The 95 Theses and their Results (1517-1519)
From 1514 Luther was not only theology professor at Wittenberg
University but also the priest at the City Church in Wittenberg. So he
was also responsible for the salvation of his parish.
observed that many people in Wittenberg were not coming to him for
confession any more. They were going to towns in Brandenburg or Anhalt
like Jüterbog or Zerbst to buy Indulgences (primarily the Peter's
of buying indulgences, which quasi replaced confession and allowed
people to buy their salvation, was completely repulsive to Luther. He
strongly believed that one lived a life of humility in order to receive
After 1507, trade in Indulgences took a steep climb because both the
Papal Court and Bishop Albrecht von Brandenburg Germany's representative
for the sale of indulgence were in great financial trouble.
In addition, the Dominican monk, Johann Tetzel, sold indulgences in
the region around Wittenberg in a very ostentatious manner. Many stories
started poping up about him such as, that Tetzel could redeem the sins
of the deceased.
Further sayings of Tetzel, such as, "When the money clangs in the box,
the souls spring up to heaven", also brought protests from Luther.
October 31, 1517, "Nailing the 95 Theses to the Door of the Castle
to October 31, 1517, Luther had preached against the indulgence trade.
After reading an instruction manual for indulgence traders, he wrote a
letter to his church superiors hoping to get rid of this abuse. In this
letter he included 95
Theses which were to be used as the basis for a discussion on the
That Luther hammered his theses to the door of the
Church in Wittenberg belongs to the realm of legends (the legend of
Nailing the 95 Theses to
the Door of the Castle Church).
Reactions to the 95 Theses
Luther sent his 95 Theses to a few bishops and some friends;
therefore he did not expect or receive a prompt response. By the end of
1517, however, copies of the 95 Theses had been printed in Leipzig,
Nuremberg and Basel. Some humanists and princes passionately approved of
the theses, but parts of the Roman Church completely rejected them. The
most vehement voice against the theses was the Indulgence Priest Tetzel,
who supposedly categorized Luther as a follower of the heretic Jan Hus
and threatened to have him burned at the stake.
At first the bishops reacted mildly, they informed the Pope of the
'rebel within the ranks' and instructed Luther's direct superior to take
a moderate roll in calming him. A few bishops actually welcomed Luther's
ideas for reform.
Events up to 1519
Because of increasing pressure, Luther found it necessary to explain
and clarify his theses in writing. In 1518, Luther himself said that he
only wanted to take care of an abuse (indulgence) and was not striving
to unhinge the papacy with his theses.
The avalanche, however, was now unstoppable. The Papal Court reacted
drastically to the alleged heretic and in 1518 an inquisition was begun
in Rome. This quieted down in 1519 during the search for a successor to
the deceased Emperor Maximilian. Once Karl the V was elected as emperor,
the fight against Luther and his followers continued.
Lutherstadt Wittenberg, The 95 Theses
Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the
Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and
ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following
statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that
those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in
their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
- Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, "Repent ye, etc.,"
intended that the whole life of his believers on earth should be a
- And the word "penance" neither can, nor may, be understood as
referring to the Sacrament of Penance, that is, to confession and
atonement as exercised under the priest's ministry.
- Nevertheless He does not think of inward penance only: rather is
inward penance worthless unless it produces various outward
mortifications of the flesh.
- Therefore mortification continues as long as hatred of oneself
continues, that is to say, true inward penance lasts until entrance
into the Kingdom of Heaven.
- The Pope will not, and cannot, remit other punishments than those
which he has imposed by his own decree or according to the canons.
- The Pope can forgive sins only in the sense, that he declares and
confirms what may be forgiven of God; or that he doth it in those
cases which he hath reserved to himself: be this contempt, the sin
- God forgives none his sin without at the same time casting him
penitent and humbled before the priest His vicar.
- The canons concerning penance are imposed only on the living; they
ought not by any means, following the same canons, to be imposed on
- Therefore, the Holy Spririt, acting in the Pope, does well for us,
when the latter in his decrees entirely removes the article of death
and extreme necessity.
- Those priests act unreasonably and ill who reserve for Purgatory
the penance imposed on the dying.
- This abuse of changing canonical penalty into the penalty of
Purgatory seems to have arisen when the bishops were asleep.
- In times of yore, canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but
before absolution, as tests of true repentance and affliction.
- The dying pay all penalties by their death, and are already dead
to the canons, and rightly have exemption from them.
- Imperfect spiritual health or love in the dying person necessarily
brings with it great fear; and the less this love is, the greater the
fear it brings.
- This fear and horror - to say nothing of other things - are
sufficient in themselves to produce the punishment of Purgatory,
because they approximate to the horror of despair.
- Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven seem to differ as perfect despair,
imperfect despair, and security of salvation differ.
- It seems that while in Purgatory love in the souls increases, as
fear diminishes in them.
