Since “Reformation Day,” October 31, a celebration of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, has just passed, I thought it would be appropriate to post the following brief study of the Theses.
Are Luther’s 95 Theses a presentation of classic Protestant theology? Contrary to widespread public opinion, Luther’s 95 Theses have nothing to do with justification by faith alone—which is not supported, but rejected, in them. Nor do they utter a word of protest against the Catholic Mass, the sacramental system, Mary worship, the Pope, or numerous other Roman Catholic heresies. They certainly say nothing against baptismal regeneration, a heresy that Luther clave to his entire life. They do not even condemn the practice of paying money to get Papal pardons—on the contrary, they anathematize those who deny Papal indulgences, and they support the existence of Purgatory. The idea that Luther had been born again, and consequently condemned Roman Catholicism in the 95 Theses, is pure myth.
The only thing condemned by the 95 Theses is the abuse of indulgences—and even here, Luther put his Theses on the door of the Roman Catholic “church” in Latin, so that the common people could not understand what he wrote. He only intended to debate in Latin certain abuses of indulgences with other faithful servants of Rome. Indeed, many of Luther’s theses would be heartily endorsed by the Catholic counter-reformation. I give a sample of his theses below, with brief comments.
3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.
Luther affirms that without Catholic mortifications of the body there is no repentance.
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 vicar, the priest.
How Protestant is this?
17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.
So, according to the 95 Theses, Purgatory exists, and souls there increase in love over time.
18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.
In Purgatory, souls are earning merit before God so that they can get into heaven.
25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.
The Pope has various powers over people in Purgatory.
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.
Various Catholic legends have some authority in teaching us about who wants to get out of Purgatory and who does not.
30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.
Nobody can be certain of his own salvation.
56. The “treasures of the Church,” out of which the pope. grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.
These treasures through which the Pope grants indulgences should be better known.
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.
Both the merit of Jesus Christ and of dead Catholic “saints” are a means through which saving grace is received. Note that salvation is by sanctification, rather than through justification by faith alone.
69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.
Bishops and curates are to have all reverence for pardons given by the Pope to people, and admit those who are carrying them to the territory of their bishoprics in the Catholic State-Church.
71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!
If you deny the ability of the Pope to grant indulgences, you will be eternally damned in hell.
73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.
The Pope should thunder against those who deny, by any means, that one can purchase with money remission of various penalties.
91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist.
Indulgences should be preached in accordance with the mind of the Pope—then all would be well.
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.
Christians should be diligent to do good works and follow Christ in order to be saved, since by such means they enter into heaven, rather than by having assurance of salvation, for assurance of salvation is bad.
Are these 95 Theses really something to be excited about?