“JUST A LITTLE INDULGENCE” (Part 2): The 500-year-old Story of Matin Luther
If you asked Hans Luther about his son Martin he would have told you Martin should not have been living in Wittenberg in 1517. And he certainly should not have been the professor of moral theology at the University there. Hans had wanted his son to be a lawyer but God had other plans – and so Martin Luther was indeed in Wittenberg when John Tetzel came to town selling “indulgences” on behalf of Pope Leo and Archbishop Albert.
According to the medieval teachings of the Roman Catholic Church people who bought an indulgence certificate were guaranteed less punishment from God for a specific sin. The church also promised the person named on the certificate would spend less time suffering in Purgatory after they’d died.
So when John Tetzel began aggressively spruiking these spurious spiritual promises in the German town of Wittenberg, Doctor Martin Luther was horrified.
Martin had experienced an epiphany in the city of Rome six years earlier when he attempted to climb the Holy Stairs on his knees. Luther had been reading the Bible and was rocked with the following reality: forgiveness came only through placing your faith in Jesus Christ – and not through climbing stairs or buying indulgence certificates at exorbitant costs or any other human invention.
So when some of Martin Luther’s parishioners told him they’d purchased indulgences from John Tetzel and therefore didn’t need to change their spiritually destructive behaviour, Martin sat down at his writing desk and wrote a respectful letter to Archbishop Albert of Mainz. Luther’s first point to Albert was: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” The lowly Wittenberg monk and preacher wished to alert the Archbishop of the pastoral difficulties generated by the sale of indulgences. At the time Luther wasn’t aware the money-raising scheme was actually initiated by Albert.
Luther continued his letter by reminding Albert that forgiveness came from an individual’s relationship with Christ and not from paying money or praying to a saint. Martin’s pen carried on writing and by the time he’d finished he’d added another ninety-four points to the first one. Martin’s polite letter to Albert would become known in history simply as the “Ninety-Five Theses” – and it would outline many common practices of the Catholic Church that weren’t found in Scripture.
Martin Luther mailed this letter to Albert with his Ninety-Five Theses on October 31st, 1517, exactly five hundred years ago this year. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But then Martin did something he didn’t realise would irrevocably change Europe and the Christian world – he walked the short distance down a cobblestone road from Wittenberg University to the Castle Church and in an act of transparency Martin Luther nailed a copy of the letter to the church door.
This Wittenberg monk and professor had just banged ninety-five points of protest of church abuse into public display. A revolution was about to begin. What Martin Luther didn’t realise as he walked away from the Castle Church door that day was he’d just started the Reformation.
(To be continued)
Author: David Riley is a minister on the Gold Coast in Australia. This blog is a series of articles and “rambles” on the Reformation and christian church history.