by Michael Albrecht, Floyd Brand, Robert J. Christman, Robert W. Christman, Victoria Christman, Michael Hanke, and Melvin Koss
Editor’s note: The following, in observance of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, is an examination of each of the Ninety-Five Theses posted by Martin Luther. Given the variety of contributors, the emphases and approaches vary throughout and there may even be some overlap. It is our hope these multiple perspectives will only serve to enrich the reader’s consideration of this document.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther was only ten days away from his thirty-fourth birthday. As he walked briskly from the monastery where he lived in Wittenberg, all the way down College Street, it took him only about ten minutes to get to the Castle Church. He carried a hammer and a copy of the Ninety-five Theses that he wanted to propose as the basis for a public debate. As he nailed his Theses to the door of the Castle Church, Martin Luther had no way of knowing that his name would soon be known through virtually all of Europe.
What did Martin Luther actually say in his Ninety-five Theses? Why were they so controversial? Why did they attract so much attention so quickly? Luther was concerned about members of his church in Wittenberg who were buying indulgences with the understanding that they could shorten the time that they and/or their dead relatives would suffer in Purgatory. At first Luther assumed that if the Pope only knew what was going on, he would put a stop to the abuses of the indulgence salesmen.
Pope Julius II had announced a jubilee indulgence for the year 1510 to raise funds for the construction of the new basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. Julius died in 1513, and his successor was Pope Leo X, who decided to revive the jubilee indulgence because he wanted to finish building the church of Saint Peter.
These indulgences were sold in Germany because Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz also wanted to be Archbishop of Magdeburg and Bishop of Halberstadt. Church law did not permit one man to hold all three offices at once, but Albrecht petitioned the Pope to make an exception, which included a substantial payment to the Pope. To pay the Pope, Albrecht negotiated a loan with the Fuggers, whose extensive banking operations were headquartered in Augsburg.
Albrecht and the Pope worked out a deal with the Fuggers that half of the profits would go to repay Albrecht’s loan, and the other half would be used for the construction of the church of Saint Peter in Rome. Albrecht hired Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk who had earned his reputation as a super salesman by selling indulgences for the Pope and the Fuggers since 1504.
Elector Frederick the Wise did not permit these indulgences to be sold in Electoral Saxony, but Tetzel set up shop in the town of Jueterbog, just across the border. People came from Wittenberg to buy the indulgences, and then went home and told Luther what Tetzel had told them.
Although Luther did not know the details of the agreement the Pope and Archbishop Albrecht had made with the Fuggers, he was familiar with the papal bull that had announced the jubilee indulgence, and with Archbishop Albrecht’s official instructions to the indulgence salesmen. Tetzel was authorized to promise that this indulgence would grant plenary remission of temporal sin and its penalties in Purgatory upon absolution by any priest the purchaser chose. An indulgence required a priest to absolve the purchaser, or the priest would be subject to excommunication by Tetzel. In other words, Luther was directly impacted by the indulgences bought by the members of his congregation in Wittenberg.
Furthermore, confession and contrition were not required to obtain forgiveness for people who were already in Purgatory. Tetzel acknowledged the distinction between temporal punishment and eternal punishment, spelled out in the official doctrines of the church, but the common people naturally got the impression that the purchase of an indulgence would immediately release souls from suffering in purgatory and usher them into heaven.
Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses in Latin, anticipating an academic debate with his university colleagues, but his theses were soon translated into German and distributed to a much wider audience than Luther had expected.
The Ninety-Five Theses struck a popular chord because Martin Luther was saying what many people had been thinking for a long time. His Ninety-Five Theses provoked a powerful response among the common people 500 years ago, and Luther’s common sense still comes through clearly to us today.
It all began with repentance. Luther’s first Thesis is probably more familiar than the ninety-four that follow: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” He willed that the entire life of believers be one of repentance. Luther had struggled with this question during his early days in the monastery. He went to confession and tried to remember every single sin he had committed. After hours of listing every little sin he could think of, he would finally leave. But then he would come rushing back because he had thought of another sin that he wanted to confess. No matter how hard he tried, he was haunted by the question: “How can I be sure that I have done enough?”
During these difficult days, Luther, as did people generally, pictured Jesus as an angry Judge, seated on a rainbow, who demanded perfect righteousness from him. But then as Luther was studying the book of Romans, it dawned on him that “the righteousness of God” was not what God demanded from him, but rather the gift that God offered to give him. “A man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” With that good news, a tremendous burden was lifted from Luther’s heart.
Because Luther was a priest who was responsible to hear other people’s confessions, he began to share with them the good news that had brought such joy to his own heart. You are saved by the grace of God alone, through faith in Christ alone. Forgiveness is not for sale. Do not waste your money buying indulgences. Trust Jesus to forgive all your sins. He has purchased and won you from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and with His innocent sufferings and death. Yes, this is most certainly true.
In the first of his Ninety-Five Theses, Martin Luther quotes the first sermon that Jesus ever preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). This sounds familiar, because Jesus preached the same sermon John the Baptist had preached before Him, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). So, Martin Luther started in the right place, the same place where John the Baptist started, the same place Jesus started.
What is repentance? The Hebrew word for repent means “turn around.” When you repent, you make a u-turn. Why would you do that? Usually the reason why you make a u-turn is because you realize that you are headed in the wrong direction, or that you are coming to a dead end. Either you see a sign or somebody tells you that you are going the wrong way. And that is how repentance works, too. If God never told you that you were headed in the wrong direction, you might never guess. That is why repentance starts with God talking to you. God tells you that you are going the wrong way, and then you turn around.
Furthermore, when God calls you to repentance, His word is pregnant with the power that enables you to obey Him. As you listen to the word of God, the Holy Spirit comes into your ears and settles down in your heart, and He is the One who gives you both the desire and the ability to repent. Repentance is not really something you have to do for God; no, repentance is something God does to you and for you. That is why Martin Luther teaches us to say, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him. But the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
Many people who should know better have fallen into the habit of defining repentance as “feeling sorry.” They think repentance is feeling guilty. They say things like, “God won’t forgive you if you don’t repent.” But just stop and think about that for a moment. Does that imply that the more miserable you feel the better God likes it? Is that what Jesus was saying in His first sermon?
According to Saint Matthew, Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” According to Saint Mark, Jesus said, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” That is why our Lutheran Confessions declare that repentance includes two parts: contrition and faith. Contrition is what happens to you when you are crushed by the guilt and shame of your sin. Contrition is produced in you by the preaching of God’s Law. But contrition all by itself is not repentance. The whole point of preaching the Law is to prepare you to listen to the Gospel. The Gospel is always God’s last word to you. It is the Gospel that produces faith in your heart. It is the Gospel that tells you that you are justified by faith alone, without the works of the Law.
The Gospel tells you that Jesus traded places with you. He took the blame for all your sins, and then He died on the cross to pay for all your sins. Now you don’t have to pay for any of your sins yourself. Since Jesus traded places with you, God gives you credit for all the good things Jesus did. God looks at you and He sees His beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased. That is why God praises you for all your good works; He says to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant, for I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was in prison and you visited me,” etc.
This is what Martin Luther called “the joyous exchange.” Jesus takes the blame for all your sins, and you get the credit for all Jesus’ good works. That is why you don’t have to wonder what the verdict will be when you stand before God on the Last Day. You are already justified; you have already been declared not guilty. Every time you confess your sins and receive absolution, you hear the verdict of Judgment Day announced ahead of time, as God says to you, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
But when you take a long hard look at yourself, that can be hard to believe. You still sin every day. You want to do better. You want to learn from your mistakes. You don’t want to keep on repeating the same sins over and over again, but you do. That is why Martin Luther says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” And in the Small Catechism Martin Luther teaches us that our baptism means that the old man in us is to be drowned by daily contrition and repentance.
In other words, repentance is not something that you do once and then it’s over. Repentance is a way of life. It is like breathing. When you exhale, you confess your sins, and then you inhale as you receive absolution. You do it over and over again, because you know what happens when you stop breathing.
Normally you don’t even think about your breathing. It is only when your allergies are bothering you, or when you have emphysema, that you become more aware of your own breathing. If you are running or working hard or singing in the choir, you notice your own breathing. But most of the time, when you are sleeping or sitting in front of your computer or enjoying a meal, you don’t worry about your breathing. You just breathe.
Repentance is something like that. Sometimes you concentrate on confession and absolution, and repentance requires your undivided attention. But most of the time, you simply live a repentant lifestyle without worrying about it. You are like Adam. God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living soul. In a similar way, God breathes His Holy Spirit into your soul as you listen to His word and receive His sacraments.
So, repent and believe the Gospel, because the kingdom of heaven is near. You do not cause the kingdom of God to come near when you repent; on the contrary, it is the coming of God’s kingdom that moves you to repent. This is what God wants for you, because God wants faith-life for you – all the time and every day.
