Did Protesting Against the Sale of Indulgences Lead up to the Reformation on Oct, 31, 1517?

(Photo : Scene from "Luther" (2003) )

On 31 October 1517, Luther posted the ninety-five theses on indulgences on the north door of the castle church at Wittenberg. This date is recognized as a landmark day for most historians as well as Church historians.

In many people’s opinion, the day that Luther hammered this thesis on to the church door was the day that the medieval Church suffered a fatal blow. In addition, many also believe that Luther’s dissent on the sale on indulgences led to the Reformation.

What Was the Historical Context of that Time?

Luther was not the only person posting theses against indulgences at this time. The positing of theses in relation to theological matters was a commonplace at the time among German University students. In fact, on 26 April 1517, less that six months before Luther posted his theses, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, then the dean of the theology faculty at Wittenberg, posted 151 theses that challenged the Catholic Church. These theses were of a highly controversial nature, and pertain to the doctrine of justification.

What is of particular interest, however, is when Luther chose to publish his theses, and where he chose to post it; it was the same as Karlstadt. The castle church at Wittenberg possessed an imposing collection of sacred relics, which were publicly displayed several times during the course of the year. Such exhibitions were well attended and the subject of considerable local interest. It was on the eve of one such occasion that Karlstadt posted his theses. As the main north door of the castle church served as a university notice board, Karlstadt could be sure that his proposed dissent would not be unnoticed by those who would be in the area that evening and the following morning.

The reason why Luther posted his theses on Oct 31st was that it was the Feast of All Saints was on Nov 1st, and was regarded as the most important occasion in which the Wittenberg relics were displayed. It was on this occasion that Luther posted his theses, in precisely the same manner already employed by Karlstadt, to direct attention to his proposed public challenge to the practice of giving indulgences.

Furthermore, on May 1518 a few months after Luther had posted the 95 theses, a critique of the theology of indulgences, which parallels that of Luther in several respects, was drawn up by the theology faculty in Paris without bringing about any serious charge of impropriety, let alone heresy.

From examining Luther’s work, we can see that Luther’s 97 theses in Disputation Against Scholastic Theology which was written Sep, 1517, less than one month before he wrote his 95 theses, involved much more sharp and offensive content than 95 theses.

So, why was Oct 31, 1517 (the date Luther posted 95 theses) remembered for the landmark of the Reformation? Some say the development of a printing press is the cause. The 95 theses became well known due to a printer who sold the theses in a translated form. Some historians would call it the irony of history.

But it was the history of God in the eyes of the faithful. Even though there were reformers before and after Luther, God wanted to reform the corrupt church and the world through Martin Luther. It was God who set the date for Reformation; Luther was just the one who followed God’s calling.

So, is not only God the true master of the Reformation? Wouldn't it be more accurate to call it not “Reformation” but, to be exact, “God’s Reformation by Martin Luther”?

The name 'Lutheran' was given to people who followed Martin Luther. Some misunderstand this term ‘Lutheran’ as people who blindly followed Martin Luther, but this is incorrect. Lutheran means like Luther, we also decided to obey God’ s calling to reform the church and society.

Protesting Against the Sale of Indulgences Led Up to the Reformation?

When we talk about the cause of Luther’s Reformation, the defiance of absolute power and protesting against the sale of indulgences is often considered to be the most important cause. However, there are still other important causes.

In 1517, Luther brought about a reformation movement, and as a result, the absolute spiritual and temporal authority of the pope was greatly diminished. However, there were others who had been open critics of indulgences before Luther.

Therefore, another cause for the reformation was that during the late medieval period, there was considerable confusion within the church. When posed with the following question: “What must a man do to be saved?”, Luther and those who shared similar beliefs as him felt that the doctrine of Justification was the answer, but the medieval Church was not prepared to answer a question on justification.

No other council was convened to discuss the doctrine of justification between the second Council of Orange, 529, and the Council of Trent, assembled to debate many doctrines in 1545. The confusion on the Doctrine of Justification was undoubtedly ignored by a largely uneducated clergy. As a result, the late medieval Catholic Church made bad use of this confusion by selling indulgences.

This was the challenge Luther faced: “How can a sinner enter into fellowship with a holy and righteous God?.” “How can the troubled conscience find peace by discovering a gracious God?.” The bible passage that gave Luther the answer Romans 1: 17: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith." For this, Luther states: “At last, God being merciful, as I meditated day and night on the connection of the words ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ”the righteous shall live by faith”, I began to understand that ‘righteousness of God’ as that by which the righteous lives by the gift of God, namely by faith, and this sentence, ‘the righteousness of God is revealed’, to refer to a passive righteousness, by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “The righteous lives by faith.’”

On the basis of this, Luther discovered the answer to the question that the late medieval Catholic Church could not answer: “What man must do if he is to receive the righteousness of God?” This answer is Three Slogans of the Reformation: “Sola fide, Sola gracia, Sola scriptura”

We should remember here, however, that “sola” is not a negative and exclusive meaning. Rather “Sola” is used to emphasis centrality and importance. For example, When Luther said “Sola fide”, it does not reject the good works and efforts by humans, but the salvation of God will be done by“Sola fide” giving us by His grace. In other words, doing good works does not lead us to get the faith; only true faith can lead us to do good works.

It seems to me that there is considerable confusion within the Korean church on matters of justification. For example, Gu Won Pa, a cult, taught that justification caused the Korean ferry disaster. When we see the Korean church tainted by corruption and irregularities, establishing the Doctrine of Justification is more important now than it's ever been.

For this, Luther said: “the article of justification is said to be the article by which the church stands or falls.”

On the occasion of the 497th anniversary of the Reformation, we have to remember again the importance of the Reformation: “Sola fide, Sola gracia, Sola scriptura.” Let us not forget that the first step to reform the church is to establish the doctrine of justification.

Pastor Jin O Jeong
(Photo : Pastor Jin O Jeong)

Reverend and Doctor Jin O Jeong is an assistant pastor for the Korean congregation at Zion Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL. He graduated from Luther University and received a Ph.D from Yonsei University. He was also a Research Fellow at Hebrew University and Visiting Scholar at Yale Divinity School. Tel: 618-920-9311 Email :

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