Friday, October 31, 2014

Dr. Martin Luther, the Corruption of Rome, John Tetzel and Indulgences, and the Ninety-five Theses

Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Seiss
Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Seiss
Today, October 31, the Festival of the Reformation, is the anniversary of the opening of the Reformation in Germany. On this day in 1517, Martin Luther, out of concern for the souls of those entrusted to his spiritual care, having been ignored by the bishops to whom he had sent letters requesting that they take action against the false teaching and practices of John Tetzel, and urgently desiring that the issue be brought forth for discussion, announced his intention to hold a disputation on the topic of Indulgences by posting his Ninety-five Theses and inviting disputants to debate them. The following post is a brief history of events leading up to that event, followed by the Theses themselves – including the introductory letter that Luther used to preface the copy sent to his Archbishop. The history is taken from a work authored by Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Seiss in 1888: Luther and the Reformation: The Life-Springs of Our Liberties. Seiss, a co-founder of the General Council along with Charles Porterfield Krauth, was known as a very eloquent preacher, he was the author of many works influential in his time, including a full series of Postils. One peculiarity worth noting about Seiss, was his hold to the doctrine of premillenialism, a doctrine for which he is probably most well known, and disliked by Lutherans, even today. Indeed, of the doctrinal issues unresolved by the Council, and preventing the Council from reaching the general Doctrinal Unity toward which it strived, the question of millenialism was among the chiefest, along with several issues related to Church Fellowship. Regardless of his millenialism, his Reformation narrative, from which the post below is drawn, is concise yet also full of information that is not commonly shared in shorter narratives such as this, it is engaging, swiftly moving and very well-written.

An English translation of Luther’s Ninety-five Thesis follows Seiss’ narrative. A work produced by Anglicans, it was published in 1885. What I found particularly interesting about this version of the Thesis is that, in addition to just the Ninety-five Thesis that Luther affixed to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg – which is what one normally is presented with on the Festival of the Reformation – this version also includes the Introductory Letter that was included by Luther in the copy that was sent to his Archbishop. This letter is a clear witness to Luther’s humility and devotion as a loyal son of the Church. He was not acting out of rebellion against the Church or those in authority over him, but against false doctrine and practice which, being committed in the name of the Church and of Christ, soiled Her image and blasphemed Her Bridegroom. Luther only sought to restore concord and peace in the Church under its teachings. This is very important context to the Theses themselves, which are too often described or pictured as some act of defiant heroism, when this isn’t really the case.

It is my hope that the reader finds these works edifying. It is also my hope that, in reviewing history more closely, modern readers may be more well-equipped to see exactly how history has a way of repeating itself, even in the Church. As one reads the history printed below, he should take notice of the following:
  • Clergy, viewing and conducting themselves as a separate and superior class of Christian from the laity, grow corrupt, tolerating and at times encouraging gross immorality in their midst
  • Extravagance and corruption bankrupt the Church
  • The Church in its corruption calls upon false teachers, and embraces false practices, to refill and maintain its coffers
  • True “sons of the church,” out of growing concern over increasingly manifest corruption and tolerance of false doctrine and practice, write letters to their bishops
  • The bishops ignore their letters
  • Corruption, false doctrine and practice, and tolerance for them, continue to fester and grow
  • Concerned now for the eternal welfare of souls in their midst, loyal “sons of the church” begin to speak openly of the problems, and voice opposition against corruption, false doctrine and false practice:
      Their friends and allies warn them of “the trouble it will cause” and “timidly advise them to remain silent” or “shake their heads and seek to quash such dangerous proceedings”
      Their enemies rave and plot against them
  • Corruption, false doctrine and practice, and tolerance for them, continue to fester and grow
  • With the problems resulting from corruption and false doctrine growing acute, loyal “sons of the church” announce their intention to have public discussion and debate over the issues
  • No one shows up
  • Corruption, false doctrine and practice, and tolerance for them, continue to fester and grow
  • In lieu of formal public discussion and debate, which will not be enjoined by those who stand to lose material wealth or position, loyal “sons of the church” publish and disseminate their writings
  • With the complicity of their silent friends, their enemies continue to rave against them, “denouncing them as heresiarchs, heretics, and schismatics”
  • These loyal “sons of the church” are eventually excommunicated or driven out, along with a small following.
But where is the true Church? Martin Luther preaches in his Sermon on the Epistle text for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity that, “When unity becomes division, certainly two sects cannot both be the true Church. If one is godly, the other must be the devil’s own.” Are such excommunicates outside the Church? Martin Luther, in his Sermon on the Epistle text for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, further elucidates:
    “Above all things, then, the effort must be to preserve, in the Church, the doctrine of the Scriptures, pure and in its unity.

    “One of the wickedest offenses possible to commit against the Church is the stirring up of doctrinal discord and division, a thing the devil encourages to the utmost. This sin usually has its rise with certain haughty, conceited, self-seeking leaders who desire peculiar distinction for themselves and strive for personal honor and glory. They harmonize with none and would think themselves disgraced were they not honored as superior and more learned individuals than their fellows, a distinction they do not merit. They will give honor to no one, even when they have to recognize the superiority of his gifts over their own. In their envy, anger, hatred and vengefulness, they seek occasion to create factions and to draw people to themselves. Therefore Saint Paul exhorts first to the necessary virtue of love, the having of which will enable men to exercise humility, patience and forbearance toward one another.

    “The character of the evils resulting to the Church from divisions and discords in doctrine is evident from the facts. Many are deceived; the masses immediately respond to new doctrine brilliantly presented in specious words by presumptuous individuals thirsting for fame. More than that, many weak but well-meaning ones fall to doubting, uncertain where to stand or with whom to hold. Consequently men reject and blaspheme the Christian doctrine and seek occasion to dispute it... Of so much disturbance in the Church, and of the resulting injuries to souls, are guilty those conceited, factious leaders who do not adhere to the true doctrine, preserving the ‘unity of the Spirit,’ but seek to institute something new for the sake of advancing their own ideas and their own honor, or gratifying their revenge. They thus bring upon themselves damnation infinitely more intolerable than others suffer...

    “But they are not members of the true Church of Christ who, instead of preserving unity of doctrine and oneness of Christian faith, cause divisions and offenses – as Saint Paul says in Romans 16:17 – by the human doctrines and self-appointed works for which they contend, imposing them upon all Christians as necessary for salvation. They are perverters and destroyers of the Church, as we have elsewhere frequently shown. The consolation of the true doctrine is ours, and we hold it in opposition to Popedom, which accuses us of having withdrawn from them, and so condemns us as apostates from the Church. They are, however, themselves the real apostates, persecuting the Truth and destroying the ‘unity of the Spirit’ under the name and title of the Church and of Christ. Therefore, according to the command of God, all men are under obligation to shun them and withdraw from them.”
Concord, or unity under pure doctrine, is vitally important to the life of the Church. It was the reason for the Ninety-five Theses, and consequently the Reformation; and it will remain the reason for the necessity of continuing division in the Church here on earth.

Dr. Martin Luther
the Corruption of Rome
John Tetzel and Indulgences
and the Ninety-five Theses

Some men are colossal. Their characters are so massive, and their position in history is so towering, that other men can hardly get high enough to take their measure. An overruling Providence so endows and places them that they affect the world, turn its course into new channels, impart to it a new spirit, and leave their impress on all the ages after them. Even humble individuals, without titles, crowns, or physical armaments, have wrought themselves into the very life of the race and built their memorials in the characteristics of epochs.

History tells of a certain Saul of Tarsus, a lone and friendless man, stripped of all earthly possessions, forced into battle with a universe of enthroned superstition, encompassed by perils which threatened every hour to dissolve him, who, pressing his way over mountains of difficulty and through seas of suffering, and dying a martyr to his cause, gave to Europe a living God and to the nations another and an everlasting King.

We likewise read of a certain Christopher Columbus, brooding in lowly retirement upon the structure of the physical universe, ridiculed, frowned on by the learned, repulsed by court after court, yet launching out into the unknown seas to find an undiscovered hemisphere, and opening the way for persecuted Liberty to cradle the grand empire of popular rule amid the golden hills of a new and independent continent.

Dr. Martin Luther
Dr. Martin Luther
And in this category stands the name of MARTIN LUTHER.

