LUTHER AND THE REFORMATION: PART 8 THE NINETY-FIVE THESES

On October 31st many people celebrate Halloween.  In the church, October 31st is All Hallows’ Eve or the Eve of All Saint’s Day.  Many Lutheran and other protestant Christians observe the same day as reformation Day.  It is no accident that these two observances are celebrated on the same day.  Several times in 1516 and 1517 Martin Luther had preached against the selling of indulgences.  This took courage, for John Tetzel had been given power by Pope Leo X to excommunicate those who spoke against this activity.  But Luther was not afraid.  He knew that St. Augustine had never mentioned indulgences.  Others before him had spoken against indulgences.  Also, Tetzel was making claims for his indulgences that had never been made before.  Luther thought the church leaders didn’t really know what Tetzel was doing.  He was sure that when they found out, they would stop the evil business.  Luther loved his church and was simply trying to defend it against a false teacher.

Most importantly, Luther knew what God wanted him to do. Buying indulgences kept many people from relying completely on the forgiveness they had in Christ.  Luther remembered that he himself knew the comfort of the Gospel only after many years of living in spiritual darkness.  Now he felt he had to spread the light of the Gospel wherever and whenever he could.  By October, 1517 Tetzel had left the Wittenberg area, but All Saints’ Day, November 1st, was fast approaching.  Crowds of people would seek indulgence by viewing Frederick the Wise’s relics, among them a thorn from the crown of Christ, according to the catalog of the collection of relics.  So Luther went to work in his tower room.

He planned to take advantage of the opportunity to publicize his views.

That day he unrolled a large roll of paper and nails it to the north door of the Castle Church.  It is written in Latin, a language few people knew, but some begin to translate it into German.   It begins with the words: “Out of love for the truth the following these will be debated at Wittenberg, the reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred theology, presiding.  He begs that those who cannot attend the oral discussion will send their ideas in writing.  In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.”  Then followed Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, or sentences, that he wanted to debate.  There were three min points in Luther’s attack on the selling of indulgences.  First, he said that the entire life of a Christian should be one of repentance.  Second, he was certain that indulgences did not give forgiveness of sins; this comes only through sorrow for sins and faith in Christ.  Christians should be urged to follow Christ their Head through cross, and death, and hell (Thesis 94).   Third, he claimed that buying indulgences was harmful to the Christian life.  Every person who feels sincere repentance and woe for his sins has perfect remission of punishment and guilt (Thesis 36).  Indulgences made people feel that Christian living wasn’t important.  “He who gives to the poor or lends to a needy man does better that he who buys an indulgence” (Thesis 43).

Luther’s theses were translated from Latin to German and using the recently invented printing press of Johann Gutenberg, Luther’s supporters reprinted the Ninety-five Thesis.  Soon they had spread all over Europe.  His theses were the focus of the first great media event in the new communication age.

Many people cheered Luther for daring to speak the truth. Others, for various reasons, wanted to silence him.  Archbishop Albert of Mainz who wanted the income from the sale of indulgences, was one who wanted to silence Luther.  He sent a copy of the theses to Rome and asked the pope to stop Luther from preaching or writing any more about indulgences.  The pope didn’t seem too worried at first.  It was just the monks having another one of their quarrels, he said.  If he did nothing, the whole thing would be forgotten.  John Tetzel also wanted Luther stopped.  After Luther’s attack, indulgence sales dropped off sharply.  Tetzel’s first move was to threaten Luther with burning at the stake.  When that didn’t work, he asked his order of monks, the Dominicans, to help him.  They appealed to the leaders in Rome to halt the spread of Luther’s dangerous teachings.  Now the church leaders at Rome began to act.  The head of the Augustinian Order demanded that John Staupitz solve the “Luther problem.”  The German Augustinians help a meeting at Heidelberg in April 1518.  Despite warnings that his life was in danger, Luther went to this meeting, walking the 270 miles from Wittenberg to Heidelberg.  In a debate with the professors from the University of Heidelberg, Luther skillfully defended his ideas about grace, faith, sin, and free will.  In the words of one listener, “His answers, so brief, so wise, and drawn from the Holy Scriptures, easily made all his hearers his admirers.”  The Augustinians did not order Luther to stop preaching and writing.  Instead they asked him to explain his theses more fully in writing.  When Luther did this, they sent copies to the pope.  Luther returned to Wittenberg in triumph.  God had protected him from all dangers and had given him good friends.  He was not alone in his fight.