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Martin Luther and His Ninety-Five Theses

October 31, 1517


Introduction by Donna Morley: There are many who simply do not understand the issues behind Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. What was it that prompted Luther to nail his long list of complaints on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany?

It all started when Prince Albert (1490-1545) of the House of Hohenzollern had his eye on a vacant archbishopric position in Mainz, Germany. Prince Albert already had control of two provinces in the Roman Catholic church. According to canon law, he would not be able to hold any other position. Canon law stated that no one could hold more than one office.

While Prince Albert wanted the archbishopric, Pope Leo needed lots of money so that he could build the Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Knowing what Albert wanted, Leo approached the Prince with an idea. He offered to give Albert the archbishop of Mainz if he paid for it. But, it would have to be a large sum of money.

Albert didn’t have the money Pope Leo wanted. Leo suggested that the Prince borrow the money from the wealthy Fugger family who lived in Augsburg. The Fugger’s agreed to give Prince Albert the money, who in turn, gave it to Leo. In exchange, the Pope made Prince Albert the archbishop in the Catholic church.

Now the Archbishop had to figure out how to repay the Fuggers. Pope Leo came up with the idea of selling indulgences. This way, the Fugger’s would get their money, and Leo would get more money for his cathedral.

The Pope told the Archbishop that the people could buy the indulgences as a way for them to receive forgiveness and thus revoke God’s punishment here on earth or when they got to purgatory. He also gave another selling point. That is, that the people could buy the indulgences to help their dead friends and relatives get out of purgatory.

The indulgences became great news to the Catholics, and as they paid the money for them, Leo got half the money, and the Fugger’s got the other half. Seeing how profitable this indulgence selling had become, the Archbishop branched out. He hired an agent, a Dominican monk, named Johann Tetzel.

Tetzel was to work full time selling indulgences. He was paid nearly eleven hundred dollars a month, plus his expenses, to bring in the large sums of money. While Tetzel offered indulgences free to the homeless, he normally sold each indulgence according to the person’s financial status. If the person was wealthy, one indulgence could go for three hundred dollars (an enormous sum in 1517).

Tetzel was a high pressure person. He told the people that if they bought an indulgence they would receive complete forgiveness of all sin. As well, they would be guaranteed salvation. He also suggested to the people that they buy salvation for their loved ones as well. Thousands of people flocked to Tetzel as he proclaimed “drop the coin in the box and all your sins fly away” [Durant, 374]. Obviously, the people wanted a guarantee of salvation, and were willing to pay for it.

Having discovered from the book of Romans (1:17): “The just shall live by faith” Luther realized that mankind can be “justified” (made just and therefore saved from hell) not by good works, which could never suffice as an atonement for our sins, but only by complete faith in Jesus Christ and in His atonement for mankind. Because of this truth, Luther was appalled that Tetzel was selling salvation. He believed that the Catholic church--from the Pope down to Tetzel–were deceiving and exploiting the people.

As a result, Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther’s theses addressed not only the issue of indulgence but other theological concerns that Luther wanted opened up for public debate.

Luther’s actions were not unusual. It was an old custom in medieval universities and on church doors to post a theses. To ensure that everyone would read it, Luther chose to post his statements on October 31, 1517. The following day was All Saint’s Day when the Elector would post relics in the church and so a large crowd was to be expected.

A large crowd did come to the church and all had an opportunity to read Luther’s ninety-five points, which included the following question:


Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of 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? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial. [Point 82]

After the posting of the Theses, Tetzel tried to silence Luther. With the help of some professional aid, Tetzel replied in One Hundred and Six Anti-Theses(December 1517). He made no apologies, but “gave at times an uncompromising, even dogmatic, sanction to mere theological opinions that were hardly consonant with the most accurate scholarship.” [Ganss, H.G., in Cath. Enc., (New York, 1912), Vol. IX, 442. Also in Durant, 345.]

When Tetzel’s Theses reached Wittenberg, it was being offered for sale. A mob of university students attacked the seller of Tetzel’s work, and then burned the 800 copies for sell in the market square.

Luther responded to Tetzel’s Theses in a paper titled, “A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace.” His concluding remarks were, “If I am called a heretic by those whose purses will suffer from my truths, I care not much for their brawling; for only those say this whose dark understanding has never known the Bible” [Ludwig Pastor, History of the Popes, 14 V., St. Louis, 1898, and London, 1910), VII, 354. Also in Durant, 345-346.]

