Luther’s 1517 Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

Here we are 500 years later in a church bearing Luther’s name. It’s quite a momentous occasion and I thought we should look at how the Reformation began, in commemoration. The question always comes up: What is the relevance of these events and ideas, today, for us? This is important and needs to be considered. But first, we will have to look at it historically, to have any hope of getting to that. In any anniversary, remembering and recounting the past is a big part of what it is necessarily about. With Luther, as with many great historical figures, subsequent generations have re-fashioned a picture of him and the significance of his work to suit their own intellectual, cultural, and political needs and aspirations. Particularly in modern times, Luther is sometimes seen as the archetypal revolutionary protesting against authority.

Appeals to Luther, it seems, come from almost every quarter where a historical champion is desired. He was a transitional figure between the late medieval period and the modern. But because of people’s near-universal tendency to project their (our) mental framework onto the past, we must to try to avoid this kind of trap, by always keeping in mind what Luther and the other reformers thought they were doing, particularly in the religious sense. The Reformation as it worked out was an immensely complicated phenomenon, and there is seemingly no end to its interpretation, or to the interpretation of Luther and his voluminous writings.

Obviously, we will have to narrow our focus. We’ll try to scratch the surface of the famous 95 Theses, looking at a few of the most important ones for religious or theological significance, especially as explained by Luther himself.

General Historical Background

Luther, in his developing reaction to indulgences, responded to practices and ideas popular at the time, out of concern for the spiritual health of his parishioners and students. Also, he was disturbed by the fact that indulgences were being peddled by salesmen (like Johann Tetzel, notoriously) to raise money for building St. Peter’s Cathedral and for paying foreign debts accrued by the Church in Rome. He, like many others, thought the money should stay in Germany to help poor or ordinary folks there.

Far from being conceived as a protest over against the Church (or its authorities) Luther proposing these for debate would have been part and parcel with standard academic practices in universities at the time. Debates such as these were an integral part of the pedagogy, helping to clarify theological issues and to sharpen rhetorical skills and thinking. He followed this pattern early in his career, next preparing a shorter set of theses for the Heidelberg Disputation a few months later.

Luther was concerned about the actual practice of indulgences, but was not yet protesting in any formal sense. At this point he was a loyal son of the established church of his day, although he, like many others, saw the need for reform. As it developed, the difference is that most others were calling for moral reform, and there had in fact been a continual succession of these kinds of movements from 800 CE to 1500 CE. Luther, as controversy over his ideas developed, eventually went further and called for theological reform. That is the great distinguishing mark of Luther in the history of the Christian Church in the West. He called for reform of faith. It was radical in the sense that he attacked what was considered most holy in the Middle Ages.

The October 31, 1517 date is generally acknowledged as the starting point, historically. Why? Legend has it that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg where he was a mendicant Friar in the Augustinian order of monks. He was professor of Old Testament at the relatively new University of Wittenberg, but had begun lecturing on certain books of the New Testament as well. The university had been constructed by Prince Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony, who wanted to build it into an academic center of renown and reputation in his territory. With the help of Luther, Carlstadt, Melanchthon, and others on the faculty, it certainly became that. And with the events that followed, the spark of controversy embedded in the theses led to what can probably be considered the greatest religious conflict and upheaval in human history.

The image of Luther hammering the theses makes for a powerful, vivid symbolic image of forceful protest, although many historians say it likely never happened that way. The invitation to debate was mailed out instead, then copied and distributed, and soon after, translated into German from the original Latin. A live in-person debate never actually took place (admitted later by Luther), although that was the original intention for it. There is one reference in a letter written by Philip Melanchthon decades later recounting the events of the time, about the theses being posted on October 31. The only problem is that Melanchthon didn’t join the Wittenberg faculty until the following year, so he could not have been an eyewitness. What we do know is that Luther sent a copy of the Theses to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz along with a letter of introduction. He initially thought that his archbishop, and the Pope himself would be just as concerned over the abuse of indulgences in his territory of Saxony, if they but knew about it. He was quite mistaken in that regard. He had been alarmed by Johann Tetzel and wanted for pastoral reasons to persuade Albrecht to constrain him, but also to open debate about indulgences. The theses quickly got the attention of the authorities and created a firestorm, and we will examine just what it was in the content that sparked the controversy.

