Editor’s note: This article was originally published on October 26, 2017 and is part four of a five-part series.
On October 31, 1517, the German monk, pastor and seminary professor, Martin Luther, published 95 complaints against the church practice of selling reductions to the penalty of sin. The iconic figure we cherish is of Luther nailing a paper with these 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, but historians aren’t completely confident that he did this.
We have no record of Martin Luther himself referring to the event.
Whether or not he actually nailed that paper to the church door, he certainly wrote it, sent it to some important leaders, and it was soon published and distributed widely across Germany and much of Europe.
There were many complaints against, and objections to, the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church in those days, but Luther’s complaint had an effect like none before it.
There were many reasons for that, but one important reason was because Luther put his finger on a point of great corruption: the practice of selling indulgences.
The Practice of Selling Indulgences
As mentioned before, the selling of indulgences was essentially giving something to the church (usually money) so the church (through its leader, the pope) would reduce the penalty one had to pay for their sins in purgatory. I strongly object to the idea of purgatory altogether and can’t find it anywhere in the Bible. But in the Roman Catholic idea, purgatory is the place where after death a person is cleansed from their spiritual and moral impurities by painful fires before they can be admitted into heaven.
What is more, in classic Roman Catholic thinking, the pope has the authority to release tormented souls enduring the cleansing fires of purgatory. In Martin Luther’s time slick, high-pressure salesmen sold these releases from purgatory. They promised people that for a generous donation to the church, the pope would grant them or a loved one release from some or all of purgatory’s fire.
Near where Martin Luther lived, there was a Dominican monk named Johann Tetzell, a successful salesman for indulgences. Tetzell’s slogan was, “As soon as the money in the basket rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Tetzell used to say, “Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.’ Do you not wish to?” Tetzell raised a lot of money for the church by selling these indulgences.
Luther’s protest against indulgences developed into the movement we know as the Protestant Reformation.
The ideas of the Reformation are often summarized in a series of statements called the five solas:
The first three solas were discussed in previous articles, and this short piece looks at the fourth of the list: Solus Christus. That idea of Christ Alone is vitally connected to the original protest Martin Luther made on October 31, 1517.
The Fundamental Problem With Indulgences
As the ideas of the Reformation matured and deepened, it was understood that one of the fundamental problems with the whole idea of indulgences was that it put humanity’s rescue into the hands of the pope. The idea was something like this: “Men and women are not saved by Jesus, but through the pope and the institution of the Roman Catholic Church.”
Against this wrong and dangerous idea, it’s important that we emphasize the truth: Christ Alone. At the end of it all, we are not saved by a mere man, whether that be a pope or a pastor. We aren’t saved by an institution, whether it be Catholic or Protestant. We aren’t saved by our own good works or even our good faith. We are rescued by Christ alone and He alone gets the honor, glory and credit for rescuing us from sin and self. It’s true that what He gives by grace must be received by faith, but the work is done by His giving, not our receiving.
The principle of Christ Alone should remind us that Jesus is always the center of the Christian life. As the New Testament says, in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). The core of the Christian life is Jesus Christ, and Christ alone.