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” He willed that the entire life of believers be one of repentance.
This first Thesis sets the tone for all the theses that follow.
Although no one accepted Luther’s invitation to debate the Ninety-Five Theses, many people talked about and wrote about the Ninety-Five Theses, and Luther became concerned that he was being misunderstood and misrepresented. So, Luther wrote his “Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses,” which he revised several times before it was finally published in August of 1518. The quotations that follow are all taken from Luther’s “Explanations.”
Concerning his first thesis, Luther says, “This I assert and in no way doubt.” So, in the following theses, Luther proceeds to explain what this means, and what this does not mean.
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
Luther says, “I assert and prove this thesis also.”
Luther provides a practical reason, evidently based on his own experience in the monastery. “Sacramental penance is temporal and cannot be done all the time; otherwise one would have to speak with the priest continually and do nothing else but confess one’s sins and perform the satisfaction which has been imposed. Therefore, sacramental penance cannot be the cross which Christ bids us bear.”
Furthermore, Luther makes a fundamental distinction between sincere heartfelt repentance and going through the motions of going to confession before a priest. “Sacramental penance can be a sham, but inward penance cannot exist unless it is true and sincere. And if penance were not sincere, it would be hypocritical and not that which Christ teaches.”
3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.
Luther says, “I assert and maintain this thesis also.” Repentance cannot be kept private or secret. A person who is truly penitent will do good works, such as fasting and praying and giving alms to the poor.
Jesus teaches His disciples about alms and prayer and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18). Luther therefore concludes that fasting, prayer, and alms “do not pertain to sacramental penance as far as the essence of the deeds is concerned, since these things are the command of Christ. But they do pertain to sacramental penance as far as the exact manner and time of these satisfactions are concerned (which the church prescribes for this penance).”
Luther recommends that by fasting a man may serve himself, and by prayer he may serve God, and by alms he may serve his neighbor.
4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self, that is, true inner repentance, until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
Luther says, “I also assert and examine this thesis.” Based on the first thesis, that the entire life of the believer is to be lifelong repentance, this thesis naturally follows.
Luther refers to St. Augustine, who prayed the seven penitential Psalms with tears in his eyes and declared that “even a bishop, no matter how righteously he may have lived, should not leave this world without penance.”
5. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.
Luther says, “I discuss this thesis and humbly seek instruction.”
First Luther lists six kinds of punishment: Hell, Purgatory, “voluntary and evangelical punishment,” God’s correction and scourging, canonical punishment instituted by the church, and the punishment that divine justice requires in order to be satisfied.
Luther asserts that “the Pope has no power to bind and loose any punishment beyond that of canonical law or the fifth punishment.” Unlike the Pope, “John the Baptist, who was sent according to the plan and decree of God for the purpose of preaching repentance…imposes no penance except that of observing the commands of God.”
6. The Pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.
Luther says, “The first part of this thesis is so evident,” based on Isaiah 43:25, and John 1:29, and Psalm 130:3,4,7,8 and Psalm 51:10. “And St. Augustine in so many of his writings against the Donatists maintains absolutely that sins are remitted by God alone.”
Luther says, “The second part of the thesis is likewise clear enough,” because “God does not remit the guilt of anyone who does not at the same time have respect for the office of the keys.”
However, Luther qualifies this statement, “It is certain that…no one can be reconciled to God unless he is first reconciled to the church…Nor is an offense against God removed while it still remains an offense against the church. But it is questionable whether a man is also reconciled to God as soon as he is reconciled to the church.”
Luther says, “Once more I will confess my ignorance, if anyone thinks it worthwhile to enlighten me…I have not advanced the sixth thesis enthusiastically, as I have mentioned, but for the sake of the feelings of others.”
7. God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time He humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to His vicar, the priest.
Luther says, “I maintain this thesis. …Yet I am still trying to understand it.”
Luther cites Matthew 5:24, 6:12, 16:19 and 22:21 and says, “In all these passages remission is indicated as taking place on earth before it takes place in heaven,” and yet “man cannot have his guilt forgiven… without first of all having the grace of God which remits.”
“So, it seems to me, and I declare: When God begins to justify a man, He first of all condemns him; him whom He wishes to raise up, He destroys; him whom He wishes to heal, He smites; and the one to whom He wishes to give life, He kills…God works a strange work in order that He may work His own work. This is true contrition of heart and humility of spirit, the sacrifice most pleasing to God.”
“Actually, man knows so little about his justification that he believes he is very near condemnation, and he looks upon this, not as infusion of grace but as a diffusion of the wrath of God upon him. Blessed is he, however, if he endures this trial, for just when he thinks he has been consumed, he shall arise as the morning star. However, as long as he remains in this wretched, perplexed state of conscience, he has neither peace nor consolation, unless he flees to the power of the church and seeks solace and relief from his sins and wretchedness which he has uncovered through confession. For neither by his own counsel or his strength will he be able to find peace; in fact, his sadness will finally be turned into despair. When the priest sees such humility and anguish, he shall, with complete confidence in the power given him to show compassion, loose the penitent and declare him loosed, and thereby give peace to his conscience.”
“Therefore, God’s remission effects grace, but the priest’s remission brings peace, which is both the grace and gift of God, since it is faith in actual remission and grace…. Therefore, Peter did not loose before Christ did, but declared and disclosed the loosing by Christ. Whoever believes this confidently has truly obtained the peace and remission of God.”
8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to the canons themselves, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
Luther says, “I shall examine this thesis, although there are many people who wonder why it should be open to question.”
Based on Romans 7:1-2, Luther declares, “One who is dead is discharged from the law which applies to the one who is still alive. …At death, a person passes into an entirely different life, at which time he neither fasts, weeps, eats, nor sleeps, since he no longer has a body. It is for this reason that Jean Gerson dared to condemn indulgences which were bestowed as being valid for many thousands of years. …one who is about to die submits to the last, the highest, and the greatest punishment of all, namely, death. Therefore, in the face of death, every other punishment should be waived.”
9. Therefore, the Holy Spirit through the Pope is kind to us insofar as the Pope in his decrees always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
Luther says, “This thesis is more a proof for the preceding thesis.” Citing the proverbial axiom, “Necessity knows no law,” Luther concludes, “Death alone is the absolute necessity.”
10. Those priests act ignorantly and wickedly who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penalties for purgatory.
Luther says, “This thesis is an obvious deduction of the eighth thesis.”
“Surely the church would act wickedly if by her inferior jurisdiction she should retain one whom God already calls before His highest tribunal.”
11. Those tares of changing the canonical penalty to the penalty of Purgatory were evidently sown while the bishops slept.
Luther says, “Here I ask that no one think I am slandering the most worthy bishops when I say that they were asleep. These are not my words, but the words of the Gospel” (Matthew 13:25).
“Our opponents base the remission of sins not upon faith and upon the word of the compassionate Christ, but upon the work of man who seeks and strives, for they imagine that plenary remission can only be given to those who have perfect contrition, which no one has in this life. Yet they concede that plenary remission can be given by the Pope, even to those who have imperfect contrition.”
12. In former times canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
Luther says, “This twelfth thesis again proves the eighth.”
“Thus, we read in Genesis 44 that Joseph chastened his brothers with many tests in order to find out whether their affection for him and Benjamin was sincere, and after he was sure of this he made himself known to them and received them graciously.”
13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties, are already dead as far as the canon laws are concerned, and have a right to be released from them.
Luther says, “This thesis sums up that which has been said previously and is clear enough.”
“The canons are imposed for crimes in such a way that punishments cease if one mends his ways, for example, if he enters a monastery or devotes himself to the service of the poor and the sick, or if he suffers for Christ’s sake or dies according to the will of God … In these cases, it is clear that canonical punishments do cease, and indulgences have no value for them. Hence punishments are imposed only upon those who are lazy and who are indifferent toward penances, that is, those sinners who are spoiled by indulgences. Therefore, indulgences appear to be granted especially and only to those whose hearts are hardened. …You see, therefore, how many Christians there are for whom indulgences are neither necessary nor useful. But I will return to this thesis in order to bring this matter to a conclusion and to stab them with their own sword. It is maintained by everyone in the church that in the agony and moment of death every priest is a pope and therefore remits everything for the one who is about to die. And if the priest is absent, certainly the longing of the dying man for the priest is sufficient. For this reason, since the dying man is pardoned for everything which can be pardoned by the Pope, the indulgences for the dead seem to confer absolutely nothing, for whatever can be loosed is loosed by death.”
14. Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.
Luther says, “This is particularly pointed out by that passage in I John 4: ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment.’”
“In every man, no matter how holy he may be, there are the remains of the old man…They diminish, however, in the new man, but they are not extinguished until he himself is extinguished by death… Therefore, these evil remains of the old man are not removed by indulgences.”
15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near the horror of despair.