He was a poor, plain man, only a doctor of divinity, without place except as a teacher in a university, without power or authority except in the convictions and qualities of his own soul, and with no implements save his Bible, tongue, and pen; but with him the ages divided and human history took a new departure.

Two pre-eminent revolutions have passed over Europe since the beginning of the Christian era. The one struck the Rome and rule of emperors; the other struck the Rome and rule of popes. The one brought the Dark Ages; the other ended them. The one overwhelmed the dominion of the Caesars; the other humiliated a more than imperial dominion reared in Caesar’s place. Alaric, Radagaisus, Genseric, and Attila were the chief instruments and embodiment of the first; Martin Luther was the chief instrument and embodiment of the second. The one wrought bloody desolation; the other brought blessed renovation, under which humanity has bloomed its happiest and its best.


We may not limit Providence. The work was to be done. Every interest of the world and of the kingdom of God demanded it. And if there had been no Luther at hand, someone else would have been raised up to serve in his place. But there was a Luther, and, as far as human insight can determine, he was the only man on earth competent to achieve the Reformation. And he it was who did achieve it.

Looked at in advance, perhaps no one would have thought of him for such an office. He was so humbly born, so lowly in station, so destitute of fortune, and withal so honest a Papist, that not the slightest tokens presented to mark him out as the chosen instrument to grapple with the magnitudinous tyranny by which Europe was enthralled.

But “God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.” Moses was the son of a slave. The founder of the Hebrew monarchy was a shepherd-boy. The Redeemer-King of the world was born in a stable and reared in the family of a village carpenter. And we need not wonder that the hero-prophet of the modern ages was the son of a poor toiler for his daily bread, and compelled to sing upon the street for alms to keep body and soul together while struggling for an education.

It has been the common order of Providence that the greatest lights and benefactors of the race, the men who rose the highest above the level of their kind and stood as beacons to the world, were not such as would have been thought of in advance for the mighty services which render their names immortal. And that the master spirit of the great Reformation was no exception all the more surely identifies that marvelous achievement as the work of an overruling God.


Luther was a Saxon German – a German of the Germans – born of that blood out of which, with but few exceptions, have sprung the ruling powers of the West since the last of the old Roman emperors. He came out of the bosom of the freshest, strongest, and hardiest peoples then existing – the direct descendants of those wild Cimbrian and Teutonic tribes who, even in their heathenism, were the most virtuous, brave, and true of all the Gentiles.

Nor was he the offspring of enfeebled, gouty, aristocratic blood. He was the son of the sinewy and sturdy yeomanry. Though tradition reports one of his remote ancestors in something of imperial place among the chieftains of the semi-savage tribes from which he was descended, when the period of the Reformation came his family was in like condition with that of the house of David when the Christ was born. His father and grandfather and great-grandfather, he says himself, were true Thuringian peasants.


In the early periods of the mediæval Church her missionaries came to these fiery warriors of the North and followed the conquests of Charlemagne, to teach them that they had souls, that there is a living and all-knowing God at whose judgment-bar all must one day stand to give account, and that it would then be well with the believing, brave, honest, true, and good, and ill with cowards, profligates, and liars. It was a simple creed, but it took fast hold on the Germanic heart, to show itself in sturdy power in the long after years.

This creed, in unabated force, descended to Luther’s parents, and lived and wrought in them as a controlling principle. They were also strict to render it the same in their children.

Hans Luther was a hard and stern disciplinarian, unsparing in the enforcement of every virtue.

Margaret Luther2 was noted among her neighbors as a model woman, and was so earnest in her inculcations of right that she preferred to see her son bleed beneath the rod rather than that he should do a questionable thing even respecting so small a matter as a nut.

From his childhood Luther was thus trained and attempered to fear God, reverence truth and honesty, and hate hypocrisy and lies. Possibly his parents were severer with him than was necessary, but it was well for him, as the prospective prophet of a new era, to learn absolute obedience to those who were to him the representatives of that divine authority which he was to teach the world supremely to obey.

But no birth, or blood, or parental drilling, or any mere human culture, could give the qualities necessary to a successful Reformer. The Church had fallen into all manner of evils, because it had drifted away from the apostolic doctrine as to how a man shall be just with God, which is the all-conditioning question of all right religion. There could then be no cure for those evils except by the bringing of the Church back to that doctrine. But to do anything effectual toward such a recovery it was pre-eminently required that the Reformer himself should first be brought to an experimental knowledge of what was to be witnessed and taught.

On two different theatres, therefore, the Reformation had to be wrought out: first, in the Reformer’s own soul, and then on the field of the world outside of him.


It is hard to take in the depth and magnitude of what is called The Great Reformation. It stands out in history like a range of Himalayan mountains, whose roots reach down into the heart of the world and whose summits pierce beyond the clouds.

To Bossuet and Voltaire it was a mere squabble of the monks; to others it was the cupidity of secular sovereigns and lay nobility grasping for the power, estates, and riches of the Church. Some treat of it as a simple reaction against religious scandals, with no great depths of principle or meaning except to illustrate the recuperative power of human society to cure itself of oppressive ills. Guizot, describes it as “a vast effort of the human mind to achieve its freedom – a great endeavor to emancipate human reason.” Lord Bacon takes it as the reawakening of antiquity and the recall of former times to reshape and fashion our own.

Whatever of truth some of these estimates may contain, they fall far short of a correct idea of what the Reformation was, or wherein lay the vital spring of that wondrous revolution. Its historic and philosophic centre was vastly deeper and more potent than either or all of these conceptions would make it. Many influences contributed to its accomplishment, but its inmost principle was unique. The real nerve of the Reformation was religious. Its life was something different from mere earthly interests, utilities, aims, or passions. Its seat was in the conscience. Its true spring was the soul, confronted by eternal judgment, trembling for its estate before divine A1mightiness, and, on pain of banishment from every immortal good, forced to condition and dispose itself according to the clear revelations of God. It was not mere negation to an oppressive hierarchy, except as it was first positive and evangelic touching the direct and indefeasible relations and obligations of the soul to its Maker. Only when the hierarchy claimed to qualify these direct relations and obligations, thrust itself between the soul and its Redeemer, and by eternal penalties sought to hold the conscience bound to human authorities and traditions, did the Reformation protest and take issue. Had the inalienable right and duty to obey God rather than man been conceded, the hierarchy, as such, might have remained, the same as monarchical government. But this the hierarchy negatived, condemned, and would by no means tolerate. Hence the mighty contest. And the heart, sum, and essence of the whole struggle was the maintenance and the working out into living fact of this direct obligation of the soul to God and the supreme authority of His clear and unadulterated word.


How Luther came to these principles, and the fiery trials by which they were burnt into him as part of his inmost self, is one of the most vital chapters in the history.

His father had designed him for the law. To this end he had gone through the best schools of Germany, taken his master’s degree, and was advancing in the particular studies relating to his intended profession, when a sudden change came over his life.

Religious in his temper and training, and educated in a creed which worked mainly on man’s fears, without emphasizing the only basis of spiritual peace, he fell into great terrors of conscience. Several occurrences contributed to this: (1) He fell sick, and was likely to die. (2) He accidentally severed an artery, and came near bleeding to death. (3) A bosom friend of his was suddenly killed. All this made him think how it would be with him if called to stand before God in judgment, and filled him with alarm. Then (4) he was one day overtaken by a thunderstorm of unwonted violence. The terrific scene presented to his vivid fancy all the horrors of a mediæval picture of the Last Day, and himself about to be plunged into eternal fire. Overwhelmed with terror, he cried to Heaven for help, and vowed, if spared, to devote himself to the salvation of his soul by becoming a monk. His father hated monkery, and he shared the feeling; but, if it would save him, why hesitate? What was a father’s displeasure or the loss of all the favors of the world to his safety against a hopeless perdition?

Call it superstition, call it religious melancholy, call it morbid hallucination, it was a most serious matter to the young Luther, and out of it ultimately grew the Reformation. False ideas underlay the resolve, but it was profoundly sincere and according to the ideas of ages. It was wrong, but he could not correct the error until he had tested it. And thus, by what he took as the unmistakable call of God, he entered the cloister.

Never a man went into a monastery with purer motives. Never a man went through the duties, drudgeries, and humiliations of the novitiate of convent-life with more unshrinking fidelity. Never a man endured more painful mental and bodily agonies that he might secure for himself an assured spiritual peace. Romanists have expressed their wonder that so pure a man thought himself so great a sinner. But a sinner he Was, as we all; and to avert the just anger of God he fasted, prayed, and mortified himself like an anchorite of the Thebaid. And yet no peace or comfort came.

