Why Did Luther Nail Those 95 Theses?

September 21, 2017 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments

Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement


October 31st will be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Most of us are familiar with a little history behind the Theses: Luther wanted to debate the abuses of indulgences. But are we familiar with Luther himself? His background? What led him to dispute the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church? What impact his ministry has on our church today? In what ways might we disagree with Luther? Over these few weeks leading up to the 500th anniversary, let’s consider Luther and his teaching. I will use primarily Carl Trueman’s book, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, as a resource. This is part one of a multi-part series.


Martin Luther was born in 1483 in a poor mining family. His father sent him to university to study law so that Martin would not share the same financial strain. While traveling back to school in 1505, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm. When lightning struck near him, he cried out for rescue, promising to become a monk if he survived. Much to his father’s disappointment, Martin kept the promise, leaving behind law school to study theology. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1507.


As was common for most clergy in this era, Luther was also appointed as a professor of theology at the local university. In 1508 he was transferred to the University of Wittenberg, where he would spend most of the rest of his life. As a professor, Luther spent many hours exegeting and lecturing on the Psalms and Romans. The first doctrinal area that Luther wrestled with was not the basis of salvation (“by faith alone”) or indulgences or the sacraments, but actually the nature of sin.


Carl Trueman tells us that Luther “had been taught that sin was a fomes, akin to a piece of tinder. The implication was that sin was a weakness that needed to be dealt with via the sacraments… Luther, however, became convinced that sin meant that human beings were morally dead” (p. 34). If sin is tinder, something outside of ourselves, then we can “deal” with sin with our efforts through the sacraments. But if sin was a corruption from within that actually leaves one in a spiritual state of death, no amount of effort on our part can remove or overcome sin. Luther was tormented by this understanding of sin.


This led Luther to wrestle with the “condition” we need to meet in the covenant with God for salvation (i.e. in the covenant, God promises to save if we fulfill ______ condition). The church had taught that we needed to fulfill the condition of the sacraments. Luther “came to identify the condition of the pactum [covenant] as being humility, utter despair in oneself as a condition for throwing oneself entirely and without reserve upon God’s mercy” (p. 36).


The Church built on her teaching of the sacraments to include the necessity of indulgences. The teaching was that the sacraments were not sufficient to totally cleanse one from the guilt and stain of sin. Purgatory, a time of cleansing after this earthly life ends before entering the glory of Heaven, was necessary for that final cleansing. Indulgences were sold to shorten one’s time in purgatory. Johann Tetzel, one of the prominent salesmen of indulgences, boasted, “that even if one raped the Virgin Mary, one of his indulgences would be sufficient to cover the sin” (p. 37).


Luther’s contention with indulgences centered on what they communicated about sin and what condition needed to be met to cover sin. Trueman writes, “Having concluded that God’s grace was so costly that only the death and resurrection of the Son of God himself could deal with the human dilemma of death in sin, and only total despair of oneself and consequent humility before God were sufficient to meet the conditions of the pactum, Luther inevitably saw the cash transactions of a Tetzel as cheapening grace” (p. 37).


So Luther wrote the 95 Theses… 95 points of contention with indulgences, over which he desired debate and resolution. Initially, he believed the leaders of the Catholic Church would engage in conversation and agree with him. “Luther probably did not realize at the time, these struck at the heart of the medieval sacramental system and thus at the authority of the church. In criticizing indulgences, Luther also did what is always guaranteed to precipitate a reaction: he hit the church where it hurts most, in her revenue department” (p. 38).


We come to see that the heart behind the 95 Theses, the motivating factor for writing them, was an understanding of sin and “the theology of humility and the costliness of grace” (p. 38). The 95 Theses ended up just opening a can of worms on a system that had drifted far from a biblical understanding of God and his grace. More next week.



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