Luther says, “I am positive that there is a purgatory. … Everyone concedes that the punishments of purgatory and of hell are the same except that they differ in the fact that the latter is for eternity.”
Some individuals have tasted these punishments in this life, especially those of hell. Therefore, we must believe even more that they are imposed upon the dead in Purgatory. For David, a man of experience, said, “If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have dwelt in hell” [Ps. 94:17]. And elsewhere he says, “My soul is full of troubles and my life has drawn near to Sheol” [Ps. 88:3]. And again he says, “Our bones are scattered at the mouth of Sheol” [Ps. 141:7], and “I become like those who go down to the Pit” [Ps. 28:1]. And again David says, “How many great and evil tribulations hast Thou shown me, and then led me back again from the depths of the earth” [Ps. 71:20]. Indeed Hezekiah says, “I said, ‘in the noontide of my days I must depart … to the gates of Sheol’” [Isa. 38:10]. And further on he says: “Like a lion he breaks all my bones” [Isa. 38:13], which surely cannot be understood in any other way except as an occurrence of unbearable horror.
These are the sentiments of the young Luther, still only 34 years old. In the last year of his life, Luther wrote a Preface to accompany the publication of his collected Latin writings. He looked back on his early writings and confessed:
I was once a monk and a most enthusiastic papist when I began that cause. I was so drunk, yes, submerged in the Pope’s dogmas, that I would have been ready to murder all, if I could have, or to co-operate willingly with the murderers of all who would take but a syllable from obedience to the Pope. So great a Saul was I, as are many to this day. I was not such a lump of frigid ice in defending the papacy as Eck and his like were, who appeared to me actually to defend the Pope more for their own belly’s sake than to pursue the matter seriously. To me, indeed, they seem to laugh at the Pope to this day, like Epicureans! I pursued the matter with all seriousness, as one, who in dread of the last day, nevertheless from the depth of my heart wanted to be saved.
So you will find how much and what important matters I humbly conceded to the Pope in my earlier writings, which I later and now hold and execrate as the worst blasphemies and abomination. You will, therefore, sincere reader, ascribe this error, or, as they slander, contradiction to the time and my inexperience. At first, I was all alone and certainly very inept and unskilled in conducting such great affairs. For I got into these turmoils by accident and not by will or intention. I call upon God himself as witness.
16. The difference between hell, purgatory, and heaven seems to be the same as the difference between despair, near despair, and assurance of salvation.
Luther had not yet drawn the conclusion that, since the law of God eliminates the possibility of the sinner working off his own debt toward God, and the Gospel of Christ renders it unnecessary for the sinner to work off his own debt, there is no need and there is no place for purgatory; it has to be a fiction. He does grant that the whole business is obscure (verborgen, hidden), however, and despises some of the popular notions about purgatory, as in his Explanation of Thesis 17. He who had gone through so much anguish and despair in search of a gracious God rightly concentrated on the suffering of the soul, while people in general were more concerned about the bodily suffering, the flames of hell. The despair of those in purgatory differs only from that of those in hell in that the former has an end, the latter not.
17. It would seem necessary that for the souls in purgatory fear should decrease and love increase.
The natural and common view was that purgatory was a place for punishment only. It existed to satisfy the demands of justice (whether divine or ecclesiastical justice, that is the question). This was the basis for the appeal of indulgences: an escape from the suffering required, or at least a shortening of that suffering. Luther takes it primarily as a place of purification (purgatory, a place for purging), of becoming free from selfishness, pride, and despair, a place of sanctification and growing in godliness. So if purgatory is a place of (near) despair, this despair should lessen and love (for God especially) should increase. One must become perfect in faith and love, then he will be released to enter heaven. Luther scoffs at the idea that God would condemn a person already perfect in faith and love to purgatory to satisfy outstanding canonical/ecclesiastical penalties.
18. Further, it does not seem to be proven either by reasoning or by Scripture that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.
The difference between hell and purgatory is that in hell there is no growth in faith and love, while purgatory is where imperfect faith and love are purified. If the souls there yearn to become perfect in faith and love through the suffering of purgatory, then this salutary process should not be interrupted.
19. It does not seem proven either that souls in purgatory are assured and certain of their own salvation, at least not all of them, though we ourselves may be absolutely sure of it.
If hell is equivalent to despair, and purgatory the same as hell only with a statute of limitations, then souls in purgatory could hardly be sure of their salvation, since knowing this would bring them hope and joy, the opposite of despair. Purgatory however was only for those who will eventually be released to enter heaven. If the souls there knew this, it would hardly be purgatory. Still, Luther stated this view of his could not be proved (or disproved). (The indulgence preachers on the other hand made vivid the outward bodily suffering of those in purgatory; see Thesis 16.)
20. Therefore when the Pope speaks of the plenary remission of all penalties, he does not mean absolutely all penalties, but only those imposed by himself.
Luther remarks in the Explanations that a variety of opinions exists among theologians past and present, but at any rate Thesis 5 and this Thesis do not contradict the canons, those doctrines and rules set down through the ages by popes, councils, theologians, considered authoritative and in harmony with Scripture. Luther is not the first or the only one to question such opinions. Full remission of guilt before God is granted to the penitent, and the church/priest/pope only declares this divine remission of sin. Indulgences can only free one from penalties imposed by the church/priest/pope. The puzzle in all this is whether unfulfilled ecclesiastical penalties can be transferred to purgatory, and what is the basis for the various opinions on this question. On this point other theologians support Luther’s views.
Of course, the success of the indulgence traffic depended on the people believing that they were purchasing divine and not merely ecclesiastical pardon.
21. Therefore those indulgence preachers are wrong when they say that though papal indulgences a man is absolved from every penalty and thus eternally saved.
Indulgences do not remove the discipline God administers to his children, such as sickness, death, and pains of conscience. The indulgence hawkers ought to make clear that “plenary remission” releases from ecclesiastical penalties only, not from divine penalties. Throughout Luther is careful to hold Tetzel and company responsible for confusing and deceiving the people, believing that they were going beyond their instructions. If the pope and Archbishop Albrecht are faithful shepherds, they must arise and take control of the indulgence preachers.
22. In fact, the Pope remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which according to canon law they ought to have paid in this life.
Temporal penalties are all cancelled by death and are not transferred to the next life. Besides, Roman canons did not and do not apply to Christians in the Greek Orthodox Church.
23. If full remission of all penalties could be granted to anyone, it would certainly be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.
In his explanation Luther went further, asserting that full remission of all penalties is not granted to anyone. For everyone must face death, and the fear of death, and of the final judgment. Against such penalties indulgences are worthless. Even the most sanctified must endure the fear of death, and the suffering which brings about their death.
24. Therefore most of the people cannot but be deceived by this blanket, lofty-sounding promise of release from all penalty.
Many had told Luther that they understood indulgences exactly this way, as release from penalties of every kind. He asks: What about the penalty for the sinful passions a person has even after he has bought an indulgence?
25. The same power which the Pope has over purgatory in general, every bishop also has within his own diocese, and in particular every priest within his own parish.
In Theses 8 and 22 Luther denied the Pope authority as judge to release souls from purgatory; he has power and authority to pray for them, nothing more, as he does notably on All Souls’ Day. On other days a bishop has the same power and authority, and a priest likewise, notably at funeral services.
At this point Luther did not yet question the propriety and possibility of praying for the dead.
26. The Pope acts properly when he gives remission to souls in purgatory not by the power of the keys, which he does not possess, but by benevolent intercession for them.
The Pope would be a cruel person if he had the power to empty purgatory and did not do so. And if he did have such power and exercised it (through indulgences) for war against the heathen or for building a church (St. Peter’s in Rome), then simple love for souls would be a far more righteous and reasonable reason. The power of the keys is limited to this world (“on earth,” Matt. 16:19), and does not extend to purgatory. Intercession for those in purgatory is the only thing possible, and this not only the Pope, but also bishops, priests, monks, and all Christians do and can do. But such intercession does not bring about immediate release from purgatory.
27. They preach an empty dream of their own devising who say that as soon as the coin rings in the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
Even in response to intercession a soul is freed only by God, and the time also is set by him.
28. Certain it is that as soon as the coin rings in the money chest, gain and greed increase and abound; but help in answer to the church’s intercession depends on the will and good pleasure of God alone.
It is strange that they do not preach the boundlessly salutary Gospel of Christ with the same fervor. It is evident that they care more about gain than about godliness. Again, the Pope can intercede for souls in purgatory, but he has no power to simply release them.
29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory even want to be released, given what is told of St. Severus and Saint Paschal.
Luther grants that he had nothing authoritative to go on here; this may be merely a legend. But since Moses and Paul were ready to suffer damnation for the sake of Israel, it is conceivable that some in purgatory would be willing to suffer longer than necessary if this would benefit other souls.