Luther debated this problem with members of his order in Heidelberg in 1518. At this debate, Luther continued to insist that authority comes not from the Pope, nor the Church, but from the Bible only. While the debate didn’t accomplish a whole lot in changing the minds of the Catholic leadership, it did get more people to accept Luther’s ideas. Those who got behind Luther were the professors at the university in Wittenberg, which included Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), who became the Lutheran Reformation’s theologian.

Luther was then ordered to appear before Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg. When they met on October 12-14, 1518, the Cardinal had many questions for Luther, such as “should a monk be allowed to criticize publicly his superiors–to whom he vowed obedience–and to advocate views condemned by the Church?” [Durant, 347-348]. At this time the Cardinal also demanded that Luther retract his views.

Luther told Cardinal Cajetan that he would only retract his views if Scripture could prove that his views were false. He again reiterated that, although he had great respect for the Pope as a person, he didn’t have the final authority in faith or in morals–only Scripture had final authority.

On June 15, 1520 Pope Leo X issued the bull Exsurge Domine, which condemned forty-one statements by Luther and eventually resulted in his excommunication. Leo also ordered the burning of Luther’s Theses at Cologne.

During the time Luther’s Theses were being burned at Cologne, Erasmus defended Luther, pointing out that Luther was right. There are abuses in the Church and that rather than suppress them, there should be efforts of remedy. Erasmus said that the two mistakes Luther made were that: “...he attacked the pope in his crown and the monks in their bellies.” [Johannes Janssen, History of the German People at the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 Vols. (St. Louis, MO., n.d.) III. 173]

By May of 1521, Luther had been commanded to be at a hearing concerning his case at the city of Worms. He was guaranteed his safety at this hearing. The Cardinal of Tortosa, soon to be pope, contacted the Emperor telling him to ignore Luther’s safety. Instead, he asked that Luther be arrested and sent to Rome.

Luther arrived in Worms on April 16, 1521. The streets were filled upon his arrival. The following day, in his monastic garb, Luther stood before Imperial Diet, the Emperor–Charles V, six electors, an array of court of princes, nobles, prelates, and burghers, and Johann Eck and Jerome Aleander armed with papal authority, formal documents, and Luther’s books.

Pointing to all of Luther’s books, Eck asked Luther if those books were indeed his writings, and if so, would he retract all “heresies” that are in those books?

Luther admitted that the books were his, and that he wrote everything on those pages. But, for some reason, he lost his nerve and asked if he could take some time to think about Eck’s second question.

Charles V agreed to give Luther the rest of the day to think about Eck’s question and to meet back the following day.

As Luther sat in his room, Hutten and others got word back to Luther bidding him to stand fast. This encouragement is what Luther needed.

The following morning, on April 18, he faced his jury of men full of confidence. Eck once again, asked Luther if he would recant, in whole, or in part, the things he had written.

Luther replied that his writings about ecclesiastical abuses were justified.

Charles V interrupted with an explosive “No!.”

Luther continued. Looking Charles V right in the eyes he said to him, “Should I recant at this point, I would open the door to more tyranny and impiety, and it will be all the worse should it appear that I had done so at the instance of the Holy Empire.” [Durant, 361].

Luther then said he would recant on those things that proved to be contrary to Scripture.

Eck then expressed the opinions of the Church:


Martin, your plea to be heard from Scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wyclif and Huss.... How can you assume that you are the only ne to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than all of them? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect Lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the Apostles, sealed by the red blood of martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, and defined by the Church...and which we are forbidden by the Pope and the Emperor to discuss, lest there be no end to debate. I ask you, Martin–answer candidly and without distinctions–do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain? [Roland Bainton: A Life of Martin Luther, New York, 1950, 185. Also in Durant, 361]

Luther then made his historic response:


Since your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without distinctions.... Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason (I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. [Bainton, Here I Stand, 185; Schaff, German Reformation, 2 V., Edinburgh, 1888, 29. Also in Durant, 361].

Charles V was shaken by the words of Luther and called a meeting on April 19, which called for a conference of the leading princes. They met in his chambers. After explaining to the princes that he was descended from a long line of emperors, kings, archdukes, and dukes–all who defended the Catholic faith–so must he. He explained that a single friar who goes counter to the thousand years of the Catholic church must be wrong. He then told the princes that he wouldn’t have anything more to do with Luther. He didn’t want Luther doing any preaching or making any more trouble. From that day on, he would be against Luther and consider him a notorious heretic. He asked the princes to also declare themselves against Luther.

