Martin Luther’s Posting of the 95 Theses and Its Results
by Andrew Lindsey
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther—a monk, who was also a university professor in Bible and theology—posted the 95 Theses against indulgences on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The 95 Theses were originally written in Latin; these written assertions were intended to form the basis for debates among theological professors and church leaders. Two weeks after the 95 Theses were posted, however, some of Luther’s students translated the Theses into German and gave them to a printer. Soon, nearly everyone in Germany was discussing and debating the Theses.
Within the 95 Theses, Luther questioned papal authority over the realm of purgatory and indulgences. [Roman Catholics believe that purgatory is the place of punishment that Christians must endure after death in order to be purged of sins; indulgences are certificates of pardon—based on papal authority—that are supposed to release Christians from some or all of their time in purgatory.] However, although Luther’s initial criticism of the pope was somewhat limited, the pope and his representatives were not inclined to take ANY questioning of papal authority lightly. In October 1518, just under a year after Luther posted the Theses, he was called before a powerful Roman official, Cardinal Cajetan, and was instructed to recant his views. Luther refused, and he would have been taken to Rome and burned at the stake as a heretic, except that Prince Frederick the Wise, who ruled the section of Germany where Luther lived, gave Luther protection.
In 1520, Martin Luther published five of his primary works: The Sermon on Good Works, The Papacy at Rome, The Address to the German Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity, and The Freedom of the Christian Man. In these works, Luther became more critical of the pope, as he came to believe that the authority claimed by the pope undermined the authority of God-inspired Scripture. Luther also came to believe that the system of being made right with God through the sacramental ceremonies administered by the priests undermined the Bible’s teaching that sinners must be counted as right in God’s sight through simple faith in Jesus.
Pope Leo X, meanwhile, despairing of conciliation with Luther, issued a papal bull titled Exsurge Domine, saying that if Luther did not recant, he would be excommunicated [formally rejected from the church]. Luther was eventually excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. The following year (1521) at the Diet of Worms, Luther once again refused to recant when charged to do so by the authority of Charles V (ruler of the Holy Roman Empire), who was present; Charles V issued the Edict of Worms, which called for Luther’s books to be destroyed and for Luther himself to be burned at the stake.
Due to God’s providence (through Prince Frederick’s support and distracting political turmoil in Europe), the emperor and the pope never carried out their plans to have Luther executed. Luther had the privilege of becoming a husband and father, translating the Bible into German, writing more books and hymns, and continuing to inspire church reformation in Germany and abroad.
Books about Martin Luther:
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton
The Life, Teaching, and Legacy of Martin Luther by Andrew Lindsey