Indulgences and the Sacrament of Penance

First it would be helpful to summarize the Medieval penitential system and the nature of indulgences. Penance had developed over the centuries into the primary sacrament of the day; baptism was relatively downplayed compared to earlier times. According to church doctrine (following Augustine), humans inherited Original Sin from Adam and Eve through biological transmission (“conceived in sin”). Original Sin was characterized in the Catholic Church (following Augustine primarily) as a lack of righteousness or misdirected love, rather than something by itself. Baptism washed away any stain (on the soul) and the guilt for this, but a method was developed to keep or restore an individual to a “state of grace” when there was post-baptismal sin. This was a more arduous task in the early church when restoration to the Church’s fellowship after public sin was only possible after a lengthy period of rehabilitation (perhaps as much as 7 years). As the church grew to large proportions and eventually became the dominant religious institution in Europe, the stringent requirements were relaxed and regularized with the sacrament of penance, but at the same time more minor private sins were also considered necessary to confess. This is the same idea as justification—being put into a right relationship or standing with God, approved and accepted. Penance was the proscribed way of achieving this—a way of participating in one’s atonement and cooperating with God’s grace. When one cooperated with God’s grace, more grace was provided, and one became holier. Then, even more grace was provided to help the individual in a progressive process (“growing in grace”) that was synergistic in nature, ultimately to achieve salvation. The sacraments, especially penance, were considered the way the Church helped people in their journey on the way to heaven. It was also considered an urgent matter to deal with one’s spiritual state. Sudden death was a terrifying possibility, especially at that time, with the plague and other deadly illnesses being common. If one died without confessing a mortal sin (think of the seven deadly sins, not only specific acts), eternal damnation would await.

Penance included four successive elements: contrition, confession, absolution, and satisfaction. One had to be sorry for one’s sin, one had to remember them and confess them, and then following the priest’s granting of absolution, one had to make satisfaction for the penalty by suffering punishment or by doing some good or holy action to compensate and to demonstrate the sincerity of the confession and repentance. It should be noted that satisfaction did not obtain forgiveness. The guilt of sin confessed was forgiven for eternity, but there were still penalties to be paid and punishments suffered, temporally, in earthly life, and later in purgatory if necessary. Purgatory, as its name implies, was a process of purification or purging to make a person completely holy (intrinsically) before entering heaven. The Church had saints, but it realistically noted that almost no-one attained perfect holiness in this life. Hence there was the necessity of an interim state and a process of purification after death.

Set Up for Abuses

Into this system came the idea that the Church had built up a treasury of merit from Jesus, Mary, and the Saints. It could be dispensed by the Church, specifically by the priests on its behalf, in the form of indulgences, which would erase part or all of the amount of penalty one owed up to that point. Indulgences were originally distributed in exchange for almsgiving. The first plenary (full remission up to that point in time) indulgences were given during the Crusades. Then it was offered every 25 years (the Jubilee) to people for visiting Rome and praying at the tombs of the Apostles. Indulgences became very popular and eventually were offered for contributing money to causes like crusades against the Turks and building churches. They could be transferred to others such as relatives and loved ones that were already deceased. This was typically conceived as a reduction in the amount of time to spend in torment, though it wasn’t clear how to figure the (time duration of) accumulated penalty. Even if you obtained a plenary indulgence, going forward the penalties would start accruing again from any further sins. It was thought that more penalties for sin accumulated for most people than could be satisfied with penance. However, indulgences could be large, too. Luther’s territorial prince, Frederick III, had an extensive collection of relics, and simply viewing them could be worth 100,000 years! It is amazing, considering this, that Frederick allowed Luther to preach against them and protected Luther so long and faithfully. He had been proud of his relics, but became prouder of his star professor at the University of Wittenberg.

