Theses of Martin Luther
Martin Luther was a German
priest whose disillusionment with the abuses of the 16th
century Roman Catholic Church sparked the Reformation.
He was born in 1483. At the encouragement of his father,
he was determined to become a lawyer. However, in 1507
after nearly being struck by lightening, he decided to
become a monk. He entered a monastery in 1505 and was
ordained a priest in 1507. Luther was assigned to teach
at the University of Wittenberg in 1508, where he would
spend his entire career. Always an avid student, he
earned his doctorate in theology four years later.
In 1510 he visited Rome and was
appalled by the behavior of church officials and the
sale of indulgences. In Catholic theology, an indulgence
is the remission of the physical and temporal punishment
for sins that is endured in Purgatory after death, even
though the legal guilt has been pardoned by absolution.
In Lutherís era, indulgences were being sold by the
Church to raise money for refurbishing the Basilica of
St. Peter in Rome. The slogan attributed to the
Dominican friar Johann Tetzel epitomized the sale of
indulgences: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
the soul from purgatory springs." (see Thesis #27).
In light of his discouragement
with the Church, as Luther studied and lectured on
Psalms, Hebrews, and Romans he came to new insights
about repentance, salvation, and the role of faith.
Especially from his study of Romans, he began to
understand that salvation is a gift of God by grace
through Christ received by faith alone. He also came to
believe that there should be a clear distinction between
"law," obedience and salvation by obedience to the will
of God by law, and "gospel," forgiveness of sins and
salvation based on the sacrificial death of Jesus.
In 1517 Luther, informed by his
growing belief that salvation is by faith alone,
presented his concerns to Church officials in the form
of ninety-five theses, a series of statements that
presented a logical argument against the sale of
indulgences. An account arose later that he nailed the
theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg as
an act of defiance. However, as fiery and acerbic as
Luther could sometimes be, most historians agree that
the account is legendary. Historical research suggests
that he sent a letter along with the 95 theses, which
included an invitation to discuss the issues openly, to
Archbishop Albert of Mainz.
Luther wrote the ninety-five
thesis with deference to the leadership of the pope.
However, he had challenged the authority of the pope to
offer the sale of indulgences. In a charged political
climate, it was seen by some as an attack on the papacy
and therefore on the Church. Luther was summoned to Rome
to answer charges of heresy. Luther did not respond to
the summons, which led to an escalating controversy
between Luther and those who defended the absolute
authority of the papacy. Luther continued writing about
salvation by faith alone as well as other reforms that
he saw needed to occur in the church. As a result, the
rift between Luther and those who wanted to defend the
authority of the papacy, as well as to protect the
lucrative source of income from the sale of indulgences,
fueled a growing controversy.
Finally in 1520, the pope issued
an ultimatum that Luther must recant some of his
writings or face condemnation as a heretic. Luther
responded with typical bluntness that "the die is cast,"
that he sought no reconciliation with Rome, and called
the decisions of the pope a "swamp of heresies." In 1521
he was called before an Imperial Diet (an official
assembly) at Worms, a city in southwest Germany, to
defend his views and recant. Luther refused and as a
result was excommunicated as a heretic and the Edict of
Worms issued by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the
urging of Church officials banned his writings and in
effect called for his execution. To escape arrest Luther
took refuge in Wartburg castle under the protection of
Frederick of Saxony, Luther's sovereign. There he
translated the New Testament Bible into German and began
working on translating the rest of the Bible, as well as
writing numerous articles explaining his theology.
Because of ongoing political and
religious turmoil in Germany, the Edict of Worms was
never enforced. Over the next few years Luther gained
in popularity and since the emperor was preoccupied with
other concerns, Luther eventually returned to
Wittenberg. He was instrumental in reforming church
worship as well as laying the groundwork for the
Reformation, which essentially rejected the authority of
the Pope and canon law, which is the accumulated body of
laws, rules, regulations, and traditional dogmas that
governed the practices of the Church. Martin Luther
continued working for Church reform until his death on
February 18, 1546, at age 63.
The English translation is adapted
from Works of Martin Luther, ed. and trans. by
Adolph Spaeth, et al., A. J. Holman Company,
1915, Vol. 1, pp. 29-38.
Doctor Martin Luther on the power and efficacy of
October 31, 1517
Out of love for the truth and the
desire to bring it to light, the following propositions
will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of
the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of
Sacred Theology, and duly appointed Lecturer on these
subjects at that place. He requests that those who are
unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do
so by letter.
In the Name our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. Our Lord and Master Jesus
Christ, when He said "Repent", willed that the whole
life of believers should be repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood
to mean the sacrament of penance, that is, confession
and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.
