We consider October 31 to be Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Historians view this as the start of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Today, we celebrate the 499th anniversary of this important event.
While this was an important event in church history, many of us have little knowledge of what Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses actually say. I certainly didn’t until they were assigned as reading for our church history class this semester. Today’s post will give a brief overview of the Ninety-Five Theses and then focus in on one of them.
In his Ninety-Five Theses, Luther shows the conflict between the practice of selling indulgences and true repentance. In Luther’s day, men such as Johann Tetzel were selling these indulgences, which were paper statements that could, according to the Roman Catholic Church, clear away the guilt of sin. Thus, the men who sold these indulgences were like prophets in Jeremiah’s day, who cried out: “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace. The people were led to believe that by purchasing indulgences, they could have their guilt removed and thus have peace with God.
Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses to undermine this practice and thinking.
Luther points out that there is no peace to be found in purchasing indulgence letters, for they cannot guarantee salvation. In addition, Luther notes the friction between indulgences and repentance. Luther writes, “It is very difficult… at one and the same time to commend to the people the bounty of indulgences and the need of true contrition.” This was true because those who sold indulgences made repentance unnecessary. There is no need to poor out your heart to God in sorrow for sin when instead you can simply purchase an indulgence letter.
In opposition to this practice, Luther hammers home the importance of repentance from the very first thesis to the end. He maintained that those who truly repent have the right to the full remission of both the penalty and guilt of sin, even without indulgence letters.
This all leads up to Thesis #93, my personal favorite, which reads: “Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “cross, cross,” and there is no cross!” This stands in contrast to those who said, “peace, peace,” but there was no peace. The point of thesis #93 is this: due to the cross of Jesus Christ, there is no cross for us. In the cross of Christ, we have the remission of sins. Thus, those prophets are blessed who preach the cross of Christ and make it clear that there is no cross for us when it comes to paying for our sins.