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95 Theses 500 Years later: Luther’s List Speaks Powerfully Today


95 Theses 500 Years later: Luther’s List Speaks Powerfully Today

On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of concerns to the door of the church in Wittenberg. This list of concerns, now known as the 95 Theses, are widely credited with sparking what is now called the Protestant Reformation. Originally titled “The Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” the 95 Theses is now the common nickname.
Luther certainly wrote these words to address a particular historical context and specific concerns about the Church’s teachings. Nonetheless, the truths for which he argues are compelling today and still challenge the tendencies of our hearts in our cultural and religious context. What follows is a direct English translation of some of Luther’s document with accompanying explanation of the context in which he first wrote these historic words and their ongoing importance for us today.

Repentance

Thesis 1:
“Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”

Luther was convinced from the Bible that the true Christian life involved deep and sincere sorrow for sin and turning to Jesus in faith to receive his forgiveness. This repentance was to be the pattern and shape of the Christian life, not simply something done in a single act or purchased with a single gift to the church. Often today Christians are slow to acknowledge ongoing sin (instead being defensive or blaming others) and even slower to turn from it to Christ, even though we claim to believe the forgiveness found in him is true life.

Theses 2 and 3:
“This word ‘repentance’ cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e. confession and satisfaction, which is administered by priests. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work various mortifications of the flesh.”

Luther clearly believed repentance would have real-life application, “fruit” of repentance. But this was a process that again engaged the whole heart and life, not simply a religious ceremony or ritual. This is a crucial distinction between repentance and penance. Repentance requires turning from sin to Jesus who “paid it all,” while penance could be administered by a human priest and have one declared “paid up.”

Relationship with God

Theses 21, 27, 28:
“Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty and saved. … They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out (of purgatory). It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.”

The sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, as is evident from Luther’s original title, was a huge stimulus to Luther’s concern and also explains his concerns about repentance in the beginning of his theses above. The Church, represented by men like Johann Tetzel, was offering the people the opportunity to purchase remission of sins for themselves or others, particularly already deceased loved ones. Tetzel himself has been quoted as saying that “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

Luther saw in this practice a manipulative fundraising mechanism driven by desire for “gain and avarice” on the part of the church leadership. While it may have been successful at building new cathedrals, Luther insisted the Bible would have none of it in regards to the forgiveness of sins, since God alone ultimately dispenses forgiveness and determines men’s eternal destiny. Thus, Luther not only abhorred the sale of indulgences but also feared that the Roman Catholic Church and its priests were beginning to see themselves as above God and his Word rather than under that authority.

In the modern-day church, we have witnessed no shortage of greedy preachers developing a cult of personality that demands money from followers. But while many of us haven’t experienced that close a connection to “indulgences,” we avoid intimate, direct relationship with God by neglecting his Word, prayer, and worship.

Theses 43 and 45:
“Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons. … Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives (his money) for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope but the indignation of God.”

One of the many negative ramifications of the Church’s teaching on the purchase of pardon for sin was the neglect of the poor. They didn’t have much for themselves and sometimes spent money they didn’t have to buy indulgences. And those with more money, rather than caring for their impoverished brothers and sisters, were lavishing gifts to build church buildings and purchase favor. Luther saw clearly in Scripture that this missed the heart of God and would incur his wrath rather than his favor.

Self-promoting or self-serving use of God-given resources has remained an idol and a struggle in every generation. Giving generously and without expecting anything in return reminds us of God’s generous and gracious gifts toward us rather than looking for a personal benefit or kickback every time we give to someone.

Priorities

Thesis 54 and 55:
“Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or longer time is spent on indulgences than on this Word. … It must be the intention of the pope that if indulgences, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.”

Luther was deeply concerned with the neglect of the Word of God. In fact, it became evident that this was the root of the doctrinal problems he had with the Church in his day. He believed that because they spoke more of their own ideas than they did of God’s Word, they were doing harm to their hearers. Luther was calling the Church back to consider what was most important. Having already critiqued the use of indulgences and purchased pardons, he now argues that the focus on these has neglected something significantly more important … the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself!

Where is our passion for the Gospel? Have we at times become mere consumers of religious rituals, church ministries, and spiritual activities? Is a zeal for the preaching of God’s Word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ part of who we are? We must celebrate the good news of God’s grace both individually and corporately, in our homes and in our world.

Thesis 79:
“To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up (by the preachers of indulgences), is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.”

Once again, Luther saw the over-valuing of human ideas and relics as defaming to the truly valuable things like the cross of Jesus. Are there practices and traditions of men that we have allowed in our hearts to rise to the level of “sacred cows”? Luther warns us in every generation to preach Christ and him crucified above all other commitments.

True Christianity

Theses 92, 94, 95:
“Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! … Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell, and thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.”

Luther concludes his list of concerns with the Church by comparing the priests to false prophets in Jeremiah’s day, who promised “Peace, peace” when there was no peace. They told the people of God they were safe and secure rather than pointing them to true repentance and faith in a Savior, who alone could make them safe. Luther knew that the promise of the Gospel was not of an easy earthly existence – as one may have been promised through the purchase of an indulgence – but he knew that exhorting Christians to cling passionately to Christ was the only way to give true assurance of eternal peace.

Some today would critique those who suffer and urge that pain and heartache are not the path for Christians. Jesus says those who follow him will suffer as he did – and then enter into glory. At the same time, assuring people of eternal hope when there is no evidence of true repentance and faith is abhorrent. Luther ends his theses where he started: True Christianity is marked by ongoing repentance and desperate clinging to Jesus through the trials and tribulations of life.

Please join us Sunday night, October 29, at 6:00pm, as we celebrate the rich theological heritage we have inherited from Luther and others in the Reformation at a Presbytery-wide worship service in the Southwood sanctuary.