A chained Bible lay in the monastery. He had previously found a copy of it in the library of the university. Day and night he read it, along with the writings of St. Augustine. In both he found the same pictures of man’s depravity which he realized in himself, but God’s remedy for sin he had not found. In the earnestness of his studies the prescribed devotions were betimes crowded out, and then he punished himself without mercy to redeem his failures. Whole nights and days together he lay upon his face crying to God, till he swooned in his agony. Everything his brother – monks could tell him he tried, but all the resources of their religion were powerless to comfort him or to beget a righteousness in which his anguished soul could trust.

It happened that one of the exceptionally enlightened and spiritual-minded monks of his time, John Staupitz, was then the vicar-general of the Augustinians in Saxony. On his tour of inspection he came to Erfurt, and there found Luther, a walking skeleton, more dead than alive. He was specially drawn to the haggard young brother. The genial and sympathizing spirit of the vicar-general made Luther feel at home in his presence, and to him he freely opened his whole heart, telling of his feelings, failures, and fears – his heartaches, his endeavors, his disappointments, and his despair. And God put the right words into the vicar-general’s mouth.

“Look to the wounds of Jesus,” said he, “and to the blood he shed for you, and there see the mercy of God. Cast yourself into the Redeemer’s arms, and trust in his righteous life and sacrificial death. He loved you first; love him in return, and let your penances and mortifications go.”

The oppressed and captive spirit began to feel its burden lighten under such discourse. God a God of love! Piety a life of love! Salvation by loving trust in a God already reconciled in Christ! This was a new revelation. It brought the sorrowing young Luther to the study of the Scriptures with a new object of search. He read and meditated, and began to see the truth of what his vicar said. But doubts would come, and often his gloom returned.

One day an aged monk came to his cell to comfort him. He said he only knew his Creed, but in that he rested, reciting, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” – “And do I not believe that?” said Luther. – “ Ah,” said the old monk, “you believe in the forgiveness of sins for David and Peter and the thief on the cross, but you do not believe in the forgiveness of sins for yourself. St. Bernard says the Holy Ghost speaks it to your own soul, Thy sins are forgiven thee.”

And so at last the right nerve was touched. The true word of God’s deliverance was brought home to Luther’s understanding. He was penitent and in earnest, and needed only this great Gospel hope to lift him from the horrible pit and the miry clay. As a light from heaven it came to his soul, and there remained, a comfort and a joy. The glad conclusion flashed upon him, never more to be shaken, “If God, for Christ’s sake, takes away our sins, then they are not taken away by any works of ours.”

The foundation-rock of a new world was reached.

Luther saw not yet what all this discovery meant, nor whither it would lead. He was as innocent of all thought of being a Reformer as a new-born babe is of commanding an army on the battlefield. But the Gospel principle of deliverance and salvation for his oppressed and anxious soul was found, and it was found for all the world. The anchor had taken hold on a new continent. In essence the Great Reformation was born – born in Luther’s soul.


More than ten years passed before this new principle began to work off the putrid carcass of mediæval religion which lay stretched over the stifled and suffocating Church of Christ. There were yet many steps and stages in the preparation for what was to come. But from that time forward everything moved toward general regeneration by means of that marrow doctrine of the Gospel: Salvation by loving faith, in the merit and mediation of Jesus alone.

Johann von Staupitz
Johann von Staupitz
Staupitz counseled the young monk to study the Scriptures well and whatever could aid him in their right understanding, and gave orders to the monastery not to interfere with his studies.

On May 2, 1507, he was consecrated to the priesthood.

Within the year following, at the insistance of Staupitz, Frederick the Wise appointed him professor in the new University of Wittenberg.

May 9, 1509, he took his degree of bachelor of divinity. From that time he began to use his place to attack the falsehoods of the prevailing philosophy and to explore and expose the absurdities of Scholasticism, dwelling much on the great Gospel treasure of God’s free amnesty to sinful man through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, on which his own soul was planted.

Staupitz was astounded at the young brother’s thorough mastery of the sacred Word, the minuteness of his knowledge of it, and the power with which he expounded and defended the great principles of the evangelic faith. So able a teacher of the doctrines of the cross must at once begin to preach. Luther remonstrated, for it was not then the custom for all priests to preach. He insisted that he would die under the weight of such responsibilities. “Die, then,” said Staupitz; “God has plenty to do for intelligent young men in heaven.”

A little old wooden chapel, daubed with clay, twenty by thirty feet in size, with a crude platform of rough boards at one end and a small sooty gallery for scarce twenty persons at the other, and propped on all sides to keep it from tumbling down, was assigned him as his cathedral. Myconius likens it to the stable of Bethlehem, as there Christ was born anew for the souls which now crowded to it. And when the thronging audiences required his transfer to the parish church, it was called the bringing of Christ into the temple.

The fame of this young theologian and preacher spread fast and far. The common people and the learned were alike impressed by his originality and power, and rejoiced in the electrifying clearness of his expositions and teachings. The Elector was delighted, for he began to see his devout wishes realized. Staupitz, who had drunk in the more pious spirit of the Mystic theologians, shared the same feeling, and saw in Luther’s fresh, biblical, and energetic preaching what he felt the whole Church needed. “He spared neither counsel nor applause,” for he believed him the man of God for the times. He sent him to neighboring monasteries to preach to the monks. He gave him every opportunity to study, observe, and exercise his great talents. He even sent him on a mission to Rome, more to acquaint him with that city, which he longed to see, than for any difficult or pressing business with the pope.


Luther performed the journey on foot, passing from monastery to monastery, noting the extravagances, indolence, gluttony, and infidelity of the monks, and sometimes in danger of his life, both from the changes of climate and from the murderous resentments of some of these cloister-saints which his rebukes of their vices engendered.

When Rome first broke upon his sight, he hailed it reverently as the city of saints and holy martyrs. He almost envied those whose parents were dead, and who had it in their power to offer prayers for the repose of their souls by the side of such holy shrines. But when he beheld the vulgarities, profanities, paganism, and unconcealed unbelief which pervaded even the ecclesiastical circles of that city, his soul sunk within him.

There was much to be seen in Rome; and the Roman Catholic writers find great fault with Luther for being so dull and unappreciative as to move amid it without being touched with a single spark of poetic fire. They tell of the glory of the cardinals, in litters, on horseback, in glittering carriages, blazing with jewels and shaded with gorgeous canopies; of marble palaces, grand walks, alabaster columns, gigantic obelisks, villas, gardens, grottoes, flowers, fountains, cascades; of churches adorned with polished pillars, gilded soffits, mosaic floors, altars sparkling with diamonds, and gorgeous pictures from master-hands looking down from every wall; of monuments, statues, images, and holy relics; and they blame Luther that he could gaze upon it all without a stir of admiration, that he could look upon the sculpture and statuary and see nothing but pagan devices, the gods of Demosthenes and Praxiteles, the feasts and pomps of Delos, and the idle scenes of the heathen Forum, that no gleam from the crown of Perugino or Michaelangelo dazzled his eyes, and no strain of Virgil or of Dante, which the people sung in the streets, attracted his ear, that he was only cold and dumb before all the treasures and glories of art and all the grandeur of the high dignitaries of the Church, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, exclaiming over nothing but the licentious impurities of the priests, the pagan pomps of the pontiff, the profane jests of the ministers of religion, the bare shoulders of the Roman ladies.

Luther was not dead to the aesthetic, but to see faith and righteousness thus smothered and buried under a godless Epicurean life was an offense to his honest German conscience. It looked to him as if the popes had reversed the Saviour’s choice, and accepted the devil’s bid for Christ to worship him. From what his own eyes and ears had now seen and heard, he knew what to believe concerning the state of things in the metropolis of Christendom, and was satisfied that, as surely as there is a hell, the Rome of those days was its mouth.3


On his return the Senate of Wittenberg elected him town-preacher. In the cloister, in the castle chapel, and in the collegiate church he alternately exercised his gifts. Romanists admit that “his success was great. He said he would not imitate his predecessors, and he kept his word. For the first time a Christian preacher was seen to abandon the Schoolmen and draw his texts and illustrations from the Writings of Inspiration. He was the originator and restorer of expository preaching in modern times.”

