History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 32. The Ninety-five Theses. Oct. 31, 1517.

Lit. in § 31.

After serious deliberation, without consulting any of his colleagues or friends, but following an irresistible impulse, Luther resolved upon a public act of unforeseen consequences. It may be compared to the stroke of the axe with which St. Boniface, seven hundred years before, had cut down the sacred oak, and decided the downfall of German heathenism. He wished to elicit the truth about the burning question of indulgences, which he himself professed not fully to understand at the time, and which yet was closely connected with the peace of conscience and eternal salvation. He chose the orderly and usual way of a learned academic disputation.

Accordingly, on the memorable thirty-first day of October, 1517, which has ever since been celebrated in Protestant Germany as the birthday of the Reformation, at twelve o’clock he affixed (either himself or through another) to the doors of the castle-church at Wittenberg, ninety-five Latin Theses on the subject of indulgences, and invited a public discussion. At the same time he sent notice of the fact to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, and to Bishop Hieronymus Scultetus, to whose diocese Wittenberg belonged. He chose the eve of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), because this was one of the most frequented feasts, and attracted professors, students, and people from all directions to the church, which was filled with precious relics.187187    The wooden doors of the Schlosskirche were burnt in 1760, and replaced in 1858 by metal doors, bearing, the original Latin text of the Theses. The new doors are the gift of King Frederick William IV., who fully sympathized with the evangelical Reformation. Above the doors, on a golden ground, is the Crucified, with Luther and Melanchthon at his feet, the work of Professor von Klöber. In the interior of the church are the graves of Luther and Melanchthon, and of the Electors Frederick the Wise and John the Constant. The Schlosskirche was in a very dilapidated condition, and undergoing thorough repair, when I last visited it in July, 1886. It must not be confounded with the Stadtkirche of Wittenberg, where Luther preached so often, and where, in 1522, the communion was, for the first time, administered in both kinds.

No one accepted the challenge, and no discussion took place. The professors and students of Wittenberg were of one mind on the subject. But history itself undertook the disputation and defence. The Theses were copied, translated, printed, and spread as on angels’ wings throughout Germany and Europe in a few weeks.188188    Knaake (Weim. ed. I. 230) conjectures that the Theses, as affixed, were written either by Luther himself or some other hand, and that he had soon afterwards a few copies printed for his own use (for Agricola, who was in Wittenberg at that time, speaks of a copy printed on a half-sheet of paper): but that irresponsible publishers soon seized and multiplied them against his will. Jürgens says (III. 480) that two editions were printed in Wittenberg in 1517, on four quarto leaves, and that the Berlin Library possesses two copies of the second edition. The Theses were written on two columns, in four divisions; the first three divisions consisted of twenty-five theses each, the fourth of twenty. The German translation is from Justus Jonas. The Latin text is printed in all the editions of Luther’s works, in Löscher’s Acts, and in Ranke’s Deutsche Geschichte (6th ed., vol. VI. 83-89, literally copied from an original preserved in the Royal Library in Berlin). The semi-authoritative German translation by Justus Jonas is given in Löscher, Walch (vol. XVIII.), and O. v. Gerlach (vol. I.), and with a commentary by Jürgens (Luther, III. 484 sqq.). An English translation in Wace and Buchheim, Principles of the Reformation, London, 1883, p. 6 sqq. I have compared this translation with the Latin original as given by Ranke, and in the Weimar edition, and added it at the end of this section with some alterations, insertions, and notes.

The rapid circulation of the Reformation literature was promoted by the perfect freedom of the press. There was, as yet, no censorship, no copyright, no ordinary book-trade in the modern sense, and no newspapers; but colportors, students, and friends carried the books and tracts from house to house. The mass of the people could not read, but they listened attentively to readers. The questions of the Reformation were eminently practical, and interested all classes; and Luther handled the highest themes in the most popular style.

The Theses bear the title, "Disputation to explain the Virtue of Indulgences." They sound very strange to a modern ear, and are more Catholic than Protestant. They are no protest against the Pope and the Roman Church, or any of her doctrines, not even against indulgences, but only against their abuse. They expressly condemn those who speak against indulgences (Th. 71), and assume that the Pope himself would rather see St. Peter’s Church in ashes than have it built with the flesh and blood of his sheep (Th. 50). They imply belief in purgatory. They nowhere mention Tetzel. They are silent about faith and justification, which already formed the marrow of Luther’s theology and piety. He wished to be moderate, and had not the most distant idea of a separation from the mother church. When the Theses were republished in his collected works (1545), he wrote in the preface: "I allow them to stand, that by them it may appear how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business. I was then a monk and a mad papist (papista insanissimus), and so submersed in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope."