30. No one is certain that his contrition and sorrow are genuine; much less can he be certain that he has received plenary remission of sins.
Those who insist on contrition as condition for remission make the whole matter uncertain. Everyone grants that the first statement is true; the second is a necessary conclusion from the first. The Pope can release from canonical penalties simply by his own authority, and for that contrition is not necessary. If people want to apply indulgences to guilt before God, however, then contrition is necessary; and then the whole business becomes uncertain because the soul’s sincerity is uncertain.
31. As rare as a person who is truly penitent, just so rare is someone who truly acquires indulgences; indeed, the latter is the rarest of all.
As he often does, Luther builds a thesis on a former thesis in order to give his point an additional airing. Proponents of indulgences sought to blunt a fundamental criticism by saying that God’s merciful indulgence (through the church) is linked to contrition. The indulgence salesmen typically did not stress this point, and many a buyer chose to ignore it completely. That bothered Luther. And so he argues that contrition is neither optional nor of minimal importance. He links the degree of God’s indulgence to the adequacy of the buyer’s contrition. Yet who knows the quality and quantity of one’s own contrition? A sensitive heart is quick to realize that there is something insipid about it, and that its deficiency constitutes yet another sin. As Adam’s sin affected his entire offspring, so death, in the first place the unavoidable penalty for sin, is hardly divine indulgence.
32. Those who believe that they can be secure in their salvation through indulgence letters will be eternally damned along with their teachers.
For the sake of debate, indulgences are here seen as the basis of full forgiveness, as they often were seen. But they should not have been seen that way. For those who see indulgences as counterbalance of sin and cancellation of guilt, it is not only sin, but damnation that lies at their door. Security resting on a purchased document is an affront to God. Never quite free of this fear, many a buyer must have come to have second thoughts based on the patently slick promises of men like John Tetzel, the unspiritual purpose of an ambitious pope, and the negotiated schemes of a debt-burdened archbishop. Luther was standing up for true security, and a note of “fear not” is in all that he said, even in this thesis.
33. One must especially beware of those who say that those indulgences of the pope are God’s inestimable gift (donum dei inestimabile) by which a person is reconciled to God.
In his mind, Luther was engaging in the debate he expected to have with fellow theologians. Still, being Luther, he cares for the common people, and at least tangentially addresses them too. (This may be a major part of the reason the theses would sell like hotcakes.) He remained always a man of childlike faith. But the indulgences blanketing the area as “God’s inestimable gift,” had nothing to do with such faith, that signature work of the Holy Ghost. Most certainly the work of a theologian, the term was meant for the common parishioner. But it left him holding a bag of chaff. It lifted him above human understanding through quasi magic, for the indulgences as they were hawked eliminated the need for Christ. Instead, they were bound up with mammon, not unlike the golden calf, of which proponents said, “These be thy gods, O Israel!”
34. For these indulgent graces are only based upon the penalties of sacramental satisfaction instituted by human beings.
In the first place, indulgences were not designed to erase sin and guilt. They had entered the church long before as “sacramental satisfaction.” The penitent sinner would confess his sins to a priest, who forgave him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. But he also placed a disciplinary burden on the contrite culprit, which might help him the better to see that the sins he committed were substantial and to take them seriously. It reflected the imposition of thorns and labor pains upon Adam and Eve in spite of God’s promise of salvation through the woman’s Seed. How heavy the burden was, rested largely on the confessor’s discretion. If the reader of this explanation is old enough, he may remember his father telling him that though completely forgiven for his misdeed, he was now to get a spanking, so that he might not quickly forget the lesson he has learned. Those spankings, though most unpleasant, were on one level welcomed. The culprit agreed with his father. The difference was that while a spanking was over in short order, and even being “grounded” did not continue terribly long, the “penalties of sacramental satisfaction” often remained unsatisfied to the end of a person’s life. When they bore down interminably, the church hierarchy might “indulge” the burdened soul and cancel his debt wholly or in part. None of this was mandated in Scripture. The word “sacramental” is used here, unlike in the Small Catechism, to indicated that the matter was not instituted by Christ himself, but by the church as a practical matter.
35. Those who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who would rescue souls [from purgatory] or who would buy confessional pr i v i l ege s do not preach Christian views.
Whether it was a large or a small number who taught that in order to purchase an indulgence for someone else (typically in purgatory) one need not himself be penitent, the idea was at the least corrupting. Likewise, when it was said that one could purchase the privilege of choosing one’s own confessor (presumably known to be easy) without being penitent, true piety again took a hit. Without citing chapter and verse, Luther calls these allowances sub-Christian. He knew they encouraged a cavalier spirit. He also undoubtedly knew that the force behind the idea was pure greed. Without regard for the welfare of souls, it was meant to increase the volume of the indulgence business.
36. Any truly remorseful Christian has a right to full remission of guilt and penalty, even without indulgence letters.
From the almost casual notion that some people “do not preach Christian views,” Luther plunges into the heart of the Gospel. Already in October of 1517, he knew the Gospel well, even if by his own admission he did not have everything nailed down. (He was sort of like Apollos when Priscilla and Aquila ran into him for the first time in Ephesus; see Acts 18.) Forgiveness is God’s gift to all who humble themselves and believe Him when He says, “You are forgiven—for Jesus’ sake.” So Christ was not inclined in the least to withhold forgiveness from Peter on the Galilean seaside. Remission belongs to the remorseful Christian; Christ bought it for him. And so strong is the mighty rushing wind of remission that it blows away the penalty along with the sin, at least as a function of his wrath. Though he suffers a thorn in his flesh, he is not being treated with hot displeasure, but in love in view of glory everlasting.
37. Any true Christian, living or dead, possesses a God-given share in all the benefits of Christ and the church, even without indulgence letters.
Everything must advance the sinner’s salvation and the glory of his Father. This is God’s supreme twofold goal, upon which no human document must be allowed to insinuate itself. The true Christian here is the same as the truly remorseful Christian in the last thesis. But what are the further, all-encompassing benefits he enjoys along with Christ and the church without any thanks to indulgences? They are benefits of the church’s suffering with Christ that are tied directly to the benefits of Christ’s sufferings for the church. Christ ordered his followers to carry to completion the commission the Father gave Him. (See Col. 1:25). So the saints are called to live a life that is not vanity atop vanity, but that is worth laying at the feet of the Savior when he comes. God in his love sent his Son the first time to fulfill his saving will. When his Son rose from the dead, he commissioned his followers to carry his grace around the world and make more followers. They were to baptize his people and nourish them with Bread of Life. Again the Lord’s treatment of Peter at the Sea of Galilee is instructive. “Simon, lovest thou me?” the Lord asked. Simon said yes, and the Savior gave him back his “share in this ministry” (Peter’s own description of it in Acts 1), telling him, “Feed my sheep.” All the benefits of Christ and the church come together as Christ passes on to his church the “completion” of his own commission. Given their magnitude, can anyone think that a piece of paper promising a softer life could be their conduit?
38. Nevertheless, remission and participation from the pope must by no means be despised, because—as I said—they are the declaration of divine remission.
Grace (the gracious gift) does not take the place of God’s holy word. New “reformers” would soon be challenging Luther on this point. Yet all his life he insisted that it is faith seizing God’s words that allows one to experience God’s grace. In the word, he actually tastes and sees that God is good. Consider his handling of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in his Small Catechism. It is not the water. It is not the bread and the wine. It’s the words that accompany these “elements” that give them power to save, and they are meant to be heard and profoundly believed. The Emmaus Disciples’ hearts burned within them as they heard the story of salvation rising up out of the Old Testament prophesies and casting their truth at the feet of the Lord of the New Testament. If Pope Leo had taken this thesis to heart, he would have rejoiced before God to see his office, so long neglected, placed in his hands.
39. It is extremely difficult, even for the most learned theologians, to lift up before the people the liberty of indulgences and the truth about contrition at one and the same time.
The liberty of indulgences is the generous dispensation of good times, when comfort and enjoyment are not being gobbled up by the rigors of penitence. Hard-edged contrition stands in contrast to this. It sets up burdens, costs, and wearisome exercises designed to be a pain. A clever theologian may be expected to argue conclusively for a happy, carefree life rather than woe, or (on another occasion?) for a life of hardship. Something of God could be found in either. But he is hard-put to champion both at the same time, since obviously as opposites they cancel each other out. For argument’s sake, Luther is moving into the field of impracticalities, things that a thinking person runs up against when he tries to support the current indulgence trafficking and at the same time meet other obligations rooted deeply in the Gospel.
40. The truth about contrition seeks and loves penalties; the liberality of indulgences relaxes penalties and at very least gives occasion for hating them.