The Elector heard him, and was filled with admiration. An old professor, whom the people called “the light of the world,” listened to him, and was struck with his wonderful insight, his marvelous imagination, and his massive solidity. And Wittenberg sprang into great renown because of him, for never before had been heard in Saxony such a luminous expositor of God’s holy Word.


On all hands it was agreed and insisted that he should be made a doctor of divinity. The costs were heavy, for simony was the order of the day and the pope exacted high prices for all church promotions; but the Elector paid the charges.

On the 18th of October, 1512, the degree was conferred. It was no empty title to Luther. It gave him liberties and rights which his enemies could not gainsay, and it laid on him obligations and duties which he never forgot. The obedience to the canons and the hierarchy which it exacted he afterward found inimical to Christ and the Gospel, and, as in duty bound, he threw it off, with other swaddling-bands of Popery. But there was in it the pledge “to devote his whole life to the study, exposition, and defense of the Holy Scriptures.” This he accepted, and ever referred to as his sacred charter and commission. Nor was it without significance that the great bell of Wittenberg was rung when proclamation of this investiture was made. As the ringing of the bell on the old Statehouse when the Declaration of Independence was passed proclaimed the coming liberties of the American colonies, so this sounding of the great bell of Wittenberg when Luther was made doctor of divinity proclaimed and heralded to the nations of the earth the coming deliverance of the enslaved Church. God’s chosen servant had received his commission, and the better day was soon to dawn.

Henceforth Luther’s labors and studies went forward with a new impulse and inspiration. Hebrew and Greek were thoroughly mastered. The Fathers of the Church, ancient and modern, were carefully read. The systems of the Schoolmen, the Book of Sentences, the Commentaries, the Decretals – everything relating to his department as a doctor of theology – were examined, and brought to the test of Holy Scripture.

In his sermons, lectures, and disquisitions the results of these incessant studies came out with a depth of penetration, a clearness of statement, a simplicity of utterance, a devoutness of spirit, and a convincing power of eloquence which, with the eminent sanctity of his life, won for him unbounded praise. The common feeling was that the earth did not contain another such a doctor and had not seen his equal for many ages. Envy and jealousy themselves, those green-eyed monsters which gather about the paths of great qualities and successes, seemed for the time to be paralyzed before a brilliancy which rested on such humility, conscientiousness, fidelity, and merit.


Years of fruitful labor passed. The Decalogue was expounded. Paul’s letter to the Romans and the penitential Psalms were explained. The lectures on the Epistle to the Galatians were nearly completed. But no book from Luther had yet been published.

In 1515 he was chosen district vicar of the Augustinian monasteries of Meissen and Thuringia. It was a laborious office, but it gave him new experiences, familiarized him still more with the monks, brought him into executive administrations, and developed his tact in dealing with men.

One other particular served greatly to establish him in the hearts of the people. A deadly plague broke out in Wittenberg. Citizens were dying by dozens and scores. At a later period a like scourge visited Geneva, and so terrified Calvin and his ministerial associates that they appealed to the Supreme Council, entreating, “Mighty lords, release us from attending these infected people, for our lives are in peril.” Not so Luther. His friends said, “Fly! fly!” lest he should fall by the plague and be lost to the world. “Fly?” said he. “No, no, my God. If I die, I die. The world will not perish because a monk has fallen. I am not St. Paul, not to fear death, but God will sustain me.” And as an angel of mercy he remained, ministering to the sick and dying and caring for the orphans and widows of the dead.


Such was Luther up to the time of his rupture with Rome. He knew something of the shams and falsities that prevailed, and he had assailed and exposed many of them in his lectures and sermons; but to lead a general reformation was the farthest from his thoughts. Indeed, he still had such confidence in the integrity of the Roman Church that he did not yet realize how greatly a thorough general reformation was needed. Humble in mind, peaceable in disposition, reverent toward authority, loving privacy, and fully occupied with his daily studies and duties, it was not in him to think of making war with powers whose claims he had not yet learned to question.

But it was not possible that so brave, honest, and self-sacrificing a man should long pursue his convictions without coming into collision with the Roman high priesthood. Though far off at Wittenberg, and trying to do his own duty well in his own legitimate sphere, it soon came athwart his path in a form so foul and offensive that it forced him to assault it. Either he had to let go his sincerest convictions and dearest hopes, or protest had to come. His personal salvation and that of his flock were at stake, and he could in no way remain a true man and not remonstrate. Driven to this extremity, and struck at for his honest faithfulness, he struck again; and so came the battle which shook and revolutionized the world.


Luther’s first encounter with the hierarchy was on the traffic in indulgences. It was a good fortune that it there began. That traffic was so obnoxious to every sense of propriety that any vigorous attack upon it would command the approval of many honest and pious people. The central heresy of hierarchical religion was likewise embodied in it, so that a stab there, if logically followed up, would necessarily reach the very heart of the oppressive monster. And Providence arranged that there the conflict should begin.

Pope Leo X
Pope Leo X
Leo X had but recently ascended the papal throne. Reared amid lavish wealth and culture, he was eager that his reign should equal that of Solomon and the Caesars. He sought to aggrandize his relatives, to honor and enrich men of genius, and to surround himself with costly splendors and pleasures. These demanded extraordinary revenues. The projects of his ambitious predecessors had depleted the papal coffers. He needed to do something on a grand scale in order adequately to replenish his exchequer.

As early as the eleventh century the popes had betimes resorted to the selling of pardons and the issuing of free passes to heaven on consideration of certain services or payments to the Church. From Urban II to Leo X this was more or less in vogue – first, to get soldiers for the holy wars,4 and then as a means of wealth to the Church. If one wished to eat meat on fast-days, marry within prohibited degrees of relationship, or indulge in forbidden pleasures, he could do it without offense by rendering certain satisfactions before or after, which satisfactions could mostly be made by payments of money.5 In the same way he could buy remission of sins in general, or exemption for so many days, years, or centuries from the pains of Purgatory. Bulls of authority were given, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to issue certificates of exemption from all penalties to such as did the service or paid the equivalent. Immense incomes were thus realized. Even to the present this facile invention for raising money has not been entirely discontinued. Papal indulgences can be bought today in the shops of Spain and elsewhere.

Leo seized upon this system with all the vigor and unscrupulousness characteristic of the Medici. Had he been asked whether he really believed in these pardons, he would have said that the Church always believed the pope had power to grant them. Had he spoken his real mind in the matter, he would have said that if the people chose to be such fools, it was not for him to find fault with them. And thus, under plea of raising funds to finish St. Peter’s Basilica, he instituted a grand trade in indulgences, and thereby laid the capstone of hierarchical iniquity which crushed the whole fabric to its base. The right to sell these wares in Germany was awarded to Albert, the gay young prince-archbishop of Mainz. He was over head and ears in debt to the pope for his pallium, and Leo gave him this chance to get out.6 Half the proceeds of the trade in his territory were to go to his credit. But the work of proclaiming and distributing the pardons was committed to John Tetzel, Dominican prior who had long experience in the business, and who achieved “a forlorn notoriety in European history” by his zeal in prosecuting it.


Tetzel entered the towns with noise and pomp, amid waving of flags, singing, and the ringing of bells. Clergy, choristers, monks, and nuns moved in procession before and after him. He himself sat in a gilded chariot, with the Bull of his authority spread out on a velvet cushion before him.

John Tetzel
John Tetzel
The churches were his sales-rooms, lighted and decorated for the occasion as in highest festival. From the pulpits his boisterous oratory rang, telling the virtues of indulgences, the wonderful power of the keys, and the unexampled grace of which he was the bearer from the holy lord and father at Rome.

He called on all – robbers, adulterers, murderers, everybody – to draw near, pay down their money, and receive from him letters, duly sealed, by which all their sins, past and future, should be pardoned and done away.

Not for the living only, but also for the dead, he proposed full and instantaneous deliverance from all future punishments on the payment of the price. And any wretch who dared to doubt or question the saving power of these certificates he in advance doomed to excommunication and the wrath of God.7 Catholic divines have labored hard to white-wash or explain away this stupendous iniquity; but, with all they have said or may say, such were the presentations made by the hawkers of these wares and such was the text of the diplomas they issued.

