A Soul in Search of Salvation

The Story of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

 Part 2

The Injury done by Indulgences

By definition, an indulgence is simply a formal church document stating that certain sins are forgiven. Behind the renewed intense sale of indulgences in Germany, was a desire to build St. Peter’s Church in Rome. Julius II had laid the foundation for this project. Leo X (1475-1521) was determined to bring it to completion. Leo initially said he wanted to leave Rome more glorious than he found it. But there was a problem with that stated objective. Leo was a greedy man.

The Prodigal Pope

Leo X was the extravagantly spoiled son of a renowned Renaissance family, Giovanni de’ Medici. He had been made a cardinal at the age of 13, and had become pope at age 38.

As soon as he was installed into the highest office of the Church, Leo went on a spending spree.

Expenses for his coronation alone cost 100,000 ducats (duck-ets). Within two years this pleasure loving, self-centered spiritual monarch had squandered the fortune of the Church, and needed to replenish the treasure chest.

To do that he would confer cardinal hats upon those who could pay, sell indulgences, and offer Arch-bishoprics to the highest bidder. In 1517, Prince Albrecht of Brandenburg, sent his brother to Rome in order to secure for himself a third appointment. He wanted to be the Archbishop of the providence of Mainz. Prince Albrecht was willing to pay 10,000 ducats for this title, based on a thousand ducats for each of the Ten Commandments. Leo X agreed to the price, provided the Prince would allow a Jubilee Indulgence to be sold in the province, with the proceeds to be divided equally between the state and Church.

Selling the Savior: The Sad Work of John Tetzel

To sell the indulgences in Germany, the services of Johann (John) Tetzel were secured, for Tetzel was a master salesman, despite the fact that he was also a Dominican priest. Gathering the peasants about him, Tetzel proceeded to share that this latest Papal indulgence was nothing ordinary.

Each person who purchased this indulgence would share in all the future masses to be said at St. Peters. Furthermore, they would immediately receive forgiveness for all sins and absolution from all punishments. And there was more.

Confession of sins to the local parish priest no longer had to be made. But best of all, said Tetzel, others could be freed from purgatory.

“As soon as the money clinks in the chest,
a soul flies up to heavenly rest!”

To another audience he declared that,

“As soon as a coin in the coffer rings,
a soul from purgatory springs!”

Though John Tetzel was not allowed to sell these papal indulgences in Wittenburg, where Luther pastored, he did set up shop just across the river, so that people from Luther’s parish had access to the sale’s site. With freedom to sin, based upon papal forgiveness being purchased, the moral life of the whole area immediately disintegrated. Outraged at what he was witnessing, Martin Luther decided to act.

 Invitation to a Debate

On the eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31, 1517, Luther went to the church door of Wittenburg and nailed up a public notice written in Latin. There were 95 propositions that Luther wanted to debate with the scholars of the Church. He made a public announcement of this fact–and turned the world upside down. The famous document begins with these words:

“Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, The following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place. He requests that those who cannot be present to debate orally with us will do so by letter.”

Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences as they were formally called, were full of fire and thunder as selected excerpts reveal.

Theses 1. “In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matthew 4: 17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

Theses 27. “This word [repentance] cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction as administered by the clergy…Nor can it refer to the purchasing of indulgences and for this reason… They preach only human doctrines that say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”

Theses 82. “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

Turning from the sell of indulgences, Luther had some questions for the pope about purgatory.

Theses 32…“Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?”

Luther had many other questions and statements to make about the pope in particular, and Catholic dogma in general.

Within two months, Johann Tetzel responded with his own theses statements one of which stated that,

“Christians should be taught that the Pope, by authority of his jurisdiction, is superior to the entire Catholic Church and its councils, and that they should humbly obey his statues.”

The Talk of the Town

Within weeks the 95 Theses was the talk of Germany. Within months all of Christendom was on fire. It was inevitable that the contents of the theses made their way to Rome.

Those who were sympathetic to Luther minimized the controversy, and characterized the 95 Theses document as being nothing more than the differences of a scholar. After all, others had criticized the church before Martin, such as the most imminent scholar of the Renaissance, Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466 -1536).

Like Luther, Erasmus wanted the Catholic Church to return to the Scriptures alone as the basis for final authority.

But, unlike Luther, Erasmus wanted to reform the Catholic Church from within. To that end he used humor and biting sarcasm, reflected in some of his more famous works, The Praise of Folly (1500) and The Eating of Fish (1526).

Those who opposed Luther characterized the famous, or infamous document, as being subversive. Leo X, and many others, hoped that the wind of controversy would soon blow over, but that was not going to happen, for political considerations soon mingled with the spiritual dimension of the debate.

Political rulers saw a golden opportunity to break the bondage of the papacy. While sides were chosen, and people plotted their next move inside the church and out, Luther was officially forbidden to preach any more about corruption. If he did not keep silent, he would be banished from the church, excommunicated, and imprisoned.

For The Sake of the Gospel

Careful to stay within the confines of Wittenburg, Luther was relatively safe. But the temptation to leave his security for the sake of the gospel proved too strong when Andreas Bodenstein (1480-1541), who was better known as Karlstadt, after his birthplace, was invited to debate Dr. Johann Maier Eck (1486-1543) at the University of Leipzig.

Karlstadt was one of the most radical of the Reformers. In 1521 he was the first to hold a Protestant communion service, which means he preached without vestments, and served both bread and wine to the laity. The next day he announced his engagement.

That was in the future, in 1521.

In 1517, Luther did not have confidence that Karlstadt could adequately defend the doctrines that were at stake. Perhaps Luther and Philip Melanchton (1497-1560) should join the debate at Leipzig?

It was agreed upon, and so it was done. During the debate, Luther overshadowed Karlstadt, to crystallize, and articulate many of the great propositional truths he wanted the Catholic Church to reclaim.

Proposition. The Church was not founded upon Peter, but upon Christ.

Proposition. There was only one universal Church.

Proposition. It was not necessary for the soul to be subject to the Church of Rome for salvation when the Church was wrong in matters of faith and practice.

Proposition. Salvation is not corporate, but personal.

Proposition. Neither council, nor pope, has ultimate authority over the soul.

Proposition. A simple layman, armed with Scriptures, is greater than the mightiest pope without it.

Cast Out of the Kingdom

All these points, and more, became too much for Rome. A papal bull was prepared. The Mad Monk had to be destroyed. He was nothing but a wild bore running loose in Christendom. Luther’s books were to be burned, and he himself was to be damned forever if he did not recant within sixty days. Anyone who sided with Luther was also to be banned, and cast out of the kingdom of God.

 The Burning of the Bull

Luther’s bold response to the whole situation was to burn the papal bull on December 10, 1520. Had Rome tried to destroy the truth of the Scriptures? Then let God destroy Rome! In the contest of the wills, Rome had the upper hand, though Luther was not without allies.

In particular, there was Fredrick of Saxony. Fredrick felt that a man accused of heresy should at least be given a fair trial to state his case. Luther would have his trial at the Diet of Worms. The German Parliament would meet and decide what to do with this troublesome priest.

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