- It does not seem to be proved either by arguments or by the Holy
Writ that they are outside the state of merit and demerit, or increase
- This, too, seems not to be proved, that they are all sure and
confident of their salvation, though we may be quite sure of it.
- Therefore the Pope, in speaking of the perfect remission of all
punishments, does not mean that all penalties in general be forgiven,
but only those imposed by himself.
- Therefore, those preachers of indulgences err who say that, by the
Pope's indulgence, a man may be exempt from all punishments, and be
- Yea, the Pope remits the souls in Purgatory no penalty which they,
according to the canons, would have had to pay in this life.
- If to anybody complete remission of all penalties may be granted,
it is certain that it is granted only to those most approaching
perfection, that is to very few.
- Therefore the multitude is misled by the boastful promise of the
paid penalty, whereby no manner of distinction is made.
- The same power that the Pope has over Pugatory, such has also
every bishop in his diocese, and every curate in his parish.
- The Pope acts most rightly in granting remission to souls, not by
the power of the keys - which in Purgatory he does not possess - but
by way of intercession.
- They preach vanity who say that the soul flies out of Pugatory as
soon as the money thrown into the chest rattles.
- What is sure, is, that as soon as the penny rattles in the chest,
gain and avarice are on the way of increase; but the intercession of
the church depends only on the will of God Himself.
- And who knows whether all those souls in Purgatory wish to be
redeemed, as it is said to have happened with St. Severinus and St.
- Nobody is sure of having repented sincerely enough; much less can
he be sure of having recieved perfect remission of sins.
- Seldom even as he who has sincere repentance, is he who really
gains indulgence; that is to say, most seldom to be found.
- On the way to eternal damnation are they and their teachers, who
believe that they are sure of their salvation through indulgences.
- Beware well of those who say, the Pope's pardons are that
inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to God.
- For the forgiveness contained in these pardons has reference only
to the penalties of sacramental atonement which were appointed by men.
- He preaches like a heathen who teaches that those who will deliver
souls out of Purgatory or buy indulgences do not need repentance and
- Every Christian who feels sincere repentance and woe on account of
his sins, has perfect remission of pain and guilt even without letters
- Every true Christian, be he still alive or already dead, partaketh
in all benefits of Christ and of the Church given him by God, even
without letters of indulgence.
- Yet is the Pope's absolution and dispensation by no means to be
contemned, since it is, as I have said, a declaration of the Divine
- It is exceedingly difficult, even for the most subtile theologians
to praise at the same time before the people the great wealth of
indulgence and the truth of utter contrition.
- True repentance and contrition seek and love punishment; while
rich indulgence absolves from it, and causes men to hate it, or at
least gives them occasion to do so.
- The Pope's indulgence ought to be proclaimed with all precaution,
lest the people should mistakenly believe it of more value than all
other works of charity.
- Christians should be taught that it is not the Pope's opinion that
the buying of indulgence is in any way comparable to works of charity.
- Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor, or
lends to a needy man, does better than buying indulgence.
- For, by the exercise of charity, chaity increases and man grows
better, while by means of indulgence, he does not become better, but
only freer from punishment.
- Christians should be taught that he who sees his neighbour in
distress, and nevertheless buys indulgence, is not partaking in the
Pope's pardons, but in the anger of God.
- Christians should be taught that unless they are rich enough, it
is their duty to keep what is necessary for the use of their
households, and by no means to throw it away on indulgences.
- Christians should be taught that the buying of indulgences is
optional and not commanded.
- Christians should be taught that the Pope in selling pardons, has
more want and more desire of a devout prayer for himself than of the
- Christians should be taught that the Pope's pardons are useful as
far as one does not put confidence in them, but on the contrary most
dangerous if through them one loses the fear of God.
- Christians should be taught that if the Pope knew the ways and
doings of the preachers of indulgences, he would prefer that St.
Peter's Minster should be burnt to ashes, rather than that it should
be built up of the skin, flesh, and bones of his lambs.
- Christians should be taught that the Pope, as it is his bounden
duty to do, is indeed also willing to give of his own money - and
should St. Peter's be sold thereto - to those from whom the preachers
of indulgences do most extort money.
- It is a vain and false thing to hope to be saved through
indulgences, though the commissary - nay, the Pope himself - was to
pledge his own soul therefore.
- Those who, on account of a sermon concerning indulgences in one
church, condemn the word of God to silence in the others, are enemies
of CHrist and the Pope.
- Wrong is done to the word of God if one in the same sermon spends
as much or more time on indulgences as on the word of the Gospel.
- The opinion of the Pope cannot be otherwise than this: If an
indulgence - which is the lowest thing - be celebrated with one bell,
one procession and ceremonies, then the Gospel - which is the highest
thing - must be celebrated with a hundred bells, a hundred
processions, and a hundred ceremonies.
- The treasures of the Church, whence the Pope grants his
dispensation, are neither sufficiently named nor known among the
community of Christ.
