It is often thought that Martin Luther was protesting the Roman Catholic Church in the 95 theses, or that much of his Reformation theology is espoused in them. That is not true.
Martin Luther was a good Catholic when he posted his debate challenge, and the topic was purely the subject of "indulgences," and more specifically the abuse and sale of indulgences. (A brief definition of indulgences would be a release from the penalty of sin based on the merits of Jesus and the saints.) The specific issue was that Johann Tetzel, sent by the pope to earn money for the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, was preying on the ignorance of poverty-stricken and superstitious Germans, collecting money from them to buy the release of their relatives from the fires of Purgatory.
The 95 Theses Explained
Martin Luther, the great Reformer
1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite ["Repent"], willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
Poenitentiam agite is a quote from Matthew 3:2 and 4:17 in Jerome's Latin Vulgate. Modern English translations have "repent," though poenitentiam agite literally means "do penance." Martin Luther begins his arguments against indulgences by saying that we should be living lives of repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.
Luther argues that Jesus' command to "do penance" cannot be interpreted to mean the penance prescribed by priests after confession. (Today, this would usually be something like "say five Hail Mary's, three Our Father's, and one Act of Contrition." At least, that's what I experienced growing up Roman Catholic. It may have been very much different in Luther's time.)
The attempt here is to divorce the penalty of sin from any penance prescribed by a priest. In the arguments that follow, he will tie the penalty of sin to repentance and hatred of self rather than to a penance that the Church can prescribe are take away.
In what would become the Protestant motto, Luther does exalt the command of Jesus over the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, though it becomes clear as we progress through his theses that he expects the pope to agree with him on these things. He is trying to oppose Johann Tetzel and to stop his extortion of the German people, not to oppose the pope or the Church.
3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.
Luther argues that all inward repentance will, by its very nature, produce "divers mortifications of the flesh." In other words, true repentance will put the flesh to death in some outward way.
4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
Luther reference "the penalty" because that is what an indulgence is supposed to remit. He ties the penalty of sin to hatred of self that should never end rather than a temporary penance issued by the Church.
5. The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.
Here Luther begins to make use of what he has asserted in the first four theses. The repentance that matters, he has said, is what Jesus has commanded. That repentance never goes away, and it is not a penance prescribed by a priest. So here he follows those assertions up by stating that the only penalties that the pope can remit are those that he has imposed himself by his own authority or on the basis of established ecclesiastical rules (canons).
6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God's remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.
The pope can only remit guilt if God has remitted it. There are areas reserved to his judgment that only he can remit.
7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.
When God remits guilt, he also humbles the repentant person, and he requires of penitent that he be subject to God's representative, the priest. The point here is that this type of remission cannot be gained by putting money into Johann Tetzel's money box because that does not produce humility nor bring about subjection to the priest.
Note that Martin Luther is still a good Catholic and priest at this point. He has much to say, even in his later Protestant writings, about submission to the pastor. Here, he is promoting a better route to remission. In confession, penance is assigned to humble the penitent person and this penance is done in submission to the priest as God's representative.
8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
Penitential canons were rules about the prescribing of penance after confession. The penance included things like prolonged fasts or banishment from the communion table for periods that could last for over a decade.
Martin Luther points out that the canons that the church is allowed to prescribe all have to do with things that concern the living. They do not include purgatory. This is an obvious foundation for the argument that the Church cannot limit the length of purgatory, but can only remove penalties that it has imposed.
9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
Through the Church and through the pope, the Holy Spirit is kind to us because the penitential canons, the penalties the church is allowed to impose, do not include death. I am not sure what Martin Luther means by "necessity." (If any reader can help with this, please email me using the "contact me" button on the Navbar.)
10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.
If a priest receives a confession from a dying person, then issues him a penance that will be performed in purgatory, then that priest is ignorant and wicked. He is ignorant because the penitential canons allow no such thing, and he is wicked because even a dying person should be granted full cleansing of the soul before departing this life.
11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.
This habit of prescribing penalties to be paid in purgatory is compared to the sowing of tares by an enemy in Jesus' parable in Matthew 23:34-40. The references to the bishops sleeping might be a harmless reference to the parable, but it is more likely a jab, an early display of Martin Luther's acerbic wit.
12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
The prescribing of penalties by a priest was for the purpose of testing true sorrow, true repentance. Once those penalties were performed, only then was the penitent absolved of his sin.
