Martin Luther is best known for the 95 theses which he is said to have nailed to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg on the 31st of October 1517. For this reason Luther is sometimes called “the hammer” of the Reformation. Although there is reasonable doubt about the hammering,[1] the theses are real enough. Written in Latin, they were probably not intended as immediate accusations of the Church for the abuses surrounding indulgences, but as truly theses, i.e. items for discussion in academic circles. Nevertheless, they would quickly have an enormous impact on the development of Christianity as well as European politics. As someone put it, they had “the effect of a torch thrown among dry fuel”. I am writing this during the 2017 “500 years Reformation” commemorations, in between visits to Eisleben and Wittenberg.

It is quite a job to read, understand and discuss all 95 theses, so I will try to express what I think is their essence, especially as it relates to the work of the ordained ministry. The Latin title of the theses already makes it clear that the main theme is “indulgences”. It is important to distinguish this from absolution or forgiveness. Absolution refers to the guilt associated with sin. God is the one who forgives and priests “declared” this forgiveness to the people.[2] Luther emphasised that believers receive Christ’s righteousness as if it were their own. Now, an indulgence is not so much associated with remission of guilt as with penance. So what is penance?

The word “penance”, just as “penitent”, comes from Old French and Latin “paenitentia”. It has always had a strong connotation of “punishment”, as can still be seen from our habit of calling a prison a “penitentiairy institution”. Once a sin is forgiven, that does not mean there are no further consequences. Any damage which was done, should be repaired as best as possible, which is sometimes called “satisfaction”. Also, a priest may recommend certain “acts of penitence” to help with preventing that sin from happening again. So, did these acts of penitence constitute punishments? Yes and no.

Acts of penitence were experienced as punishments when people did not regard them as optional and when they were hefty, like climbing stairs on your knees. The purpose of punishments could still be to prevent you from repeating a sin. Whether they were effective is another matter. More importantly, the Reformers objected to these acts of penitence being regarded as payments for sins. For many, including the clergy themselves, had begun to confuse the forgiveness of sins and the repairs that had to come after the forgiveness. This meant that they were trying to earn their own forgiveness by their own “merits” instead of receiving forgiveness from God, freely, based on the merits of Christ. Thus penitence was no longer a means to amend one’s life but a way to escape the wrath of God.

Once more, a linguistic problem seems to have been at the cradle of a distorted theology. The Greek word metanoia means conversion, thorough change of mind, renewal, turning around. In many instances when the Greek New Testament speaks of metanoia, the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, has translated this as penance. Thus the New Testament emphasised the inner change,[3] whereas the Vulgate and the Church began to emphasise the outer repairs and amends.

From there it was only a small step to the popular idea that Christians were reconciled to God by their own actions, as prescribed by priests, in combination with financial transactions and ritual acts by priests. Some priests must have known that this popular view was incorrect, but it was simply not always in their interest to correct it.[4] Tertullian, though, had already protested the unsuitable translation of metanoeo into the Latin paenitentiam agite by pointing out that in Greek metanoia is not a confession of sins but a change of mind.[5]

Now an indulgence was a piece of paper relieving you from having to make repairs.[6] Again, the popular conception went a step further. One believed the indulgence even erased the sin itself, thus providing forgiveness or justification (release from guilt) as well. Any chance of metanoia, an inner change of the person who bought the indulgence, had gone out of the window (even though it was often required to say some formal prayers and to see a priest as well). Buying an indulgence had become central. This became clear when some owners of indulgences came to Luther demanding absolution without showing any signs of true repentance. Finally, the last link with metanoia was broken when the indulgence was bought to get someone else out of purgatory, the place where, presumably, souls had to wait and be purified before they could enter heaven.

