Each year, the students in my Lutheran heritage class at Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, read Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. “What surprised you?” I ask them. Typically, the biggest one is what the 95 Theses are not: They are not a laundry list of all the things Luther didn’t like about the Roman Catholic Church. What they are is an academic argument focused on one specific topic—indulgences.
Luther wasn’t the first to criticize the church’s use of indulgences, but he is certainly the best-remembered. In 1517 he was still a fairly young professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg.
At the same time, a persuasive preacher named Johann Tetzel was authorized to sell indulgence letters nearby. The money received for these indulgences would finance the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, as well as expand the territory of a prominent German bishop.
The conflict between Luther and Tetzel was the spark that ignited the Reformation. To understand the controversy, it’s helpful to know some background.
The Roman Catholic Church in Luther’s day distinguished between the “guilt” of sin and the “penalty” of sin. Forgiveness of guilt didn’t automatically eliminate the penalty or consequence of one’s sinful actions. That may sound harsh, but many parents will recognize the dynamic.
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