But after all, they contain the living germs of a new theology. The form only is Romish, the spirit and aim are Protestant. We must read between the lines, and supply the negations of the Theses by the affirmations from his preceding and succeeding books, especially his Resolutiones, in which he answers objections, and has much to say about faith and justification. The Theses represent a state of transition from twilight to daylight. They reveal the mighty working of an earnest mind and conscience intensely occupied with the problem of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, and struggling for emancipation from the fetters of tradition. They might more properly be called "a disputation to diminish the virtue of papal indulgences, and to magnify the full and free grace of the gospel of Christ." They bring the personal experience of justification by faith, and direct intercourse with Christ and the gospel, in opposition to an external system of churchly and priestly mediation and human merit. The papal opponents felt the logical drift of the Theses much better than Luther, and saw in them an attempt to undermine the whole fabric of popery. . The irresistible progress of the Reformation soon swept the indulgences away as an unscriptural, mediaeval tradition of men.189189    Jürgens (III. 481) compares the Theses to flashes of lightning, which suddenly issued from the thunder-clouds. Hundeshagen (in Piper’s "Evangel. Kalender" for 1859, p. 157), says: "Notwithstanding the limits within which Luther kept himself at that time, the Theses express in many respects the whole Luther of later times: the frankness and honesty of his soul, his earnest zeal for practical Christianity, the sincere devotion to the truths of the Scriptures, the open sense for the religious wants of the people, the sound insight into the abuses and corruptions of the church, the profound yet liberal piety." Ranke’s judgment of the Theses is brief, but pointed and weighty: "Wenn man diese Sätze liest, sieht man, welch ein kühner, grossartiger und fester Geist in Luther arbeitet. Die Gedanken sprühen ihm hervor, wie unter dem Hammerschlag die Funken."—Deutsche Gesch., vol. I. p. 210.

The first Thesis strikes the keynote: "Our Lord and Master when he says, ’Repent,’190190    Luther gives the Vulgate rendering of μετανοεῖτε, poenitentiam agite, do penance, which favors the Roman Catholic conception that repentance consists in certain outward acts. He first learned the true meaning of the Greek μετάνοια a year later from Melanchthon, and it was to him like a revelation. desires that the whole life of believers should be a repentance."191191    "Dominus et magister noster Jesus Christus dicendo ’Poenitentiam agite,’ etc. [Matt. 4:17), omnem vitam fidelium poenitentiam esse voluit." In characteristic contrast, Tetzel begins his fifty counter Theses with a glorification of the Pope as the supreme power in the church: "Docendi sunt Christiani, ex quo in Ecclesia potestas Papae est suprema et a solo Deo instituta, quod a nullo puro homine, nec a toto simul mundo potest restringi aut ampliari, sed a solo Deo." The corresponding Greek noun means change of mind (metavnoia), and implies both a turning away from sin in sincere sorrow and grief, and a turning to God in hearty faith. Luther distinguishes, in the second Thesis, true repentance from the sacramental penance (i.e., the confession and satisfaction required by the priest), and understands it to be an internal state and exercise of the mind rather than isolated external acts; although he expressly affirms, in the third Thesis, that it must manifest itself in various mortifications of the flesh. Repentance is a continual conflict of the believing spirit with the sinful flesh, a daily renewal of the heart. As long as sin lasts, there is need of repentance. The Pope can not remit any sin except by declaring the remission of God; and he can not remit punishments except those which he or the canons impose (Thes.5 and 6). Forgiveness presupposes true repentance, and can only be found in the merits of Christ. Here comes in the other fundamental Thesis (62): The true treasury of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God." This sets aside the mediaeval notion about the overflowing treasury of extra-merits and rewards at the disposal of the Pope for the benefit of the living and the dead.

We have thus set before us in this manifesto, on the one hand, human depravity which requires lifelong repentance, and on the other the full and free grace of God in Christ, which can only be appropriated by a living faith. This is, in substance, the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith (although not expressed in terms), and virtually destroys the whole scholastic theory and practice of indulgences. By attacking the abuses of indulgences, Luther unwittingly cut a vein of mediaeval Catholicism; and by a deeper conception of repentance which implies faith, and by referring the sinner to the grace of Christ as the true and only source of remission, he proclaimed the undeveloped principles of evangelical Protestantism, and kindled a flame which soon extended far beyond his original intentions.