This carries the last thesis a bit further. The Christian’s task is to accept penalties that are part of contrition, recognizing them as useful for his soul’s health. This is not easy, but it can be done. But the task gets harder when he and everyone around him knows that the church has just given him for a reasonable fee the right to walk away from them. Now the benefit he supposedly was set to derive from these penalties is deemed negligible, and the temptation to hate them deemed no temptation at all. Yet, they should be borne graciously, even with thanksgiving!
41. Apostolic indulgences are to be preached with caution, so that the people do not mistakenly think that they are to be preferred to other good works of love.
By apostolic indulgences Luther means simply indulgences, thought of not as coming out of the air, but traced back through the pope to Peter and the other apostles—hence their potency and desirability. So impressed were many people that they thought that buying one was preferable to simple, old-fashioned charitable works performed with a measure of self-denial. Money, of course, played a part in a person’s thinking, tending to crowd out things noble and good. And preachers were expected to exaggerate the good effects of indulgences and the common sense that recognizes them as a remarkably good buy. If you give something to a beggar, he eats for a day or two. If you buy your mother out of purgatory, she is in heaven permanently. Logic and reasonableness unchecked can distort everything. All human thinking must be lashed to the mast of the Gospel. The love of money has no standing in the Gospel and is therefore the root of all evils. Faith-love, a major factor in faith-life, allows things to fall in their true and rightful place.
42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the acquiring of indulgences to be compared in any way with works of mercy.
Acquiring indulgences does not compare to works of mercy. This could have been said without reference to the pope. Luther crafts the notion with reference to the pope for a reason. He wanted his opponents to be forced to champion a pope of the character they were quietly attributing to him. Uncomfortable doing so, their eyes just might be opened. From a little different angle, he wanted to show that the indulgences mania was corrupting the church from top to bottom. By enlisting the pope on the side of the truth, he was setting him up in the minds of everyone as the one to lead people away from indulgences back to the basic truth about sanctification, that it is a matter of loving one’s neighbor as himself. This is indeed basic sanctification, because, as the Lord Jesus taught, it is “like unto” the commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul.
43. Christians are to be taught that the one who gives to a poor person or lends to the needy does a better deed than if a person acquires indulgences,
Luther wanted the last thesis discussed again, and so states it one more time with emphasis. He could well imagine men of blind loyalty to the ecclesiastical hierarchy scrambling to have it both ways. Yes, charitable loans and gifts are important, but no more so than indulgences! A coin in a beggar’s hand fills his stomach, but one that lands in the indulgence chest fills someone’s every need once and for all. Let the argument be fully discussed. With good, honest, Christ-enlightened discussion, the truth could win out. Someone might even bring up the difference between the continuous flow of mercy toward everyone at hand that characterized Jesus’ ministry, and the appropriation of widows’ houses that characterized His opponents’ ministry. Jesus was not a temporal Bread King. Though he fed the hungry by the thousands, he remained the Bread of Life come down from heaven to save souls. Then there is the observation of St. John, that one cannot love God whom he does not see if he has no love for his neighbor whom he can see.
44. because love grows through works of love and a person is made better; but through indulgences one is not made better but only freer from penalty.
This is the reason Luther gives for placing alms for the poor over coins for indulgences. But it may not fall favorably on the ears of today’s Lutherans. We may be inclined to ask, “Are people really made better through good works?” Well, if better means justified, the answer is no. Christ is our justification and righteousness: “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.” At the same time, it is certainly our object to grow in sanctification, that is, to be made better (not just become better, but be made better) every day. We want to walk through heaven’s gate as Christ-like as we can possibly be. That is why we never quit striving for improvement. Some of our growth in grace may be visible to us, some not. It makes no difference, for we should not like to dote on accomplishments. We know that we shall be judged truly and accurately when Christ comes from the throne of His Father. Right now, whatever others think of us, and even what we think of ourselves, is not the issue. So if, as this thesis asserts, we are made better when our faith in Christ Jesus our Lord is roused out of lethargy, fear, lust, smugness and indifference, what is this but the Gospel being brought to bear on our lives and stirring us up from head to toe? Indulgences promise only carnal relief.
45. Christians are to be taught that anyone who sees a destitute person and, while passing such a one by gives money for indulgences, does not buy indulgences of the pope but God’s wrath.
This is now the third time this comparison is made. The second hit harder than the first, and this one hits harder than the second. The person who passes by a destitute person in the manner of the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable and then digs in his pocket to buy an indulgence, though he thinks he is buying escape from Fatherly divine discipline, is buying God’s wrath. It is not merely that he has nothing to show for his expenditure; it’s worse than that. So we sing, “But open wide thy loving hand to all the poor of the land,” as Luther teaches us. People like to tell how Luther was so uncontrollably generous that had it not been for Katherine his wife, he would have given away the last bean in the cupboard. Good thing, they say, that Katie stepped in and saved the family. It might be better to think that it was the Lord who was supporting Luther so that he could indulge his generous heart. He does that sort of thing. Seldom does his support depend wholly on blessings literally falling from the sky. A good part of God’s support of Luther in his Good Samaritan ways was the gift of a fine and frugal wife for him to love and trust.
46. Christians ought to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must set aside enough for their household and by no means squander it on indulgences.
The tension in thesis forty-six is between what God actually desires (namely the fruits of the Gospel) and the false claims of the indulgence salesmen regarding what God wants. In this thesis Luther also displays a clear knowledge of the negative social consequences of indulgences, something that critics of the practice had been highlighting since the late fifteenth century. Their condemnation of indulgences had centered on the practice’s destructive economic impact, particularly among the poor who often spent their meager savings on indulgences, leaving their families to hunger. But unlike his fellow contemporary critics of indulgences, Luther responds to this social problem with a theological answer, the concept of Christian vocation. Executing one’s calling as familial provider is more God-pleasing than paying a penalty imposed as temporal punishment by the church.
47. Christians are to be taught that buying indulgences is a matter of free choice, not commanded.
Theses forty-seven through fifty-five have the quality and feel of direct responses to exaggerated claims and duplicitous, coercive tactics of the indulgence salesmen. Here the emphasis is on the intimidation of laymen and laywomen. And although he does not state it overtly, the notion of sola scriptura hovers in the background: indulgences are not biblically sanctioned, but rather they are a tradition of the church. Luther will soon argue that any commands or requirements that are extra-biblical are a matter of free will.
48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, while granting indulgences, needs and desires their devout prayer for him more than their money.
When the indulgence controversy broke, Luther claimed that it was not his intention to attack the papacy, but rather to protect its reputation and integrity from claims of overzealous indulgence hawkers, a claim supported by this thesis. Most beneficial to the pope himself is not the proceeds from indulgences, which would allow him to fulfill his duties with regard to the institutional church’s requirements, but rather the prayers of the faithful that would encourage him in his spiritual duties. Thus if indulgence salesmen gave the impression that buying indulgences was the best way to support the papacy, they do the pope a great disservice by suggesting that he considers the material more important than the spiritual.
49. Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful [for them] only if they do not put their trust in them, but extremely harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them.
Not only are indulgences destructive on the level of society (as noted in indulgence forty-six) but more importantly, misunderstanding their efficacy can lead to the soul’s perdition. The efficacy of indulgences is limited; they do not save from God’s judgment. That requires other means. If Christians are confused by the hawkers into believing that indulgences do have power to assuage God’s judgment and satisfy his demands, and as a result become convinced that they are right with God, their false sense of security will be the cause of their damnation.
50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the demands made by the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the Basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than that it be constructed using the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
Again Luther defends the integrity of the papacy, assuming that the pope does not know what is being preached in his name. Or is he being disingenuous? For clearly he knew that indulgences were a papal prerogative, and that half of the proceeds from those being sold in 1517 in the territory of Brandenburg, the border of which lay only a few miles north of Wittenberg, were designated for rebuilding of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. It is interesting here that Luther refers to the destructive nature of indulgences to the body rather than the soul (as he did in thesis forty-six). Again Luther is linking up with late medieval critiques of the indulgence practices, but he is grounding his critique in theology. Works of Christian love and care of neighbor are more God-pleasing than even the most important church building in Christendom.
51. Christians are to be taught that the pope ought to give and would want to give of his own wealth—even selling the Basilica of St. Peter—to those from whom certain declaimers of indulgences are wheedling money.
Thesis fifty-one pushes the point of thesis fifty even further. More important to the pope than church property—even that of the chief church in Christendom—is the material welfare of the faithful. Whether this is a pointed critique regarding the false claims of the indulgence salesmen or Luther is looking over their shoulder at the papacy itself is unclear. It may well be that Luther is attacking the extreme wealth of the church, a common target of criticism in the early sixteenth century.
52. It is vain to trust in salvation by means of indulgence letters, even if the [indulgence] agent – or even the pope himself – were to offer his own soul as security for them.
With this thesis Luther concludes and summarizes this section on the false claims of the indulgence salesmen and his concomitant defense of the integrity of the papacy. Indulgences have no impact on the eternal welfare of the soul, despite what the indulgence salesmen appear to be claiming. Is he only reacting against the exaggerated claims of the indulgence salesmen or is he also directly critiquing the papacy? There is no clear answer.