A dispensation or indulgence was nothing more nor less than a pretended letter of credit on Heaven, drawn at will by the pope out of the superabundant merits of Christ and all saints, to count so much on the books of God for so many murders, robberies, frauds, lies, slanders, or debaucheries. As the matter practically worked, a more profane and devilish traffic never had place in our world than that which the Roman hierarchy thus carried on in the name of the Triune God.


Luther was on a tour of inspection as district vicar of the Augustinians when he first heard of these shameful doings. As yet he understood but little of the system, and could not believe it possible that the fathers at Rome could countenance, much less appoint and commission, such iniquities. Boiling with indignation for the honor of the Church, he threatened to make a hole in Tetzel’s drum, and wrote to the authorities to refuse passports to the hucksters of these shameful deceptions.

But Tetzel soon came near to Wittenberg. Some of Luther’s parishioners heard him, and bought absolutions. They afterward came to confession, acknowledging great irregularities of life. Luther rebuked their wickedness, and would not promise them forgiveness unless contrite for their sins and earnestly endeavoring to amend their evil ways. They remonstrated, and brought out their certificates of plenary pardon. “I have nothing to do with your papers,” said he. “God’s Word says you must repent and lead better lives, or you will perish.”

His words were at once carried to the ears of Tetzel, who fumed with rage at such impudence toward the authority of the Church. He ascended the pulpit and hurled the curses of God upon the Saxon monk.

Thus an honest pastor finds some of his flock on the way to ruin, and tries to guide them right. He is not thinking of attacking Rome. He is ready to fight and die for holy Mother Church. His very protests are in her behalf. He is on his own rightful field, in faithful pursuit of his own rightful duty. Here the erring hierarchy seeks him out and attacks him. Shall he yield to timid fears and weak advisers, keep silence in his own house, and let the souls he is placed to guard become a prey to the destroyer? Is he not sworn to defend God’s holy Word and Gospel? What will be his eternal fate and that of his people should he now hold his peace?


Without conferring with flesh and blood his resolve was made – a resolve on which hung all the better future of the world – a resolve to take the pulpit against the lying indulgences.

For several days he shut himself in his cell to make sure of his ground and to elaborate what he would say. With eminent modesty and moderation his sentences were wrought, but with a perspicuity and clearness which no one could mistake. A crowded church awaited their delivery. He entered with his brother-monks, and joined in all the service with his usual voice and gravity. Nothing in his countenance or manner betrayed the slightest agitation of his soul. It was a solemn and momentous step for himself and for mankind that he was about to take, but he was as calmly made up to it as to any other duty of his life. The moment came for him to speak; and he spoke.
    “I hold it impossible,” said he, “to prove from the Holy Scriptures that divine justice demands from the sinner any other penance or satisfaction than a true repentance, a change of heart, a willing submission to bear the Saviour’s cross, and a readiness to do what good he can.

    “That indulgences applied to souls in Purgatory serve to remit the punishments which they would otherwise suffer is an opinion devoid of any foundation.

    “Indulgences, so far from expiating or cleansing from sin, leave the man in the same filth and condemnation in which they find him.

    “The Church exacts somewhat of the sinner, and what it on its own account exacts it can on its own account remit, but nothing more.

    “If you have aught to spare, in God’s name give it for the building of St. Peter’s, but do not buy pardons.

    “If you have means, feed the hungry, which is of more avail than piling stones together, and far better than the buying of indulgences.

    “My advice is, Let indulgences alone; leave them to dead and sleepy Christians; but see to it that ye be not of that kind.

    “Indulgences are neither commanded nor approved of God. They excite no one to sanctification. They work nothing toward salvation.

    “That indulgences have virtue to deliver souls from Purgatory I do not believe, nor can it be proven by them that teach it; the Church says nothing to that effect.

    “What I preach to you is based on the certainty of the Holy Scriptures, which no one ought to doubt.”
So Luther preached, and his word went out to the ends of the earth. It was no jest, like Ulric von Huetten’s Epistles of Obscure Men, or like the ridicule which Reuchlin and Erasmus heaped upon the stupid monks. It raised no laugh, but penetrated, like a rifle-shot, into the very heart of things.

Those who listened were deeply affected by the serious boldness of the preacher. The audience was with him in conviction, but many trembled for the result. “Dear doctor, you have been very rash; what trouble may come of this!” said a venerable father as he pulled the sleeve of Luther’s gown and shook his head with misgivings. “If this is not rightly done in God’s name,” said Luther, “it will come to nothing; if it is, let come what will.”

It was honest duty to God, truth, and the salvation of men that moved him. Cowardly policy or timid expediency in such a matter was totally foreign to his soul.

In a few days the substance of the sermon was in print. Tetzel raved over it. Melanchthon says he burnt it in the market-place of Jueterbock. In the name of God and the pope he bade defiance to its author, and challenged him by fire and water. Luther laughed at him for braying so loud at a distance, yet declining to come to Wittenberg to argue out the matter in close lists.


Anxious to vindicate the Church from what he believed to be an unwarranted liberty in the use of her name, Luther wrote to the bishop of Brandenburg and the archbishop of Mainz, He made his points, and appealed to these his superiors to put down the scandalous falsities advanced by Tetzel. They failed to answer in any decisive way. The one timidly advised silence, and the other had too much pecuniary interest in the business to notice the letter.

Thus, as a pastor, Luther had taken his ground before his parishioners in the confessional. As a preacher he had uttered himself in earnest admonition from the pulpit. As a loyal son he had made his presentation and appeal to those in authority over him. Was he right? or was he wrong? No commanding answer came, and there remained one other way of testing the question. As a doctor of divinity he could lawfully, as custom had been, demand an open and fair discussion of the matter with teachers and theologians. And upon this he now resolved.


He framed a list of propositions on the points in question. They were in Latin, for his appeal was to theologians, and not yet to the common heart and mind of Germany. To make them public, he took advantage of a great festival at Wittenberg, when the town was full of visitors and strangers, and nailed them to the door of the new castle church, October 31, 1517.

These were the famous Ninety-five Theses. They were plainly-worded statements of the same points he had made in the confessional and in his sermon. They contained no assault upon the Church, no arraignment of the pope, no personal attack on any one. Neither were they given as necessarily true, but as what Luther believed to be true, and the real truth or falsity of which he desired to have decided in the only way questions of faith and salvation can be rightly decided.

The whole matter was fairly, humbly, and legitimately put [as we read below, particularly in the Introductory Letter to the Ninety-five Theses]. “I, Martin Luther, Doctor, of the Order of Monks at Wittenberg,” he added at the end, “desire to testify publicly that certain propositions against pontifical indulgences, as they call them, have been put forth by me. Now although, up to the present time, neither this most celebrated and renowned school of ours, nor any civil or ecclesiastical power has condemned me, yet there are, as I hear, some men of headlong and audacious spirit, who dare to pronounce me a heretic, as though the matter had been thoroughly looked into and studied. But on my part, as I have often done before, so now too I implore all men, by the faith of Christ, either to point out to me a better way, if such a way has been divinely revealed to any, or at least to submit their opinion to the judgment of God and of the Church. For I am neither so rash as to wish that my sole opinion should be preferred to that of all other men, nor so senseless as to be willing that the Word of God should be made to give place to fables, devised by human reason.”

It is from the nailing up of these Theses that the history of The Great Reformation dates; for the hammer-strokes which fixed that parchment started the Alpine avalanche which overwhelmed the pride of Rome and broke the stubborn power which had reigned supreme for a thousand years.


As no one came forward to discuss his Theses, Luther resolved to publish them to the world.

In fourteen days they overspread Germany. In a month they ran through all Christendom. One historian says it seemed as if the angels of God were engaged in spreading them.

At a single stroke, made in modesty and faith, Luther had become the most noted person in Germany, the man most talked of in all the world, the mouthpiece of the best people in Christendom, the leader of a mighty revolution.

Reuchlin read, and thanked God.

Erasmus read, and rejoiced, only counseling moderation and prudence.

The Emperor Maximilian read, and wrote to the Saxon Elector: “Take care of the monk Luther, for the time may come when we will need him.”

The bishop of Wuerzburg read, and was filled with gladness, and wrote to the Elector Frederick to hold on to Luther as a preacher of the truth of God.

The prior of Steinlausitz read, and could not suppress his joy. “See here,” said he to his monks: “the long-waited-for has come; he tells the truth. Berg means mountain, and Wittenberg is the mountain whither all the world will come to seek wisdom, and will find it.”