In the desire and with the purpose of elucidating the truth, a disputation will be held on the underwritten propositions at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Monk of the Order of St. Augustin, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and ordinary Reader of the same in that place.192192    The German translation inserts here the name of Tetzel (wider Bruder Johann Tetzel, Prediger Ordens), which does not occur in the Latin text. He therefore asks those who cannot be present, and discuss the subject with us orally, to do so by letter in their absence. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying: "Repent ye" [lit.: Do penance, poenitentiam agite], etc., intended that the whole life of believers should be penitence [poenitentiam].193193    The first four theses are directed against the scholastic view of sacramental penitence, which emphasized isolated, outward acts; while Luther put the stress on the inward change which should extend through life. As long as there is sin, so long is there need of repentance. St. Augustin and St. Bernard spent their last days in deep repentance and meditatation over the penitential Psalms. Luther retained the Vulgate rendering, and did not know yet the true meaning of the Greek original (ματάνοια, change of mind, conversion). The Theses vacillate between the Romish and the Evangelical view of repentance.

2. This word poenitentia cannot be understood of sacramental penance, that is, of the confession and satisfaction which are performed under the ministry of priests.

3. It does not, however, refer solely to inward penitence; nay, such inward penitence is naught, unless it outwardly produces various mortifications of the flesh [varias carnis mortificationes].

4. The penalty [poena] thus continues as long as the hatred of self—that is, true inward penitence [poenitentia vera intus]—continues; namely, till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

5. The Pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties, except those which he has imposed by his own authority, or by that of the canons.194194    This thesis reduces the indulgence to a mere remission of the ecclesiastical punishments which refer only to this life. It destroys the effect on purgatory. Compare Thesis 8.

6. The Pope has no power to remit any guilt, except by declaring and warranting it to have been remitted by God; or at most by remitting cases reserved for himself: in which cases, if his power were despised, guilt would certainly remain.

7. God never remits any man’s guilt, without at the same time subjecting him, humbled in all things, to the authority of his representative the priest [sacernoti suo vicario].

8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and no burden ought to be imposed on the dying, according to them.

9. Hence the Holy Spirit acting in the Pope does well for us in that, in his decrees, he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.

10. Those priests act unlearnedly and wrongly, who, in the case of the dying, reserve the canonical penances for purgatory.

11. Those tares about changing of the canonical penalty into the penalty of purgatory seem surely to have been sown while the bishops were asleep.

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

13. The dying pay all penalties by death, and are already dead to the Canon laws, and are by right relieved from them.

14. The imperfect soundness or charity of a dying person necessarily brings with it great fear, and the less it is, the greater the fear it brings.

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

16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven appear to differ as despair, almost despair, and peace of mind [securitas] differ.

17. With souls in purgatory it seems that it must needs be that, as horror diminishes, so charity increases.

18. Nor does it seem to be proved by any reasoning or any scriptures, that they are outside of the state of merit or the increase of charity.

19. Nor does this appear to be proved, that they are sure and confident of their own blessedness, at least all of them, though we may be very sure of it.

20. Therefore the Pope, when he speaks of the plenary remission of all penalties, does not mean simply of all, but only of those imposed by himself.

21. Thus those preachers of indulgences are in error who say that, by the indulgences of the Pope, a man is loosed and saved from all punishment.

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

23. If any entire remission of all the penalties can be granted to any one, it is certain that it is granted to none but the most perfect, that is, to very few.

24. Hence the greater part of the people must needs be deceived by this indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalties.

25. Such power as the Pope has over purgatory in general, such has every bishop in his own diocese, and every curate in his own parish, in particular.

26. [In the Latin text, I.] The Pope acts most rightly in granting remission to souls, not by the power of the keys (which is of no avail in this case), but by the way of suffrage [per modum suffragii].

27. They preach man, who say that the soul flies out of purgatory as soon as the money thrown into the chest rattles [ut jactus nummus in cistam tinnierit].

28. It is certain, that, when the money rattles in the chest, avarice and gain may be increased, but the suffrage of the Church depends on the will of God alone.

29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory desire to be redeemed from it, according to the story told of Saints Severinus and Paschal?195195    These saints were reported to have preferred to suffer longer in purgatory than was necessary for their salvation, in order that they might attain to the highest glory of the vision of God.

