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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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The 95 Theses today

Five Lutheran scholars say which still matter and why

No place for purgatory
By Joy Schroeder

14. Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.

15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near the horror of despair.

26. The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of inter-cession for them.

The early church’s practice of prayer for the dead led to the idea that saved souls undergo a process of “purgation” (purification) after death, before entering heaven. In Martin Luther’s time, many imagined purgatory as a geographical place filled with fire, punishment and torment. One’s duration in purgatory was described in terms of days and years.

In theses 14 and 15, Luther redefines purgatory as an experience—the near-despair of a dying person filled with dread about God’s punishment and one’s salvation.

Modern Roman Catholic theologians, likewise, resist defining purgatory as a place or something quantifiable in human terms such as years. Some Roman Catholics still do use older concepts to describe purgatory but their theologians now prefer to use the language of experience, transition, processor maturation to describe purification of souls being prepared to enjoy the full presence and holiness of God. These souls are said to benefit from the prayers of the living. Pope Benedict XVI suggested that purgatory might be the “moment” of the Christian’s purifying encounter with Christ after death and on the Last Day. 

Luther advances his arguments with the assumption that there is some sort of purgatory and concludes, in thesis 26, with the idea that souls there may benefit from prayers—specifically the pope’s. Modern Lutherans don’t share this supposition. Luther and his supporters later argued that there is no scriptural warrant for teaching people to believe in purgatory. 

But there is a sense in which Lutherans remember the dead in our prayers. At funerals we pray, “Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.” At gravesides we pray, “Rest eternal grant him, O Lord.” In Sunday prayers, we give thanks for the faithful departed.

Our prayers express love for the departed, confidence in God’s mercy and assurance about the resurrection. It isn’t our practice to frame prayers in terms of “release from purgatory” or offer repeated petitions for “repose of the soul” of loved ones. Rather, it’s appropriate for Lutherans to speak of those who have died in Christ as already being “at rest.”

Certainty, heaven and kittens
By Caryn D. Riswold

30. No one is sure of the integrity of his own contrition, much less of having received plenary remission.

31. The man who actually buys indulgences is as rare as he who is really penitent; indeed he is exceedingly rare.

32. Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

I’ve sat with students and friends who earnestly ask: Do you know that you are going to heaven? The question often seems misguided to me, though I rarely say that outright to them. Usually they ask it because they’ve found their certainty through a particular church or Bible verse, a particular way of life, a particular view of the world that puts them in the happy place shown on the brochures they often hand out to bystanders, including me.

It seems to me they are like the Christians that Luther is concerned with in thesis 32. They are certain of their salvation because they have done somethingcorrectly.

Luther worried about people who bought indulgences thinking they had done enough.

I worry about the people who I see around me today who are convinced they have done the right thing: They have read the Bible in the one correct way, lived what they have decided is a properly moral life for everyone, separated the world into right and wrong. They know which camp they are in and want desperately for you to know too.

One of Luther’s main personal and theological concerns reflected in these three theses is his own utter lack of certainty of having done enough. In thesis 30, he noted that one can’t even trust one’s own sense of contrition! Like many people, he wanted to really know that he was saved, that he had done the right things.

He came to understand that the church was promising something that he knew it simply could not deliver: absolute assurance of salvation. Luther understood that God alone could provide salvation and assurance wasn’t something that a human institution could provide.

Luther theologically reclaimed the power of God and redefined the power of human institutions. When we baptize, we are not baptizing: God is baptizing. We are, to use the lovely image of children baptizing a litter of kittens in Marilynne Robinson’s novelGilead, recognizing the blessing that is already there. The institution does not give it: God does. 

Repentance still relevant
By Kurt K. Hendel

36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.

60. Without want of consideration we say that the keys of the church, given by the merits of Christ, are that treasure.

Luther’s maturing evangelical theology and passionate concern for the spiritual welfare of God’s people compelled him to critique the church’s penitential system. While he was keenly aware of the power of sin, its dire consequences, the need for repentance and confession and the necessity of forgiveness, he was convinced theologically and experientially that penance—with its emphasis on human action rather than God’s work and its limited and contingent absolution—resulted either in false confidence or profound terror.

Although he rejected the medieval penitential system, Luther trusted that the office of the keys was God’s precious gift that brings peace and comfort to the sinner. Hence, he insisted that it be exercised properly in the church.

