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Martin Luther, Part 2: The Professor and Preacher (continued)

The Evil of Indulgences

As the pastor of a congregation, Luther was responsible for the spiritual welfare of its members. He felt that some things were practiced and permitted in the church that were wrong and harmful to the people. One such matter was the misuse of indulgences. Originally an indulgence was a letter or certificate issued by the church that released a person from earthly punishment for certain sins that he had committed. For example, an indulgence might release a As we begin Reformation month and move toward the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, NPH is happy to bring you a 13-part blog series based on "The Life and Faith of Martin Luther." Check out part 1 here:person from an obligation to make a pilgrimage to a holy place, such as Rome or Jerusalem, or from an obligation to fast for a certain number of days. If it was impossible for a person to make the pilgrimage, he could obtain an indulgence by giving the church a specified amount of money. In time, however, the common people came to believe that indulgences freed them from their sins. They thought that they were buying the forgiveness of sins when they bought an indulgence, and the church made no effort to correct this false belief. After a while, the people were told that they could even buy indulgences that shortened the time of suffering in purgatory for relatives and friends who had died. The church even permitted people to believe that some expensive indulgences freed them from punishment for sins they were planning to commit. The people were told that indulgences were valid because they drew on the surplus of good works that the saints had accumulated. The sale of indulgences became a very profitable business  venture for the church. The income from indulgences helped in the establishment and maintenance of churches, cathedrals, and universities.

At the time, the pope was in need of much money to rebuild St. Peter’s Church in Rome. In order to increase the sale of indulgences, he granted certain churches and individuals the right to sell indulgences throughout Europe. The Castle Church in Wittenberg was also granted that right. Over the years Elector Frederick of Saxony had gathered and obtained more than nineteen thousand so-called holy relics, which he put on display at certain times in his castle church. The relics supposedly included the teeth of several saints, a piece of cloth from Mary’s veil, a piece of cloth in which the Christ child was wrapped, and a gold piece brought by the wise men. The people were told that if they viewed the relics and made a certain contribution, they would receive an indulgence that would reduce their time of suffering in purgatory. And added contributions would reduce the time of suffering for their loved ones. As pastor of the city church, Luther felt that it was his duty to tell the people that the forgiveness of sins could not be obtained from God by adoring relics and making contributions to the church but that salvation is a gift of God through the atonement of Christ. In 1516 he preached three  times against the misuse of indulgences. This did not please Elector Frederick of Saxony, because part of the income from the sale of indulgences was intended to help support his castle church and the University of Wittenberg which he had established.

In 1515 the pope granted Bishop Albert of Brandenburg the right to promote a special sale of indulgences in Germany. Albert appointed a priest by the name of John Tetzel to be his salesman. Tetzel went from town to town carrying a large red cross with the pope’s coat of arms. He would set up for business in the town squares. First he would preach a sermon telling the people about the terrible torments that awaited them if they did not receive remission of their sins.

Then he would tell them that remission of sins could be obtained right then and there by purchasing an indulgence. He said, “I have here indulgences for everyone. There is no sin so great that an indulgence cannot remit. No repentance is necessary.  I have indulgences for both the living and the dead. I have saved more people from the torments of purgatory than St. Peter by his sermons.

As soon as the money in the coffer rings,
The soul out of purgatory springs.”

Many people bought indulgences from him and went away thinking that their money had obtained forgiveness of sins before God.

When John Tetzel came to Saxony in 1517 to offer his indulgences in Wittenberg and other cities, Elector Frederick would not permit it. He was afraid that Tetzel’s sales would hurt his own indulgence sales in the castle church. But Tetzel was not stopped from making his indulgences available to the people in Wittenberg. He set up his business in the town of Jueterbock, about 25 miles away. Many members of Luther’s congregation went to Jueterbock to buy Tetzel’s indulgences. When Luther became aware of what his parishioners were doing, he became greatly alarmed. Tetzel was  misleading them. Luther told his people, “It is an error to teach and believe that papal indulgences free you from your sins. The forgiveness of sins cannot be bought with money.”

The Concerned Pastor and Professor Takes Action

Martin Luther was convinced that some action had to be taken against the misuse of indulgences. He felt that the time had come to have a thorough discussion about the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins. In a few days the Feast of All Saints Day would be celebrated in the Castle Church. Parishioners, professors, students, and pilgrims would be coming to the church to worship and buy indulgences. Any announcement posted on the door of the church would be read by many people. So Luther decided to use the church door for an important announcement and for stating his views about indulgences.

Luther carefully prepared his list of ninety-five theses, or paragraphs, in the tower room of the Black Cloister. The theses were not directed against the teachings of the Catholic Church, or even against indulgences themselves, but only against the misuse of indulgences as practiced by John Tetzel and others. Luther wrote: “In the desire for clarifying the truth a disputation (debate) will be held on the following propositions at Wittenberg under the presidency of the Rev. Martin Luther, Augustinian Monk.” Then followed the ninety-five paragraphs in which he clearly stated his opinions about sin and forgiveness. We quote from three of the theses:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ says, “Repent,” he desires that the whole life of the believer would be one of repentance.

When true repentance is awakened in a man, full forgiveness from punishment and sin comes to him without any letters of indulgence.

All believers in the Savior automatically share in the merits earned by Jesus Christ and receive them without the purchase of letters of indulgence.

On October 31, 1517, Luther walked to the castle church and nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the door. Then he returned to the Black Cloister. He hoped that what he did would lead to a debate with learned theologians. That, he hoped, would help clarify the matter about the forgiveness of sins and the sale of indulgences. He did not know that the posting of his theses would mark the beginning of the reformation of the church. The thought that he was attacking the Roman Catholic Church never entered his mind. Later he said, “I was then a monk and a papist and would readily have murdered any person who denied obedience to the pope.” He thought that the pope was not aware of the abuses in the sale of indulgences and that he did not know about the harm Tetzel was doing to the church in Germany.

The next day, November 1, was the All Saint’s Day Festival. Crowds of people came to Wittenberg to celebrate. Many came to view the relics and to obtain indulgences in the castle church. They saw the placard that Luther had posted on the church door. Students and priests read the Latin theses and discussed them. When the common people saw the lively discussions, they asked the students to translate the theses into German—which they gladly did. They did more. They copied them and gave them  to the printers. Within weeks, almost all of Germany knew about Luther’s theses. Students, priests, professors, and lay people were all talking about them, but no one accepted the invitation to debate them with Luther. Within a few months copies were available in England, Spain, and Hungary. Many agreed with Luther. “God willing, that man will do something,” they said. “He will restore the truth.”

Tetzel and others condemned Luther and called him a false prophet and a heretic. The Bishop of Brandenburg accused Luther of attacking the church. He wrote to Luther, “You must realize that by your actions you are being disloyal to the pope and to the emperor.”


150376_featuredFrom The Life and Faith of Martin Luther, by Adolph F. Fehlauer. © 1981 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.