30. No man is sure of the reality of his own contrition, much less of the attainment of plenary remission.

31. Rare as is a true penitent, so rare is one who truly buys indulgences—that is to say, most rare.

32. Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers.

33. We must especially beware of those who say that these pardons from the Pope are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to God.

34. For the grace conveyed by these pardons has respect only to the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, which are of human appointment.

35. They preach no Christian doctrine, who teach that contrition is not necessary for those who buy souls out of purgatory, or buy confessional licenses.

36. Every Christian who feels true compunction has of right plenary remission of pain and guilt, even without letters of pardon.

37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has a share in all the benefits of Christ and of the Church, given him by God, even without letters of pardon.

38. The remission, however, imparted by the Pope, is by no means to be despised, since it is, as I have said, a declaration of the Divine remission.

39. It is a most difficult thing, even for the most learned theologians, to exalt at the same time in the eyes of the people the ample effect of pardons, and the necessity of true contrition.

40. True contrition seeks and loves punishment; while the ampleness of pardons relaxes it, and causes men to hate it, or at least gives occasion for them to do so.

41. Apostolical pardons ought to be proclaimed with caution, lest the people should falsely suppose that they are placed before other good works of charity.

42. Christians should be taught that it is not the mind of the Pope, that the buying of pardons is to be in any way compared to works of mercy.

43. Christians should be taught, that he who gives to a poor man, or lends to a needy man, does better than if he bought pardons.

44. Because, by a work of charity, charity increases, and the man becomes better; while, by means of pardons, he does not become better, but only freer from punishment.

45. Christians should be taught that he who sees any one in need, and, passing him by, gives money for pardons, is not purchasing for himself the indulgence of the Pope, but the anger of God.

46. Christians should be taught, that, unless they have superfluous wealth, they are bound to keep what is necessary for the use of their own households, and by no means to lavish it on pardons.

47. Christians should be taught, that, while they are free to buy pardons, they are not commanded to do so.

48. Christians should be taught that the Pope, in granting pardons, has both more need and more desire that devout prayer should be made for him, than that money should be readily paid.

49. Christians should be taught that the Pope’s pardons are useful if they do not put their trust in them, but most hurtful if through them they lose the fear of God.

50. [Lat. text XXV.] Christians should be taught, that, if the Pope were acquainted with the exactions of the preachers of pardons, he would prefer that the Basilica of St. Peter should be burnt to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.

51. [I.] Christians should be taught, that as it would be the wish of the Pope, even to sell, if necessary, the Basilica of St. Peter, and to give of his own to very many of those from whom the preachers of pardons extract money.

52. Vain is the hope of salvation through letters of pardon, even if a commissary—nay, the Pope himself—were to pledge his own soul for them.

53. They are enemies of Christ and of the Pope, who, in order that pardons may be preached, condemn the word of God to utter silence in other churches.

54. Wrong is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or longer time is spent on pardons than on the words of the gospel [verbis evangelicis].

55. The mind of the Pope necessarily is that if pardons, which are a very small matter [quod minimum est], are celebrated with single bells, single processions, and single ceremonies, the gospel, which is a very great matter [quod maximum est], should be preached with a hundred ceremonies.

56. The treasures of the Church, whence the Pope grants indulgences, are neither sufficiently named nor known among the people of Christ.196196    This and the following theses destroy the theoretical foundation of indulgences, namely, the scholastic fiction of a treasury of supererogatory merits of saints at the disposal of the Pope.

57. It is clear that they are at least not temporal treasures; for these are not so readily lavished, but only accumulated, by many of the preachers.

58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and of the saints; for these, independently of the Pope, are always working grace to the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell to the outer man.

59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church are the poor of the Church, but he spoke according to the use of the word in his time.

60. We are not speaking rashly when we say that the keys of the Church, bestowed through the merits of Christ, are that treasure.

61. For it is clear that the power of the Pope is alone sufficient for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases.

62. The true treasure of the Church is the holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God [Verus thesaurus ecclesiae est sacrosanctum Evangelium gloriae et gratiae Dei].

63. This treasure, however, is deservedly most hateful [merito odiosissimus; der allerfeindseligste und verhassteste], because it makes the first to be last.

64. While the treasure of indulgences is deservedly most acceptable, because it makes the last to be first.

65. Hence the treasures of the gospel are nets, wherewith of old they fished for the men of riches.

66. The treasures of indulgences are nets, wherewith they now fish for the riches of men.

67. Those indulgences, which the preachers loudly proclaim to be the greatest graces, are seen to be truly such as regards the promotion of gain [denn es grossen Gewinnst und Geniess trägt].

