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If people know only one thing about the Protestant Reformation, it is the famous event on October 31, 1517, when the Ninety-five Theses of Martin Luther (1483–1586) were nailed on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in protest against the Roman Catholic Church.
Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better.
Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties.
But you might be surprised to learn that the Ninety-five Theses, even though this document that sparked the Reformation, was not about these issues.
Instead, Luther objected to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church was offering to sell certificates of forgiveness, and that by doing so it was substituting a false hope (that forgiveness can be earned or purchased) for the true hope of the gospel (that we receive forgiveness solely via the riches of God’s grace).
Luther’s official response to indulgences came in the form of an academic document he addressed to the local archbishop, who happened to be the same Albert of Mainz who’d authorized the campaign.
Significantly, Luther penned his grievance—titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but known to posterity as the Ninety-five Theses—in Latin rather than in the common vernacular.
That fact combined with the intended audience and largely academic tone of the writing indicates Luther didn’t write the document for mass consumption. Regardless, it was translated into the common Germanic language of Saxony and was reportedly posted on the door of the Schlosskirche (the Castle Church of Wittenberg) on October 31, 1517.
Luther’s Ninety-five Theses focuses on three main issues: selling forgiveness (via indulgences) to build a cathedral, the pope’s claimed power to distribute forgiveness, and the damage indulgences caused to grieving sinners.
However, Luther phrased his criticism to suggest that the pope might be ignorant of the abuses and at any rate should be given the benefit of the doubt.
It provided Leo a graceful exit from the indulgences campaign if he wished to take it. Luther’s Ninety-five Theses hit a nerve in the depths of the authority structure of the medieval church.