1517 – The nail (and paper) that changed the world
Few significant events in history can be nailed down to a specific place and point in time like Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses: Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Although popular visual portrayals of the event show Luther hammering in a relatively small sheet of paper on the Castle Church door, the ‘95 theses’ were in fact a major discussion about and critique of the Catholic doctrine of indulgences. Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses was a call for debate – a debate that never eventuated. Nevertheless, it served as the spark which lit the Protestant Reformation.
This major shift occurred at All Saints Church (also known as the Castle Church) in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. The simple yet magnificent architecture of the building matched Luther’s theses because, in simple and plain language, Luther articulated the magnificent and glorious truth that “the true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God”. This concise conclusion was communicated in opposition to the doctrine of indulgences propounded by the indulgence-seller, John Tetzel, who, following Pope Leo X, taught that the purchase of a letter of indulgence could absolve one’s sins completely.
The doctrine of indulgences took different forms at various stages in history, and an early edition of the practice of buying and selling indulgences can be traced to Pope Julius II in 1507 who used it as a means of raising money to build St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In its original form, the doctrine was rooted in the sacrament of penance which taught that, while sin was a serious offence to God, the purchase of a letter of indulgence could bestow upon the individual numerous spiritual blessings and reduce the amount of punishment that one had to endure because of sin.
Over time, this indulgence doctrine came to teach that the indulgence was not merely sufficient to reduce one’s punishment for sin; it also taught that the indulgence had the power to completely forgive the sinner. Additionally, this indulgence was effective for the past, present, and future sins of the buyer, and could also be applied to those who have passed away and rest in purgatory.
Many within the Church raised concerns about this teaching, and many priests refused to promote the practice of buying and selling indulgences. However, despite undercurrent protests, the full force of the doctrine’s corruption was not fully felt and disputed until Pope Leo X renewed its practice in 1513. And this was the form of indulgence that Luther criticised.
Through Pope Leo X, Archbishop Albert of Mainz, and the Dominican monk John Tetzel, the practice of buying and selling indulgences spread far and wide. Yet its geographical reach did not surpass its theological reach, because the form of the indulgence sold by John Tetzel was in essence a “get out of hell” card through human works.
In his endeavours to attract more buyers, Tetzel himself boldly proclaimed “the soul flies out of purgatory as soon as the money rattles in the box” and that “the red cross of the indulgence is of equal power with the cross of Christ”. No genuine repentance, remorse, and change were necessary. All that was needed as a papal letter which stated that the buyer was effectively absolved. There was almost nothing that the power of the indulgence could not remove.
This particularly chafed Luther who is well known for his crystal-clear articulation of justification by grace through faith (though it wasn’t fully developed by 1517). Indeed, the practice of buying letters of indulgences quickly spread to Luther’s congregation, and some of his own people even brought along with them these papal letters for confession and demanded priestly absolution without either confession of sin or showing any signs of real sorrow.
Luther knew that the indulgence was deeply problematic and harmful to Christians and to the Church, and so he did not stay silent. Records from his sermons and private correspondences show that Luther began speaking up as early as 1514, but it was really his nailing of the 95 theses on to the Castle Church door that served as the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Luther made a number of key points in his theses. To begin with, he argued that repentance meant a life of genuine penitence. In contrast to those who held that Jesus’ call for repentance meant the sacrament of penance, Luther asserted that repentance means a changed heart expressed in a changed life. It was no more than inner change, but no less than radical obedience and submission to the Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.
Consequently, Luther contended that those who preached the doctrine of indulgence promoted by those like John Tetzel actually preach “human folly”. It is foolish because “there is no divine authority” for this type of preaching, and neither the priest nor the pope has any power to absolve anyone of even the lightest of venial sins.
Furthermore, Luther also argued that those who choose to use their finances to purchase indulgences rather than helping the poor are living contrary to God’s will. Particularly, Luther noted that those who believe that salvation is possible by means of the letters of indulgence are “eternally damned” along with those who teach and promote such lies.
At the same time, he also highlighted that those who purchase an indulgence instead of helping the needy not only gain nothing in the process, but inversely obtain God’s disapproval and displeasure in doing so. Luther instead proposed that the pope should sell his riches and even St Peter’s Cathedral in order to help the poor, because it is a heart of generosity that best reflects the gospel.
Therefore, Luther proceeded with a positive note and declared the glorious truth that the true Christian, whether alive or dead, has a share in all the benefits of Christ because God has granted all of these without the letters of indulgence. According to Luther, Scripture makes it unequivocally clear that Christ is the source and means of salvation, so that every Christian who truly and humbly repents of sin before God has full forgiveness from both the punishment and guilt of sin. This has significant consequences, some of which are spelled out in Luther’s subsequent works. But in the 95 theses, Luther particularly asserts that the right response to this free salvation is to look to the Cross and follow Christ, the head of every Christian and the Church. And because of these truths, Luther exclaims that believers can be confident in their eternal future because all of that has been safeguarded and secured by Jesus Christ.
In the midst of a dark world of ecclesiastical corruption, Martin Luther’s disputations poked holes in the veil that covered up the greed, selfishness, and lies of a misdirected church and subsequently enabled the light of God’s Word to pierce through in order to restore the purity of the church. He recalled the Church to the truth that salvation was impossible through external and human means, and possible only because of Jesus Christ.
Today, this issue remains as pertinent as ever. Five centuries later, the vibrations of Luther’s hammering need to shake and echo as vibrantly as they did on October 31, 1517.