Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses 

“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.” (81) This thesis helps sum up the content of the 95. Although the primary concern was the indulgences, they served to express a collection of beliefs and issues very important to Luther in the context of the beginning of his transformation. The larger context was Germans seeing their resources going to a foreign power while needs were great at home.

They were the subject of “unbridled preaching,” with the rash and grandiose claim of acquiring pardon thereby, with preachers acting like salesman. Luther condemned their actions as reflecting badly on the pope, about whom he also has some unpleasant things to say. The situation was a challenge to learned men seeking to address the concerns of the laity. These preachers were guilty of planting tares among wheat, with the doctrine of purgatory (11), which Luther argues was only created to justify the indulgences, which were preached as delivering souls from it (27-28).

They were contrary to both reason and the scriptures. By “full remission of all penalties the pope means not actually “of all” but only of those imposed by himself.” (20 cf. 25) The pope alone had power over it, even though, contrary to what was claimed by Rome, he did not possess the keys (25-26; 75-76). This is an astounding statement, sometimes missed by those who focus strictly and only upon the sale of the indulgences. At other times Luther seems more favourable still to the pope. Comments like that found at 38, 47-50, 61, 71 and elsewhere, show us Luther’s transition.

Behind all this there is Luther’s desire to answer the question as to how a soul is saved from perdition (32). True salvation was through repentance and not penance or indulgences (36-37). Giving to the poor and needy trumps the buying of pardons (43-45). He could not be clearer than he was at 52 – “the assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain.” The preachers were spending more time preaching, that is, selling the pardons, than in teaching the people the word of God (54). “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.” (62 cf. 68)

There was equal condemnation of the preachers of the indulgences (79-80), and the pope (82), all desirous of building a magnificent cathedral, with some payment for their services, a monument to the pride of the Papal See (83). These were false prophets (92), saying “Cross, cross” when there was no cross (93). It was the preaching of the cross that was Luther’s real burning desire, and so it should have been for the pope and his preachers. The indulgences were as nets, drawing people to purgatory, while the Gospel of “the grace of God and the piety of the cross,” (64-68) was a proclamation of remission.

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