This week, in preparation for Reformation Sunday, I read Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Protestants celebrate Oct. 31, 1517 as the birthday of the Reformation movement, but I’m wondering how many who celebrate Reformation have actually read the 95 Theses. You can read them here.
Luther traveled a lot of ground theologically from the beliefs he was taught in his upbringing to the beliefs he discovered in Scripture and later preached and taught. In 1517, his theology was still transitioning from medieval understandings to a theology shaped more completely by Scripture.
One thing that jumped out at me from reading the 95 Theses was the assumption that purgatory exists. Today virtually all Protestants reject the idea of purgatory, a place of cleansing that a human soul has to pass through before reaching heaven. The doctrine of purgatory is drawn from 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, one of the books in the Catholic Bible but not included in Protestant Bibles. The doctrine is “read into” certain passages of Scripture that speak of passing through fiery trials. In his theses, Luther was arguing that the pope’s authority didn’t extend into purgatory.
The theses were motivated by Luther’s objection to the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were pieces of paper being sold by the church. The common people were told that by purchasing an indulgence, they could reduce the amount of time a loved one spent in purgatory. Indulgences in Luther’s time were a fundraiser to build St. Peter’s Basilica, the very church that stands today in Vatican City.
I love Thesis 54: “Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.” What a great point for preachers to remember. When a preacher get off on a soapbox or uses a sermon to push a political agenda, that’s stealing the spotlight from the Word of God.
In the 95 Theses, the word “gospel” occurs four times. The word “indulgence” occurs 45 times. Sometimes Christians are known for what we’re against more than what we’re for. Some might argue similarly about Luther’s 95 Theses.
Granted, the 95 Theses were not a sermon. They were compiled for the purpose of an academic debate. Professor Luther posted them on the church door, which was the town bulletin board, as an invitation to debate. No one responded to his invitation. I guess we as church leaders shouldn’t feel alone if we plan an event and no one shows up. It happened to Luther, too!
Thesis 82 is the first in a series of great questions: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and 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?” In other words, if you have the power to free souls from torture, why not do it out of love instead of for money?
I’ll conclude this post as Luther concluded the 95 Theses: “94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell. 95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).”
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