53. People who forbid the preaching of the Word of God in some churches altogether in order that indulgences may be preached in others are enemies of Christ and the pope.
In theses fifty-three through fifty-six, Luther attempts to reestablish the proper relationship between the value of the preaching of the Word and the merit of indulgences. When indulgence salesmen came to town, their arrival was accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets and drums, papal banners and symbols. Thereafter an open-air sermon in a town square that vividly recounted the terrors of hell was preached, followed by a procession to the largest church in the community where another sermon on purgatory and its awaiting pains, already being endured by deceased relatives, occurred. One can only imagine the commotion such an event made in the small towns of Germany. All the way from Rome, the Holy Father himself sends a message of hope and a means of reducing a sentence in purgatory. And to ensure that the entire populace took part, with the imprimatur of the church, the printed instruction manual for the indulgence salesmen indicated that no other preaching should take place at the time appointed for the salesman’s sermon. But for Luther, already in 1517, the Word and its preachment trump everything else, certainly indulgences. Anything that prohibits it is by definition antithetical to both Christ, and assumes Luther, to his representative on earth.
54. An injustice is done to the Word of God when, in the very same sermon, equal or more time is spent on indulgences than on the Word.
Luther sharpens the point articulated in the last thesis. Not only may indulgence preaching not displace the preaching of The word, it may not even be given preference within a sermon. The Word stands above all else.
55. It is necessarily the pope’s intent that if indulgences, which are a completely insignificant thing, are celebrated with one bell, one procession, and one ceremony, then the gospel, which is the greatest thing of all, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, and a hundred ceremonies.
Here the reader is given some insight into the pomp surrounding the proclamation of indulgences. Luther’s point is that if such ceremony is provided for indulgences, “a completely insignificant thing,” then the gospel, “the greatest thing of all,” deserves one hundred times such ceremony.
56. The treasures of the church, from which the pope distributes indulgences, are not sufficiently discussed or known among Christ’s people.
With this thesis, Luther introduces a new line of attack that will be sustained through thesis sixty-eight, an assault that goes to the very heart of the concept of indulgences, weighing in on the dubious notion of the “treasury of merits” or “treasury of grace” as it was sometimes called. The church’s sacrament of penance was divided into three parts: contrition, the act of experiencing remorse for a sin; confession, the act of confessing the sin to a priest and requesting absolution; and satisfaction, the act of performing penance or punishment for a sin as deemed appropriate by the priest. Although the priest pronounced absolution directly after the confession, the sinner was nonetheless required to carry out some form of satisfaction, a temporal punishment (as opposed to the eternal punishment of hell) that might include going on a pilgrimage, almsgiving, supporting a Crusade, or giving money for a church or hospital. Failure to do so meant that satisfaction for the sin remained to be completed at some later point in a person’s life, or after his or her death in the torments of purgatory.
Although the idea of indulgences originated already in the era of the Crusades (1095), it was not until the fourteenth century that the notion of the “treasury of merit” was added to the system of penance, thereby laying the groundwork for the understanding of indulgences current in Luther’s day. The treasury of merit was a repository for all the works of supererogation, actions performed by Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints that went above and beyond what was required for salvation. In other words, these persons, through their good works, had produced more merit than was necessary for themselves, and that excess merit was now stored in a treasury in heaven – a treasury to which the church had access. An indulgence then, was the application of a portion of that merit to the sinner in order to “satisfy” the punishment required by the priest for a monetary sum.
In this thesis Luther begins to question the church’s entire notion of the “treasury,” a concept he will consider at length in the coming theses.
57. That [these treasures] are not transient worldly riches is certainly clear, because many of the [indulgence] declaimers do not so much freely distribute such riches as only collect them.
Luther starts with the most basic question: does the treasury consist of earthly riches or of something spiritual? But he also uses this thesis to articulate the bitter irony associated with the indulgence salesmen’s greed: claiming to distribute spiritual treasures, they set their hearts on earthly treasure.
58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the saints, because, even without the pope, these merits always work grace for the inner person and cross, death, and hell for the outer person.
This Thesis became a heated point of contention in Luther’s interview with Cardinal Cajetan in 1518. Church doctrine claimed that the treasury of merit was filled with the excess merit achieved by works of supererogation. Here Luther is addressing the issue of the efficacy of such merit. It does not remove the penalty required to achieve satisfaction for sins—the earthly requirements of ecclesiastical discipline. Rather the merits of Christ and the saints perform something deeper and more expansive: they provide grace to repentant sinners while at the same time mortifying their sinful proclivities. To reduce such merits to mere satisfaction for penalties imposed by the church is woefully to underestimate their purpose and powers.
59. St. Laurence said that the poor of the church were the treasures of the church, but he spoke according to the usage of the word “treasure” in his own time.
Luther here refers to the legend of St. Lawrence, who lived in the mid-third century under the persecutions of the Roman emperor Valerian. A young Spanish theologian, Lawrence had been named archdeacon in Rome, a position that put him in charge of the church’s riches and its outreach to the poor. When the Emperor captured him, he demanded that the archdeacon turn over all the riches of the Church, giving him three days to collect them. Lawrence quickly sold the church’s vessels, gave the money to widows and the sick, and distributed the Church’s property to the poor. When summoned on the third day to meet the emperor to present the treasure of the church, Lawrence gestured to the crowds of poor, crippled, blind, and suffering people: “These are the true treasures of the Church.” Lawrence’s sleight of hand in this pious story, his reference to the poor as the treasure of the church, was not the same “treasure of the church” connected to indulgences, argues Luther. Like the last two theses, Luther argues first for what the treasure of the church is not, before turning his attention to what it is.
60. Not without cause, we say that the keys of the church (given by the merits of Christ) are that treasure.
In this context, the “keys of the church,” argues Timothy Wengert, must be seen as a synonym for the gospel of forgiveness. The product or power of the merit of Christ is not satisfaction in the medieval system of penance, as the indulgence salesmen were arguing, but the good news that sins had been forgiven, that peace with God had been restored. To limit the treasure to the mere escape from temporal penalty was to crassly underestimate its value and power.
61. For it is clear that the pope’s power only suffices for the remission of [ecclesiastical] penalties and for [legal] actions.
Luther returns to his warning that papal authority must not be confused with the workings of God, this time in the context of his discussion of the treasury of the church. In his own explanation of the Ninety-five Theses, he provides a lengthy exposition of the difference between the power of the pope and the merits of Christ, arguing emphatically that the two are distinct from one another, and that the pope has recourse in binding and losing only to the former.
62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.
Finally Luther articulates what the treasure of the church is: the Gospel message or promise of full forgiveness, which is itself a reflection of the glory and grace of God. This has nothing to do with works of supererogation, nor does the pope control it. Moreover, those who have understood the message of the Gospel (i.e. Christians) no longer fear death or punishment, for they understand that their sins are forgiven by its saving word. Those, therefore, who still fear punishment and death and who, on account of that fear are moved to purchase indulgences, only prove in so doing that they have not yet understood Christ’s saving Gospel message, but remain captive to the law of Moses.
63. But this treasure is deservedly the most hated, because it makes “the first last.”
With this thesis, Luther begins a section in which he groups theses in pairs of two that are linked in their content, often by juxtaposing the power and efficacy of indulgences with the power and efficacy of God’s grace. For example, in this thesis and the next, the “last” to whom Luther refers are the poor in spirit, the contrite, the lowly and perhaps even those who understand the edifying punishment of God; the first are the proud, the wealthy, and the unrepentant. Because the true treasure of the church, the Gospel message, humbles the contrite hearer, it is hated and despised by those who reject it and continue to insist that they are to be “first.”
64. In contrast, the treasure of indulgences is deservedly the most acceptable, because it makes “the last first.”
Here Luther reiterates the point he made in thesis sixty-two, that those who have received the Gospel message and live by faith have already received forgiveness and require no indulgences. Thus, those who purchase indulgences use them as an easy way out, making them most acceptable in the view of humanity.
65. Therefore, the treasures of the gospel are nets with which they formerly fished for men of wealth.
If the true wealth and treasure of the church is a humble, contrite heart, in the past the Gospel spoke to those receptive to such ideas. Its promises captured their hearts, provided consolation and comfort, not in spite of, but because of the edifying pain and suffering of judgment. So the Gospel spoke to the spiritually minded.
66. The treasures of indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the wealth of men.
Again, the treasure of indulgences does the opposite. Its focus is not the spiritually wealthy, but those with thick pocketbooks. The fruit borne by indulgences is money, not souls.
67. Indulgences, which the declaimers shout about as the greatest “graces,” are indeed understood as such–insofar as they promote profits.