Johann Tetzel, the great opponent of Luther, is well known for his pitch, “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”.[7] What made it worse was that the money Tetzel raised by the sale of indulgences was used not only for maintenance of the St. Peter basilica in Rome, but also to enable Archbishop Albrecht of Hohenzollerm to pay off the debts he had incurred when he bribed Pope Leo X. A loan had allowed Albrecht to have multiple high positions in the church even though he was too young and had no theological training whatsoever. The sale of indulgences for this purpose had been approved by the pope as if it was a formality.

The author of this article in Wittenberg (September 2017)

However, Luther was primarily concerned with the faulty theology behind the indulgences. How could God’s mercy be bought with money? If the Church would clearly condemn the ideas[8] behind the practice, then the worst abuses might automatically belong to the past. So step one was to get consensus on the principles involved. Even those who accept the literal posting of the theses on the door of the Schlosskirche, admit that this type of action was a normal academic procedure for inviting fellow academics to debate a topic.

Unfortunately the Church did not appreciate even this kind of academic debate and the majority of the theses were eventually condemned, with Luther being excommunicated and outlawed. The Roman Catholic Church would tackle certain abuses relating to indulgences only after Luther’s death, namely at the council of Trent. Five years later, in 1867, indulgences could no longer be obtained for a fee. Whether these reforms would have taken place (as quickly) without people like Luther, remains open to speculation.

Principles of the Reformation

Six principles can be distinguished as characterizing the new protestant movement. I will describe them, commenting where needed.

  1. Sola scriptura

    This is the Protestant doctrine saying that the Christian Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice. This belief made it easier to question the church. Note that it does not say that there is no truth to be found outside the Bible. Note also that it does not say, either, that the Bible can be understood without interpretation. The idea was clearly that the Bible should be read as guided by the Holy Spirit. Therefore I do not see an insurmountable difference with the Anglican and Methodist doctrine of prima scriptura, with Sacred Scripture being illumined by tradition, reason, and in Methodism, experience as well.

    There is still a big difference, though, with the Roman Catholic view, where it is not even clear that the Bible is primary. For Catholics, the Bible and tradition have equal authority, since they both came from the apostles.[9] They do have a point, since the Bible did not define its own canon. Therefore it relied (at least for its composition) on an authority outside itself. However, it is difficult to see why these writings should not become primary sources, once they had been selected. After all, the “traditions” of the Church were distilled in later writings and are usually comments on and interpretations of Scripture. It seems strange for a religion to define sacred writings only to say that other writings are just as sacred.Sola scriptura is one of the most important principles, because a thorough study of the scriptures in their original languages revealed to Luther that some doctrines and practices had deviated from the gospel to such an extent that they had virtually become opposites. This principle thus formed the basis for the other ones. Luther’s problem was not so much with the Early Church Fathers or with liturgy, but especially with the views of medieval scholasticism.

    Karen Armstrong emphasizes that Luther was still very much a conservative in that he went back to the sources (ad fontes) instead of introducing innovations.[10] Even his reintroduction of congregational singing (halted since the close of the 4th Century) was partly based on Scripture. The by-product of allowing people to read the Bible in their own language, so that they had immediate access to the message of the gospel, was an enormous freedom to interpret the Bible for oneself. Luther believed in the verbal inerrancy of Scripture. “Scripture is certainly God’s Word, as if God Himself were speaking”.

    Luther never intended that people would come to different conclusions then he did, though, and he was not a little annoyed when they did. So in that sense he was firmly conservative. The accusation that the Reformation led to a proliferation of independent churches is partly true. It could have been prevented only if the Catholic Church, and after that the Protestant churches, would have allowed a greater variety of views, although even that would probably have led to schisms because of those Christians who would be opposed to such degrees of freedom.  In any case, to agree on some form of Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura, seems wise to limit the damage and should not in itself be regarded as the cause of disunity.

