Having already outlined what parts of the original posting of the Ninety-five theses were not significant, we are left to consider why the Ninety-five theses was and continues to be a significant force in our world today. As Philip Schaff writes,
“they contain the living germs of a new theology. The form only is Romish, the spirit and aim are Protestant.”
D’Aubigne points to this same thing, when he writes in his notable History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century,
“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 multitudes 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.”
Now, we cannot go through the entire ninety-five theses, and we need not. They are very repetitious, though they are sturdy strokes of the axe to the root of a notorious problem. We can, however, summarize these Ninety-five Theses into six assertions, which make up the attack, as Thomas Lindsay includes in his History of the Reformation:
An Indulgence is and can only be the remission of a merely ecclesiastical penalty; the Church can remit what the Church has imposed; it cannot remit what God has imposed.
An Indulgence can never remove guilt; the Pope himself cannot do such a thing; God has kept that in His own hand.
It cannot remit the divine punishment for sin; that also is in the hands of God alone.
It can have no efficacy for souls in Purgatory; penalties imposed by the Church can only refer to the living ; death dissolves them; what the Pope can do for souls in Purgatory is by prayer, not by jurisdiction or the power of the keys.
The Christian who has true repentance has already received pardon from God altogether apart from an Indulgence, and does not need one; Christ demands this true repentance from every one.
The Treasury of Merits has never been properly defined, it is hard to say what it is, and it is not properly understood by the people; it cannot be the merits of Christ and of His saints, because these act of themselves and quite apart from the intervention of the Pope; it can mean nothing more than that the Pope, having the power of the keys, can remit ecclesiastical penalties imposed by the Church; the true Treasure-house of merits is the Holy Gospel of the grace and glory of God.
The significance of the 95 Theses is found in this; they have in germ form the evangelical doctrine of free pardon.
This is not fully developed, but it is a germ that will leaven the whole of church, if permitted. It will begin to make things clear. It sets the authority of God over against the authority of men; it distinguishes the pardon of God from the pardon of men; and it provides a sure foundation for confidence and hope in contrast to an unfounded, false hope. These points are always pertinent, but they were especially felt in an age wherein the key question concerned in how I might be saved and just before God. Philip Schaff writes,
“The Reformation was at first a purely religious movement, and furnishes a striking illustration of the all−pervading power of religion in history. It started from the question: What must a man do to be saved? How shall a sinner be justified before God, and attain peace of his troubled conscience? The Reformers were supremely concerned for the salvation of the soul, for the glory of Christ and the triumph of his gospel. They thought much more of the future world than of the present, and made all political, national, and literary interests subordinate and subservient to religion.”
In our final section we will deal with the relevancy of the Ninety-five theses.
Many thanks and a debt of gratitude to Timothy A Williams for his materials and thoughts on this series!