Luther continues his juxtaposition of the materialism of indulgences and the spiritualism of the Gospel. The “declaimers” in this thesis are the indulgence hawkers, who choose not to explain the theology of indulgences, because then they will be caught in their dissimulation. Rather, they lead the people to believe, falsely, that the grace of God can be purchased. The only benefit of their work is financial profit.
68. Yet they are in truth the least of all when compared to the grace of God and the goodness of the cross.
Compared to the benefits of God’s grace, and his demonstration of love for humankind on the cross, the profits accrued by the indulgences salesmen are worthless.
69. Bishops and parish priests are bound to admit agents of the Apostolic indulgences with all reverence.
In this thesis, Luther demonstrates that he still holds the authority of the papacy as the head of the church in high regard. The pope rules over the church, a hierarchical institution, and those subject to him are expected to and indeed, required to do his will – in this case, to allow the papacy’s indulgence salesmen into their dioceses and parishes. Luther cautions, however, that the pope’s authority extends only to the earthly ecclesiastical realm. Therefore, while his rulings must be obeyed, they are not to be blindly considered right. Rather, they are burdens to be borne in the spirit of turning the other cheek, rather than to be feared or embraced. They do not have the power to affect a person’s soul.
70. But all of them are much more bound to strain eyes and ears intently, so that these [agents] do not preach their own daydreams in place of the pope’s commission.
Having confirmed the pope’s authority to sell indulgences throughout Christendom in the last thesis, Luther now flips the tables by articulating the responsibilities of the bishops and parish priests regarding the sale of indulgences in their areas. He warns of the danger that the indulgence salesmen will claim that the indulgences are worth more than they are. The bishops and priests are therefore charged to strain their senses in their vigilance in spotting such abuse.
71. Let the one who speaks against the truth of the Apostolic indulgences be anathema and accursed,
Theses seventy-one and seventy-two are a reiteration of the previous two, but from a slightly different angle. Here Luther again supports the notion that indulgences are legitimate and beneficial, albeit minimally so in comparison with the enormous benefit of God’s grace. Nevertheless, because the pope does possess the power to remit temporal punishments, the papacy has the right to proclaim indulgences. Thus, one who denies this right violates his required obedience to the pope, and is not only a liar, but should be considered accursed.
72. but let the one who guards against the arbitrary and unbridled words used by declaimers of indulgences be blessed.
Having proved that the pope has the right, by virtue of the power inherent in his office to grant indulgences, Luther now turns on those who abuse those indulgences by twisting their meaning, and falsely interpreting the Word of God in order to exaggerate the power of indulgences. In so doing, they do not lead the faithful closer to God, but seduce them into falsity. Those who guard against such “declaimers” are therefore worthy of blessing.
73. Just as the pope justly thunders against those who, in whatever way they can, contrive to harm the sale of indulgences,
Here Luther drives home his point: the pope possesses the power of the keys, which is to be respected by all of his subjects, even if he uses that power wrongly. The pope is therefore right to oppose those who seek to prevent the sale of indulgences. One wonders how Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise, who had outlawed the sale of this particular indulgence in his lands, would have reacted to this thesis.
74. much more so does he intend to thunder against those who, under the pretext of indulgences, contrive to harm holy love and the truth.
Christians are called upon to respect and obey the authorities placed over them, including the pope. They are not, however, to approve of abuses or misuses of that power. Luther reiterates the importance of ensuring that indulgences do not displace the truth of the Gospel as a means of enlivening Christian love and articulating the truth.
75. To imagine that papal indulgences are so great that they could absolve a person even for doing the impossible by violating the mother of God is insanity.
Luther claims that Tetzel said this, a claim that Tetzel consistently denied (Wengert, 23, n. 91.) Yet Luther uses this example to emphasize the point that the overblown (not to mention offensive and even blasphemous) claims of the indulgence salesmen about the power of indulgences puffs up their worth in the eyes of the common people, while at the same time diminishing the efficacy and importance of the Gospel.
76. We say on the contrary that papal indulgences cannot remove the very least of venial sins as far as guilt is concerned.
It might be said that the act of purchasing these papal indulgences is indeed an act of contrition by the purchaser and making this investment for a departed loved one is a fine and touching act of love. But forgiveness requires that we confess our sins and then receive the absolution from the minister as from God Himself. A document from the Pope signed in his office hundreds of miles from Wittenberg for a yet-to-be-determined sinner falls pitiably short of proper absolution and forgiveness for any sin. What a shame to mislead the humble Christian with such a ruse!
Further, what distinguishes a venial sin from a mortal sin has never been adequately defined. The very expression “venial sin” leads people to be casual about their sins. Christians would do well to consider themselves full of mortal sins, such that even their good works stand in need of God’s pardoning mercy.
77. To say that even St. Peter if he were now pope, could not grant greater graces is blasphemy against St. Peter and the pope.
The apostle Cephas acquired the name Petrus when he made the faithful confession to his Lord that he believed that He, Jesus, was the Christ. The rock upon which Jesus built His church was not the disciple but the statement, the keys entrusted to all who believe the statement. In the confessional section of our liturgy we endow the called and ordained minister with the position to forgive sins in the stead and by the command of the Lord. This is all done in a heartfelt personal way—free of charge. Christ redeemed us from death and the devil not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood.
78. We say on the contrary that even the present pope, or any pope whatsoever, has greater graces at his disposal, that is, the gospel, spiritual powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written. (I Co 12[:28])
We often talk of the power of prayer. We Christians employ it daily for loved ones, for those who are ill, for our rulers, for all. Healing, spiritual comfort, Jesus’ news of salvation in his words and the words of others moved by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures are the sources of grace. These great powers are at the Pope’s fingertips. Note I Corinthians 12:28: And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.
Such authority granted to the Pope or any minister of God is the power of the Keys: the keys to open the gates of heaven to the penitent believer. One word of the Gospel affords the Pope more power of grace than a stack of indulgences.
79. To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy.
The cross as a symbol of a group is quite striking in itself. Could we imagine boasting of the emblem of a hangman’s noose or an electric chair? That the cross is the Christian symbol is a wonder and indeed was so intended by God: an innocent man, God’s beloved Son, is executed in the stead of sinners—hardened criminals— who truly merited such a ghastly execution.
The cross as a symbol of Christ’s expiation of sin can be an effective reminder of the sinner’s path to salvation But turning it into a charm—like the brass serpent became to the erring people of Israel– is contrary to the true worth of the cross of Christ. Moses erected the brass serpent to rescue the children of Israel from the fiery serpents; Hezekiah later destroyed it when it became an idol they named Nehushtan [“brass” and “serpent” have a similar sound in the original].
It is blasphemy to idolize the cross adorning the papal coat-of-arms. It supplants God and Christ. It turns the crucifix into an idol. One can almost feel Luther’s horror, anger, and sadness each time he viewed a papal-seal-embossed indulgence.
80. The bishops, curates, and theologians who permit such talk to be spread among the people will have to answer for this.
One must always ask what he can do to serve God. Everyone in any position in life serves God in all he or she does throughout his or her faith-life. To turn a blind eye, to say it is someone else’s duty, or to walk on the other side of the road when you see the injured and bloody man lying in the ditch will require the turn-the-other-way cleric someday to explain this to God. The Good Samaritan stepped in to help the man on the road—unlike the clergy who ignored it.
Clergy members who turn a blind eye to the sham of indulgences will not be blameless before their Lord.
81. This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity.
Think of how the current-day scandals of sexual molestation among the Catholic priesthood have rocked Christendom. Our Lord cautioned against hypocrisy strongly: hypocrisy injures souls. It also opens up the church of God to ridicule and derogation. Breaching the wall of reverence is an almost irreparable crack: the preaching of indulgences has caused such a rift in the house of the Lord.
82. Such as: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.
In this thesis Luther confronts the Pope with the illogic of indulgences: if you can release the soul from purgatory, why don’t you just do it? Why do you free the tortured soul only if you get money to build a church?
83. Again, “Why are funeral and anniversary masses for the dead continued and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded for them, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?”
The pope should refund the money endowed for masses for the dead; it is, in fact, double-dipping, paying for the masses and then later buying an indulgence for the same purpose.
The reasoned, lawyer-like charges in Theses 82 and 83 remind one of Dr. Luther’s statements as he stood before the monarch Charles V at the Diet of Worms. Luther had been asked to retract his statements, recant, and deny the truths in his writing. After a night’s consideration he said:
Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.
On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.
One might be uncomfortable with Luther’s reliance on reasoning and conscience. His deference to the Scriptures makes sense, but why does he rely on reason or conscience? The posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 mark the early stages of Luther’s spiritual awakening. Does his rational, reasonable invitation to debate them seem, shall we say, “un-Lutheran”? Is this something Luther would later step back from?