A student of Annaberg read, and said, “This Luther is the reaper in my dream, whom the voice bade me follow and gather in the bread of life;” and from that hour he was a fast friend of Luther and his cause, and became the distinguished Myconius.

The pope himself read the Theses, and did not think unfavorably of their author. He saw in Luther a man of learning and brilliant genius, and that pleased him. The questions mooted he referred to as mere monkish jealousy – an unsober gust of passion which would soon blow over. He did not then realize the seriousness which was in the matter. His sphere was heathen art and worldly magnificence, not searching into the ways of God’s salvation.

The great German heart was moved, and the brave daring of him whose voice was thus lifted up against the abominations which were draining the country to fill the pope’s coffers was hailed with enthusiasm. Had Luther been a smaller man he would have been swept away by his vast and sudden fame.

But not all was sunshine. Erasmus wittily said, Luther committed two unpardonable sins: he touched the pope’s crown and the monks’ bellies. Such effrontery would needs raise a mighty outcry.

Prierias, the master of the sacred palace, pronounced Luther a heretic. Hochstrat of Cologne, Reuchlin’s enemy, clamored for fire to burn him. The indulgence-venders thundered their anathemas, promising a speedy holocaust of Luther’s body. The monasteries took on the form of so many kennels of enraged hounds howling to each other across the spiritual waste. And even some who pronounced the Theses scriptural and orthodox shook their heads and sought to quash such dangerous proceedings.

But Luther remained firm at his post. He honestly believed what he had written, and he was not afraid of the truth. If the powers of the world should come down upon him and kill him, he was prepared for the slaughter. In all the mighty controversy he was ever ready to serve the Gospel with his life or with his death.


Tetzel continued to bray and fume against him from pulpit and press, denouncing him as a heresiarch, heretic, and schismatic. By Wimpina’s aid he issued a reply to Luther’s sermon, and also counter-theses on Luther’s propositions. But the tide was turning in the sea of human thinking. Luther’s utterances had turned it. The people were ready to tear the mountebank to pieces. Two years later he imploringly complained to the pope’s nuncio, Miltitz, that such fury pursued him in Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland that he was nowhere safe. Even the representative of the pope gave the wretch no sympathy. When Luther heard of his illness he sent him a letter to tell him that he had forgiven him all. He died in Leipsic, neglected, smitten in soul, and full of misery, July 14, 1519.


Six months after the nailing up of the Theses, Luther was the hero of a general convention of the Augustinians in Heidelberg. He there submitted a series of propositions on philosophy and theology, which he defended with such convincing clarity and tact that he won for himself and his university great honor and renown. Better still, four learned young men who there heard him saw the truth of his positions, and afterward became distinguished defenders of the Reformation.

His cause, meanwhile, was rapidly gaining friends. His replies to Tetzel, Prierias, Hochstrat, and Eck had gone forth to deepen the favorable impression made by the Ninety-five Theses. Truth had once more lifted up its head in Europe, and Rome would find it no child’s play to put it down. The skirmishlines of the hierarchy had been met and driven in. The tug of serious battle was now to come.

THE Ninety-five Theses.8


To the most Reverend Father in Christ and most illustrious Lord, Albert, Archbishop and Primate of the Churches of Magdeburg and Mentz, Marquis of Brandenburg, etc., his lord and pastor in Christ, most gracious and worthy of all fear and reverence––

The grace of God be with you, and whatsoever it is and can do.

Spare me, most reverend Father in Christ, most illustrious Prince, if I, the very dregs of humanity, have dared to think of addressing a letter to the eminence of your sublimity. The Lord Jesus is my witness that, in the consciousness of my own pettiness and baseness, I have long put off the doing of that which I have now hardened my forehead to perform, moved thereto most especially by the sense of that faithful duty which I feel that I owe to your most reverend Fatherhood in Christ. May your Highness then in the meanwhile deign to cast your eyes upon one grain of dust, and, in your pontifical clemency, to understand my prayer.

Papal indulgences are being carried about, under your most distinguished authority, for the building of St. Peter’s. In respect of these I do not so much accuse the extravagant sayings of the preachers, which I have not heard, but I grieve at the very false ideas which the people conceive from them, and which are spread abroad in common talk on every side – namely, that unhappy souls believe that, if they buy letters of indulgences, they are sure of their salvation; also, that, as soon as they have thrown their contribution into the chest, souls forthwith fly out of purgatory; and furthermore, that so great is the grace thus conferred, that there is no sin so great – even, as they say, if, by an impossibility, any one had violated the Mother of God – but that it may be pardoned; and again, that by these indulgences a man is freed from all punishment and guilt.

O gracious God! it is thus that the souls committed to your care, most excellent Father, are being taught unto their death, and a most severe account, which you will have to render for all of them, is growing and increasing. Hence I have not been able to keep silence any longer on this subject, for by no function of a bishop’s office can a man become sure of salvation, since he does not even become sure through the grace of God infused into him, but the Apostle bids us to be ever working out our salvation in fear and trembling (Ph. 2:12). Even the righteous man – says Peter – shall scarcely be saved (1 Pe. 4:18). In fine, so narrow is the way which leads unto life, that the Lord, speaking by the prophets Amos and Zachariah, calls those who are to be saved brands snatched from the burning, and our Lord everywhere declares the difficulty of salvation.

Why then, by these false stories and promises of pardon, do the preachers of them make the people to feel secure and without fear? since indulgences confer absolutely no good on souls as regards salvation or holiness, but only take away the outward penalty which was wont of old to be canonically imposed.

Lastly, works of piety and charity are infinitely better than indulgences, and yet they do not preach these with such display or so much zeal; nay, they keep silence about them for the sake of preaching pardons. And yet it is the first and sole duty of all bishops, that the people should learn the Gospel and Christian charity: for Christ nowhere commands that indulgences should be preached. What a dreadful thing it is then, what peril to a bishop, if, while the Gospel is passed over in silence, he permits nothing but the noisy outcry of indulgences to be spread among his people, and bestows more care on these than on the Gospel! Will not Christ say to them: “Straining at a gnat, and swallowing a camel”? Besides all this, most reverend Father in the Lord, in that instruction to the commissaries which has been put forth under the name of your most reverend Fatherhood it is stated – doubtless without the knowledge and consent of your most reverend Fatherhood – that one of the principal graces conveyed by indulgences is that inestimable gift of God, by which man is reconciled to God, and all the pains of purgatory are done away with; and further, that contrition is not necessary for those who thus redeem souls or buy confessional licenses.

But what can I do, excellent Primate and most illustrious Prince, save to entreat your reverend Fatherhood, through the Lord Jesus Christ, to deign to turn on us the eye of fatherly care, and to suppress that advertisement altogether and impose on the preachers of pardons another form of preaching, lest perchance some one should at length arise who will put forth writings in confutation of them and of their advertisements, to the deepest reproach of your most illustrious Highness. It is intensely abhorrent to me that this should be done, and yet I fear that it will happen, unless the evil be speedily remedied. This faithful discharge of my humble duty I entreat that your most illustrious Grace will deign to receive in a princely and bishoplike spirit – that is, with all clemency – even as I offer it with a most faithful heart, and one most devoted to your most reverend Fatherhood, since I too am part of your flock. May the Lord Jesus keep your most reverend Fatherhood for ever and ever. Amen.

From Wittenberg, on the eve of All Saints, in the year 1517.

If it so please your most reverend Fatherhood, you may look at these Disputations, that you may perceive how dubious a matter is that opinion about indulgences, which they disseminate as if it were most certain.

To your most reverend Fatherhood, Martin Luther.