If you look at the modern guide to indulgences published by the Roman Catholic Church, you will find quite a variety and a numerous selection of good works and religious observances that if performed will earn indulgences (such as recitation of prayers, readings of scripture, visits to sacred places, works of charity and piety, etc.). The thing you won’t find in the current manual is any provision for money or charitable donations to the Church that will obtain them. The modern manual seeks to encourage “greater zeal for the exercise of charity.”

Genesis of Luther’s Questions and Challenges in the Theses

In his study of the Greek New Testament, Luther looked at Erasmus’ comment on the key proof text that had been used for the Sacrament of Penance, Matthew 4:17. In the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible): “Then Jesus began to preach and said, ‘do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is coming near.” Erasmus noted in an earlier occurrence in Matthew 3:2 that the Greek verb, metanoiete, meant something else. In the early church, penance was a punishment that the Church imposed on a public sinner that had been put out of the fellowship, as a condition for returning to the fold. He explained that later theologians had twisted comments made by Augustine about public satisfaction, to mean instead contrition or sorrow in the soul. Erasmus argued that metanoia meant regret for having committed an evil deed. Luther’s own examination of canon law proved Erasmus’ argument. The result was that Luther wanted to make an appeal to return to earlier (and better) church practice and theology—and his attempt to do that was in fact the 95 Theses, as a starting point for debate and discussion.

Organization and Topical Outline of the Theses

1 – 4 Repentance compared with the Sacrament of Penance
5 – 28 Purgatory, the pope’s ability to remit penalties, and to whom they apply
29 – 51 True contrition, good works and Christian freedom
52 – 68 Inferiority of indulgences to the Gospel
69 – 80 Proper preaching of indulgences
81 – 90 Questions raised by indulgences
91 – 95 Exhortation for preaching indulgences according to presumed wishes of the pope

Important and Controversial Points in the Theses

Thesis 1.

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

Luther here is proposing that true repentance is much more than performance of the sacrament. (This by itself would not have been controversial. It is an extension to life of the contrition required.) It sets the tone for the entire document.

In parallel to this sentiment, the contemporary Manual of Indulgences states (on p.10): “The Apostolic Penitentiary therefore, rather than stress the repetition of formulas and acts, has been concerned to put greater emphasis on the Christian way of life and to focus attention on cultivating a spirit of prayer and penance and on the exercise of the theological virtues” (faith, hope, and love).

Thesis 5. The Pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.
Thesis 13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties, are already dead as far as the canon laws are concerned, and have a right to be released from them.
Thesis 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.”

Luther here is proposing that the Pope has limited, earthly authority, and it does not extend to the afterlife (including Purgatory). And even if it did, why is he not simply merciful? This indeed was highly contentious and got a swift response. Luther claimed that canonical penalties or punishments could not be transferred from earthly life to Purgatory. This contradicted the decree of Pope Sixtus IV (1476). It was a key shift away from Rome’s established point of view on Papal authority.

The contemporary Manual of Indulgences (2006) still gives as the basis for this authority the power of binding and loosing given to Peter, the Apostles, and their successors. It also states that indulgences are remissions of penalty before God.

Thesis 36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
Thesis 43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
Thesis 49. Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them.

Luther here is warning against misplaced trust (in the power of the institutional church vs. God) and extolling the superiority of true repentance and real personally-involved charity as a measure of sincerity of contrition.

Thesis 54. Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.
Thesis 62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

Luther here undermines this extra-biblical tradition of the church, the so-called “treasury of merit” accumulated by superfluous works (beyond that necessary for righteousness) from Jesus and the saints. He counter-poses the Gospel instead as the only thing the church possesses, and as the purpose for which it exists.

Thesis 88. Again, “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?”
Thesis 91. If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the Pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist.

Luther here shows that he expected (assuming good faith) that the Pope would agree with him. Instead a firestorm ensued. Why? He challenged Papal authority, questioned the penance system, and interrupted the cash flow from indulgences.