  2. Sola fide

    This is the principle that justification and salvation are not the result from any human merit or works, but from faith in Christ only. It was both a reaction against the current reliance on working one’s way up to heaven and a return to New Testament concepts. Luther was inspired by texts like Galatians 3:11 – “The righteous… shall live by faith”. The faith in question was not merely a profession of faith. It had to be a living faith. However, in order for salvation to be from Christ only (see Solus Christus, further on), this faith could not be of human origin. Luther held that this, too, was a gift from God, to which we could contribute nothing.This would more or less amount to a denial of our free will. Granted, our free will is often severely limited, because we are creatures of habit. Modern science also seems to suggest that “free will” may largely be an illusion. However, the Roman Catholic Church has a point when they hold that we must cooperate with God or faith cannot survive. Also, preaching and evangelism seem pointless if people are not able to decide for themselves whether or not to follow Christ. Salvation will still be through faith alone. Faith will still be a gift (as it requires hearing the gospel). Accepting Christ should not be regarded as a “work” or something that brings merit, but it is an essential enabler of faith.

  3. Solus Christus

    This is the principle that no other mediator should be recognized between God and mankind. In his sermon before the Sanhedrin, Peter said, “He is the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11,12). This principle collided with, among other things, the way Mary had come to be (almost) worshipped. Luther honoured Mary as the first Christian, but would not go further than that. Mary being “full of grace” did not mean that she had a surplus of grace to share with those who prayed to her.

  4. Sola gratia

    Here we zoom in further on the grace of God. In his Heidelberg Disputation, thesis 26, Luther wrote, “The law says, ‘do this’, and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this’, and everything is already done”. Cf. Romans 1:17 and 3:24,28.

    Most Christians would agree that they are saved from darkness by the grace of God. However, the Reformers emphasised that even the first step, bringing them to faith, is carried out by God (the Spirit) himself. According to Michael A.G. Haykin, the idea that everything is grace, was even more vital to the Reformers than the supposed “storm center” of the Reformation, namely the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The latter would have been important only because it helped to express and safeguard sola gratia.Luther did indeed write a book called “The Bondage of the Will”, really a counter- attack of Erasmus of Rotterdam.

    Erasmus thought that Luther had gone too far with his doctrine, which would pave the way for Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Erasmus had argued against the belief that God’s foreknowledge of events was the cause of events, and held that the doctrines of repentance, baptism, and conversion depended on the existence of free will. That would seem reasonable, but Luther answered that the combined strength of sin and the devil was so overwhelming (he had had quite some fights with the devil in his own life), that God needed to force people back into a condition of receptiveness and faith. Unfortunately Erasmus’ answer was hard to understand, or the time was not right.

    Logically speaking, God cannot at the same time be omnipotent, desire all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and then not make sure that they are all saved. If we hold that not everyone is eventually saved, then we would have to assume that God does not want all to be saved.
    It is no solution to say, as Luther did, that people are free to choose evil, but not free to choose what is right, for that would not be a choice. Therefore we must be free to do both, although choosing good can be very difficult. We can still agree that everything is grace, for God gave us the possibility to answer the voice of the Spirit and to open our hearts to further enlightenment and support.

    Modern evangelicals often make the distinction between the influence of sin (which is always present) and the bondage of sin (which is not always present, or at least not in every area of our life). Even in the case of bondage, people can (with the help of the Holy Spirit) consciously decide to want to be released. Only in rare cases (possession) do they lose their free will altogether (but not necessarily permanently, because there still exists a ministry of deliverance). This classification makes more sense than a black and white view in which people are always fully controlled by dark forces unless God intervenes.

  5. Soli Deo Gloria

    This principle prevents the self-congratulation of those who have invested a lot in the Church, in their own development or in their vocation. It also prevents us from worshipping other human beings, whether saints or contemporary (church) leaders or whatever. Additionally, both Reformers and Catholics saw the worship of God as the ultimate purpose of life. It is indeed good to be thankful for the universe in which we are able to live and to honour our Creator by taking care of everything that was entrusted to us. Gratitude for saving grace is certainly due as well.