In the desire and with the purpose of elucidating the truth, a disputation will be held on the underwritten propositions at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Monk of the Order of St. Augustine, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and ordinary Reader of the same in that place. He therefore asks those who cannot be present and discuss the subject with us orally, to do so by letter in their absence. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
  1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying: “Repent ye,”9 etc., intended that the whole life of believers should be penitence.
  2. This word cannot be understood of sacramental penance, that is, of the confession and satisfaction which are performed under the ministry of priests.
  3. It does not, however, refer solely to inward penitence; nay such inward penitence is naught, unless it outwardly produces various mortifications of the flesh.
  4. The penalty10 thus continues as long as the hatred of self – that is, true inward penitence – continues; namely, till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
  5. The Pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties, except those which he has imposed by his own authority, or by that of the canons.
  6. The Pope has no power to remit any guilt, except by declaring and warranting it to have been remitted by God; or at most by remitting cases reserved for himself; in which cases, if his power were despised, guilt would certainly remain.
  7. God never remits any man’s guilt, without at the same time subjecting him, humbled in all things, to the authority of his representative the priest.
  8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and no burden ought to be imposed on the dying, according to them.
  9. Hence the Holy Spirit acting in the Pope does well for us, in that, in his decrees, he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
  10. Those priests act wrongly and unlearnedly, who, in the case of the dying, reserve the canonical penances for purgatory.
  11. Those tares about changing of the canonical penalty into the penalty of purgatory seem surely to have been sown while the bishops were asleep.
  12. Formerly the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
  13. The dying pay all penalties by death, and are already dead to the canon laws, and are by right relieved from them.
  14. The imperfect soundness or charity of a dying person necessarily brings with it great fear, and the less it is, the greater the fear it brings.
  15. This fear and horror is sufficient by itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the pains of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.
  16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven appear to differ as despair, almost despair, and peace of mind differ.
  17. With souls in purgatory it seems that it must needs be that, as horror diminishes, so charity increases.
  18. Nor does it seem to be proved by any reasoning or any scriptures, that they are outside of the state of merit or of the increase of charity.
  19. Nor does this appear to be proved, that they are sure and confident of their own blessedness, at least all of them, though we may be very sure of it.
  20. Therefore the Pope, when he speaks of the plenary remission of all penalties, does not mean simply of all, but only of those imposed by himself.
  21. Thus those preachers of indulgences are in error who say that, by the indulgences of the Pope, a man is loosed and saved from all punishment
  22. For in fact he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which they would have had to pay in this life according to the canons.
  23. If any entire remission of all penalties can be granted to any one, it is certain that it is granted to none but the most perfect, that is, to very few.
  24. Hence the greater part of the people must needs be deceived by this indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalties.
  25. Such power as the Pope has over purgatory in general, such has every bishop in his own diocese, and every curate in his own parish, in particular.
  26. The Pope acts most rightly in granting remission to souls, not by the power of the keys (which is of no avail in this case) but by the way of suffrage.
  27. They preach man, who say that the soul flies out of purgatory as soon as the money thrown into the chest rattles.
  28. It is certain that, when the money rattles in the chest, avarice and gain may be increased, but the suffrage of the Church depends on the will of God alone.
  29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory desire to be redeemed from it, according to the story told of Saints Severinus and Paschal.
  30. No man is sure of the reality of his own contrition, much less of the attainment of plenary remission.
  31. Rare as is a true penitent, so rare is one who truly buys indulgences – that is to say, most rare.
  32. Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers.
  33. We must especially beware of those who say that these pardons from the Pope are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to God.
  34. For the grace conveyed by these pardons has respect only to the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, which are of human appointment.
  35. They preach no Christian doctrine, who teach that contrition is not necessary for those who buy souls out of purgatory or buy confessional licenses.
  36. Every Christian who feels true compunction has of right plenary remission of pain and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
  37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has a share in all the benefits of Christ and of the Church, given him by God, even without letters of pardon.
  38. The remission, however, imparted by the Pope is by no means to be despised, since it is, as I have said, a declaration of the Divine remission.
  39. It is a most difficult thing, even for the most learned theologians, to exalt at the same time in the eyes of the people the ample effect of pardons and the necessity of true contrition.
  40. True contrition seeks and loves punishment; while the ampleness of pardons relaxes it, and causes men to hate it, or at least gives occasion for them to do so.
  41. Apostolical pardons ought to be proclaimed with caution, lest the people should falsely suppose that they are placed before other good works of charity.
  42. Christians should be taught that it is not the mind of the Pope that the buying of pardons is to be in any way compared to works of mercy.
  43. Christians should be taught that he who gives to a poor man, or lends to a needy man, does better than if he bought pardons.
  44. Because, by a work of charity, charity increases, and the man becomes better ; while, by means of pardons, he does not become better, but only freer from punishment.
  45. Christians should be taught that he who sees any one in need, and, passing him by, gives money for pardons, is not purchasing for himself the indulgences of the Pope, but the anger of God.
  46. Christians should be taught that, unless they have superfluous wealth, they are bound to keep what is necessary for the use of their own households, and by no means to lavish it on pardons.
  47. Christians should be taught that, while they are free to buy pardons, they are not commanded to do so.
  48. Christians should be taught that the Pope, in granting pardons, has both more need and more desire that devout prayer should be made for him, than that money should be readily paid.
  49. Christians should be taught that the Pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them, but most hurtful, if through them they lose the fear of God.
  50. Christians should be taught that, if the Pope were acquainted with the exactions of the preachers of pardons, he would prefer that the Basilica of St. Peter should be burnt to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
  51. Christians should be taught that, as it would be the duty, so it would be the wish of the Pope, even to sell, if necessary, the Basilica of St. Peter, and to give of his own money to very many of those from whom the preachers of pardons extract money.
  52. Vain is the hope of salvation through letters of pardon, even if a commissary – nay, the Pope himself – were to pledge his own soul for them.
  53. They are enemies of Christ and of the Pope, who, in order that pardons may be preached, condemn the word of God to utter silence in other churches.
  54. Wrong is done to the word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or longer time is spent on pardons than on it.
  55. The mind of the Pope necessarily is that, if pardons, which are a very small matter, are celebrated with single bells, single processions, and single ceremonies, the Gospel, which is a very great matter, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, and a hundred ceremonies.
  56. The treasures of the Church, whence the Pope grants indulgences, are neither sufficiently named nor known among the people of Christ.
  57. It is clear that they are at least not temporal treasures, for these are not so readily lavished, but only accumulated, by many of the preachers.
  58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and of the saints, for these, independently of the Pope, are always working grace to the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell to the outer man.
  59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church are the poor of the Church, but he spoke according to the use of the word in his time.
  60. We are not speaking rashly when we say that the keys of the Church, bestowed through the merits of Christ, are that treasure.
  61. For it is clear that the power of the Pope is alone sufficient for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases.
  62. The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
  63. This treasure, however, is deservedly most hateful, because it makes the first to be last.
  64. While the treasure of indulgences is deservedly most acceptable, because it makes the last to be first.
  65. Hence the treasures of the Gospel are nets, wherewith of old they fished for the men of riches.
  66. The treasures of indulgences are nets, wherewith they now fish for the riches of men.
  67. Those indulgences, which the preachers loudly proclaim to be the greatest graces, are seen to be truly such as regards the promotion of gain.
  68. Yet they are in reality in no degree to be compared to the grace of God and the piety of the cross.
  69. Bishops and curates are bound to receive the commissaries of apostolical pardons with all reverence.
  70. But they are still more bound to see to it with all their eyes, and take heed with all their ears, that these men do not preach their own dreams in place of the Pope’s commission.
  71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolical pardons, let him be anathema and accursed.
  72. But he, on the other hand, who exerts himself against the wantonness and license of speech of the preachers of pardons, let him be blessed.
  73. As the Pope justly thunders against those who use any kind of contrivance to the injury of the traffic in pardons,
  74. Much more is it his intention to thunder against those who, under the pretext of pardons, use contrivances to the injury of holy charity and of truth.
  75. To think that Papal pardons have such power that they could absolve a man even if – by an impossibility – he had violated the Mother of God, is madness.
  76. We affirm on the contrary that Papal pardons cannot take away even the least of venial sins, as regards its guilt.
  77. The saying that, even if St. Peter were now Pope, he could grant no greater graces, is blasphemy against St. Peter and the Pope.
  78. We affirm on the contrary that both he and any other Pope has greater graces to grant, namely, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc. (1 Co. 22:9)
  79. To say that the cross set up among the insignia of the Papal arms is of equal power with the cross of Christ, is blasphemy.
  80. Those bishops, curates, and theologians who allow such discourses to have currency among the people, will have to render an account.
  81. This license in the preaching of pardons makes it no easy thing, even for learned men, to protect the reverence due to the Pope against the calumnies, or, at all events, the keen questionings of the laity.
  82. As for instance: Why does not the Pope empty purgatory for the sake of most holy charity and of the supreme necessity of souls – this being the most just of all reasons – if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of that most fatal thing money, to be spent on building a basilica – this being a very slight reason?
  83. Again; why do funeral masses and anniversary masses for the deceased continue, and why does not the Pope return, or permit the withdrawal of the funds bequeathed for this purpose, since it is a wrong to pray for those who are already redeemed?
  84. Again; what is this new kindness of God and the Pope, in that, for money’s sake, they permit an impious man and an enemy of God to redeem a pious soul which loves God, and yet do not redeem that same pious and beloved soul, out of free charity, on account of its own need?
  85. Again; why is it that the penitential canons, long since abrogated and dead in themselves in very fact and not only by usage, are yet still redeemed with money, through the granting of indulgences, as if they were full of life?
  86. Again; why does not the Pope, whose riches are at this day more ample than those of the wealthiest of the wealthy, build the one Basilica of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with that of poor believers?
  87. Again; what does the Pope remit or impart to those who, through perfect contrition, have a right to plenary remission and participation?
  88. Again; what greater good would the Church receive if the Pope, instead of once, as he does now, were to bestow these remissions and participations a hundred times a day on any one of the faithful?
  89. Since it is the salvation of souls, rather than money, that the Pope seeks by his pardons, why does he suspend the letters and pardons granted long ago, since they are equally efficacious.
  90. To repress these scruples and arguments of the laity by force alone, and not to solve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the Pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christian men unhappy.
  91. If then pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the Pope, all these questions would be resolved with ease; nay, would not exist.
  92. Away then with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ: “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace.
  93. Blessed be all those prophets, who say to the people of Christ: “The cross, the cross,” and there is no cross.
  94. Christians should be exhorted to strive to follow Christ their head through pains, deaths, and hells.
  95. And thus trust to enter heaven through many tribulations, rather than in the security of peace.

