Learning Luther: The 1518 Theses on the Remission of Sins, By Paul R. Hinlicky

We have done a lot of spade work in the last few months uncovering the core message of the 95 Theses. We have learned that Luther was originally no foe of the idea of spiritual purgation of desire. He believed in the Spirit’s work of making saints holy and thought, therefore, that the chief problem with contemporaneous depictions of purgatory was that they delayed sanctification to the next life. “Purgatory now! Purgatory without delay!” you might say, is one way to capture the thrust of the 95 Theses. The cheap grace of buying remission from punishment was therefore to be actively renounced by true followers of Christ for the costly grace of following Christ through the cross to the crown.

But you cannot squeeze this blood out of a turnip. Another twist came as Luther realized that it is only true Christians, as those confident of the forgiveness of their guilt, who can and do undertake this lifelong work of sanctification. This twist matures into Luther’s chief doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Up to this point, Luther’s teaching could be read to say something, contrary to his intention, like this: By hating yourself you earn the love of God, by despairing of yourself you merit hope in God, by repenting to a state of true humility you win exaltation to God’s favor. That interpretation would be the final, subtle, but devastating denouement of justification by works.

But Luther’s Bible told him that faith already now has peace with God. Faith already now rests in God’s favor. Faith already now possesses the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen. All this is summed up in Theses 11 of today’s reading: “Christ did not want the salvation of people to consist in the action or decision of humans.” This clarification marks an advance on the theology of the 95 Theses. It is made in the 1518 Theses on the Remission of Sins, previously unpublished in English, which we gratefully borrow from Sarah Hinlicky Wilson and Theodor Dieter (Lutheran Forum Winter 2010, pp. 34-35).

For pastors, who still minister to troubled consciences, there are any number of gems to be gleaned from this brief work. “The promise of Christ the savior is certain.” Otherwise, we “make God a liar” because we “want to ensure the word and faith, rather than be assured by the word and faith.” It is a sufficient sign of contrition when a penitent “seeks absolution and faith in it.” Pastors are therefore to urge and impress the word of Christ on troubled consciences, “Believe, my son, your sins are forgiven.” As the priest speaks these words externally to the ear, the Spirit works internally “elicit[ing] at the same time the faith through which the sinner is justified internally.” While the power of the keys can be abused, abuse does not disqualify the word of God, however mishandled. “Even a frivolous and game-playing priest or one who knowingly acts against a restriction truly baptizes and truly absolves.” The confessional therefore is not to be abused tyrannically under the supposition that penitents are “obligated to confess all mortal sins,” for that is “utterly impossible.” Confidence is to be placed, not in the quality of confession of sins and contrition, but solely in “the abyss of the mercy of God.”

Do we see our ministry any longer as consolation of troubled consciences? Do we think of pastoring as creating by Word and Sacrament a community of conscience, of responsibility to God for our world? In precisely that light do we see why it is an “utter impossibility” to “confess all mortal sins” in that lethal sin is a destructive power captivating us, one and all, consciously but especially unconsciously?

On Reformation Sunday I preached on Luther’s 95 Theses. Pointing forward then to the upcoming election, I said: “If we get the politics we deserve, then we all have something to be ashamed of. Therefore, ‘when our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, Repent!, he meant for the entire life of the believer to be one of repentance.’”

We will take our winter break from this series now and resume in February when we will complete this five-year study in Luther’s theology in preparation for the 500th Anniversary by tracing the fallout of the 95 Theses to Luther’s excommunication.

Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

Editors’ Note: The Virginia Synod is encouraging pastors and laity to read Luther’s writings through the year 2015/16 via these reading guides by Paul R. Hinlicky. The synod has kindly agreed to let us reproduce them here month by month.

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