God, not the church; Forgiveness comes only from God through the merits of Christ, not from the church or the pope; Penance is not simply some outward religious act, but rather an inner attitude of heart (Repentance and faith); Souls should place their trust not in the saving merits of indulgences or the saints, but only in Jesus Christ; The Gospel, not human works or church indulgences, represents the great treasure of the Church. The Church and its leaders should not be self-serving but rather seeking to help and serve people through the dispensation of the blessed and saving Word and Gospel.
At the same time, the ninety-five theses were clearly a theological work in progress. There are still accepting references to purgatory, papal esteem and other church practices that would clearly be rejected by Luther in the years to come. Surely a reminder to us that the Spirit-sharpening tools of theological discernment and discrimination are the product of ongoing Scripture study and growth as well as schooling in Christian experience. For Luther, however, this giant step of faith and conviction effected a powerful Reformation beginning that would prove a blessing to the church for years, generations and centuries to come.
While the events of the Lutheran Reformation encompass more than a few watershed moments in Luther’s life and beyond, the Lutheran Church has always commemorated the October 31, 1517 nailing of the ninety-five theses as the beginning and basis for all that followed. Students of the Reformation, however, would include a number of other events as being equally vital to our Lutheran heritage: The Catechisms (1519),The Diet of Worms (1521),the Translation of the Bible (1522), The Augsburg Confession and Apology (1530), the Formula Of Concord (1577) and others.
In all of this one sees the hand of God’s grace in providing Martin Luther an awareness of his own and the church’s great spiritual need and what Scripture truly teaches, the Spirit-driven conviction to trust God’s Word for the solution and the Gospel-motivated commitment to follow through with actions. While it is neither accurate nor charitable to attribute all previous failed Reformation efforts to a lack of conviction or commitment (Some involved martyrdom, timing or other circumstances), there were those who simply withered in the face of intense pressure or persecution. Johann Staupitz, Luther’s father-confessor and encourager who helped and supported him in various ways, appeared to possess the awareness and conviction of Luther but lacked the commitment to stand up against the errors of his own church. In also dealing with the timidity and fears of Melanchthon as well as his own doubts Luther found solace and strength in one thing only: God’s repeated assurances that the call, the cause and the victorious outcome rested in the Lord’s hands alone. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) When asked along the Reformation road whether the journey was becoming too difficult to continue, Luther responded: “I did not begin for the sake of fame and I shall not stop for the sake of infamy.”
A quote that has stuck with many of us may or may not be attributed to Martin Luther: “If I profess with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; And to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.” (“The Chronicles Of The Schoenberg Cotta Family – 1864, Thomas Nelson)
Our God reminds us in what faithfulness and commitment truly consist: “Be doers of the Word and not just hearers” (James 1:22); “Test all things, hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) ; If anyone would come after me, let him deny him-self and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) “He who is faithful in what is least is also faithful in what is much” (Luke 16:10) ; “Commit your way unto the Lord, trust also in Him and He shall bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:5). Fine intentions and pious words, as important as they are, become only a fine “sounding brass or clanging symbol” (1 Corinthians 13:1), emptied of their power or significance if not followed by actions consistent with God’s Word.
As we reflect upon the Reformation era, we are reminded that it represents a microcosm of Bible and church history throughout time. The Reformation cycle of God’s people departing from His Word, the raising up of reformers to call them to repentance, the various responses of faith, fear, indifference and rejection – these have been and ever will be part of the visible church scene throughout time. Awareness, conviction and commitment have always been divine blessings provided to and through faithful spiritual leaders. So it was with faithful Bible prophets and apostles; So it has been throughout church history and our own Lutheran heritage; So it remains today.
For the few among us who lived through the synodical break and the events leading up to the birth of the CLC over 50 years ago, essentially the same scenario played itself out. Among those made aware of the Scriptural concerns over Missouri’s long-standing and entrenched departure from Scripture, some were not convinced that God’s Word called for separation. Others, however (including the Wisconsin Synod at its 1955 Convention and many individuals) were convinced that the Missouri Synod was clearly “a causer of divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine you have learned” (Romans 16:17). Yet many of them, when faced with the moment of decision whether to then “avoid” Missouri in obedience to God’s Word, chose inaction, offering seemingly justifiable “human” reasons for doing so. Without presuming to judge individual hearts and motives, this story again reinforces the difficulty of translating conviction into commitment, words into action, especially when our fears come face to face with uncertain and difficult earthly consequences.
Lest we of the CLC begin to feel that this is an area of Christian sanctification that we have mastered, we do well to carefully examine our own hearts and lives and ministries. No one knows better than we how often we have failed to translate convictions into commitment, good intentions into God pleasing actions. Pastoral calls and shepherding care, matters of church discipline, stewardship of our time and talents, family relationships, self-control and self-discipline. In fact, in every area of our Christian lives and ministries, there are varying degrees of inconsistency – constant reminders of our own sinful weaknesses and failings. Luther recognized this and so do we. And we join him in praise of God’s marvelous grace by which we unworthy sinners and clay jars not only enter His kingdom and family by faith, but also are called to lives of service to Him and one another in Christ. To God alone be all glory!
“Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves.…. But our sufficiency is of God Who has made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant….. Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart…. It is written, ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’ With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak. Knowing that He Who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. All of this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 3:5; 4:1,13-15).
“Luther And His Times” (E.G. Schwiebert, 1950, CPH)
“Here I Stand: A Life Of Martin Luther (Roland Bainton, 1950, Abingdon)
“History Of The Reformation” (Frederick Myconius, 1718)
“Luther, Servant Of God” (CPH Workbook, 2003)
“What Luther Says” – 3 Volumes (1959, Edward Plass, CPH)