Posted by: St. Mark Lutheran Church | October 30, 2009

The Reformation in Luther’s Own Words

(I can’t take credit for this post.  The text came to me through the pastor’s grapevine as something useful and helpful that someone else had put together, something that could be begged, borrowed, and stolen.  I cannot remember today who I received it from, but it has been useful to me each Reformation, so I pass it on to you.)

It was on October 31, 1517, that a little-known German monk named Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. (The church door served as the town bulletin board.) The theses had this heading: “Out of love and zeal for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place. He requests that those who cannot be present to debate orally with us will do so by letter.”

Dr. Luther was still a loyal son of the Catholic Church when he penned his theses, but he was disturbed by the sale of indulgences. “(In) 1517, a preaching friar by the name of John Tetzel, a loudmouthed fellow, happened to appear on the scene…This same Tetzel, then, carried indulgences about and sold grace for money, as expensively or cheaply as he could by the exertion of all his powers. At that time I was a preacher here in the monastery and a young doctor, brand-new, fervent and zealous in Holy Scripture.

“Then, when many people of Wittenberg ran to Jütterbock and Zerbst, etc., and I (as truly as my Lord Christ has redeemed me) did not know what these indulgences were, as indeed no one knew, I began to preach gently that one could do something better, something that would be more certain than the buying of indulgences.”

Indulgences promised those who bought them time off from the punishments of purgatory. Purgatory, which is not taught in the Bible, is defined by Rome as “a purging fire, by which the souls of the pious, tormented for a set time, are purified, so that they might enter the eternal fatherland.” (The Council of Trent)

About John Tetzel and the purpose for the money raised from the sale of indulgences, Luther wrote, “(Tetzel) threshed away lustily indeed, so that money began to fall, to spring, and to clang into the chest in piles. At the same time, however, Tetzel did not forget himself. But the pope, too, had kept his finger in the pie; half of the money collected was to go toward the erection of St. Peter’s Church at Rome. So these fellows went to work with joy and great expectations, went to threshing and pounding purses…So my propositions went forth against the articles of Tetzel, as may be seen from their printed form.”

No debate on the 95 Theses ever took place because no one responded to the invitation. That doesn’t mean, however, that the theses were ignored. As Luther recalled in 1541, “In fourteen days they actually passed through all of Germany.” Soon much of Europe was talking about the brave (or foolish) monk from Wittenberg who dared to raise such questions. The questions included the following:

“Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” (Thesis 82)

“Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus,* build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” (Thesis 86)

Luther’s questions and his preaching did eventually lead to a reform movement within the Catholic Church, but by that time the Evangelicals (as Lutherans were initially known) had gone their own way. We thank God that through the Reformation he restored to us the vital Scriptural truth that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone. This faith of ours in based on the promises of Holy Scripture alone.

*Crassus was a Roman (115-53 BC) noted for his wealth and luxurious living

Source of the Luther quotes: What Luther Says, #3754, “How the Movement Began”

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