Primary Source

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on July 2, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3237

Excerpt from "The Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" (1517)

Illustration of PDF document

Download Martin Luther Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Reprinted in Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation

Edited by Mark A. Noll
Published in 1997

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a time of transition from the Middle Ages (c. 400 –1400; also called the medieval period) to the modern era. The medieval period had been an era of walls and of faith. Massive stone walls had been built round each little town to protect against the evils of the outside world. Inside these walls, medieval people knew their place. They were craftsmen, noblemen, churchmen, farmers, and knights (noblemen soldiers). They did not question their duties because they were safe and had faith in the way things were run. At that time the Roman Catholic Church (a Christian religion headed by a pope and based in Rome, Italy) controlled all aspects of social, political, and religious life. It was the largest institution in western Europe and consisted of an elaborate hierarchy (ranks of officials)—the pope, cardinals (officials ranking below the pope), bishops (heads of church districts), canons (legal administrators), priests (heads of local churches), and numerous other clergymen. The pope was considered infallible (always correct), and he was the most powerful ruler in Europe. The Catholic Church was also immensely wealthy, owning vast properties and collecting huge sums in taxes, tithes (one-tenth of church members' income), and other forms of payment from the people.

Beginning in the fifteenth century, the medieval view of the world underwent radical change in response to new discoveries. By the end of the fifteenth century, for instance, Portuguese explorers had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and Christopher Columbus had reached the New World (the European term for the Americas). Renaissance humanists (scholars who revived the literary culture of ancient Greece and Rome) had freed scholarship and the arts from the sponsorship of the church. In so doing, humanists not only redis-covered the individual but also challenged the blind acceptance of authority and encouraged the individual search for truth through reason. Now people were seeking a better way to understand God in terms of their own experience.

Luther questions church

Into this changing world was born Martin Luther (1483–1546). Now known as the father of the Protestant Reformation, Luther was a German priest who single-handedly altered the course of European history. A native of Eisleben, Saxony (a state in Germany), Luther originally planned to become a lawyer. In 1501 he enrolled at the University of Erfurt, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Germany, and within four years he earned both bachelor's and master's degrees. In 1505 he had just begun the study of law and was on his way to a career in service to the church or to one of the many German princes (rulers of states). Then he abruptly abandoned the university for the disciplined life of a monastery (house for men in a religious order). This dramatic change occurred on July 2, 1505, while Luther was returning to the university from a visit with his parents. Along the way he was suddenly caught in a thunderstorm. As lightning struck nearby, he cried out in terror to his patron saint: "Save me, Saint Anne, and I will become a monk." Just two weeks later, Luther joined the Eremites of Saint Augustine, a religious order in Erfurt. He was ordained a priest within a year.

Luther was no ordinary monk, for he was deeply troubled by the teachings of the church. Since the early Middle Ages, Catholic leaders had taught that the church was the only link between the individual and God. The church provided salvation (deliverance from sin, or wrongdoing) to repentant sinners through the sacraments, or holy rituals, most notably communion (also called the Holy Eucharist). Administered in a ceremony called the mass, communion is a ritual in which bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth (called the Christ), the founder of Christianity. Also, the church taught that the individual had a duty to use his or her own free will (ability to make independent choices) to love and serve God. This was the way to earn salvation from God. In short, the individual participated in his or her own salvation through good works, or acts. Such teachings brought comfort to many, but they caused distress for Luther. His problem was that no matter how hard he "worked" at earning his salvation, he could not find any peace with God.

Luther found the answer to his spiritual problem sometime during the fall of 1515. By then he was a professor of theology (study of religion) at the University of Wittenberg and the overseer of eleven monasteries. The answer came while he was preparing a series of lectures in his study in monastery's tower. He was pondering the meaning of verse 17 in chapter 1 of the book of Romans in the New Testament (second part of the Bible, the Christian holy book): "For it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, The just shall live by faith." In that little verse was contained the heart of Luther's problem, as well as the solution. He was perplexed by the two phrases, "the righteousness of God" and "The just shall live by faith." In accordance with church teachings, Luther understood "the righteousness of God" to mean that a righteous, even angry, God punishes all sinners. Such a view caused him to hate the God he knew he should love. Then, as Luther meditated over the verse, its meaning broke through: "I began to understand," he wrote later, "that the righteousness of God is that gift of God by which a righteous [morally upright] man lives, namely, faith, and that … the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: 'The righteous shall live by faith.'"

Reaches revolutionary conclusion

Luther had come to a revolutionary conclusion—that salvation comes through faith alone. He then reached an even more startling conclusion: This truth is revealed in the Bible, not through the mass and other sacraments administered by priests. Therefore, all of the clergy, from the pope down to the parish priest, were unnecessary. Luther did not immediately challenge the church with this hypothesis. What spurred him to action was the appearance, in 1517, of a monk peddling indulgences, payments to church officials for forgiveness of sins, (see accompanying box) outside Wittenberg. The monk was selling indulgences on behalf of the new Archbishop of Mainz, twenty-three-year-old Albert von Hohenzollern, who had "purchased" his position. To pay back the funds he borrowed from the Fugger bank in Augsburg to finance the purchase, Albert was authorized by Pope Leo X (1475–1521; reigned 1513–21) to sell indulgences in Germany.

The abuse of the indulgence system was evident in the aggressive sales tactics of John Tetzel (1465–1519), an experienced indulgence salesman who appeared outside Luther's door in October 1517. Tetzel was selling indulgences to finance the new Saint Peter's Basilica, which was under

construction in Rome. He claimed that indulgences could be purchased for relatives already dead, or for sins one might commit in the future. "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings," Tetzel said, "the soul from purgatory springs."

Luther felt impelled to respond to the obvious misuse of indulgences. According to popular legend, on October 31, 1517 (the eve of All Saints' Day; now called Halloween), Luther defiantly nailed a document titled "Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" to the door of the church at the University of Wittenberg. Some scholars downplay the drama of this act, suggesting that Luther simply tacked the "Ninety-Five Theses" to the church door, which served as a kind of bulletin board at the university. Others say he attached the theses to the letter he wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz, protesting the sale of indulgences. In any case, he intended the document as an invitation to his colleagues to debate the issue.

Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from "The Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences":

  1. In the "Ninety-Five Theses" Luther challenged indulgence sales and reprimanded the church for its financial exploitation of Germany. For instance, in Thesis 86 he inquired, "Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus build this one basilica of Saint Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?" (Marcelus Licinius Crassus [c.115–53 B.C.E.] was a Roman financier and politician who accumulated a vast fortune.)
  2. Theses 1 through 25 trace Luther's main arguments against the practice of selling indulgences. He asserted that salvation should be based wholly on faith, which is derived from the Scripture, or text of the Bible, and cannot be granted by the pope or members of the clergy.
  3. In Theses 26 through 51 Luther outlined the proper spiritual obligations of the pope toward Christians. In Theses 52 through 95 he provided additional evidence of how the pope's misuse of indulgences violated the true spirit of Christianity.
  4. The following excerpt from "The Ninety-Five Theses" consists of Theses 1 through 25.

Excerpt from "The Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences"

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.

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent" [Matt. 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.

3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.

4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self, that is, true inner repentance, until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

5. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.

6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgement. If his right to grant re-mission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.

7. God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to his vicar, the priest.

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

9. Therefore the Holy Spirit through the pope is kind to us insofar as the pope in his decrees always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.

10. Those priests act ignorantly and wickedly who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penalties for purgatory.

11. Those tares of changing the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory were evidently sown while the bishops slept [Matt. 13:25].

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

13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties, are already dead as far as the canon laws are concerned, and have a right to be released from them.

14. Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.

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

16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.

17. It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.

18. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.

19. Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.

20. Therefore the pope, when he uses the words " plenary remission of all penalties," does not actually mean "all penalties," but only those imposed by himself.

21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.

22. As a matter of fact, the pope remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to canon law, they should have paid in this life.