Explanation of the Theses by Luther (1518)

A few months later Luther prepared an explanation of the theses and gave his Sermon on Indulgences and Grace for a more general audience. The explanations were written in a simple accessible style, in German rather than Latin. He mailed a copy of this to the archbishop as well. Translated quickly, it achieved wide distribution across Europe and Luther became the world’s first best-selling author—the start of a publishing phenomenon. There was no mention of Papal authority in his explanations.

He appealed to suffering as a manifestation that distinguished between true and false teachers and doctrines. He also introduced the notion that a person hearing the words of absolution from the priest must have a “peace of conscience” indicative of trust in those words as trust in God for salvation. This was requiring trust in an outward word of forgiveness, driven by disappointment and revulsion at self-trust and self-righteousness.

At this point he still did not question the legitimacy of the office of the papacy, but he was later summoned to Rome to answer for his challenge to its absolute authority. He eventually had a hearing in 1521 at Worms (in Germany) instead at the insistence of Prince Frederick to the Emperor. By that time, he had published much more, and had reached his fuller evangelical understanding of the Gospel from his studies of the Bible.

In his explanation of the theses, Luther claimed that true doctrine always provoked, and that the scholastic theologians used reason to explain away and avoid suffering. He also said there was need for humility and (spiritual) suffering to prepare a person for the true reception of the Gospel. True Christians despair of self, not of God’s grace. Suffering is not meritorious, but keeps a person focused on its object, i.e., Christ. Suffering literally means to “undergo something”, and implies a willing passivity. But the papal curia and the church hierarchy were interested above all in their own survival and self-preservation. This is typical for many institutions, as one can observe today as well.

Suffering as a Mark of Earnest Christians

Thesis 12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
Thesis 40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].

Luther does not despise the Church’s penalties imposed in the satisfaction element of penance, but argues that earnest Christians should welcome them, as well as divine chastisement for sin. He was concerned that indulgences were encouraging people to flee punishment rather than flee sin and not to have true contrition if they could buy their way out. The literal meaning of the word “indulge” suggests this.

Humility and Suffering as the Mark of True Faith

Later, in his postils of 1521, Luther argued that true faith was accessible only to those who had suffered humiliation or even the annihilation of their reason and self-confidence in matters of salvation. So, he had shifted in this period of four years from distinguishing earnest Christians from the lukewarm, to distinguishing true and false. This was confirmation that Luther’s Theology of the Cross remained a prominent part of his theological thinking.

Being careful to make distinctions here, self-confidence or security must be regarded as different from certainty. Self-confidence refers to one’s own righteousness or self-regard, and it was this that Luther claimed must be annihilated as a prerequisite to faith. The Roman Catholic Church maintained that a conviction about certainty of one’s salvation was presumption. One could instead only regard salvation with hope. Luther on the other hand maintained that surety was revealed about God’s intention toward us in the scriptures and that one could and should trust firmly in God’s Word, written and preached. He maintained “that faith alone is called Christian faith, when you believe that Christ…is Christ for you.”

Theologian of the Cross (1518)

The development of this theology as presented at the Heidelberg Disputation was anticipated in the 95 Theses. It ties in with attitudes and orientation toward suffering.

Luther argued that God saves in a way contrary to human expectations and desire. Human beings want to understand God through reason and to attain salvation through their own will and effort. People deny or don’t realize the depth of their sinfulness, and imagine that they have the innate resources to know God and become holy. Consequently, any proclamation of the true doctrine of salvation only by the grace of God and faith in Christ arouses human resistance. Those who will not let their pride and self-reliance be broken in spiritual trials become enemies of God and of true Christians.

For Luther, scholastic theology deceived by teaching that Christ’s treasure was the remission of divine penalties, whereas he believed the real treasure was the opposite—the gift of suffering and true faith. As a reward for this message, the theologian of the cross is despised and persecuted, a mark of the true theologian. One can conclude, then, that Luther was trying to explain his general experience of spiritual trials as normative for true Christian faith.