I, Martin Luther, Doctor, of the Order of Monks at Wittenberg, desire to testify publicly that certain propositions against pontifical indulgences, as they call them, have been put forth by me. Now although, up to the present time, neither this most celebrated and renowned school of ours, nor any civil or ecclesiastical power has condemned me, yet there are, as I hear, some men of headlong and audacious spirit, who dare to pronounce me a heretic, as though the matter had been thoroughly looked into and studied. But on my part, as I have often done before, so now too I implore all men, by the faith of Christ, either to point out to me a better way, if such a way has been divinely revealed to any, or at least to submit their opinion to the judgment of God and of the Church. For I am neither so rash as to wish that my sole opinion should be preferred to that of all other men, nor so senseless as to be willing that the Word of God should be made to give place to fables, devised by human reason.

  1. Seiss, J. Luther and the Reformation: The Life-Springs of Our Liberties. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates. 1888. pp. 9-11, 27-69.

  2. The maiden name of Margaret Luther, the mother of Martin, was Margaret Ziegler. There has been a traditional belief that her name was Margaret Lindeman. The mistake originated in confounding Luther’s grandmother, whose name was Lindeman, with Luther’s mother, whose name was Ziegler. Prof. Julius Koestlin, in his Life of Luther, after a thorough examination of original records and documents, gives this explanation.

  3. Bellarmine, an honored author of the Roman Church, one competent to judge concerning the state of things at that time, and not over-forward to confess it, says: “For some years before the Lutheran and Calvinistic heresies were published there was not (as contemporary authors testify) any rigor in ecclesiastical judicatories, any discipline with regard to morals, any knowledge of sacred literature, any reverence for divine things: THERE WAS ALMOST NO RELIGION REMAINING.” – Bellarm., Concio xviii., Opera, tom. vi. col. 296, edit. Colon., 1617, apud Gerdesii Hist. Evan. Renovati, vol. i. p. 25.

  4. In the famous Bull of Pope Gregory IX, published in 1234, that pope exhorts and commands all good Christians to take up the cross and join the expedition to recover the Holy Land. The language is: “The service to which mankind are now invited is an effectual atonement for the miscarriages of a negligent life. The discipline of a regular penance would have discouraged many offenders so much that they would have had no heart to venture upon it; but the holy war is a compendious method of discharging men from guilt and restoring them to the divine favor. Even if they die on their march, the intention will be taken for the deed, and many in this way may be crowned without fighting.” – Given in Collier’s Eccl., vol. i.

  5. The Roman Chancery once put forth a book, which went through many editions, giving the exact prices for the pardon of each particular sin. A deacon guilty of murder was absolved for twenty pounds. A bishop or abbot might assassinate for three hundred livres. Any ecclesiastic might violate his vows of chastity for the third part of that sum, etc., etc. – See Robertson’ Charles V.

  6. The pallium, or pall, was a narrow band of white wool to go over the shoulders in the form of a circle, from which hung bands of similar size before and behind, finished at the ends with pieces of sheet lead and embroidered with crosses. It was the mark of the dignity and rank of archbishops. Albert owed Pope Leo X forty-five thousand thalers for his right and appointment to wear the archbishop’s pallium.

    It was in this way that the Roman Church was accustomed to sell out benefices as a divine right. Even expectative graces, or mandates nominating a person to succeed to a benefice upon the first vacancy, were thus sold. Companies existed in Germany which made a business of buying up the benefices of particular sections and districts and retailing them at advanced rates. The selling of pardons was simply a lower kind of simoniacal bartering which pervaded the whole hierarchical establishment.

  7. Many of the sayings which Tetzel gave out in his addresses to the people have been preserved, and are amply attested by those who listened to his harangues.

      “I would not,” said he, “exchange my privileges for those of St. Peter in heaven. He saved many by his sermons; I have saved more by my indulgences.”

      “Indulgences are the most precious and sublime of all the gifts of God.”

      “No sins are so great that these pardons cannot cover them.”

      “Not for the living only, but for the dead also, there is immediate salvation in these indulgences.”

      “Ye priests, nobles, tradespeople, wives, maidens, young men! the souls of your parents and beloved ones are crying from the depths below: ‘See our torments! A small alms would deliver us; and you can give it, and you will not.’”

      “O dull and brutish people, not to appreciate the grace so richly offered! This day heaven is open on all sides, and how many are the souls you might redeem if you only would! Your father is in flames, and you can deliver him for ten groschen, and you do it not! What punishment must come for neglecting so great salvation! You should strip your coat from your back, if you have no other, and sell it to purchase so great grace as this, for God hath given all power to the pope.”

      “The bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul, with those of many blessed martyrs, lie exposed, trampled on, polluted, dishonored, and rotting in the weather. Our most holy lord the pope means to build the church to cover them with glory that shall have no equal on the earth. Shall those holy ashes be left to be trodden in the mire?”

      “Therefore bring your money, and do a work most profitable to departed souls. Buy! buy!”

      “This red cross with the pope’s arms has equal virtue with the Cross of Christ.”

      “These pardons make cleaner than baptism, and purer than Adam was in his innocence in Paradise.”

    In the certificates which Tetzel gave to those who bought these pardons he declared that “by the authority of Jesus Christ, and of his apostles Peter and Paul, and of the most holy pope, I do absolve thee first from all ecclesiastical censures, in whatever manner they have been incurred, and then from all thy aim, transgressions, and excesses, however enormous soever they may be. I remit to you all punishment which you deserve in Purgatory on their account, and I restore you to the holy sacraments of the Church, union with the faithful, and to that innocence and purity possessed at baptism; so that when you die the gates of punishment shall be shut and the gates of the happy Paradise shall be opened; and if your death shall be delayed, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death.”

    The sums required for these passports to glory varied according to the rank and wealth of the applicant. For ordinary indulgence a king, queen, or bishop was to pay twenty-five ducats (a ducat being about a dollar of our money); abbots, counts, barons, and the like were charged ten ducats; other nobles and all who enjoyed annual incomes of five hundred florins were charged six ducats; and so down to half a florin, or twenty-five cents.

    But the commissioner also had a special scale for taxes on particular sins. Sodomy was charged twelve ducats; sacrilege and perjury, nine; murder, seven or eight; witchcraft and polygamy, from two to six; taking the life of a parent, brother, sister or an infant, from one to six.

  8. Bucheim, C.A. & Wace, H. First Principle of the Reformation, or the Ninety-five Theses and Three Primary Works of Dr. Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society. 1885. pp. 3-14.

  9. In the Latin, from the Vulgate, “agite poenitentiam,” sometimes translated “Do penance.” The effect of the following theses depends to some extent on the double meaning of “poenitentia” – penitence and penance.

  10. i.e. “Poena” the connection between “poena” and “poenitentia” again suggestive.

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