It was on this day, October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany for the purposes of discussion and debate (disputation). Though we know this under the title of “95 Theses,” the original title was “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” It received its short-hand title because this document contains 95 theses.
Here is Luther’s preface to this monumental work:
Out of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it, the following heads will be the subject of a public discussion at Wittenberg under the presidency of the reverend father, Martin Luther, Augustinian, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and duly appointed Lecturer on these subjects in that place. He requests that whoever cannot be present personally to debate the matter orally will do so in absence in writing.
And this statement, importantly, is the first and frames the whole document, which is at the heart of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Mk. 1:15):
- When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Luther was concerned with the church’s understanding of baptism and absolution, i.e. the forgiveness of sins, and clerical abuse in the use of indulgences and how they affected believers and their understanding of salvation and the Christian life. Indulgencies were certificates the church provided for a fee that claimed a shortened stay in purgatory. Pope Leo X was promoting the sale of indulgencies to raise money for building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest, was one of the sellers of these indulgencies, and he created a jingle as he promoted/advertised their sale: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther could not let these abuses go unaddressed. This spoke against everything Luther had come to understand about the gospel!
Though many look to Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses as the beginning of the Reformation, there were many significant individuals God used who would appropriately be referred to as pre-reformers, e.g. John Wycliffe (1320-1384) of England and John Hus (1369-1415) of Bohemia. To sense the gravity of this, the latter was burned at the sake, while the former was condemned as a heretic in 1415, and in 1428 his body was exhumed and burned.
At God’s appointed time, in God’ appointed way and through God’s appointed means, the Reformation occurred. He prepared and used the appropriate people, weak and frail as they were and yet absolutely captured by God’s greatness, grace and the gospel, so as to manifest the gospel. In this way, the rediscovered message of the gospel and the implications of the gospel to life and ministry were heard and seen.
As Evangelicals, this is part of our history. As the EFCA, it is also part of our history. I am thankful that God has preserved the gospel through fallible-though-faithful saints. May we be faithful to propagate that same gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1-4, 16; 3:26; 5:1; 1 Cor. 15:3), and may it have the preeminence in all of our lives and ministries, to the glory of God, the good of God’s people today, and the impartation to generations yet to come.
On this date each year, I read through the whole document again. I would encourage you to take the time to read through the whole disputation as well, all of the 95 theses. Here is one link (of many!) where you can read it.