Protesting an Empty Piety
Luther did not imagine that he was advocating a religious revolution in his Ninety-Five Theses nor that he was being critical of the papacy. Yet he did remark, with a degree of grim humor, that if the pope had the power to remit the sins of the faithful in purgatory, why did he not deliver “all souls at the same out of purgatory” (thesis 82)? Luther asserted powerfully in words that go to the very heart of the spirituality of the Reformation: “Every true Christian . . . partakes in all the benefits of Christ and of the Church given him by God, even without letters of indulgence” (thesis 37). As Luther read the Scriptures, he had come to realize that simple, heartfelt faith in the crucified and risen Christ secures God’s richest blessings. Why, then, did the believer need papal indulgences, which traded on human anxieties and fears for financial profit?
The church’s real treasure lay not in these tawdry and trumped-up indulgences, but in “the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God” (thesis 62). At this point in his theological development, Luther had not yet embraced what we now call sola Scriptura, namely, that Scripture is the final authority for all of life and doctrine. But this statement in thesis 62 certainly anticipates it. The gospel, and those books that proclaim it purely, namely, the Scriptures, are a treasure of incomparable value in this world. And this was true not simply in Luther’s day but also in ours. While God’s people can profit from every field of human learning, the Scriptures alone are infallible, and the surest way to glorify God and enjoy Him is to wholeheartedly hearken to them.
What, then, constitutes a life of true piety for Luther? The opening and closing theses lay this out very carefully. The Christian life is first about a heartfelt turning to God all of the days of one’s life: “The whole life of [Christ’s] believers on earth should be one of constant repentance” (thesis 1). They then must follow their Lord “through cross, death, and hell, and thus hope with confidence to enter heaven” (theses 94–95). The Christian life involves hardship—ongoing death to self, mortification of sin, and persecution. But undergirding it is a confidence born from faith alone, and it is that faith, not vain indulgences or even good works, that will bring one, by God’s grace, to heaven. This was good news in Luther’s day—and it is still good news in ours.