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On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther sent what has come to be called the Ninety-Five Theses to the elector and bishop of Mainz, Albert von Brandenburg (1490–1545). This act is commonly regarded as the beginning of the Reformation, which is without a doubt the most important event in the last millennium of church history. Luther’s document raised serious theological issues with a vital element of late medieval piety, namely, the practice of selling papal indulgences. These indulgences, the Roman church claimed, granted remission of punishment for sin in this life and in purgatory. The key preacher hawking these remissions in Mainz was the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel (1465–1519). Luther took direct aim at him when he declared in thesis 27, “They preach vanity who say that the soul flies out of purgatory as soon as the money thrown into the chest rattles,” and, in thesis 35, that to preach thus was to “preach like a heathen.” Hoping to be saved through the purchase of one of these papal indulgences was therefore nothing less than a “vain and false thing” (thesis 52).

Protesting a Religion of Financial Gain

The Roman church continues to offer indulgences today, although not in the crass manner that Tetzel sold them. However, the deeply harmful practice of selling Christianity and making a windfall of it—especially evident in the practice of the so-called health-and-wealth preachers—is of great concern. These preachers offer Christian “blessings” and “anointings” in exchange for donations to their respective “ministries,” a reprehensible practice ultimately little different from that of Tetzel. Like Luther, the Apostle Paul also had to deal with people who used religion as a way of lining their pockets. Although Luther did not cite Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 6:5 in his theses, they are definitely apropos for both Luther’s day and ours. Paul’s inspired response about such people is definitive: they are “depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”

Rather than buying papal indulgences, Luther recommended that people use their money to do good works, such as giving to the poor or helping the needy (thesis 52). In fact, Luther emphasized in this revolutionary document that spending money on an indulgence while knowing that one’s neighbor is in dire need of financial help is to find neither pardon nor salvation, but to incur the wrath and anger of God.

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.
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.