Skip to content

Martin Luther and the Indulgences.


What did Martin Luther find so Objectionable about the Indulgence?

Text .  Romans 5:8-9

Around 500 years ago, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, was becoming more and more concerned about a scandal that was happening in a town near where he lived where a religious huckster was selling supposed ‘spiritual blessings’ for money -, possibly the very first ‘faith and prosperity teacher in the church, trading money for supposed and highly dubious spiritual blessings.’  The year was 1517, and throughout some of the regions of Germany an indulgence had been proclaimed, to raise funds for the completion of St Peter’s basilica in Rome.  The cleric who was raising the funds (there’s a lot of political intrigue going on behind the scenes) was Albert of Mainz, and his claims for the indulgence were extravagant to say the least.

Image by Julius Silver from Pixabay

(Roland Bainton in ‘Here I Stand’)  “The instructions given to the indulgence sellers declared that a plenary indulgence had been issued by His Holiness Pope Leo X to defray the expenses of remedying the sad state of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul and the innumerable martyrs and saints whose bones lay mouldering, subject to constant desecration from rain and hail. Subscribers would enjoy a plenary and perfect remission of all sins. They would be restored to the state of innocence which they enjoyed in baptism and would be relieved of all the pains of purgatory, including those incurred by an offence to the Divine Majesty.  Those securing indulgences on behalf of the dead already in purgatory need not themselves be contrite and confess their sins.”

Listen to the PODCAST here

The indulgence was never proclaimed in Saxony, where Luther worked.  But in an adjacent area, a German called Johann Tetzel was preaching the benefits of the indulgence and the people of Wittenberg could travel over to pay their money and return with a pocketful of worthless promises…  Tetzel’s method was outrageous.  He played upon the fears of the simple people who believed that their departed loved ones, a mother or father, husband or wife or child, were being punished in purgatory, having their remaining sins purged, before they could be admitted to heaven.  You can imaging the anxiety this caused, the fear and distress.  Tetzel played upon this, by claiming that the church (or specifically the pope) could and would relieve the souls that are suffering in purgatory, if payment was made.  One of his catchy sales slogans went something like, ‘As soon as the gold in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!’

 Is it any wonder Luther was incensed by this.  The thought that a person could have their sins forgiven, just by pay a sum of money, with no conviction of sin and no repentance, was repugnant to the man who had learned, on his own quest to find peace of heart before God, that ‘the justified soul lives by faith, and faith alone.’  Tetzel’s doctrine of salvation by works was abhorrent to Luther and abhorrent to Scripture.

So, just what did Luther understand about the biblical doctrine of the forgiveness of sins that made him so opposed to what Tetzel was doing?  It’s important, as Protestants that we too understand this vital Biblical teaching.  To find out, let’s look at our text:-

Romans 5:6-8  For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

  1. God demonstrates His love for people who do NOT deserve it, and cannot earn it.

God demonstrates His love toward us!  While we are still sinners! But why would a holy God chose to demonstrate His love for sinners? We are:-

  • Sinners who had turned from the truth. . I John 3:4
  • Sinners who had been hostile to God. In our sin, we are openly hostile to God!
  • Sinners who had incurred God’s wrath.   3:39. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

Now isn’t it a bit harsh to tell people that we are all sinners in this day and age.  That’s for Luther’s day, back in the medieval days, we are a more enlightened generation…  Are we really?

  • Listen to what the biblical view of this ‘ Romans 3:10-11. 1 John 1:8-10,  
  • If we are not prepared to admit to our sin, and our sinfulness, we cannot ever have that sin forgiven, for Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost, to call sinners to repentance!

Yet these were the objects of God’s mercy and compassion! Sinners!  And yet, it was while we were YET SlNNERS that God loved us!

  1. God’s Love is Put into Action for us at the Cross!

God Demonstrated His love! Luther’s theology is greatly centred upon the cross.  It is there, in the objective, historical act of God on our behalf – that our salvation is won.  Salvation is not a result of our works, our religion or prayers, even of our decision.  Salvation was achieved for us at the CROSS.  There is the manifestation of God”s love there. Love is no use unless it results in action God‘s love is LOVE IN ACTION! He DEMONSTRATED His love for us!  Now look at how God put His love into action for us:~

  • God’s love is demonstrated for us in Christ! God’s only begotten Son, the express image of the person of God, became one of us, took upon Him human flesh, to become our kinsman. so that he might become our surety and rcdeemer
  • In a SPECIFIC, HISTORICAL event. The act in which this love-was especially displayed. Christ DIED for us!   He died for US!   I Peter 3:18

This is God’s love in saving action. We were condemned to die, and would have died eternally, had not Christ died FOR US.    He bore the curse and became a curse of sin and death for us!

  1. What has this saving Love achieved? Therefore being justified by faith. we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: Romans 5:1

The benefits that arise for the believer from this wonderful love of God is summed up in verse 1 and verse 9.   “Being now justified by his blood, we shall be SAVED from wrath through him

  • We are JUSTIFIED.  (by faith – our faith does not save us, Calvary saves us, – our faith is the God given gift that enables us to appropriate for ourselves Christ’s work on the cross)  Our sins are pardoned, we have been brought into a right standing before God!
  • We have PEACE.  Peace with God, which is what really matters.
  • We are spared the righteous wrath of God, which we sinners deserve.  God is holy and just – he demands justice, yet in his justice he cannot demand that we be punished twice, and Christ has already borne our punishment in his own body on the cross.  By his death we are spared from God’s wrath.  Isaiah 53.
  • We have assurance of salvation. Their expectation of this rests on a sure and immovable basis!  He loved us when we were enemies; how much more, now that we are friends, will he give us heaven and eternal life!

This is the wonderful outcome of God’s love for sinners. There’s a way back to God, from the dark paths of sin! There’s a door that is open and you may go in. At Calvary’s Cross is where you begin, when you come as a sinner to Jesus!

So we cannot buy our way into God’s favour, or work to earn his forgiveness.  That’s why Luther was so vexed about the preaching of Tetzel, as he sold pardons for sins, back 500 years ago.   To demonstrate his disapproval he called for a debate, by nailing his 95 theses on indulgences to the door of the church at Wittenberg.  It was the spark that ignited the flame that became the great protestant reformation.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: