It was 493 years ago today that the first thin beams of Reformation light cracked through the darkened skies of history as Martin Luther (with no clue in the slightest as to what was about to happen) posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg.
Here's the account of what happened as found in D'Aubigne’s History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.
"Luther’s words had produced little effect. Tetzel continued his traffic and his impious discourses without disturbing himself.1 Will Luther resign himself to these crying abuses, and will he keep silence? As pastor, he has earnestly exhorted those who had recourse to his services; as preacher, he has uttered a warning voice from the pulpit. It still remains for him to speak as a theologian; he has yet to address not merely a few souls in the confessional, not merely the assembly of the faithful at Wittenberg, but all those who are, like himself, teachers of the Word of God. His resolution is taken.
It is not the church he thinks of attacking; it is not the pope he is bringing to the bar; on the contrary, it is his respect for the pope that will not allow him to be silent longer on the monstrous claims by which the pontiff is discredited. He must take the pope’s part against those imprudent men who dare mingle up his venerable name with their scandalous traffic. Far from thinking of a revolution which should overthrow the primacy of Rome, Luther believes he has the pope and catholicism for his allies against these barefaced monks.2
The festival of All-Saints was a very important day for Wittenberg, and, above all, for the church the elector had built there, and which he had filled with relics. On that day the priests used to bring out these relics, ornamented with gold, silver, and precious stones, and exhibit them before the people, who were astonished and dazzled at such magnificence.3 Whoever visited the church on that festival and made confession, obtained a rich indulgence. Accordingly, on this great anniversary, pilgrims came to Wittenberg in crowds.
On the 31st October 1517, at noon on the day preceding the festival,4 Luther, who had already made up his mind, walks boldly towards the church, to which a superstitious crowd of pilgrims was repairing, and posts upon the door ninety-five theses or propositions against the doctrine of indulgences. Neither the Elector, nor Staupitz, nor Spalatin, nor any even of his most intimate friends, had been made acquainted with his intentions.5
Luther therein declares, in a kind of preface, that he has written these theses with the express desire of setting the truth in the full light of day. He declares himself ready to defend them on the morrow, in the university, against all opponents. Great was the attention they excited: they were read, and passed from mouth to mouth. Erelong the pilgrims, the university, and the whole city were in commotion.
We give some of these propositions, written with the pen of the monk, and posted on the door of the church of Wittenberg:
1. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ says repent, he means that the whole life of believers upon earth should be a constant and perpetual repentance.
2. “This word cannot be understood of the sacrament of penance (i.e. confession and satisfaction), as administered by the priest.
3. “Still the Lord does not mean to speak in this place solely of internal repentance; internal repentance is null, if it produce not externally every kind of mortification of the flesh.
4. “Repentance and sorrow — i.e. true penance — endure as long as a man is displeased with himself — that is, until he passes from this life into eternity.
5. “The pope is unable and desires not to remit any other penalty than that which he has imposed of his own good pleasure, or conformable to the canons — i.e. the papal ordinances.
6. “The pope cannot remit any condemnation, but only declare and confirm the remission of God, except in the cases that appertain to himself. If he does otherwise, the condemnation remains entirely the same.
8. “The laws of ecclesiastical penance ought to be imposed solely on the living, and have no regard to the dead.
21. “The commissaries of indulgences are in error when they say, that by the papal indulgence a man is delivered from every punishment and is saved.
25. “The same power that the pope has over purgatory throughout the Church, each bishop possesses individually in his own diocese, and each priest in his own parish.
27. “They preach mere human follies who maintain, that as soon as the money rattles in the strong box, the soul flies out of purgatory.
28. “This is certain, that as soon as the money tinkles, avarice and love of gain arrive, increase, and multiply. But the support and prayers of the Church depend solely on God’s will and good pleasure.
32. “Those who fancy themselves sure of salvation by indulgences will go to perdition along with those who teach them so.
35. “They are teachers of antichristian doctrines who pretend that to deliver a soul from purgatory, or to buy an indulgence, there is no need of either sorrow or repentance.