3. Yet it does not mean inward
repentance only; for there is no inward repentance that
does not produce outwardly various mortifications of the
4. The penalty [of sin],
therefore, continues so long as hatred of self
continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and
continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
5. The pope has neither the will
nor the power to remit any penalties other than those
which he has imposed either by his own authority or by
that of canon law.
6. The pope cannot remit any
guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by
God and by assenting to God's remission; though, to be
sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his
judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases
were despised, the guilt would remain entirely
7. God remits guilt to no one whom
He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and
bring into subjection to His representative, the priest.
8. The penitential canons apply
only to the living, and, according to them, none applies
to the dead.
9. Therefore the Holy Spirit
acting in the person of the pope manifests grace to us,
because in his [the popeís] decrees he always excludes
the dead and cases of hardship.
10. Ignorant and wicked are the
actions of those priests who impose canonical penances
on the dead in purgatory.
11. This changing of the canonical
penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently
one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.
12. In former times the canonical
penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution,
as tests of true contrition.
13. The dying are freed by death
from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical
rules, and have a right to be released from them.
14. The imperfect piety and love
of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear;
and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.
15. This fear and horror is
sufficient in itself alone (to say nothing of other
things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it
is very near to the horror of despair.
16. There seems to be the same
difference between hell, purgatory, and heaven as there
are between despair, almost-despair, and the assurance
17. The horror of souls in
purgatory should grow less and love ought to increase.
18. It seems unproven, either by
reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of
merit, that is to say, of increasing love.
19. Again, it seems unproven that
they, or at least that all of them, are certain or
assured of their own salvation, though we may be quite
certain of it.
20. Therefore by "full remission
of all penalties" the pope means not actually "of all,"
but only of those imposed by himself.
21. Therefore those preachers of
indulgences who say that by the pope's indulgences a man
is freed from every penalty and saved are in error;
22. Indeed he cannot pass on to
souls in purgatory any penalty which canon law declares
should be paid in this life.
23. If it is at all possible to
grant to anyone the remission of all penalties
whatsoever, it is certain that this remission could be
granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.
24. Therefore it must be the case
that the greater part of the people are deceived by that
indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from
25. The power which the pope has,
in general, over purgatory, is just like the power which
any bishop or curate has, in particular, within his own
diocese or parish.
26. The pope does well when he
grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the
power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by
way of intercession.
27. There is no
divine authority for preaching that so soon as the penny
jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of
28. It is certain that when the
penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can
be increased, but the result of the intercession of the
Church is in the power of God alone.
29. Who knows whether all the
souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in
the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.*
[*This legend tells of two
saints who were willing to remain in torment in
purgatory to suffer for others.]
30. No one is sure that his own
contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained
31. The man who sincerely buys
indulgences is as rare as the man that is truly
penitent; that is, such men are most rare.
32. They will be condemned
eternally, together with their teachers, who believe
themselves sure of their salvation because they have
letters of pardon.
33. Men must be on their guard
against those who say that the pope's pardons are that
inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to
34. For these "graces of pardon"
concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction,
and these are appointed by man.
35. It is not according to
Christian doctrine to preach and teach that contrition
is not necessary for those who intend to buy souls out
of purgatory or to buy confessional licenses.
36. Every truly repentant
Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and
guilt, even without letters of pardon.
37. Every true Christian, whether
living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ
and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even
without letters of pardon.
38. Nevertheless, the remission
and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which
are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised,
for as I have said, they are the declaration of divine
39. It is most difficult, even for
the very best theologians, to commend to the people the
abundance of pardons while at the same time encouraging
40. True contrition seeks and
loves penalties, but generous pardons only relax
penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least,
furnish an occasion [for hating them].
41. Papal pardons should be
preached with caution, lest people falsely think they
are preferable to other good works of love.
42. Christians should be taught
that the pope does not intend the purchase of pardons to
be compared in any way to works of mercy.
43. Christians should be taught
that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does
a better work than buying pardons;
44. Because love grows by works of
love, and a man becomes a better man; but by pardons he
does not grow better, only escapes penalty.
45. Christians should be taught
that he who sees a person in need, and passes him by,
and then purchases pardons, purchases not the
indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.
46. Christians should be taught
that unless they have more than they need, they are
bound to keep what is necessary for their own families,
and should by no means squander it on pardons.
47. Christians are to be taught
that the buying of pardons is a voluntary matter, and
not a legal requirement.
48. Christians should be taught
that in granting pardons the pope needs and desires
their devout prayer for him more than the money they
49. Christians are to be taught
that the pope's pardons are useful only if they do not
put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if they
lose their fear of God because of them.
50. Christians should be taught
that if the pope knew the exactions of the
pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter's
church be reduced to ashes than be built up with the
skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.
