Luther did not imagine that he was advocating a religious revolution in his Ninety-Five Theses nor that he was being critical of the papacy. Yet he did remark, with a degree of grim humor, that if the pope had the power to remit the sins of the faithful in purgatory, why did he not deliver “all souls at the same out of purgatory” (thesis 82)? Luther asserted powerfully in words that go to the very heart of the spirituality of the Reformation: “Every true Christian . . . partakes in all the benefits of Christ and of the Church given him by God, even without letters of indulgence” (thesis 37).
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther sent what has come to be called the Ninety-Five Theses to the elector and bishop of Mainz, Albert von Brandenburg (1490–1545). This act is commonly regarded as the beginning of the Reformation, which is without a doubt the most important event in the last millennium of church history. Luther’s document raised serious theological issues with a vital element of late medieval piety, namely, the practice of selling papal indulgences. These indulgences, the Roman church claimed, granted remission of punishment for sin in this life and in purgatory. The key preacher hawking these remissions in Mainz was the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel (1465–1519). Luther took direct aim at him when he declared in thesis 27, “They preach vanity who say that the soul flies out of purgatory as soon as the money thrown into the chest rattles,” and, in thesis 35, that to preach thus was to “preach like a heathen.” Hoping to be saved through the purchase of one of these papal indulgences was therefore nothing less than a “vain and false thing” (thesis 52).
Protesting a Religion of Financial Gain
The Roman church continues to offer indulgences today, although not in the crass manner that Tetzel sold them.