October 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)