13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.
Since the penitential canons apply to this life only, and priests are only to administer penalties that can be performed in this life, then the death of a Christian frees him from all such penalties. They cannot be performed by those who have passed on, and so they are released.
14. The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.
Luther now leaves the discussion of penalties in this life versus penalties in purgatory. His new subject concerns the fear and despair of the dying. The less love that the dying person has shown in his or her life, the greater is their fear as they face death.
15. This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.
This fear of death, especially in those that have not loved much, serves as the penalty of purgatory because it is so full of despair. (This could be interpreted to mean that Martin Luther finds purgatory unnecessary, but he shows us in the next few theses this is not true.)
16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.
I don't think this needs explanation in light of the explanation of theses 14 and 15.
17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.
Purgatory is supposed to "purge" the sinner whose sins are not so great that he should go to hell. Hence the name "Purgatory." As the sinner finds his conscience purged in purgatory, his fear and despair should grow less, and his love should increase.
18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.
This, like so many other theses in Martin Luther's treatise, is just a buildup for the following theses. Here he says that no one has proven that those in purgatory cannot receive merit in the way of increasing love.
19. Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it.
Still setting a foundation for following theses, Luther points out that no one has proven that all of the people in purgatory are certain that they will leave purgatory for heaven. Nonetheless, for some reason I do not understand, he says we may be quite certain it is true that all those in purgatory have an assurance that they will arrive at blessedness.
20. Therefore by "full remission of all penalties" the pope means not actually "of all," but only of those imposed by himself.
Since some penalties are remitted in purgatory to the benefit, in growing love and lessening fear, of the resident there, the pope cannot offer to remit all penalties, but only those that he himself has imposed.
We should emphasize here that indulgences are meant to remit the penalty of sin, not sin itself. The sin itself needs to be forgiven through repentance and confession, but even a forgiven sin sometimes involves lamenting, mourning, and weeping (James 4:9,10). The Roman Catholic Church has taken this so far that some sins obtain a penalty of purgatory before real deliverance from sin occurs.
Here, once again, Luther concludes that the only penalties for sin that the pope can remove are the ones that he himself has prescribed.
21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope's indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;
This would have been a claim of Johann Tetzel, and probably others. Luther denies it based on his previous points.
22. Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life.
Luther is explaining his conclusion of thesis 21, so he repeats some of his earlier points. Here he says that when the preachers of indulgences promise to remit penalties in purgatory, they are outside their bounds because any penalty being paid in purgatory does not belong to this life. Luther has shown earlier that the pope can only remit penalties that can be carried out in this life because those are the only ones he is allowed to impose by the canons.
23. If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest.
Even if it were possible to grant someone the remission of all penalties for the sins they have committed, this would surely be true to very few people, those who have lived the most perfect lives.
24. It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty.
Therefore, since, at best, only a rare few could have all their penalties remitted by an indulgence, then the majority of people are being deceived by the claims of the indulgence preachers.
25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.
The pope's power over purgatory can be compared to a bishop's authority over his own diocese and parish.
Statements like these are confusing as you read through the 95 theses unless you realize that they are foundations for later arguments. Reading a statement like this is like reading the start of a sentence. Read on and Martin Luther will tell you where he is going.
26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.
The parentheses belong to Martin Luther. However, at this point in his life, Martin Luther would not have denied to the pope the power of the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:18-19). Therefore this is mistranslated. Another translation reads: "(which he cannot exercise for them)."
Such a translation fits in with everything Luther has been saying. The pope cannot use the keys of the kingdom, which he does possess, to help people in purgatory. He can only help those who have penalties that belong to this life, penalties which the pope, either personally or through the local priest, has imposed himself.
Therefore, it is a good thing, Luther argues, if the pope prays for people in purgatory to have their penalties remitted, but he cannot remove penalties to souls in purgatory by the power of his office.
27. They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].
Johann Tetzel had a famous jingle as a sales pitch. In German it rhymed:
So wie das Geld im Kasten klingt
Die Seele aus dem Fegfeuer springt
In English, this is "As soon as the money jingles in the box, the soul leaps out of Purgatory."
Luther says that those who say this are preaching the doctrines of men.
28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.
Luther turns their jingle around and says that it is gain and avarice that can be increased by pennies jingling in money-boxes. The intercession of the Church produces the power of God, not money.
29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.
