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.
That’s how the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546), began his 95 theses, posted, tradition says, on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony, Oct. 31, 1517. Five centuries later we say that event marks the beginnings of what became the Protestant Reformation, offering an important moment to recall that heritage if, for no other reason, “out of love for the truth.”
Yet true to our divisive birthrights, we Protestants aren’t sure how to claim Luther’s ideas and actions half a millennium later. Some organized conferences, concerts and worship events marked the occasion, perhaps hoping to encourage an identity-strapped Protestantism of its origins. (By the way, the Reformation was the theme of the Oct. 31 New York Times crossword!)
Others acknowledge the Reformation’s significance, while affirming contemporary ecumenical relationships, even shared beliefs, with post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. A 2017 Pew survey suggests “among both Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe, the prevailing view is that faith and good works are necessary for salvation.” (By the way, 87 percent of world Protestants live outside Europe.)
Still other Protestants ignored the 500th altogether, perhaps because the story has gotten lost to their own history, or the needs of the moment — politics, opioids, racism, terrorist attacks, building maintenance and the departure of the “nones” — demand immediate energy and response. Nonetheless, at a time when the lies of public officials are excused as mere “hyperbole,” perhaps “love for the truth” is worth Protestant pursuit. Martin Luther can help with that, at least for a moment.
After addressing Reformation history in sermons, print and lectures every October of my life for the last 46 years, here are a few things I’ve learned from the 95.
First, Reformation often begins with concern for the care of souls — when church or culture-practices have become so spiritually injurious that pastors cannot remain silent. In Wittenberg, Luther was both professor and parish priest; his 95 commence with a pastoral concern for enduring human struggles with sin, guilt and forgiveness. For Luther, the purchase of Indulgences was a perversion of gospel truth, cheap grace, promising absolution based on a materialistic falsehood. The first three theses reaffirm the spirituality of repentance:
- When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
- The word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
- Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.
Luther’s parishioners were fooled into thinking they could buy themselves or their dead relatives forgiveness in this world and the next. Luther would not let them be deceived.
Four hundred years later, Walter Rauschenbusch, pastoring in Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y., called the church to a Social Gospel when he witnessed the blatant exploitation of laboring classes in the tenements around him.
Second, Reformation begins when the church is compelled to confront its own bad theology masquerading as truth. Indulgences promised forgiveness of sin and guilt with the proper repentance and financial contribution, a practice begun in earnest with the Crusades as protection for those who agreed to fight the infidel, and those who funded their support. In Here I Stand, his classic biography of Luther, Roland Bainton wrote that indulgences “proved so lucrative that it was speedily extended to cover construction of churches, monasteries and hospitals.” Indeed, money from indulgences purchased in the Wittenberg region were used to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Luther’s 95 called the clergy to consider the bad theology they were perpetuating. He wrote:
- Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
- They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
What bad theology are we 21st-century Protestants pawning off as gospel truth?
Third, Reformation begins when God’s grace confronts and transforms authoritarian entitlement. As Luther moves through the 95, his pastoral concerns morph into a direct challenge to the nature of the medieval Catholicism itself — the authority of the Pope. Luther insists that if the Pope has the ability to waive time in Purgatory or offer forgiveness and reconciliation, why doesn’t he, as the representative of Christ, offer grace to everyone, for free? He asked:
- 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?
- What does the pope remit or grant to those who by perfect contrition already have a right to full remission and blessings?
- What greater blessing could come to the church than if the pope were to bestow these remissions and blessings on every believer a hundred times a day, as he now does but once?
Luther’s three great watchwords, sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia, are as powerful today as they were 500 years ago; but the church remains as divided over their meaning and influence as were the earliest reformers. Yet, theses 94 and 95 are a timeless call to the church’s one foundation, Jesus. Luther wrote:
- Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.
- And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).
God help us. Here we still stand. Amen.