(Editor’s note: In Matthew 16:19, Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In Roman Catholic theology, this is traditionally interpreted as a statement about Peter’s, and subsequently the pope’s, authority over the church. In Lutheran theology, the office of the keys is understood as the preaching of the gospel and the forgiveness of sins.)

Is Luther’s advocacy of the keys still relevant today? Our age is a radically different time than the 16th century. Contemporary theology struggles with the notion of sin, tends to espouse an optimistic anthropology and focuses on this life rather than on eternity.

Most Christians don’t experience the terror Luther felt as he considered the magnitude of sin and the righteous judgment of God. Yet, the human condition has not changed.

Sin still corrupts human nature, and its effects are readily apparent. Scripture, personal experience and world events confirm human brokenness and our obvious need for transformation. As believers we recognize that we are fallible human beings and we long for wholeness and life. There may even be moments when we identify with the terror that gripped Luther’s soul.

Hence, the reformer’s reminder that the office of the keys is a gift of Christ and a treasure of the church is still a timely one, and the recovery of private confession and absolution would be a particular blessing to the church. When this spiritual discipline is practiced, we confront our brokenness honestly, dip into the waters of baptism repeatedly and experience the miracle of rebirth. God calls us by name, forgives our sins, removes guilt, heals our brokenness and assures us that we are God’s daughters and sons. We are addressed with the gospel directly and personally.

Mission and money
By Richard Bliese

43. Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.

62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

65. Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth. 

66. The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men.

Does anyone quote Luther’s 95 Theses anymore? The answer is, surprisingly, “yes.” The real shock is discovering who is doing the quoting. Economists! Christian economists and investors like Gary Moore, author of Faith Finances 101, emphasize that the birthday of the Reformation focused heavily on the relationship between money and mission.

Pastors prefer to proclaim the basic theological pronouncements of the Reformation summarized in, for example, the The Heidelberg Disputation (1518), for which Luther’s theses in 1517 served as homework. Christians living in the wake of Wall Street, in contrast, are interested in the relationship between the core of evangelical theology and the financial world. They are therefore fascinated by the content—not just the posting—of Luther’s debating points.

When using a spotlight to focus on the mission of the church, they confess, the topic of money is never far away.

In the 95 Theses, Luther applied his evangelical theology to indulgences—a theologically challenged fundraising technique of the medieval church. It was a practical pastoral problem that touched the lives of his people because it addressed the core of Christian mission—“the treasure of the church”—and how it applied to both personal and church finances. And when you discuss money, as Luther would soon discover, you get everyone’s attention.

As in Luther’s day, there is a huge disconnect today between the church’s financial activities and Lutheran evangelical theology. To live evangelically must mean to teach Christians how to live with money. Luther moved from his Latin, academic tone in most of the document to a catechist’s cadence in theses 42-52, which begin: “Christians are to be taught that ....”

Consequently, from practicing private stewardship to using institutional endowments, from creating household budgets to building investment portfolios and from navigating pensions to insurance policies, Lutherans must be taught to relate discipleship to money evangelically. The call to mission depends on it.

If Luther’s theology can’t be applied to the practical, everyday world of finance—at home, church and work—it is powerless in today’s world to call us to follow Jesus Christ. 

A martyr’s witness
By Kathryn A. Kleinhans

59. St. Laurence said that the poor of the church were the treasures of the church, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.

Laurence was a deacon of the church of Rome in the mid-third century. During a period of persecution, the bishop of Rome was arrested and executed, leaving Laurence in charge. One of Laurence’s duties as a deacon was to collect and distribute the charitable offerings given to the church. 

During times of persecution, not only were Christians pressured to renounce their faith but their property and other assets were often confiscated as well. The Roman authorities came to Laurence and demanded that he hand over to them “the treasures of the church.” But, of course, there was no pile of money just sitting around. According to legend, Laurence asked for three days to meet their demand.

During that time, he gathered together the poor, the sick and the needy. When the authorities returned, Laurence gestured to the people and said, “These are the true treasures of the church.” Laurence was then arrested and executed. 

The word “martyr” means witness. Laurence’s behavior was a witness to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 that we meet and serve Jesus himself in “the least of these.” Luther knew the story of Laurence. He referred to it again in one of his Table Talks, where he complained that politicians rob the churches for their benefit, while those who carry out the church’s ministry of helping the poor are persecuted.

While Luther reminds us that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that alone is the treasure of the church, Laurence’s bold confession is a marvelous example of Luther’s commitment to Christian faith lived out in service of neighbor.


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