The church in Luther’s time taught that there were two kinds of punishment for sins: eternal and temporal. The eternal penalty was hell. To escape hell, the sinner had to repent of his sins with all his heart. The temporal penalty had two parts: “satisfaction” on earth and “cleansing” in purgatory. The earthly satisfaction for sin was set by the church. When someone confessed a sin, the priest told the person what to do to make up for it. The ”satisfaction,” or penalty, might be giving up a certain food, giving money for some church project, or saying certain prayers many times. Since these good works covered only a part of the penalty for the sins a person had committed, more cleansing was needed in purgatory. Cleansing in purgatory was thought to be very painful and had to last a long time.
As a way to escape suffering in purgatory, the church taught that people could draw on the “treasury of merits.” According to this teaching, Jesus and some saints had done many more good works than they themselves needed. These extra good works were stored in a heavenly treasury. The church could transfer some of these merits to the sinner by granting an indulgence. When enough indulgences were purchased on behalf of a person, the soul of the person living or dead could be freed from purgatory.
The church did not say that indulgences gave forgiveness of sins. A person who bought or earned an indulgence still had to confess his or her sins to a priest and receive forgiveness. To a good many people, however, release from sin’s punishment was the same as forgiveness of sin. Special agents sold indulgence letters all over Europe.
The letters contained the pope’s signature and seal. One of the indulgence sellers was John Tetzel, a monk.
The origins of this go back to 1513 when the archbishop of Mainz died. Albert of Brandenburg wanted to be the next archbishop. This would make him the leading church official in Germany. But Albert was only 23 and too young to be an archbishop. He needed special permission from the pope, and this would cost a lot of money. Other men also wanted to be archbishop, so Albert would have to pay more than any of them. When he offered $550,000, Pope Leo X said, “Albert is the only man for the job.” Albert had to borrow the money from bankers. To enable him to repay his debt, the pope issued a papal bull allowing indulgences to be sold in Germany. Half of the money would go to builds. Peter’s Church in Rome. The other half would go to Albert to repay the bankers. Albert himself did not sell the indulgences, but he hired a number of salesmen. John Tetzel was the one chosen to work near Wittenberg. Tetzel was a good salesman.
When Luther heard all of this, he was shocked. He had preached against indulgences before, warning that they could not take the place of repentance and sorrow for sin. Now he realized that indulgences were being sold under the guise that they had the power to give complete forgiveness of sins. Some of Luther’s members, after hearing Tetzel, came for confession and said they were not sorry for their sins. They even waved their indulgence letters in Luther’s face and claimed that their sins were completely forgiven and there was no need for confession and contrition.
Luther then refused to give them absolution or Holy Communion until they were penitent. In a sermon that he preached one year before he nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the door at Wittenberg, he emphasized the importance of sincere repentance. “Contrition lasts throughout the Christian’s life,” he said. No indulgence could replace true repentance.
During the next year Luther preached still stronger sermons against indulgences. In doing this he risked the anger of Frederick the Wise, and important ruler in the part of Germany called Saxony. Frederick’s Castle Church of All Saints in Wittenberg held a huge collection of relics that Frederick had carefully gathered over many ye3ars. Each year on November 1st, All Saints’ Day he displayed them so that anyone who saw these relics and left a gift in the church was granted an indulgence that removed two million years from his or her stay in purgatory. The money went for the support of the Wittenberg church and university. Despite Luther’s sermons, members of his congregation continued to buy indulgences.
Luther liked his position at the university, and he loved and respected his ruler, but he cared more about the spiritual health of God’s people. Luther could not stand by and do nothing. Besides, All Saints’ Day was drawing near, and huge crowds would be seeking indulgences at the Castle Church. The time had come to take a stronger step.