The Tower Experience (1519)

This was Luther’s self-described evangelical breakthrough to his understanding of Justification by Faith alone (apart from the law and apart from works).

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” [Rom. 1: 16, 17]

He arrived at this after he had gained a cumulative understanding from important scriptural studies and insights.

“I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: "The just person lives by faith." All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings…

The Righteousness of God is that by which he justifies the sinner, forgiving sin and effecting the transformation in the relationship. It comes from outside of us as a free gift of grace, not from intrinsic or internal holiness fostered by cooperation. It was the answer to his burning question: How can I find a gracious God? What was Luther seeking prior to his theological breakthrough? Certainty of salvation. He found this in God’s promises. To believe these promises was the essence of Christian faith, to Luther. In other words, believe the promises and you have them. After this breakthrough, Luther reviewed all the promises in scripture, saw them in the new light, and reinterpreted them accordingly, finding great comfort and new inspiration.

The second great question provoked or renewed by the Reformation was: What was the nature of authority in the Church? Where does it come from? There had been a long controversy in the Church over whether a general council (the assembly of bishops) or the Papacy was the final authority in matters of theology and practice. The Papal Curia in Rome had gained the upper hand in this controversy. Luther suspected the opposition he faced was really about the debate over authority rather than indulgences or the theses themselves. The opposition Rome had to reforms seems to reflect that overriding concern. Effectively the initial debate shifted to that ground early on, being the basis for the claim that Luther was a heretic.

The Enduring Significance of the Theses and the Reformation

The dominant narrative of the Reformation in recent times claims its religious appeal is in its offer of liberation from crushing anxiety about salvation, a feature of late-medieval religious life manifested around the penitential system and the doctrine of purgatory. This framework assumes that Luther’s problem was the defining problem of his era and that he found the solution to a sense of torment under legalistic religion felt by many of his age.

An alternative framework for interpreting the Reformation gaining some recent attention sees it as a movement of multiple kindred agendas for Christianizing Europe, with more continuity than discontinuity between the Middle Ages and the Reformation. This accounts for the genuine contributions to reform from the Catholic side, in an integral view of Reformation-era events. Both interpretive frameworks attempt to account for all the information. There is skepticism that the Reformation represented a singular event and era. Rather, it primarily featured an ecclesiastical division of Western Christendom, but on all sides it sought to instill genuine Christian faith in hearts and minds, teaching Christians how to remain in the truth in beliefs, worship practices, and personal experiences, including suffering.

The 95 Theses, Luther’s subsequent theology of the cross, and the persistence of his view of suffering suggest that even as Luther’s conscience was indeed relieved by his new understanding of the Gospel, he was not by this way encouraging release from spiritual trials and suffering. Rather, it was a necessary preparation to accept God’s grace in humility and to have true faith. This is related to the so-called second use of the Law, driving people to Christ with the acknowledgement of the need for forgiveness.

Indulgences in Luther’s view, catered to the avoidance of suffering. The Lutheran Church’s great legacy and gift to the whole Church in this regard is the ability to look unflinchingly at suffering while offering the greater comfort of the Gospel. The most important consolation was the forgiveness and the certainty of God’s grace in absolution. Christians can console each other with this Word.


Mr. Harold Hofstad wishes to acknowledge Dr. Vincent Evener of the faculty of United Lutheran Seminary for his insights on Luther’s theology and its relationship to spiritual suffering. These were gained from class lectures in Fall 2016 and a conference presentation in Spring 2017 at the Gettysburg campus.

Harold HofstadHarold Hofstad is a graduate student at United Lutheran Seminary—Gettysburg Campus pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion. Mr. Hofstad was an observer at the 2017 Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Windhoek, Namibia. He is a scholar of Luther and Reformation studies, which is his primary area of concentration at the seminary. Mr. Hofstad is a retired senior technical communicator and former president of the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication.
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