51. Christians should be taught
that it would be the pope's wish, as it is his duty, to
give of his own money, even though the church of St.
Peter might have to be sold, to many of those from whom
certain hawkers of pardons cajole money.
52. The assurance of salvation by
letters of pardon is useless, even though the
commissary, or indeed even though the pope himself, were
to stake his soul upon it.
53. They are enemies of Christ and
of the pope, who forbid the Word of God to be preached
at all in some Churches, in order that pardons may be
preached in others.
54. Injury is done the word of God
when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is
spent on pardons than on this word.
55. It must be the intention of
the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing,
are celebrated with one bell, with single processions
and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very
greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells,
a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.
56. The "treasures of the Church,"
out of which the pope grants indulgences, are not
sufficiently spoken of or known among the people of
57. That they are not temporal
treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors
do not grant such treasures freely, but only collect
58. Nor are they the merits of
Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these
always work grace for the inner man, and the cross,
death, and hell for the outward man.
59. St. Lawrence said that the
treasures of the Church were the Church's poor, but he
used the term in accordance with the custom of his own
60. Without rashness we say that
the keys of the Church are that treasure, given by
61. For it is clear that the power
of the pope is of itself sufficient for the remission of
penalties and of reserved cases,
62. The true treasure of the
Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the
grace of God.
63. But this treasure is naturally
most odious, for it makes the first to be last.
64. On the other hand, the
treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable,
for it makes the last to be first.
65. Therefore the treasures of the
Gospel are nets with which they formerly desired to fish
for men of wealth.
66. Now, the treasures of the
indulgences are nets with which they fish for the wealth
67. The indulgences which the
preachers cry as the "greatest graces" are in fact truly
such only when they promote financial gain.
68. Yet they are in truth the very
smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the
piety of the Cross.
69. Bishops and curates are bound
to receive the commissaries of papal pardons, with all
70. But they are under greater
obligation to watch closely and listen carefully lest
these men preach their own imaginings instead of the
commission of the pope.
71. He who speaks against the
validity of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and
72. But he who guards against the
lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be
73. The pope justly thunders
against those who, by any means, contrive the injury of
the traffic in pardons.
74. But much more does he intend
to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons
to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.
75. It is folly to think that the
papal pardons are so powerful that they could absolve a
man even if he had committed an impossible sin and
violated the Mother of God.
76. We say, on the contrary, that
the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least
of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.
77. It is said that even St.
Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater
graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against
78. We say, on the contrary, that
even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater
graces at his disposal; specifically, the Gospel,
powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in 1
79. To say that the cross
emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the
preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the
Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.
80. The bishops, curates and
theologians who permit such assertions to be spread
among the people will be held accountable for it.
81. This unbridled preaching of
pardons makes it difficult even for learned men to
defend the respect due the pope from false accusations,
or even from the astute criticisms of the laity;
82. For example: -- "Why does not
the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and
of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he can
redeem an infinite number of souls for the sake of
miserable money with which to build a Church? The former
reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial."
83. Again: -- "Why do funeral and
anniversary masses for the dead continue to be said? Why
does the pope not return or permit the repayment of the
endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to
pray for those now redeemed?"
84. Again: -- "What is this new
piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow an
impious man who is their enemy to buy out of purgatory
the devout soul of a friend of God, when they do not
allow that pious and beloved soul to be redeemed without
payment for pure love's sake or because of its need of
85. Again: -- "Why are the
penitential canon laws long, which in actual fact and
practice are long obsolete and dead, now satisfied by
the granting of indulgences, as though they were still
alive and in effect?"
86. Again: -- "Why does not the
pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealthiest
of the wealthy, build just this one church of St. Peter
with his own money, rather than with the money of poor
87. Again: -- "What is it that the
pope dispenses to people, and what participation does he
grant, to those who have a right to full remission and
participation because of their perfect repentance?"
88. Again: -- "What greater
blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were
to do a hundred times a day what he now does only once,
and bestow on every believer these remissions and
89. "Since the pope seeks the
salvation of souls rather than money by his pardons, why
does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted
before now, since these have equal efficacy?"
90. To repress these arguments and
scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve
them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the
pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make
91. If, therefore, pardons were
preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope,
all these doubts would be readily resolved; indeed, they
would cease to exist.
92. Away, then, with all those
prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Peace,
peace," where there is no peace!
93. Blessed be all those prophets
who say to the people of Christ, "the cross, the cross,"
where there is no cross!
94. Christians are to be exhorted
that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head,
through penalties, deaths, and hell;
95. And thus be confident of
entering into heaven rather through many tribulations,
than through the assurance of peace.
Back to the
Church History page