Learning Luther: The Ninety-Five Theses, By Paul R. Hinlicky

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.

This month we turn to The Ninety-Five Theses (LW 31:25–33) and Luther’s 1545 memoir in The Preface to Volume 1 of his Latin Writings (LW 34:327–338).

We have been studying Luther for a number of years in preparation for the observance of the 500th anniversary of the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.1 Luther had written his theses in Latin, not the vernacular. His intention was to call for a learned consultation among university-level colleagues on the Christian teachings concerning the pardon of punishment for sin and the need of satisfaction for sin. He believed that these doctrines were unsettled and not yet defined by the church, still open to debate. Thus in the Ninety-Five Theses he emphasized that he was criticizing fellow Germans, the salesmen of the indulgences, as “false prophets”: not only for blasphemously marketing divine grace but in the process also misusing the name and authority of the pope. It will be several years before Luther comes to the dire conclusion that the papal office is Antichrist.

While he certainly expected some flack, Luther just as certainly did not expect the conflagration which quickly erupted and led to that dramatic conclusion about the papal Antichrist. His Latin was translated into German without his knowledge and so the Ninety-Five Theses were popularized and spread across German-speaking lands. Some of the technical language was unintelligible to the contemporary laity (as it is to us today), delving into the legalese of canonical regulation. Almost immediately in the new year of 1518, consequently, Luther prepared and published a lengthy treatise, Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, material we will study next in this series.

Simultaneously, he composed fifty theses on the Remission of Sins for his monastic order. Only recently translated into English, it is in these Fifty Theses, according to Oswald Bayer, that Luther, pushed forward in discovery by the controversy, matured to his view on the certainty of faith. The certainty of faith in Christ’s word Luther now opposed to the false certainty or security placed in works, let alone indulgences. This new emphasis on the certainty of faith in Christ is a difference in emphasis, since the Ninety-Five Theses were focused on attacking false certainty, spiritual security based on human words or promises.

Only after these opening flourishes in the controversy did Luther defend his appeal to the authority of Scripture in a pastoral conversation with the pope’s representative, Cardinal Cajetan, in Augsburg during the same tumultuous year of 1518, about which Luther published a report. Then, in debate with Johannes Eck in Leipzig he acknowledged that, when opposed to Scripture, “churches and councils can err.” This admission transformed the question under debate. No longer was the propriety of indulgences or even Luther’s emerging doctrine of the certainty of faith in Christ’s words at the center of the storm. But his opponents, the German “papists,” had succeeded in changing the subject. The question was now authority in the church and it was primarily on this basis that Luther was eventually excommunicated – and in turn excommunicated the papacy by the public burning of the bull. This is the material that we will be studying in these months of this series.

Such study will be an interesting self-examination for us. In his little book on the Ninety-Five Theses, Prof. Timothy Wengert reports that a contemporary layman, upon reading the Ninety-Five Theses, commented to him that “they aren’t very Lutheran!”2 This revealing remark reflects a double truth.

First, the truth about Luther already alluded to: Luther had not yet realized all the implications of the doctrine of justification by faith, especially that faith is certain because it takes the believer out of self-preoccupation, even religious self-preoccupation, into God with trust and to the neighbor in love by the mediation of Christ in word and sacrament. In the Ninety-Five Theses, however, Luther was predominantly still attacking false security that is placed in one’s own works and preparations, let alone in the “childish” abuse of buying salvation in the form of indulgences—bribes, really. The certainty of faith that can rest in God’s grace as delivered in Christ is not yet accented, even though in hindsight we can detect intimations of the “true treasure of the church, which is the gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

So the reader who comes to the text of the Ninety-Five Theses knowing the Lutheran theology of justification by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone from the Scriptures alone can be taken aback by the emphasis on “penalties and the cross.” These pains, Luther emphasizes, are divinely given aids to be welcomed by the pilgrim disciple on her perilous journey of purification on the narrow way to heaven. Moreover, in the Ninety-Five Theses Luther rejects neither the papacy, purgatory, nor even indulgences—properly understood. Indeed, the overriding message is, as I often put it to students: “Purgatory without delay—purgatory now!” The Luther of the Ninety-Five Theses thus seems more Catholic than the pope. Indeed, he was, as the Luther who almost thirty years later reflected back on the outbreak of the controversy expressed with some embarrassment: “I was once a monk and a most enthusiastic papist when I began that cause.”

