Martin Luther was not picking a fight with the Roman Catholic Church when he posted his 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church. Being a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, he was simply inviting discussion in the usual way that academics did in those days. In fact, a translation of the title at the top of his list would be, “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences.”

Repentance Vs. Indulgence

A monk named Johann Tetzel was selling indulgences near Wittenberg to raise money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Some of Luther’s congregation reported that they didn’t need to repent but had obtained forgiveness for sins by purchasing an indulgence from Tetzel. Martin Luther had been preaching justification by faith and admonishing his church members to repent. He preached the Gospel, salvation as a gift of God, which had brought him peace after so many fruitless years of penance. He wanted his church members to experience the same freedom he experienced in Christ. But salvation by grace was a novel idea to his listeners. Like Cain, many hoped they could satisfy God on their own terms.

False Advertising

An indulgence is a certificate releasing the owner from temporal punishment for sins. In other words, a person who bought an indulgence was given a paper saying that the Church, on behalf of God, removed the sinner from experiencing the
punishment, either in this life or in purgatory, due to sins.

But the Bible says, that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), not temporal punishment here or in purgatory. As sinners we are doomed to eternal death.

2 Corinthians 5: 19 and 21 tells us:

To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

Jesus paid the complete price for our sin. He took our suffering upon Himself. Isn’t it preposterous to think that we could somehow satisfy God by suffering when He has already paid the price and redeemed us?

When my child breaks a family rule – say, playing ball in the house – and breaks a window, after truly repenting and paying for the damage with his own money, would I, the parent, still beat him a certain number of days? Would it satisfy me to punish him physically when I know he has repented and done what he could to make things right?

What kind of sadistic monster would that make me? What kind of sadistic monster do we make of God when after He tells us He has paid for our sins and forgiven us, we still expect Him to torture us physically even after we’ve repented?

Aside from making God look like a sadistic monster, the Catholic Church presumes to issue indulgences on His behalf, as if the church had any say in God’s sentence of punishment in the first place.

I understand why Martin Luther preached against indulgences and called for an examination of the practice among his peers.

If it were a commercial business, not a church, that was offering indulgences, we’d simply call it “false advertising.”