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Church Abuses and the 95 Theses: What Can We Learn from Martin Luther’s List?

Some church leaders take advantage of people. They do. They misrepresent the Scriptures in order to manipulate, control, and use others. Instead of communicating the love of God, the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the free gift of eternal life by believing in Jesus, they sadly communicate the opposite. They take and misuse people’s money, mislead them about their eternal destiny, and add self-effort to the Gospel message. Well, things haven’t changed much since 1517! In his time Martin Luther took a principled stand against the abuse of church people via the sale of something called indulgences. Let’s take a look and hopefully learn from history.

What did indulgences mean?

Indulgences essentially represented vouchers intended to lessen the penalty of one’s own sins — or that of loved ones. They worked like this: After confessing your sins to a priest you still had to pay a penalty, either in this life, or the next. If you died with any unpaid penalty you would pay the remainder in Purgatory—a pain-filled “pre-Heaven” cleansing spot. Once paid up, you would get transferred to Heaven. Now, the Pope had at his disposal a surplus of extra merit from other believers who had already paid in full and had some left over. He could dispense this extra merit as he saw fit. And, you could purchase it and reduce the time spent in Purgatory. In the early 1600s a monk named Martin took issue with this scenario.

What did Martin Luther protest

In Luther’s day Rome needed money to build St. Peter’s basilica. To help finance it they sold indulgences. This “win-win” would pay for the building and deliver souls. Johann Tetzel, Dominican order friar, official promoter, and manipulative salesman, would play on the emotions of the poor promising them that as soon as they heard the clink of their coins in the offering box their relatives’ suffering soul would fly out of Purgatory. Preying on the poor ticked off Luther, who knew that no one can buy forgiveness —it comes freely by faith alone in Jesus. So, he wrote 95 theses against the practice, attached them to the castle door at Wittenburg (sort of a medieval bulletin board), and offered to debate them. The writing did not attack the church, the pope, or the indulgences themselves but rather their misuse. But the 95 Theses spread and sparked discussion, and ultimately the Reformation itself—a return to the Bible and its teachings

What can we learn for today?

Some spiritual leaders today imply (or straight out say) that if you give them money God will give special favor — physical healing, answers to prayer, even great wealth. Today, like in 1517, what guided Martin Luther can still direct us—the Scripture. Luther felt outrage that Tetzel promised the poor Heaven in exchange for their pennies. Now, sin always brings a consequence. But, you don’t “un-do” it with money and/or good deeds. Where does the Bible promise that? It doesn’t. Imagine a parent telling his kids, “Give me $10.00 and I’ll shorten your “time out” by 10 minutes.” Instead Scripture says that Jesus died in our place for our sins (1 Peter 3:18a) and we get eternal life by believing In Jesus (John 3:16-18; 5:24)—as a free gift (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 4:1-8). So, someone has to speak up. Luther did in his day.

Conclusion

Luther’s protest against indulgences grew out of his understanding that we cannot earn forgiveness by good behavior. The Bible makes this very clear:

“For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:3-6, NASB)

God loves us and saves us from eternal punishment when we believe in Jesus as Savior. Churches everywhere should reflect God’s freely offered love and tell others the good news that Jesus paid for all our sins and promises us eternal life when you believe in Him as Savior.