Reflections on the 95 Theses

95 Theses

My daughter often reads on a Kindle. This device stores a thousand books, uses electronic ink and allows me to track her reading progress. Isn’t it amazing how reading technology has advanced? Nowadays, e-books and audiobooks can be downloaded on almost any device!

No matter how reading evolves, writing will never lose its power. A good book can still change the world.

This was even truer 500 years ago. Literacy was rare in the Middle Ages. The ability to read and own books was a privilege. This changed in the mid-1400’s when the printing press was invented. Martin Luther used this new technology to advance the Reformation. Through writing, he made religious truth accessible to the common man.

And it all started accidentally.

Thumbing through the Theses
Luther was a priest and monk in medieval Germany. He also taught theology at the University of Wittenberg. He was perturbed by the selling of indulgences in a nearby town. So on October 31, 1517 he posted 95 theses regarding them on the door of the Castle Church.

Luther felt indulgences undermined true repentance. His congregants no longer felt sorry for their sins. Rather than yielding to the Spirit’s conviction, they bought the pope’s forgiveness. Those who did penance conformed outwardly to the church’s standards, but were not changed inwardly.

Theses 1 & 2 state:

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.
2. This word repentance cannot be understood to mean the sacrament of penance.

He understood that repentance is not a series of rites or rituals. Nor can it be bought. Rather, repentance is a lifestyle for the true Christian. So he called his readers to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).

Luther also felt indulgences granted the pope too much power. He pointed out that God alone forgives sin. Therefore, the pope can only “pardon” what God has already pardoned.

Theses 5 & 6 state:

5. The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit, any penalties except those that he has imposed.
6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s work of remission.

He was aware that “the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Nothing else has power to save. So he cautioned his readers against attributing that power elsewhere.

Theses 21 & 62 state:

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 is saved.
62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

Thinking about the Theses
These are timely reminders for us. Christians today also misunderstand repentance. We think it only happens once – during our first response to the gospel. But the entire Christian life is one of repentance! We must constantly submit to the Spirit’s transforming power.

The Christian churches are also guilty of attributing the gospel’s power to something else – baptism. Indeed, they make baptism more central to the gospel than Jesus! Like the indulgence preachers of Luther’s day, they set it forth as a false standard of assurance.

Theses 52 & 55 state:

52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain.
55. It must be the pope’s intention that if pardons…are celebrated with one bell, single processions, and ceremonies, then the gospel…should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, and a hundred ceremonies.

In the same way, the gospel is better than baptism. Baptism is neither the means nor moment of salvation. Rather, we are saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thankful for the Theses
Luther didn’t intend to start the Reformation. When he wrote the theses he still considered himself a “papist.” And they certainly weren’t his most important piece of writing. But they began a stream of writings that set Christians free from the superstitions and strictures of the church.

They retain their power today. They remind us the Lord Jesus is not interested in outward forms of religion. Nor will He tolerate us relying on anything else for our salvation. Rather, He expects us to live humble lives of repentance fully depending on the one force that can change us – His saving grace.


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