Luther moves on in a surprising direction. What if there are souls that do not wish to have their time in Purgatory shortened? He references Saint Severinus of Noricum, a fifth-century Christian, and Pope Paschal I, who are supposed to have offered to go to Purgatory and bear its pains on behalf of other faithful believers.
It is very hard to track down this legend! So far all I have been able to find is rumor. I will keep looking to see where it came from. There is a Vita Severinus, a life of Severinus, written by Eugippius. I'll see what I can find in it.
Pope Paschal I was pope from 817 to 824, and Severinus belongs to the mid-fourth century. He was the mentor of the famous desert hermit Anthony.
30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.
I am sure that this would have been considered an undeniable truth in Luther's time. It would not be a popular teaching in our own. You can be sure, however, that if Luther presents this statement without evidence, then he was confident it would be accepted as true without argument.
31. Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare.
Martin Luther does not oppose indulgences in general. He opposes the improper use of them, and these 95 Theses are an explanation of what Luther sees as improper usage. The proposed public discussion probably never occurred in the format Luther was expecting. Instead, the discussion occurred without his supervision all over Germany after these theses were printed and reprinted by others.
32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.
Luther asserts that those who assure themselves of their salvation because of a letter of pardon, which is what an indulgence is, will be eternally condemned.
33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope's pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him;
In other words, beware of those preachers of indulgences who tell you that they will reconcile a man to God. The purpose of an indulgence is to remove some earthly penalty imposed by the church, such as temporary banishment from communion or a period of self-affliction. Reconciliation to God is not the purpose of an indulgence, and we should beware of those who say they are.
34. For these "graces of pardon" concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man.
Luther gives us a new phrase here: "sacramental satisfaction." That is what we have been describing. Indulgences can free you from penalties that are prescribed by priests, but not from penalties bestowed by God after this life.
35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia.
Be assured that every Roman Catholic with any theological training and sincerity in their faith, even in the sixteenth century, would have agreed with Martin Luther on this ones. However, the hawkers of indulgences had stooped so low that they were promising instant release from purgatory as soon as a coin fell in the money box. There was no contrition necessary from the one who paid the money for they were not paying for penalties that were their own, and there was no way to know if contrition existed in a soul that is in purgatory. So the indulgence preachers said it was not necessary. This was not Roman Catholic theology, it was greed and evil sales methods by salesmen with corrupt souls.
36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.
38. Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission.
39. It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition.
40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].
41. Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.
42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.
43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;
44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.
45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.
46. Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.
47. Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment.
48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting pardons, needs, and therefore desires, their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring.
49. Christians are to be taught that the pope's pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.
50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter's church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.
51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope's wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.
52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.
53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.
54. Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.
55. It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.
56. The "treasures of the Church," out of which the pope grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.
57. That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them.
58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man.
59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church's poor, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.
60. Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church, given by Christ's merit, are that treasure;
61. For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient.
62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.
64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
65. Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches.
66. The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.
67. The indulgences which the preachers cry as the "greatest graces" are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain.
68. Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross.
69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.
70. But still more are they bound to strain all their eyes and attend with all their ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of the commission of the pope.
71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!
72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!
73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.
74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.
75. To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God--this is madness.
76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.
77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope.
78. We say, on the contrary, that even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater graces at his disposal; to wit, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in I. Corinthians xii.
79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.
80. The bishops, curates and theologians who allow such talk to be spread among the people, will have an account to render.
81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.
82. To wit: "Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of 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? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial."
83. Again: "Why are mortuary and anniversary masses for the dead continued, and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?"
84. Again: "What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul's own need, free it for pure love's sake?"
85. Again: "Why are the penitential canons long since in actual fact and through disuse abrogated and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in force?"
86. Again: "Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?"
87. Again: "What is it that the pope remits, and what participation does he grant to those who, by perfect contrition, have a right to full remission and participation?"
88. Again: "What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?"
89. "Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?"
90. To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy.
91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist.
92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Peace, peace," and there is no peace!
93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Cross, cross," and there is no cross!
94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.
Basically, this document, nailed to the cathedral door at Wittenberg (a common thing to do when you wanted to make a public announcement), ruined the trade in indulgences in that area.
Pope Leo X was engaged in building St. Peter's Basilica, and Martin Luther, an unknown monk, had suddenly stopped the inflow of money. It was this problem, begun by these 95 theses, that started the Reformation and changed the world.