Luther did not want to leave the Catholic church. The 95 Theses were simply a way to start a dialogue with the church that he labored for and loved. As he had his eyes opened up through self discovery of the word of God, his thinking (and others as well) began to change with what he was raised believing. Thanks to the translations of the Bible and earlier writings, especially from Augustine (340-430) Luther’s life and beliefs began to change. Two chasms began to form: Salvation by grace through faith rather than works and the gross emphasis on indulgences. The Catholic Church’s practice of granting “indulgences” to provide absolution to sinners became increasingly corrupt. Indulgence-selling had been banned in Germany, but the practice continued unabated. In 1517, a friar named Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences in Germany to raise funds to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther became concerned and wanted to have a dialogue:
THE 95 THESES
The 95 Theses were written in a humble way. His tone was was one asking questions rather than accusing or pointing fingers. However the overall thrust was quite provocative and stirring. Although there were 95 points, the first two contained what Luther wanted to get across, namely that God intended believers to seek repentance and that faith alone, and not deeds, would lead to salvation. The other 93 theses, a number of them directly criticizing the practice of indulgences, supported these first two.
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 Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore 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. Amen.
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” ( Matthew 4:17 ), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
Here is a link to the 95 Theses.
The greatest complaint Luther and other reformers had with the Catholic Church was its practice of selling indulgences. An indulgence was a payment to the church that purchased one’s “forgiveness”. Of course one could not buy an indulgence for murder but for “smaller” sins of course (lies, lustful thoughts, anger, etc.). The customer would in fact be buying less time in purgatory and secure a spot in heaven. These customers were Catholic believers who feared that if one of their sins went unnoticed or unconfessed, they would spend extra time in purgatory before reaching heaven or worse, wind up in hell for failing to repent.
In later years, the sale of indulgences spread to include forgiveness for the sins of people who were already dead. That is evident in this passage from a sermon by Johann Tetzel, the monk who sold indulgences in Germany and inspired Martin Luther’s protest in 1517.