No, it doesn’t seem so. His response at the Diet of Worms in 1521 makes the same appeal to reason and conscience. It appears that reliance upon the Christian mind to use reason, based upon Scripture to make one’s decision, is fitting and necessary. It is a weapon a Christian wields during the daily trials of life–from standing before potentates to walking down the street. Conscience is a voice that grows louder in a Christian’s ears; it is a wonderful gift of God that He deigns in His Fatherly mercy to make a conscience captive to His Word. Luther’s Scripture-guided reason and his captive-to-God conscience served him well in his life and blessed God’s church.
Where modern hymns, especially from Reformed groups, often sing about God’s love and our love for God, Christ’s love and how happy this all is and how glad it makes us, Luther preserved the fear of God together with the joy of salvation. He too would encourage Christians, one and all, to rejoice, but his hymns would often end with the reasoned warning based upon Christ’s own warning to “watch and pray.” Rejoice, yes, but use your head! Luther writes:
Take heed lest men with base alloy
This heavenly treasure should destroy;
This counsel I bequeath thee.
The Lutheran Hymnal, Hymn 387
84. Again, “What is this new piety of God and the pope that for a consideration of money they permit a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God and do not rather, because of the need of that pious and beloved soul, free it for pure love’s sake?”
Formerly it was understood that contrition was necessary for purchasing a valid indulgence. Tetzel and his fellows introduced this innovation, that contrition is not necessary if one is purchasing an indulgence on behalf of a soul in purgatory. This thesis strikes sharply in a rhetorical question: Does God and the pope’s love now equate to money? Is great love tantamount to a great amount of money? Do God and the pope love those who can pay while they despise those who can’t pay?
85. Again, “Why are the penitential canons, long since abrogated and dead in actual fact and through disuse, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences as though they were still alive and in force?”
Well-reasoned and forceful: why are indulgences still sold? See Thesis 12.
More sharp questions follow in the next Theses.
These last ten Theses can be divided into two parts. Theses 86-91conclude what Luther later called the confutation which also includes Theses 81-85. The last five Theses, numbers 92-95, are Luther’s conclusion or peroration.
86. Again, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
Luther continues voicing objections to indulgences raised by thoughtful laypeople. This Thesis speaks of money. Luther could see that the real purpose of indulgences was to raise money. He knew that the pope was trying to raise money for building the new St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome, and that is where half of the money collected from these indulgences would go. Luther was probably not aware that the other half of the money from these indulgences was to repay the loan to the Fugger banking family which Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz had borrowed to pay the pope for allowing him to also become Archbishop of Mainz. Luther knew that the pope himself had great wealth and says here that the pope’s wealth is greater than the richest Crassus. Crassus, whose name means “the Fat,” lived from 115 to 53 BC. He was a Roman general and politician and acquired such wealth that beside Augustus Caesar he is considered the wealthiest man in Roman history. Luther in this Thesis considers the pope’s wealth even greater than the wealth of Crassus and asks why the pope does not use his own money to build St. Peter’s. In Thesis 51 Luther had also referred to the pope’s wealth saying that the pope “should wish to give of his own money” for St. Peter’s. The pope however hopes to raise money by selling these indulgences which the poor people will buy since they believe this will take away some of their guilt. But sins are forgiven freely by God through faith in Christ Jesus. It is therefore not necessary to buy forgiveness. Luther knew this from his study of the Epistle to the Romans. In chapter three St. Paul says that justification is a gift and not something to be bought. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24 ESV). The apostle further elaborates that this is a free gift as he writes in chapter five of Romans, “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:15-17 ESV). From passages such as these Luther could clearly see that basis for indulgences was contrary to Scripture. Justification and forgiveness are free; they are not something which can be bought with money as the hawkers of indulgences were preaching.
87. Again, “Why does not the pope remit or grant to those who by perfect contrition already have a right to full remission and blessings?”
In this Thesis Luther also refers directly to the pope and asks why the pope does not grant full remission to those who have a right to it by their contrition. Indulgences imply that one does not have full remission, but one must buy an indulgence to obtain further remission. Remission, however, is not something to be bought, it was won by Christ’s death on the cross. Did not our Lord say when he died, “It is finished!”? (John 19:30). If the work of redemption was finished, why does one need to buy indulgences? Our redemption was won for us by the perfect suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ and is a free gift to us by faith. In thesis 36 Luther had stated, “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.” And in Thesis 37, “Any true Christian whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.” And as stated above in Romans 3 and 5, remission is a gift; it cannot be earned or bought. Luther knew this from his study of Romans and thus says in this thesis that Christians have a right to full remission, thus implying there is no need to buy an indulgence to obtain this remission.
88. Again, “What greater blessing could come to the church than if the pope were to bestow these remissions and blessings on every believer a hundred times a day, as he now does but once?”
Here again Luther refers directly to the pope and asks why the pope does not give these remissions and blessing which are now being sold in these indulgences to believers not just once a day but a hundred times a day. The letter of indulgence entitled its owner to remission “once in life and in the article of death.” If the pope could grant this once a day wouldn’t it be better if it were then done one hundred times a day? Luther here wonders why the pope does not do this.
89. “Since the pope seeks the salvation of souls rather than money by his indulgences, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons previously granted when they have equal efficacy?”
Again Luther mentions the pope, and here he emphasizes that the important thing is the salvation of souls. When Jubilee indulgences were preached, other indulgences were suspended so that the current indulgences would be purchased. With the real purpose underlying the selling of indulgences being to raise money, this suspension would encourage the purchase of the current indulgence. Luther here argues that previously granted indulgences should also still be effective. The suspending of other indulgences showed that the real purpose of the indulgences was to raise money, and thus there was then no actual effort to save souls.
90. To repress these very sharp arguments of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies and to make Christians unhappy.
This seems to be the way of the church, to enforce things by simply saying “this is the way it is” and not giving any reasons. This does not help the laity in their faith. Faith is fortified by using Scripture. That is why Luther based his faith only on Scripture (Sola Scriptura). He did not simply blindly accept what the church said. In this Thesis he then says that using force alone opens the church and the pope to ridicule because people expect reasons for what is being taught and practiced. Christians are not happy when they are just told that this is what you must accept without being given any reasons, reasons which should be based on Scripture.
91. If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist.
It seems the spirit and intention of the pope was to raise money with these indulgences. If the church then simply preached that it needed money there would then be no doubt what the intention of the indulgences were. All would know that they were in reality a money raising scheme. It would then not need to be preached that people were buying remission for their sins with the buying of these indulgences. Luther faults the indulgence sellers for the abuses and still credits the pope with proper motives, though this does seem like a stretch.
92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! [Jer. 6:14].
With this Thesis Luther begins his conclusion. The hawkers of indulgences were preaching to the people that there was peace for their souls and less time in purgatory when they purchased these indulgences. But in fact this was not true and thus there was no real peace with the purchase of an indulgence. Luther is here quoting from Jeremiah chapter 6 where the prophet says, “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:13-14). The prophet has stated that the Lord plans to destroy Jerusalem, but some were saying “’Peace, peace’ when there was no peace. The Lord meant what he said when he warned that he would destroy the city. With indulgences it was implied that there would be peace with God, but peace with God can only be found through Christ, not by the buying of indulgences.
93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!
Here Luther is making a play on the words “‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace” from the former Thesis, now saying, “‘Cross, cross,’ and there is no cross.” Perhaps we can better understand what Luther meant here from the following: “In a letter to Michael Dressel, 22 June, 1516, Luther had written: ‘It is not that man, therefore, whom no one disturbs who has peace—which is, indeed, the peace of the world—but he whom all men and all things harass and who yet bears all quietly with joy. You say with Israel: ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace; say rather with Christ, ‘Cross, cross,’ and there is no cross. For the cross ceases to be a cross as soon as you say joyfully: ‘Blessed cross, there is no tree like you’” (Preserved Smith, Luther, p. 32). Again true peace can only be found in the cross of Christ, not through the purchasing of indulgences.
94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death, and hell.
Here Luther exhorts Christian believers to follow their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and in doing so diligently be willing to suffer for him. Christians must take up their cross and follow the Lord Jesus even if it means suffering and death. The Christian life should involve following the Lord, not buying indulgences.
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace [Acts 14:22].
Luther concludes his Ninety-Five Theses by referring to what St. Paul and Barnabas said at the end of the first missionary journey, when they were departing from Antioch in Pisidia. Before leaving to return to Antioch in Syria and report to the church there that had sent them out on this journey they were as we hear in Acts “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Our Lord himself refers to this tribulation in his last words to the disciples at the end of John chapter 16: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV). So then we must expect tribulation and it is through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God. Indulgences may give a security of peace with God but it is as Luther says a “false security.” True security cannot be bought, it was won for us by Christ our Lord on the cross. Luther then ends his Ninety-Five theses with this final statement that indulgences only give a false security because true security can only be found in Christ.