Protestant churches have reason to commemorate October 31, for it was upon October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.
I think that time has been a good ‘diviner,’ if we may wisely use such language. Because, as you might have guessed, this event proved to be both significant and relevant. However, our estimation of the ninety-five theses is not merely something which we with hindsight see as significant, but even those within that immediate period saw as monumental. For example, the historian, Kranz, of Hamburg, was on his death-bed when Master Luther’s “Theses” were brought to him. “Thou art right, brother Martin,” exclaimed he on reading them, “but thou wilt not succeed. Poor monk. Away thee to thy cell, and cry, “O God, have pity on me”. And, there is another story of an old priest in Hexter, in Westphalia, who shook his head and exclaimed, “Dear brother Martin, if thou succeed in overthrowing this purgatory, and all these paper-dealers, truly thou art a very great gentleman.”
But others, lifting their eyes higher, saw the hand of God in the affair. “At last,” said Dr. Fleck, prior of the monastery of Steinlausitz, who had for some time ceased to celebrate mass, “At last we have found the man we have waited for so long;” and, playing on the meaning of the word Wittenberg, he added, “All the world will go and seek wisdom on that (white) mountain, and will find it.”
Now, I want to ask you the important question over the significance and relevancy of the ninety-five theses. Why are they important? Are they still relevant for us today, or is their significance regulated to the distant past? Undoubtedly, many remember this as an event in history that, for some unknown reason to them, sparked the Protestant Reformation. To many, it is a distant truth that has little to no significance to us today. But at least for us, I want to change that, and I want to show why this event, is significant by analyzing its teaching in historical context. I will do this by showing why it is and why it is not significant; then I will outline a few relevant truths for us to take to heart.
The Significance and Non-Significance of This Event
Let us begin by considering the character of its significance. And let us start by asking why so much attention was given to the actions of an unknown theology professor of an upstart university. unbeknownst to any of his friends and colleagues, why did Luther make his way on a busy festival day to post a number of propositions in Latin on the door of a church for debate among scholars? And what was within these theses that would cause the whole of Europe to stand up and listen within a month of its original posting? What was the nature of the truths proclaimed therein that threatened the whole religious structure of Romanism?
In order to answer these questions, we need to sift through its historical setting and find the actual truths that were used by God in this great revolution for good and for God! Let us begin by underlining why it was Not significant in its day.
What the Significance was not
First, the actual posting of the ninety-five theses was not something that inherently caused the fervor which took place. The church door was something of a bulletin board at this time, and it was the order of the day for the professors to outline points of debate. Luther himself had just weeks prior to this monumental occasion posted a set of theses against scholastic theology, which at first blush would seem to be more provocative than the issue of indulgences.
Second, the ninety-five Theses were not historically significant simply because they attack the doctrine of indulgences. Many before him assailed the practice and notion of indulgences. In fact, Philip Schaff wrote the following in his History of the Christian Church:
“The idea of selling and buying by money the remission of punishment and release from purgatory was acceptable to ignorant and superstitious people, but revolting to sound moral feeling. It roused, long before Luther, the indignant protest of earnest minds, such as Wiclif in England, Hus in Bohemia, John von Wesel in Germany, John Wessel in Holland, Thomas Wyttenbach in Switzerland, but without much effect.”
Third, the historical significance must not be seen in the fact that there is a radical break with Rome and its claims by Luther. If you read the theses, you will see that Luther still believes in the church’s power over purgatory. For example, in thesis 25, he asserts, “The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.”
At this point, he also believes in the power of the priest. He states, in thesis 7, “God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.” Moreover, Luther condemns to hell all that do not believe in the truth of apostolic indulgences — “He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!”(71). He even calls upon bishops and priests to the indulgence peddlers all due reverence: “Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence” (69).
Now all of this reveals a man who is still progressing, but he is still in the shadows to a large degree. Yet, we may look at the points that I just mentioned and think, “Well, why did Luther hold to these points. He surely was not saved.” But this would be a grave mistake for us to make. It is easy to tell what a man of the past should have known and have done. But we do not walk in his shoes, and we are unconsciously taking the fruit of their struggles back with us.
Luther had already come to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Yet, it took time for this doctrine to permeate like leaven throughout his thinking. Like all of us, he was a man of his day; we far more influenced by our day than we can ever know this side of eternity. Yet, bit by bit, the light of the gospel began to shine in the heart of this sincere man of God until it broke forth in this pastoral concern for the souls of men. He even acknowledges this almost thirty years later, when he wrote the following in his preface to the theses:
“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.”
The lesson here found here is vitally important for us all of us to learn for our own sake for the sake of others. Faith is a grace which admits of degrees. It does not come to full strength and perfection as soon as it is planted in the heart by the Holy Spirit. There is “little” faith and “great” faith. There is “weak” faith and “strong” faith. Both are spoken of in the Scriptures. Both are to be seen in the experience of God’s people. The work of grace goes on in the heart by degrees. J. C. Ryle writes,
“The children of God are not born perfect in faith, or hope, or knowledge, or experience. Their beginning is generally a “day of small things.” They see in part their own sinfulness, and Christ’s fullness, and the beauty of holiness. But for all that, the weakest child in God’s family is a true child of God. With all his weakness and infirmity he is alive. The seed of grace has really come up in his heart, though at present it be only in the blade. He is “alive from the dead.” And the wise man says, “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” (Ecclesiastes 9:4.)”
Let us mark this truth also, for it is full of consolation. Let us not despise grace, because it is weak, or think people are not converted, because they are not yet as strong in the faith as Paul. Let us remember that grace, like everything else, must have a beginning. The mightiest oak was once an acorn. The strongest man was once a babe. Better a thousand times to have grace in the blade than no grace at all.
In our next post we shall explore what was and is the Significance of Luther’s ninety-five theses.
Many thanks and a debt of gratitude to Timothy A Williams for his materials and thoughts on this series!