- It is manifest that they are not temporal treasures, for the
latter are not lightly spent, but rather gathered by many of the
- Nor are they the merits of Christ and of the saints, for these,
without the Pope's aid, work always grace to the inner man, cross,
death, and hell to the outer man.
- St. Lawrence called the poor of the community the treasures of the
community and of the Church, but he understood the word according to
the use in his time.
- We affirm without pertness that the keys of the Church, bestowed
through the merit of Christ, are this treasure.
- For it is clear that the Pope's power is sufficient for the
remission of penalties and forgiveness in the reserved cases.
- The right and true treasure of the Church is the most Holy Gospel
of the glory and grace of God.
- This treasure, however, is deservedly most hateful, for it makes
the first to be the last.
- While the treasure of indulgence is deservedly most agreeable, for
it makes the last to be the first.
- Therefore, the treasures of the Gospel are nets, which, in times
of yore, one fished for the men of Mammon.
- But the treasures of indulgence are nets, with which now-a-days
one fishes for the Mammon of men.
- Those indulgences, which the preachers proclaim to be great
mercies, are indeed great mercies, forasmuch as they promote gain.
- And yet they are of the smallest compared to the grace of God and
to the devotion of the Cross.
- Bishops and curates ought to mark with eyes and ears, that the
commissaries of apostolical (that is, Popish) pardons are recieved
with all reverence.
- But they ought still more to mark with eyes and ears, that these
commissaries do not preach their own fancies instead of what the Pope
- He who speaks against the truth of apostolical pardons, be
anathema and accursed.
- But blessed be he who is on his guard against the preacher's of
pardons naughty and impudent words.
- As the Pope justly disgraces and excommunicates those who use any
kind of contrivance to do damage ot the traffic in indulgences,
- Much more it is his intention to disgrace and excommunicate those
who, under the pretext of indulgence, use contrivance to do damage to
holy love and truth.
- To think that the Popish pardons have power to absolve a man even
if - to utter an impossibility - he had violated the Mother of God, is
- We assert on the contrary that the Popish pardons cannot take away
the least of daily sins, as regards the guilt of it.
- To say that the St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could show no
greater mercies, is blasphemy against St. Peter and the Pope.
- We assert on the contrary that both this and every other Pope has
greater mercies to show: namely, the Gospel, spiritual powers, gifts
of healing, etc. (I Cor. XII).
- He who says that the cross with the Pope's arm, solemnly set on
high, has as much power as the Cross of Christ, blasphemes God.
- Those bishops, curates, and theologians, who allow such speeches
to be uttered among the people, will have one day to answer for it.
- Such impudent sermons concerning indulgences make it difficult
even for learned men to protect the Pope's honour and dignity against
the calumnies, or at all events against the searching questions of the
- As for instance: Why does not the Pope deliver all souls at the
same time out of Purgatory for the sake of most holy love and on
account of the bitterest distress of those souls - this being the most
imperative of all motives - while he saves an infinite number of souls
for the sake of that most miserable thing money, to be spent on St.
Peter's Minster - this being the very slightest of motives?
- Or again: Why do masses for the dead continue, and why does not
the Pope return or permit the funds which were established for the
sake of the dead to be withdrawn, since it is now wrong to pray for
those who are already saved?
- Again: What is this new holiness of God and the Pope that, for
money's sake, they permit the wicked and the enemy of God to save a
pious soul, faithful to God, and yet will not save that pious and
beloved soul without payment, out of love and on account of its great
- Again: Why is it that the canons of penance, long abrogated and
dead in themselves, because they are not used, are yet still paid for
with money through the granting of pardons, as if they are still in
force and alive?
- Again: Why does not the Pope build St. Peter's Minster with his
own money - since his riches are now more ample than those of Crassus
- rather than with the money of poor Christians?
- Again: Why does the Pope remit or give to those who, through
perfect penitence, have already a right to plenary remission and
- Again: What greater good could the Church recieve, than if the
Pope presented this remission and pardon a hundred times a day to
every believer, instead of but once, as he does now?
- If the Pope seeks by his pardons the salvation of souls, rather
than money, why does he annul letters of indulgence granted long ago,
and declare them out of force, though they are still in force?
- To repress these very telling questions of the laymen only by
force, and not to solve them by telling the truth, is to expose the
Church and the Pope to the enemy's ridicule and to make Christian
- Therefore, if pardons were preached according to the Pope's
intention and opinion, all these objections would be easily answered,
nay, they never would have occured.
- Away then with all those prophets who say to the community of
Christ, "Peace, Peace" and there is no peace.
- But blessed be all those prophets who say to the community of
Christ, "The cross, the cross," and there is no cross.
- Christians should be exhorted to endeavour to follow Christ their
Head through Cross, Death, and Hell,
- And thus hope with confidence to enter Heaven through many
miseries, rather than in false security.