68. Yet they are in reality the smallest graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross.

69. Bishops and curates are bound to receive the commissaries of apostolical pardons with all reverence.

70. But they are still more bound to see to it with all their eyes, and take heed with all their ears, that these men do not preach their own dreams in place of the Pope’s commission.

71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolical pardons, let him be the anathema and accursed (sit anathema et maledictus; der sei ein Fluch und vermaladeiet].

72. But he, on the other hand, who exerts himself against the wantonness and license of speech of the preachers of pardons, let him be blessed.

73. As the Pope justly thunders [Lat., fulminat; G. trs., mit Ungnade und dem Bann schlägt] against those who use any kind of contrivance to the injury of the traffic in pardons;

74. Much more is it his intention to thunder against those who, under the pretext of pardons, use contrivances to the injury of holy charity and of truth.

75. [XXV.] To think that papal pardons have such power that they could absolve a man even if—by an impossibility—he had violated the Mother of God, is madness.

76. [I.] We affirm, on the contrary, that papal pardons [veniae papales] can not take away even the least venial sins, as regards the guilt [quoad culpam].

77. The saying that, even if St. Peter were now Pope, he could grant no greater graces, is blasphemy against St. Peter and the Pope.

78. We affirm, on the contrary, that both he and any other Pope has greater graces to grant; namely, the gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc. (1 Cor. xii. 9).

69. To say that the cross set up among the insignia of the papal arms is of equal power with the cross of Christ, is blasphemy.

80. Those bishops, curates, and theologians who allow such discourses to have currency among the people, will have to render an account.

81. This license in the preaching of pardons makes it no easy thing, even for learned men, to protect the reverence due to the Pope against the calumnies, or, at all events, the keen questionings, of the laity;

82. As, for instance: Why does not the Pope empty purgatory for the sake of most holy charity and of the supreme necessity of souls,—this being the most just of all reasons,—if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of that most fatal thing, money, to be spent on building a basilica—this being a slight reason?

83. Again: Why do funeral masses and anniversary masses for deceased continue, and why does not the Pope return, or permit the withdrawal of, the funds bequeathed for this purpose, since it is a wrong to pray for those who are already redeemed?

84. Again: What is this new kindness of God and the Pope, in that, for money’s sake, they permit an impious man and an enemy of God to redeem a pious soul which loves God, and yet do not redeem that same pious and beloved soul, out of free charity, on account of its own need?

85. Again: Why is it that the penitential canons, long since abrogated and dead in themselves in very fact, and not only by usage, are yet still redeemed with money, through the granting of indulgences, as if they were full of life?

86. Again: Why does not the Pope, whose riches are at this day more ample than those of the wealthiest of the wealthy, build the one Basilica of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with that of poor believers?

87. Again: Why does the Pope remit or impart to those who, through perfect contrition, have a right to plenary remission and participation?

88. Again: What greater good would the Church receive if the Pope, instead of once as he does now, were to bestow these remissions and participations a hundred times a day on any one of the faithful?

89. Since it is the salvation of souls, rather than money, that the Pope seeks by his pardons, why does he annul the letters and pardons granted long ago, since they are equally efficacious?

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

91. If, then, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the Pope, all these questions would be resolved with ease; nay, 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, "The cross, the cross," and there is no cross.

94. Christians should be exhorted to strive to follow Christ their head through pains, deaths, and hells;

95. [Lat. Text, XX.] And thus trust to enter heaven through many tribulations, rather than in the security of peace [per securitatem pacis].


I, Martin Luther, Doctor, of the Order of Monks at Wittenberg, desire to testify publicly that certain propositions against pontifical indulgences, as they call them, have been put forth by me. Now although, up to the present time, neither this most celebrated and renowned school of ours nor any civil or ecclesiastical power has condemned me, yet there are, as I hear, some men of headlong and audacious spirit, who dare to pronounce me a heretic, as though the matter had been thoroughly looked into and studied. But on my part, as I have often done before, so now too I implore all men, by the faith of Christ, either to point out to me a better way, if such a way has been divinely revealed to any, or at least to submit their opinion to the judgment of God and of the Church. For I am neither so rash as to wish that my sole opinion should be preferred to that of all other men, nor so senseless as to be willing that the word of God should be made to give place to fables devised by human reason.

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