36. “Every Christian who truly repents of his sins, enjoys an entire remission both of the penalty and of the guilt, without any need of indulgences.
37. “Every true Christian, whether dead or alive, participates in all the blessings of Christ or of the Church, by God’s gift, and without a letter of indulgence.
38. “Still we should not contemn the papal dispensation and pardon; for this pardon is a declaration of the pardon of God.
40. “True repentance and sorrow seek and love the punishment; but the mildness of indulgence absolves from the punishment, and begets hatred against it.
42. “We should teach Christians that the pope has no thought or desire of comparing in any respect the act of buying indulgences with any work of mercy.
43. “We should teach Christians that he who gives to the poor, or lends to the needy, does better than he who purchases an indulgence.
44. “For the work of charity increaseth charity, and renders a man more pious; whereas the indulgence does not make him better, but only renders him more self-confident, and more secure from punishment.
45. “We should teach Christians that whoever sees his neighbor in want, and yet buys an indulgence, does not buy the pope’s indulgence, but incurs God’s anger.
46. “We should teach Christians that if they have no superfluity, they are bound to keep for their own households the means of procuring necessaries, and ought not to squander their money in indulgences.
47. “We should teach Christians that the purchase of an indulgence is a matter of free choice and not of commandment.
48. “We should teach Christians that the pope, having more need of prayers offered up in faith than of money, desires prayer more than money when he dispenses indulgences.
49. “We should teach Christians that the pope’s indulgence is good, if we put no confidence in it; but that nothing is more hurtful, if it diminishes our piety.
50. “We should teach Christians that if the pope knew of the extortions of the preachers of indulgences, he would rather the motherchurch of St. Peter were burnt and reduced to ashes, than see it built up with the skin, the flesh, and the bones of his flock.
51. “We should teach Christians that the pope (as it is his duty) would distribute his own money to the poor whom the indulgence-sellers are now stripping of their last farthing, even were he compelled to sell the mother-church of St. Peter.
52. “To hope to be saved by indulgences, is a lying and an empty hope; although even the commissary of indulgences, nay farther, the pope himself, should pledge their souls to guarantee it.
53. “They are the enemies of the pope and of Jesus Christ, who, by reason of the preaching of indulgences, forbid the preaching of the Word of God.
55. “The pope can have no other thought than this: If the indulgence, which is a lesser matter, be celebrated with ringing of a bell, with pomp and ceremony, much more should we honor and celebrate the Gospel, which is a greater thing, with a hundred bells, and with a hundred pomps and ceremonies.
62. “The true and precious treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
65. “The treasures of the Gospel are nets in which in former times the rich and those in easy circumstances were caught.
66. “But the treasures of the indulgence are nets with which they now catch the riches of the people.
67. “It is the duty of bishops and pastors to receive the commissaries of the apostolical indulgences with every mark of respect.
68. “But it is still more their duty to ascertain with their eyes and ears that the said commissaries do not preach the dreams of their own imagination, instead of the orders of the pope.
71. “Cursed be he who speaks against the indulgence of the pope.
72. “But blessed be he who speaks against the foolish and impudent language of the preachers of indulgences.
76. “The indulgence of the pope cannot take away the smallest daily sin, as far as regards the guilt or the offense.
79. “It is blasphemy to say that the cross adorned with the arms of the pope is as effectual as the cross of Christ.
80. “The bishops, pastors, and theologians who permit such things to be told the people, will have to render an account of them.
81. “This shameless preaching, these impudent commendations of indulgences, make it difficult for the learned to defend the dignity and honor of the pope against the calumnies of the preachers, and the subtle and crafty questions of the common people.
86. “Why, say they, does not the pope, who is richer than the richest Croesus, build the mother-church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with that of poor Christians?
92. “Would that we were quit of all these preachers who say to the Church: Peace! peace! and there is no peace.
94. “We should exhort Christians to diligence in following Christ, their head, through crosses, death, and hell.
95. “For it is far better to enter into the kingdom of heaven through much tribulation, than to acquire a carnal security by the consolations of a false peace.”