    According to Jonathan Edwards, God is glorified in man’s dependence. This is something I find hard to accept. We have been made in God’s image, which gives us a certain independence. That independence, however, gives us no excuse to rebel against God. Also, we still need the Spirit of Christ to continue to “grow in the stature and fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). So I would say that God is both glorified in the conditions that were set in place for us to live on this planet and in our own uniqueness and contributions, which were also part of the deal when we were created. God is not glorified by saying that everything comes directly from Him. Creation continues through us and – thank God! – not all those creations are inherently evil.

  6. The priesthood of all believers

    This principle, which I describe more fully in another article, is sometimes overlooked, but also central to the Reformation. It has even been called one of the top three ideas of the Protestant Reformation, next to Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide. Luther wrote that all Christians were “ordained as priests by their baptism”.[11] He hoped that the word “priest” would become just as common as “Christian” to describe any follower of Christ (Martin Luther, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained (New York, NY, Anson D.F. Randolph, 1859), p. 106). In the present “Evangelisch” Lutheran Church, the existence of a separate clerical rank is still rejected and the distinction between clergy and laity has been declared obsolete. The (honorary) office of preacher-lector is regarded as a token of the priesthood of all believers. Unlike Readers in the Anglican Church, they are admitted via the laying on of hands.[12]

    This 6th principle can also be derived from the other 5, the 5 Sola’s.
    If it is true that Christ is our only mediator, this means there are no other mediators. Each one of us has then become his or her own priest! The only difference is that we don’t mediate for someone else, as priests would normally do. We can pray for one another, though, which is a priestly activity. Everything else we do for each other is not priesthood, but discipleship or ministry. When specific Christian ministers are called priests, what we really mean (or should mean) is that they visibly symbolise the priesthood of all believers.

    This principle also follows from Sola Scriptura, as I have explained elsewhere. It follows from Sola Fide, as nothing else is required but faith. Sola Fide redefined the Church as “the community of the faithful”,[13] of those whose faith made them equal in the sight of God, since baptism and faith are all-important. It also follows from Sola Gratia, as nothing, not even the absence of a “professional” priest or minister, can stop us from receiving the grace of God.[14] It follows also from Soli Deo Gloria, as the Church cannot take any credit for guiding her members, especially not at those times when she is not connected to the will of God and the Holy Spirit. History clearly shows that the Church has not always carried out or even understood the will of God. Sometimes God speaks prophetically through individual Christians, who do not need to be professional priests.

Recent developments

Pope Francis recently surprised reporters by calling Luther a reformer and adding “Today, Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification. On this point, which is very important, he [Luther] did not err”. See also the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999. However, according to Peter Leithart, “despite real convergence at some points, some fundamental differences remain—on obvious issues like Papal infallibility and the doctrines about Mary.” From a Lutheran perspective, reformation is ongoing.


As we have seen, the insights of the Reformers considerably changed the ideas about priesthood. The Roman Catholic Church later had its own reforms, but for a long time continued to reject most of the above principles. Sometimes that has been a good thing, because Luther’s theology was not without its own flaws. At other times it was disappointing, because the 6 principles made things so much more elegant. Although elegance and simplicity don’t prove anything, neither does a complex theology. Mysticism does not require a complicated theology and lots of paradoxes, either.

The recent agreement between Protestants and Roman Catholics seems to focus on what both churches have in common regarding the doctrine of justification. This would relate to Sola Gratia, Solus Christus and Sola Fide. It clearly does not include Sola or Prima Scriptura or the Priesthood of all Believers. As the pope said, “On this point …[Luther] did not err”, implying that he was wrong in an unspecified number of other respects. Moreover, in a recent Filial Correction by over 60 Catholic clergy and lay-scholars criticised the pope for endorsing heresies, particularly with regard to issues of justification and the sacraments.

The Reformation introduced many necessary corrections. More dialogue and study is obviously needed. When we observe how, even in Protestant churches, there still exist “ranks” of Christians, it will be good to continually remind ourselves of what Luther rediscovered about the importance of faith and the priesthood of all believers. Most of these views were surprisingly “modern” / progressive in spite of Luther’s conservatism. If we take into account that most of these views were firmly based on the New Testament, then we can only conclude that the Bible itself is still surprisingly “modern” / progressive, as well!


