This week in PCUSA Mission:
Standing in a Long Line of Reformers
by Joseph D. Small, Church Relations Consultant
In late October 1517, an obscure Augustinian monk teaching at a minor German university offered a set of propositions, inviting an academic debate. Many Presbyterians can picture Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, but we are hard-pressed to say what the theses were about, and why they sparked a movement that both reformed and divided the church.
Luther’s post was titled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” It condemned the use of indulgences, a practice based on the assumption that guilt is forgiven by God but punishment for sin can be reduced through prayers, good works or alms (monetary donations) as directed by a priest. Luther’s attack on indulgences began by turning to the gospel: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Thesis 1). The theses proceeded to deny that priests have power to forgive
sins, and to attack the practice of selling certificates of forgiveness: “It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters” (Thesis 52). Instead, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Thesis 62).
Luther’s harsh critique of indulgences
could not be dismissed as abstract theological quibbles, for it assaulted the ecclesiastical apparatus, denying the church’s power to grant remission of
sins for the purchase of a piece of paper.