Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Reformation Day -- A synopsis of Luther's 95 Theses

Today marks the 497th anniversary of Martin Luther's posting of the 95 Theses, often regarded as the birthday of the Lutheran Reformation.  While many people are familiar with the words "95 Theses," the theses themselves remain somewhat unknown to most people even in Lutheran circles.  For a complete reading of Martin Luther's 95 Theses--at least one version of it-- you can click here.

For a little background about these theses, Luther recognized that people were being taught that the purchase of indulgences from Roman Catholic priests/salesmen was running rampant.  (For a definition of indulgences, you can visit this Roman Catholic source here.)  People were being led to believe (if they were not flat out being told so) that peace with God was something that could be purchased for florins and pfennings, that is, cash.  There was no talk of faith.  There was no encouragement to pursue good works.  The purchase of indulgences, rather, encouraged impious living.  After all, if you can buy your way out of punishments, why not sin all the more?  A few more florins means more forgiveness.  (For what it is worth, you will not find salesmen trafficking indulgences today, but that does not mean they are gone.  Click here for a recent article on it.)

Luther, at first, did not declare the sale of indulgences unscriptural.  The 95 Theses addressed mainly the abuse of the sale of indulgences.  And Luther's attack was not done to stir up dissension.  It was written in Latin for scholars to read.  It was an invitation for scholars to debate.

But it was quickly translated into German.  Pamphlets of Luther's 95 Theses were copied and sold.  It was a best seller in no time at all.  Luther's theses were appreciated and applauded by many people around Germany--both for noble (comfort for people's consciences) and misguided (keep Saxon florins in Saxony) reasons.

The debate Luther sought never really happened.  (His debate with Dr. Eck in Leipzig, 1519, was as close as he got to honest discussion about it.  But Eck was not interested in discussion.  Eck sought entrapment and condemnation.)  The 95 Theses, however, did get people questioning the practice of selling indulgences.  Luther went on not just to question the practice, but to condemn it.  He also began to question many practices in the Roman Catholic Church.  He compared everything to the Holy Scriptures.  Whatever was opposed to the Bible, he vehemently condemned--sometimes so vehemently that it would make modern readers blush.

Luther never intended to split the church, but he finally recognized that it had to be that way.  Rome had no interested in reforming itself, even though Rome acknowledge that it had problems.  Luther's only desire was that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, divine mercy and grace, justification by faith alone, and comfort for grief-stricken consciences by fully and freely proclaimed.  For preaching, promoting, and defending that doctrine, Luther was condemned and excommunicated.  So let it be known: Luther did not rebel and start something new; he preached Jesus and was ousted for doing so.  The Lord, however, saw fit to preserve Luther's life.  The Gospel was heard in clear tones for the first time in centuries.  It was cherished by some and despised by others.  The church today still stands divided, and for the same reasons.

In the interest of highlighting a few portions of Luther's 95 Theses, some of them are printed below.  Happy Reformation Day!

Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther
on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences
by Dr. Martin Luther (1517)
Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.

In the Name our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, (Repent! or literally, "Do repentance!") willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.
3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.

4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
...
50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter's church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.
...
52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.
...
62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.
...
81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.

82. To wit: -- "Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of 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? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial."

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