On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther wrote to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting against the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as The 95 Theses. Hans Hillerbrand writes that Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices, and the tone of the writing is accordingly “searching, rather than doctrinaire.” Hillerbrand writes that there is nevertheless an undercurrent of challenge in several of the theses, particularly in Thesis 86, which asks: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”
Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [also attested as ‘into heaven’] springs.” He insisted that, since forgiveness was God’s alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.
The sale of indulgences shown in A Question to a Mintmaker, woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg, circa 1530.
According to Philipp Melanchthon, writing in 1546, Luther “wrote theses on indulgences and posted them on the church of All Saints on 31 October 1517”, an event now seen as sparking the Protestant Reformation. Some scholars have questioned Melanchthon’s account, since he did not move to Wittenberg until a year later and no contemporaneous evidence exists for Luther’s posting of the theses. Others counter that such evidence is unnecessary because it was the custom at Wittenberg university to advertise a disputation by posting theses on the door of All Saints’ Church, also known as “Castle Church”.
The 95 Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied, making the controversy one of the first in history to be aided by the printing press. Within two weeks, copies of the theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.
Luther’s writings circulated widely, reaching France, England, and Italy as early as 1519. Students thronged to Wittenberg to hear Luther speak. He published a short commentary on Galatians and his Work on the Psalms. This early part of Luther’s career was one of his most creative and productive. Three of his best-known works were published in 1520: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian.
From our bulletin insert on Sunday:
The legendary account tells us that one cool October 31st in 1517, the priest Martin Luther defiantly nailed his protest notice to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. These Ninety-five Theses were a list of abuses and errors that he understood were a corruption of the purpose and mission of the Church. In reality, the Ninety-five Theses were most likely sent to his Archbishop. And the list was not really a defiant protest as much as it was a sincere call for the Church to begin addressing some of its problems that Luther felt had obscured the Gospel message.
In any case, Luther hoped that his Theses would be seen and discussed as a step toward renewal of the Church, so that people might know the truth about God’s forgiveness for their lives. The powerful passage from Romans 3:19-28 had fired his soul and he was so overflowing with joy after years of guilt and a need for forgiveness that he had to share the truth with all that he could. Little did he know the enormous impact on the world that his one simple act would have. His willingness to stand up to pope and emperor in the name of the Gospel of Christ changed the face of history, and the face and direction of the entire Christian Church.
Today we celebrate the movement of the Holy Spirit in our Church and our hearts. It is this movement of the Holy Spirit that brings us newness and renewal, both in our personal lives and in the life of the Church. When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!” we know that the whole Church is always in need of reform, and we each are always in need of dying again in Christ in order to be raised from the dead, so that we might be truly free by the grace of Jesus the Christ in our lives and Church. “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:31-36)
For the next two Sundays our sanctuary will be decorated in Red which symbolizes the Holy Spirit and is the color of Pentecost. Red also represents fire and is associated with power and importance. Crimson red also symbolizes the presence of God and the blood of martyrs and is used on Sundays of great importance to the church.
As we worship today, especially in light of our current sermon series “Not A Fan,” let us remember to ask the Holy Spirit to work in us—to renew the work of God in us and in our hearts and to become a:
FULLY . COMMITTED . FOLLOWER