Second, a truth about us today: the layman’s remark reported by Prof. Wengert tells an ocean about the contemporary Lutheran heresy of cheap grace, in so far as the theology of the cross in the Ninety-Five Thesis can no longer be recognized as “Lutheran.” Luther to be sure abandoned the rhetoric of his “theology of the cross” but he never rejected the substance of his view: it is the theologian of glory who flees “penalties and the cross,” while the true theologian hates with divine love his own old and sinful self. Luther in fact utilizes this theology of the cross, as we shall see, in his defense of the Ninety-Five Theses against the complaint that his attack on indulgences was merciless. What is really in dispute, however, is true as opposed to false consolation of consciences, and, in turn, whether consciences are sorry for sin or merely fearing sin’s punishment.

Luther abandoned the rhetoric of the theology of the cross for fear of the misunderstanding that one makes oneself worthy of God’s love by hating oneself—a perverse form of works righteousness! Yet it remains true for him that only the penitent can be justified by faith, indeed that faith includes life-long turning from this world of malice and injustice to the Lord Who is returning for us to bring in the new creation of God in its glory and fullness. Luther does not so much abandon the theology of the cross in the Ninety-Five Theses, then, as surpass it in coming to a new view of God’s costly but also lavish victory in Christ’s cross for the believer who, despite life-long progress, remains entangled in the sinfulness of this dying world and so lives justly in it now by faith alone in the promise of the forgiveness of sins.

We might well worry about ourselves today, then, if we find the Ninety-Five Theses utterly strange, such that themes of cross-bearing and mortification of the flesh are substantially repudiated in favor of a religiosity of sloppy-agape good feeling. To be sure, there is technical discussion in the terms of medieval theology of merits of condignity and merits of congruity and so on that require historical critical clarification for us to understand. But the spiritual gist of the Ninety-Five Theses is intelligible and quickly grasped by focusing on the bold introductory thesis and the stirring peroration of the final four.

  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance… 92. Away then with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! [Jeremiah 6:14]. 93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross! 94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell; 95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace [Acts 14:22].

We can conclude this introduction with several significant observations about the beginning and end of the Ninety-Five Theses which provoke questions of self-examination. First, Luther’s target is not the pope but the false preaching of Tetzel in selling indulgences. The enemy of grace is false comfort or religious smooth-talk. And false comfort and smooth talking are functions of the religion business, not the business of God’s reign. How do we recognize false preaching/prophecy? How do we distinguish the religion business from the business of the Kingdom of God? Second, what is under discussion is not a single, bolt-out-of-the blue moment or event of justification, but Christian life, living by faith in the course of lifelong repentance, a journey of discipleship “following Christ, the head.” How do we understand and teach Christian living, what used to be called “sanctification,” in the sense of Habbakuk and Paul: that the just will live by their faith? Third, grace is paradoxical in that it demands cross-bearing but delivers true peace and confidence of entering heaven. How do we preach the central paradox, “Christ crucified,” that is, the Victor victimized? Explaining these paradoxes took the rest of Luther’s theological life, as he reflected autobiographically in the year before his death in the preface to his Latin writings.

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


  1. While there has been some debate whether the iconic moment of Luther’s nailing the theses to the door of the castle church reflects historical reality, what is indisputable is that on October 31, 1517, Luther mailed his theses to Bishop Albert of Mainz calling him to account for the preaching of the indulgence sellers operating under his name and authority. See Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, ed. Kurt Aland (St. Louis: Concordia, 1974), 69–71.
  2. Timothy J. Wengert, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses with Introduction, Commentary and Study Guide (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), xiii.

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