Such was the commencement of the work. The germs of the Reformation were contained in these propositions of Luther’s. The abuses of indulgences were attacked therein, and this is their most striking feature; but beneath these attacks there was a principle which, although attracting the attention of the multitude in a less degree, was one day to overthrow the edifice of popery. The evangelical doctrine of a free and gratuitous remission of sins was there for the first time publicly professed. The work must now increase in strength. It was evident, indeed, that whoever had this faith in the remission of sins, announced by the Wittenberg doctor; that whoever had this repentance, this conversion, and this sanctification, the necessity of which he so earnestly inculcated, would no longer care for human ordinances, would escape from the toils and swaddling-bands of Rome, and would acquire the liberty of the children of God. All errors would fall down before this truth. By it, light had begun to enter Luther’s mind; by it, also, the light would be diffused over the Church. A clear knowledge of this truth is what preceding reformers had wanted; and hence the unfruitfulness of their exertions. Luther himself acknowledged afterwards, that in proclaiming justification by faith, he had laid the axe to the root of the tree. “It is doctrine we attack in the adherents of the papacy,” said he. “Huss and Wickliffe only attacked their lives; but in attacking their doctrine, we take the goose by the neck.6 Everything depends on the Word, which the pope has taken from us and falsified. I have vanquished the pope, because my doctrine is of God, and his is of the devil.”
In our own days, too, we have forgotten this main doctrine of justification by faith, although in a sense opposed to that of our fathers. “In the time of Luther,” observes one of our contemporaries,7 “the remission of sins cost money at least; but in our days, each man supplies himself gratis.” There is a great similarity between these two errors. There is perhaps more forgetfulness of God in ours, than in that of the 16th century. The principle of justification by the grace of God, which brought the Church out of so much darkness at the period of the Reformation, can alone renew our generation, put an end to its doubts and waverings, destroy the selfishness that preys upon it, establish righteousness and morality among the nations, and, in short, reunite the world to God from whom it has been dissevered.
But if Luther’s theses were strong by the strength of the truth they proclaimed, they were not the less so by the faith of their champion. He had boldly drawn the sword of the Word: he had done so in reliance on the power of truth. He had felt that by leaning on God’s promises, he could afford to risk something, to use the language of the world. “Let him who desires to begin a good work,” said he when speaking of this daring attack, “undertake it with confidence in the goodness of his cause, and not, which God forbid! expecting the support and consolation of the world. Moreover, let him have no fear of man, or of the whole world; for these words will never lie: It is good to trust in the Lord, and assuredly he that trusteth in the Lord shall not be confounded. But let him that will not or who cannot risk something with confidence in God, take heed how he undertakes anything.”8 Luther, after having posted his theses on the gate of All-Saints’ Church, retired, no doubt, to his tranquil cell, full of the peace and joy that spring from an action done in the Lord’s name, and for the sake of eternal truth.
Whatever be the boldness that prevails in these propositions, they still bespeak the monk who refuses to admit a single doubt on the authority of the see of Rome. But, while attacking the doctrine of indulgences, Luther had unwittingly touched on certain errors, whose discovery could not be agreeable to the pope, seeing that sooner or later they would call his supremacy in question. Luther was not so far-sighted; but he was sensible of the extreme boldness of the step he had just taken, and consequently thought it his duty to soften down their audacity, as far as he could in conformity with the truth. He therefore set forth these theses as doubtful propositions on which he solicited the information of the learned; and appended to them, conformably with the established usage, a solemn declaration that he did not mean to affirm or say anything contrary to the Holy Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, and the rights and decretals of the Roman See.
Frequently, in after-years, as he contemplated the immense and unexpected consequences of this courageous attack, Luther was astonished at himself, and could not understand how he had ventured to make it. An invisible and mightier hand than his held the clue, and led the herald of truth along a path that was still hidden from him, and from the difficulties of which he would perhaps have shrunk, if he had foreseen them, and if he had advanced along and of his own accord. “I entered into this controversy,” said he, “without any definite plan, without knowledge or inclination; I was taken quite unawares, and I call God, the searcher of hearts, to witness.”9"