Church History

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

martin-luther-2524287_1280October 31st marks the anniversary of the beginning of the 16th century protestant reformation. For it was on that date, just over 500 years ago now (back in 1517) when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. This event is thought by many to be the start of the Protestant Reformation.

The 95 Theses were essentially 95 points of dispute or debate over what Luther saw as the abuse of the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of the sale of indulgences.

What exactly was an “indulgence”? Philip Schaff writes,

“In the legal language of Rome, indulgentia is a term for amnesty or remission of punishment. In ecclesiastical Latin, an indulgence means the remission of the temporal (not the eternal) punishment of sin (not of sin itself), on condition of penitence and the payment of money to the church or to some charitable object.” (History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII, p.147)

And so the Indulgences were put forward as a way to essentially pay for remission of temporal punishments for sin for the living, or for the release from purgatory for a deceased loved one.  But as one writer notes,

“In practice the ignorant could not help thinking that they were ‘buying’ forgiveness for themselves or their beloved in the hereafter, or at last that by their generosity they were doing a good work which the Pope declared to be effective toward forgiveness in the hereafter. ‘The moment the money tinkles in the collecting box, a soul flies out of purgatory’ – there is no doubt that this proverb was preached.” (Owen Chadwick, The Reformation, The Penguin History of the Church Vol. 3, p.42)

Put in this light, it is easy to see why Luther took issue with this practice.

The Roman Catholic Church used the sale of indulgences to raise vast sums of money to pay for, among other things, the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. So you could say that in some ways what started the Reformation was a church fund-raising program or building fund gone awry. (It always seems to be about money, doesn’t it?)

Luther simply presented his 95 Theses for debate in the hopes of reforming the abuses of  indulgences. He wasn’t seeking a revolution. He wasn’t even arguing against the church’s official doctrine and practice of indulgences per se (at least not yet). He was simply seeking debate and reform. No one even took him up on his offer to debate the issue of indulgences. But his 95 Theses were quickly translated, published, circulated, and read far and wide.

To the modern reader the 95 Theses probably don’t seem all that revolutionary. They do not even explicitly mention the doctrine of justification at all. (To be sure, it was Martin Luther’s understanding of the biblical doctrine of justification that was behind his opposition to the sale of indulgences.)

The first of his 95 Theses is as follows:

“1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

He essentially builds his case from there, point by point (95 points in total).

And perhaps the most important of them all is #62, which says,

“The true treasure [or treasury] of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

And the very last of Luther’s 95 Theses states that Christians, in following Christ, their head, should “thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace” [i.e. the false peace offered through the sale of indulgences].

Luther’s earnest desire was that Christians would place all of their hope for forgiveness and heaven in Christ alone.

Thanks be to God that because of the Reformation, countless souls have done just that, and found true peace with God through faith alone, in Christ alone, by the grace of God alone, to the glory of God alone!

And as John Murray notes, “This heritage is not only one to be cherished; it is one to be propagated.” He reminds us that the Reformation is not just past history, but is also “a present duty” as well. (The Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 1, p.292)



The Importance of the Lord’s Supper (The Charges Against Latimer & Ridley)

FoxeThose who are familiar with 16th century church history may remember the story of the martyrdom of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. They were burned at the stake for their Protestant beliefs and teachings during the reign of Queen Mary I (AKA “Bloody Mary”). Hugh Latimer’s words to Ridley, as the fire beneath him was being kindled, are among of the most memorable ever uttered:

“Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, p.309)

But while we may be familiar with Latimer’s speech, how many of us have ever given thought to the specific charges that were brought against him and Ridley? The substance of those charges may surprise you. The Pope charged them with at least three things:

  1. Affirming and openly defending and maintaining “that Christ, after the consecration of the priest is not really (i.e. physically) present in the sacrament of the altar”,
  2. Publicly affirming and defending “that in the sacrament of the altar remaineth still the substance of bread and wine” (i.e. that the bread and wine are not changed into the body and blood of Christ – transubstantiation)
  3. Openly affirming and obstinately maintaining that “in the mass is no propitiatory sacrifice for the quick and the dead” (i.e. that the mass is not a re-offering of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ). (See Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, p.297)

How important is the biblical view and right administration of the Lord’s Supper to you? Would you be willing to die for it? Ridley and Latimer were. They refused to recant, even under threat of being burned alive!

Think about that next time someone treats the biblical doctrine and right administration of the Lord’s Supper as if it were borderline adiaphora (i.e. things indifferent).