Tetzel was not allowed to sell indulgences in the part of Germany called Saxony. Frederick the Wise and the other princes wouldn’t let him. So Tetzel came as near to the border of Saxony as could and many of Luther’s church members left went to buy indulgences from him.
Part of Luther’s job as a priest was to sit in a little room and hear the confessions of his church members. Luther would listen to them confess and then he would tell them the penance they would have to do to show they were sorry for their sins. Maybe he would say something like, “Pray 10 Our Father’s and 20 Hail Mary’s and tell your brother you’re sorry for yelling at him. Show him you’re sorry by doing something nice for him.”
When church members who had bought indulgences from Tetzel came to confession and told him they weren’t sorry for their sins and wouldn’t repent, Luther was shocked. He knew that God could not forgive someone who wasn’t even sorry for their sins. The people showed Luther their indulgence papers and said that Tetzel told them repentance wasn’t necessary if they bought an indulgence. This upset Luther because he knew that unless they repented, they would lose salvation. King David knew that repentance was necessary to be forgiven by God. In Psalm 51:17 he wrote, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
Luther Decides to Act
Luther preached a sermon about indulgences and told the people, “The Bible says you must repent or you cannot be saved.” Sadly, the people still went and bought Tetzel’s indulgences. They believed Tetzel’s lies.
Luther wondered what he could do. He decided that he would invite other theologians and university scholars to discuss the problems with indulgences. That’s when he wrote the 95 Theses.
A crowd of pilgrims had come to Wittenberg for the festival of All Saints on October 31, 1517. They wanted to see the holy relics and believed they would receive special blessings.
What Were the 95 Theses?
The Theses were a list of 95 items that showed why indulgences should not be sold. At the top of the list, Luther wrote that he was ready to discuss his list of complaints with anyone who would meet him at the university on the next day.
Luther nailed his list of discussion points on the door of the church. That’s how professors invited other educated people to a debate. But it wasn’t only university professors and students who read the list. The visitors to Wittenberg also read it. Someone took the list down, carried it to a printer and had many copies made. The pilgrims carried the Theses back to their homes. Soon all of Germany was talking about the problems with indulgences.
Here are a few of the theses in my own words.
- When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ says repent, He means that Christians should live a life of repentance.
- The indulgence sellers are wrong when they say that an indulgence can free a man from every punishment and save him.
- It is foolish preaching to say that as soon as the money rattles in the box, the soul flies out of purgatory.
- Those who think they are saved by indulgences will go to hell with those who teach this.
- It is anti-Christian to teach that there is no need to repent if you buy an indulgence.
- Every Christian who truly repents of his sins has complete freedom of the penalty and guilt and has no need of indulgences.
Luther’s Motivation: Defending Those Who Were Being Hurt
Luther was upset that the people were being misled by the indulgence seller. He knew they would lose their salvation if they believed Tetzel’s lies and trusted in indulgences. Luther did not want God’s people to lose their salvation.
But Luther was also very upset because he believed that Tetzel’s indulgence market was making the pope look bad. At this time, Luther believed the pope didn’t know what Tetzel was doing. He believed the pope was being shamed by Tetzel’s actions. You can hear Luther’s concern for the pope’s dignity especially in point # 81:
This shameless preaching, these rude honours given to indulgences, make it difficult for educated people to defend the pope’s honour against the lies of the preachers. These lies make the common people ask disrespectful questions about the pope.
Luther was right about one thing. The sale of indulgences made the pope look bad. But he was wrong about one important thing. The pope wasn’t ignorant of what Tetzel was doing, as Luther believed. The pope knew about Tetzel’s behaviour. And the pope had not only given Tetzel permission to sell indulgences – the pope was getting a cut of the profits.