Four of the men agreed with Charles V. Frederick of Saxony and Ludwig of the Palatinate did not agree. After the meeting, Frederick feared for Luther’s life. He thought the Imperial police would arrest him. Therefore, Frederick and other friends of Luther kidnaped him as he was walking on the road back to Wittenberg. They took him to Wartburg Castle (owned by Frederick). It was a spartan place equipped with a bed, table, stove, and stool. Frederick paid a few soldiers to guard the castle, and two boys to serve Luther as pages.

To disguise himself so he could get out and go out hunting, he grew a beard and put on knightly garb (rather than wearing his monastic robe).

As time wore on Luther had a very difficult time being at the Castle and wanted to leave. But, Frederick’s minister told him that he should stay for at least a year since it would take a little while for Charles V to calm down. Luther agreed. During his time in seclusion, he completed his German translation of the New Testament. Finally, the German people would finally be able to read God’s Word for themselves.

Now, let’s take a look at Luther’s original Ninety-Five Theses:

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses:


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. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.

3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.

4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

5. The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.

6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God's remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.

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.

8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.

9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.

10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.

11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.

12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.

13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.

14. The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.

15. This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.

16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.

17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.

18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.

19. Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it.

20. Therefore by "full remission of all penalties" the pope means not actually "of all," but only of those imposed by himself.

21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope's indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;

22. Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life.

23. If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest.

24. It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty.

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.

26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.

27. They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].

28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.

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.

30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.

31. Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare.

32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.

33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope's pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him;

34. For these "graces of pardon" concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man.

35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia.

36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.

37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.

38. Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission.

39. It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition.

40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].

41. Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.

42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;

44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.

45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.

46. Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.

47. Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment.

48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting pardons, needs, and therefore desires, their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring.

49. Christians are to be taught that the pope's pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.

50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter's church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.

51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope's wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.

52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.

53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.

54. Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.

55. It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.

56. The "treasures of the Church," out of which the pope. grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.

57. That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them.

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.

59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church's poor, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.

60. Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church, given by Christ's merit, are that treasure;

61. For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient.

62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.

64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.

65. Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches.

66. The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.

67. The indulgences which the preachers cry as the "greatest graces" are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain.

68. Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross.

69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.

70. But still more are they bound to strain all their eyes and attend with all their ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of the commission of the pope.

71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!

72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!

73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.

74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.

75. To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God -- this is madness.

76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.

77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope.

78. We say, on the contrary, that even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater graces at his disposal; to wit, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in I. Corinthians xii.

79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.

80. The bishops, curates and theologians who allow such talk to be spread among the people, will have an account to render.

81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.

82. To wit: -- "Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of 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? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial."

83. Again: -- "Why are mortuary and anniversary masses for the dead continued, and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?"

84. Again: -- "What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul's own need, free it for pure love's sake?"

85. Again: -- "Why are the penitential canons long since in actual fact and through disuse abrogated and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in force?"

86. Again: -- "Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?"

87. Again: -- "What is it that the pope remits, and what participation does he grant to those who, by perfect contrition, have a right to full remission and participation?"

88. Again: -- "What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?"

89. "Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?"

90. To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy.

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.

92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Peace, peace," and there is no peace!

93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Cross, cross," and there is no cross!

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.


Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954, 1981).

Civilization: Past & Present, 2 Volumes, 8th ed. (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1981, 1976, 1969, 1965, 1960), Volume 1.

Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization: The Reformation, 11 volumes. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), Vol. 6.

Spaeth, Adolph; Reed, L.D.; Jacobs, Henry Eyester; et A., Trans. & Eds. Works of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1915), 1:29-38. Taken from “ Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” by Dr. Martin Luther (1517).

The Ninety-Five Theses were taken from the Works of Martin Luther. This material is in the public-domain, made available by Robert E. Smith. Feel free to copy and distribute. If you have any questions about Luther’s Theses, direct your comments to Reverend Robert E. Smith--Walther Library, Concordia Theological Seminary. E-mail: smithre@mail.ctsfw.edu. Surface Mail: 6600 N. Clinton St., Ft. Wayne, IN 46825 USA. Phone: (260) 452-3149 - Fax: (260) 452-2126.


Introduction is Copyright © 2003 by Donna Morley