[1] For instance, the Lutheran World Federation recently shared an article by Brandon Withrow calling the nailing of the theses a legend. The strongest argument against the hammering, I find, is the fact that the theses were written in Latin, which not many people would have understood. The second strongest argument is that Luther gave the church authorities ample time to respond to his theses, which would be strange if he had already made them public. On the other hand, others call the use of the door “a normal academic procedure for inviting others to debate a topic” (cf.
) and it is claimed that the theses were widely distributed in print only 2 weeks after the 31st of October. Would this have been without Luther’s permission? As a former Seventh Day Adventist, I made a note for myself that Mrs. Ellen G. White did claim to have seen in a vision that Luther actually hammered the theses on the church door. It does not make the supposed event any more credible.

[2] To declare forgiveness is a typical Anglican expression. It represents a compromise between the priests being instrumental in the forgiveness and the priest having no role in forgiveness of sins at all.

[3] Luther distinguished several phases of metanoia. First a person becomes convinced that he has sinned, then he is moved to confess his sin and obtain forgiveness, then he is changed so as to want to avoid sin.

[4] There may also have been an influence of the pagan Greek concept of metanoia, which was slightly different from the New Testament use of the word. In Greek mythology, metanoia was the goddess of regret for missed opportunities. The emphasis was on regret which made you try again. In the Eleusinian mysteries metanoia was an artificially induced mystical ecstasy and resulting change of consciousness. Several authors, like  A.T. Robinson and Abid Rogers Bhatti, have argued that the New Testament uses the word for a much more profound change of mind or transformation, which is more future oriented rather than looking at the past.

[5] Edward J Anton, Repentance: A Cosmic Shift of Mind and Heart (Discipleship Publications, 2005) 32-33, as cited in Wikipedia.

[6] In order not to make the transaction too suspicious, sometimes a few prayers were assigned as well.

[7] There is no proof that Tetzel actually ever used, let alone invented this “jingle”. The sermons he preached in Magdeburg and which infuriated Luther, were not written down. The phrase was popular at the time, though. Martin Brecht, in Martin Luther, His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521, pp. 182-183, notes how the University of Paris complained about it as early as 1482. Luther himself, in thesis 27, implies that more than one person used it. In his letter to Cardinal Albrecht, Luther notes that it is part of popular beliefs. Even Roman Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar reluctantly admitted (in Luther, Vol. 1, p. 343) that Tetzel at least taught the sentiment expressed by the jingle. He added that it was not the official teaching of the Church, downplaying the fact that during this time period there was no official doctrine concerning the effect of indulgences on those in purgatory. Cf.

[8] The Church defended itself by saying that Tetzel was making statements that were not backed by official Church teaching, but that did not convince, as there was no official Church teaching concerning early release from purgatory. So what Tetzel said did not conflict with Church teaching either. It needed to be more clearly condemned.

[9] The Catechism of the Catholic Church (points 80 and 81) speaks of “one common source… with two distinct modes of transmission”.

[10] Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God – a history of fundamentalism, p. 81.

[11] Martin Luther, An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, 1520.

It is also interesting to note that these “lektoren” receive proper training, but are clearly called non-theologians. Anglican Readers are sometimes called (lay) theologians, which is flattering, but confusing.

[13] Strictly speaking, the definition also included preaching of the true gospel and proper administration of the sacraments. All this became part of the Augsburg Confession (article 7) and of the 39 articles of the Church of England (article 19).

[14] As my former Director of Training, Dr. Charlotte Methuen, wrote in The European Anglican, “Luther held that confession was advisable, to remind people of what their baptism meant and how they had fallen away from it, but confession could be made to anyone, not only to a priest”. No. 74, Summer 2017, p. 7.

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