The 95 Theses primarily attack the false security that is placed in one’s own pious works, including the “childish” work 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 fully accented in the Theses, although in hindsight we can detect intimations of it in the thesis about the “true treasure of the church, which is the gospel of the glory and grace of God.” Most contemporary readers of the 95 Theses live in a Protestantism that, in H.
” It may equally be the case that today’s Lutherans are not very Lutheran.
Indeed, this revealing remark reflects a double truth.
Luther’s Theses put the indulgence merchants on the horns of a dilemma.
If the pope had the power to purchase release from divine retribution by substituting the surplus merit of the saints to satisfy the penitent’s debt to divine justice, and if divine punishment is as cruel and fearsome as the indulgence merchants claimed, surely the Holy Father would empty purgatory for free rather than for filthy lucre!Luther’s analysis reduced the practice of buying and selling indulgences to virtual absurdity.Since true penitents welcome the cross that God lays upon them as divinely given for their ongoing purification, indulgences are nothing but concessions to the nominal Christians—“sluggards,” Luther called them—who fear punishment but not sin. They are works of the religion business, not the business of the kingdom of God.Try selling that on the religious marketplace, then or now!of the religious marketplace was exactly Luther’s point.What would it mean for mainline Protestants to understand and appropriate the message of Luther’s 95 Theses?For all the ballyhoo over the centuries, I have come to wonder whether the message has ever been heard, understood, and appropriated.Richard Niebuhr’s famous caricature, “teaches a God without wrath who brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Such readers can indeed be taken aback by the Theses’ emphasis on penalties and the cross.But for Luther, as we have heard, these pains are divinely given aids to be welcomed by the pilgrim disciples on their arduous journey of purification on the narrow way to heaven.Why indeed then would anyone wish to short-circuit the purgation of their wayward desires through Christ, in holy preparation for eternal life with God?If purgatory means the purification of the Christian, beginning in this lifetime, then the message of Luther’s 95 Theses might well be stated: In his little book on the 95 Theses, Timothy Wengert tells of a contemporary layperson who, upon reading the 95 Theses, commented that “they aren’t very Lutheran!