This weekend many churches will be marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The trigger date is 31st October 1517 when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This was a list of 95 points against the iniquities of the practice of selling Indulgencies (forgiveness from the Pope for sins in exchange for cash to help rebuild St Peter’s in Rome) and the aim would have been to trigger debate. There is some doubt on whether he actually did nail the document to the door. The church concerned was destroyed by fire in 1760, so we can’t check for nail holes today.
The story is based on one reference by Luther’s friend and fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) in a collection of Luther’s works. Luther himself does not mention it. As a stunt there is no evidence that it triggered a debate and what was more effective was his sending a copy to the Archbishop. Luther refers to the date as being one of significance and it came to be taken by Lutherans as the beginning of his reforming. The Reformation, however, was a movement, not a single event, it had deeper roots and a significantly longer period of development. So, 31st October is more a symbolic date than one marking the actual beginning of the Reformation.
The Theses are a list of 95 statements, challenging Indulgencies in the context of salvation theology, and they invite a debate. In summary, God forgives the penitent, to whom he gives a humble heart. If any penance is paid for sins this is not so much the fee to receive forgiveness but a sign of true repentance. So to charge in advance is the wrong way round. Luther argues that the Pope has no jurisdiction over purgatory, so the Indulgences are useless as a means to shorten any time to be spent there; they are a con, and later reformers removed purgatory itself as a doctrine. A better use of the money would be to give it to the poor, for charity increases charity. And what is more, if the Pope can forgive then he should just do it. St Peter’s would be better left in ruins than built on the back of this lie and shameful practice. The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God, and expressed in devotion to the cross, the means of forgiveness. Luther encourages Christians to endeavour to follow Christ, the true head of the Church, and thereby hope with confidence to enter heaven.
This prayer draws on Luther’s 95 Theses and I have written it to mark the 500th anniversary of their creation and the Reforming focus which followed.
God of grace,
our hope and confidence are found
through the cross of your Son.
You give to the penitent
a humble and contrite heart
and the assurance of sins forgiven.
May we live this indulgence
in acts of charity
and show our true treasure
to reside in the Gospel of glory and grace.
As we endeavour to follow Christ, our true head,
so may we come to the joy of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© Ian Black 2017