Why Luther Posted His “95 Theses”

On October 31, 1517, a previously unknown monk named Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the local church in Wittenberg. Many of us are familiar with the idealized version of this story. We picture Luther going to the door at dawn with a hammer in his hand before he relentlessly pounds a nail into the wooden door of the Wittenberg church. In so doing, Luther rallies the German people behind him as they put the pope on notice.

This, however, is more of a Hollywood version than anything. In fact, it’s not entirely clear that Luther really posted 95 Theses on this date or that he posted them at all. Whether or not they were actually nailed to the church door isn’t really significant. After all, the people in Wittenberg used the church door like we use a bulletin board in the local gas station.

Furthermore, our Hollywood version misses Luther’s point. Luther never intended to destroy the Catholic Church. For years, Luther would still hope to be welcomed back into the Catholic Church. He certainly never meant to lead a revolt against the papacy, which he greatly respected.

Instead of as a firebrand intent on bringing the Vatican to its knees, we should picture Luther as a humble pastor who had two concerns that weighed heavily on him.

First, Luther was concerned that his congregation was obsessed with relics. Relics were items that had reportedly been present during significant times in Christian history. In Wittenberg, the relics included a twig that was purported to have been a part of the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses in the book of Exodus. Luther’s congregation could also look at fragments from the very crib in which the virgin Mary laid baby Jesus. There was even a lock of hair from Jesus’s beard! But the most amazing relic in Wittenberg had to be one of the thorns that had pierced Jesus’s head while he was on the cross.

As if the mere existence of these relics wasn’t enough, the Catholic Church taught that Christians could get time shaved off of their stint in purgatory by viewing these relics. For donating the correct amount of money and participating in the ceremonies surrounding the relics, Christians in Wittenberg could cut 1,902,202 years and 270 days off of their time in purgatory.[1]

As Luther penned his 95 Theses, he wanted to make it clear that looking at these supposed relics would not help a person enter the kingdom of heaven.

The second concern Luther had was with the sale of indulgences. If a person couldn’t get enough time out of purgatory by looking at the relics in Wittenberg, additional time could be cut off at a price. Purchasing indulgences wasn’t as limited as the relics were, however. Relics were only good for one person. Indulgences could be purchased for others.

If you had the money, you could buy an indulgence that would get your deceased grandparents out of purgatory. Imagine a young woman who believes that her child had passed away at birth only to land in the torment of purgatory: What would that grieving mother pay to alleviate her child’s suffering? In Wittenberg, people could buy another person’s freedom from the agonies of purgatory. For a donation to the Catholic Church, people could usher their deceased family members through the very gates of heaven and into eternal bliss. The man who sold these indulgences went so far as to say, “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”[2]

As Luther penned his 95 Theses, his second concern was for the people who were using their money to try and buy another person’s freedom.

The Protestant Reformation, which began on October 31, 1517, serves as a reminder that we cannot earn our way to salvation. We can never look at enough relics, purchase enough indulgences, or participate in the sacraments enough to earn our salvation. Protestant theology would go on to develop this understanding of salvation in the famous 5 Solas of the Reformation.

Notes & Sources

[1] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the Whole World (New York: Viking, 2017), 74-76.

[2] Metaxas, 104.

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