23. If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.

24. For this reason most people are necessarily deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty.

25. That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese or parish.

What happened next…

Although Luther had directly challenged the pope's authority, Leo X did not move immediately to silence him. In 1519 Luther attended a debate at the University of Leipzig. The debate raged on for eighteen days before it was called off. Luther had defended his beliefs by stating that people should live their lives by following the Bible, not the pope. He said people could find their own salvation through faith—they did not need the church. Luther began writing his views in pamphlets, and his ideas soon spread throughout Germany. Many people backed him. In June 1520, Leo X issued a bull, or papal order, criticizing Luther and excommunicating (expelling) him from the church. When Luther received this document, he publicly burned it. The following April, Luther was summoned to the town of Worms, where an assembly of German princes (called the Diet) had been convened by the new Holy Roman Emperor, nineteen-year-old Charles V (1500–1558; ruled 1519–56). The Diet wanted Luther to withdraw his views. He refused, so Charles declared him an out-law

of the church and ordered his arrest. But Frederick the Wise (1463–1525), Luther's friend and the prince who ruled Wittenberg, kidnapped Luther and hid him in Wartburg Castle, one of Frederick's residences near Eisenach. There, over the next eleven months, Luther spent his time translating the New Testament of the Bible from Latin into German.

Returning to Wittenberg in March 1522, Luther tried to unify his followers. By then, almost half the people of Germany had adopted his views. Many called themselves "Lutherans" (only later did the reformers come to be known as Protestants). Yet the movement began to fragment almost immediately. The Bible may be the final authority, but according to Luther every believer is his own priest, his own interpreter of what the Bible says. Hence, numerous Protestant sects, or groups, were formed—and they are still being formed even today.

All that happened after the Diet of Worms was anticlimactic. Luther tried to halt the radicalism, or extreme views, of some of his followers. But fragmentation, not unity, was to characterize the future of the Protestant churches. In 1530 Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), Luther's closest associate, drafted a confession, or statement, of faith. Both he and Luther hoped it might provide a basis for unity between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church. Rejected by the Diet of Augsburg, Melanchthon's confession, called the "Augsburg Confession," became the basis for the doctrine (beliefs and teachings) of Lutheran churches. Luther introduced numerous reforms in the worship service. He placed an emphasis on preaching and teaching from the Bible, and he reintroduced music and congregational singing. A fine musician, Luther wrote many popular hymns, including A Mighty Fortress Is Our God and Away in a Manger. Throughout the remaining years of his life, Luther continued writing, preaching, and teaching. He died on February 18, 1546, four days after he had preached in Eisleben, his hometown. He was buried on the grounds of the church in Wittenberg.

Did you know…

  1. Most modern scholars agree that Luther never intended to begin a widespread reform movement within the Catholic Church. He merely wanted to spark academic debate about a serious issue. Initially, his protest fell on deaf ears, since the archbishop of Mainz was sharing the profits of indulgence sales with the pope. Had someone not translated the "Ninety-Five Theses" from Latin (the language used in all formal communications) into German, they might have gone unnoticed. With the aid of the recently invented printing press, the translation appeared throughout Germany. The theses were thus made available to theologians, scholars, and anyone else who could read German.
  2. In 1525, Luther married Katherine von Bora, a former nun (a woman who belongs to a religious order). They had six children, some of whom died early, and adopted eleven others. By all accounts, their home was a happy one. Luther called his wife "my beloved Katie," and she was a great source of strength for him.
  3. Saint Peter's Basilica was completed in 1614. The construction had been beset by design changes and construction delays since Pope Julius II originally ordered the rebuilding of the old Saint Peter's church in 1506. Altogether, six architects were involved in the project. Saint Peter's Basilica is now considered the crowning achievement of Renaissance architecture.

For More Information


Fearon, Mike. Martin Luther. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1986.

Noll, Mark A. Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation. Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 1997.

Scheib, Asta. Children of Disobedience: The Love Story of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora: A Novel. Translated by David Ward. New York: Crossroad, 2000.

Stepanek, Sally. Martin Luther. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Video Recordings

Martin Luther. Worcester, Pa.: Vision Video, 1990.

Web Sites

Halsall, Paul. "Martin Luther; Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, 1517." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available , April 10, 2002.

"Luther, Martin." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available , April 10, 2002.

Martin Luther and the Reformation. [Online] Available , April 10, 2002.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial