Martin Luther, part II – The Doctrine of Indulgences

From Wycliffe, the good seed of the Word of God had been sown throughout Europe. In Bohemia and at Constance, it had been watered with the blood of the saints and proved by fire. A hundred years had passed since the martyrdom of Huss and Jerome. The condition of the church, rather than improving because of the light, had reached new depths of depravity. During the Reformation, the court of Rome had been scandalized by acts of treason, murder, and incest. Even its most respectable members were utterly unfit to be ministers of religion. The Church of Rome had made plain her complete antagonism to the Word of God and to the way of salvation which she professed to know and of which she claimed to be the exclusive channel. By His faithful witnesses, God had sought to call the Church of Rome to repentance; but she would not. If reform could not be brought about within the church, the only course remaining was to do so from without.

Luther’s status as an envoy from Germany obtained him numerous invitations to meetings. At one of these meetings, several of the prelates were openly displaying their buffoonery and impious conversation. He discovered that many of the priests were but playing a part and that in private they held in contempt and treated with mockery the rites which in public they celebrated with such a show of devotion. Surely, he thought, faith and piety must still be found among the dignitaries of the Church. A short time late, he was to find how greatly mistaken he was.

One day he was with some prelates when they humorously related how, when they were repeating the mass at the altar, instead of the sacramental words that were to transform the bread and wine into the flesh and blood of our Saviour, they pronounced: “’Bread thou art, and bread thou shalt remain. Wine thou art, and wine thou shalt remain. Then,’ continued they, ‘we elevate the host, and all the people bow down and worship it.’” D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation, book 2, chapter 6, 69. Luther scarcely believed his ears. He was horrified.

Righteousness by Faith

There was, at the time of Luther’s visit, a stairway of marble that was said to have been the stairs which Christ climbed to Pilate’s judgment hall. These stairs were said to have been miraculously transported to Rome by angels. Everyone who climbed them on his knees, it was said, merited an indulgence of fifteen years for each ascent. While climbing the stairs, Luther was startled by a sudden voice which sounded in his ears as thunder saying, “The just shall live by faith.” Luther started to his feet in amazement. In this one truth, which burned itself indelibly into his mind, lay folded the whole Reformation.

Though Luther’s stay in Rome was no more than two weeks, during this short period of time, he learned lessons that remained with him throughout the rest of his life. No more did he have anything to do with relics. He had found that which had a thousand times more efficacy than all of the holy treasure of which Rome could boast.

A few months after his return, Luther received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from the University of Wittemberg. On that occasion, Luther took an oath upon the Bible to defend the faith contained in the Holy Scriptures. From there he turned to the Bible as his lifework.

Truly, “we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth.” 2 Corinthians 13:8. “The Roman Church had made merchandise of the grace of God. The tables of the money-changers (Matthew 21:12) were set up beside her altars, and the air resounded with the shouts of buyers and sellers. Under the plea of raising funds for the erection of St. Peter’s Church at Rome, indulgences for sin were publicly offered for sale by the authority of the pope. By the price of crime, a temple was to be built up for God’s worship—the cornerstone laid with the wages of iniquity! But the very means adopted for Rome’s aggrandizement provoked the deadliest blow to her power and greatness. It was this that aroused the most determined and successful of the enemies of popery, and led to the battle which shook the papal throne and jostled the triple crown upon the pontiff’s head.” The Great Controversy, 127.

The license to sell indulgences in the various countries was sold to the highest bidder, with the pope to be paid in advance. The indulgences in Germany were farmed out to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Madeburg. The Archbishop was in Germany what Leo X was in Rome. In looking for a man to transverse the country extolling and actually selling the indulgences, he found in Tetzel a man who in every way suited his purpose. Tetzel, the son of a goldsmith of Leipzig, had been convicted of a base crime at Innsbruck and had been condemned to be placed in a sack and drowned; but powerful intercession being made for him, he received a reprieve and lived to help, unconsciously, in the overthrow of the system that he espoused.

When Tetzel entered a city, he made his way directly to the cathedral. A cross was set up in front of the altar and a strong, iron box was placed beside it. Tetzel, mounting the pulpit, would expound on the incomparable merit of his wares. Never before had the gates of Paradise opened so wide. “’Indulgences,’ he said, ‘are the most precious and most noble of God’s gifts. . . . Come, and I will give you letters all properly sealed, by which even the sins you intend to commit may be pardoned. I would not change my privileges for those of St. Peter in heaven, for I have saved more souls by my indulgences than the apostle did by his sermons. . . . But more than this . . . indulgences avail not only for the living, but for the dead. Priest, noble, merchant, wife, youth, maiden, do you not hear your parents and your other friends who are dead, and who cry from the bottom of the abyss: “We are suffering horrible torments! A trifling alms would deliver us; you can give it and you will not.”?

‘At the very instant,’ continues Tetzel, ‘that the money rattles at the bottom of the chest, the soul escapes from purgatory, and flies liberated to heaven. Now you can ransom so many souls, stiff-necked and thoughtless man; with twelve groats you can deliver your father from purgatory, and you are ungrateful enough not to save him! I shall be satisfied in the Day of Judgment; but you—you will be punished so much the more severely for having neglected so great salvation. I declare to you, though you have a single coat, you ought to strip it off and sell it, in order to obtain this grace. . . . The Lord our God no longer reigns; He has resigned all power to the pope.’” Wylie, History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 57.

Indulgences Become License

The matter of indulgences quickly became the focal point of discussion from the palace to the university and even in the market place. That a little money could atone for the guilt and efface the stain of the most enormous crimes was a blow at the very foundation of the moral fabric of the nation. The more sensible portion of the population were shocked, and those who had some small knowledge of the Word of God viewed the matter in an even worse light. “The papal key, instead of unlocking the fountains of grace and holiness, had opened the floodgates of impiety and vice; and men trembled at the deluge of licentiousness which seemed ready to rush in and overflow the land.” Ibid., 258.

Leo’s Quest for Gold

When the gold began to pour into Rome, the joy of Leo X knew no bounds. “He had not, like the Emperor Charles, a ‘Mexico’ beyond the Atlantic; but he had a ‘Mexico’ in the credulity of Christendom, and he saw neither limit nor end of the wealth it might yield him. Never again would he have cause to bewail an empty treasury. Men would never cease to sin; and o long as they continued to sin, they would need pardon; and where could they go for pardon if not to the Church—in other words, to himself? He only, of all men on the earth, held the key. He might say with an ancient monarch, ‘Mine hand hath found as a nest the riches of the nations; and as one gathereth eggs, so have I gathered all the earth.’ Thus Leo went from day to day, building St. Peter’s, but pulling down the papacy.” Ibid.

“Men of all characters, righteous and unrighteous, will stand in their several positions in God’s plan. With the characters they have formed, they will act their part in the fulfillment of history. In a crisis, just at the right moment, they will stand in the places they have prepared themselves to fill. Believers and unbelievers will fall into line as witnesses to confirm truth that they themselves do not comprehend. All will cooperate in accomplishing the purposes of God, just as did Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod.” Review and Herald, June 12, 1900.

Luther, who acted as confessor as well as preacher, as he sat one day in the confessional, was approached by some citizens of Wittemberg who confessed having committed thefts, adulteries, and other heinous sins. Luther told them that they must abandon their evil course; otherwise he could not absolve them. To his surprise, they replied that they had no thought of changing, in as much as these sins were already pardoned. They then pulled out their indulgence papers obtained from Tetzel. Luther could only tell them that the papers were worthless and that they must repent and be forgiven of God or they would perish everlastingly.

The poor, deluded people, quite unhappy at losing both their money and, at the same time, their hope of heaven, quickly found Tetzel and informed him that a monk in Wittemberg was warning the people against his indulgences. Tetzel was enraged. Kindling a fire in the marketplace of Juterbock, he indicated what would be done to anyone who should presume to obstruct his noble work, declaring that the pope had given him authority to commit all such heretics to the flames.

Luther was unmoved by Tetzel’s angry words. He had no thought but that the pope, if not ignorant of the sale of indulgences, was at least unaware of the frightful excesses that attended their sale; and he became even more strenuous in his condemnation of them.

Tetzel continued his sale of indulgences, and Luther felt constrained to take even more decisive measures. Elector Frederick had recently completed a church-castle in Wittemberg. He had spared neither money nor labor in gathering relics in their settings of gold and precious stones. These were put on public display and shown to the people on the festival of All Saints. On the eve of the festival, October 31, Luther, who had given no hint to anyone of what he proposed to do, joined the crowd that was approaching the church. Pressing his way to the front, he quickly nailed to the door a paper on which he had put forth ninety-five theses, or propositions, against the doctrine of indulgences. The sound of his hammer drew a crowd, and they quickly began to read. These points, Luther announced, he would defend at the university the next day against all who might choose to dispute them.

In this paper, Luther struck at more than the abuses of indulgences. The theses put God’s free gift of salvation in sharp contrast with the pope’s salvation to be obtained by purchase. Though he little realized the full significance of the step that he had taken, Luther had set the stage for the Reformation. The two systems—salvation by Jesus Christ and salvation by Rome—were brought face to face.

The news traveled quickly. Erasmus, on being asked by the Elector of Saxony his opinion on the matter, replied with characteristic shrewdness, “Luther has committed two unpardonable crimes—he has attacked the pope’s tiara, and the bellies of the monks.” Ibid., 263.

A Remarkable Dream

The morning of October 31, the elector said to Duke John, “’Brother, I must tell you a dream which I had last night, and the meaning of which I should like much to know. It is so deeply impressed on my mind, that I will never forget it, were I to live a thousand years. For I dreamed it thrice, and each time with new circumstances.’

“Duke John: ‘Is it a good or a bad dream?’

“The elector: ‘I know not; God knows.’

Duke John: ‘Don’t be uneasy at it; but be so good as to tell it to me.’

“The elector: ‘Having gone to bed last night, fatigued and out of spirits, I fell asleep shortly after my prayer, and slept calmly for about two hours and a half; I then awoke, and continued awake to midnight, all sorts of thoughts passing through my mind. Among other things, I thought how I was to observe the Feast of All Saints. I prayed for the poor souls in purgatory; and supplicated God to guide me, my counsels, and my people according to truth. I again fell asleep, and then dreamed that Almighty God sent me a monk, who was a true son of the Apostle Paul. All the saints accompanied him by order of God, in order to bear testimony before me, and to declare that he did not come to contrive any plot, but that all that he did was according to the will of God. They asked me to have the goodness graciously to permit him to write something on the door of the church of the Castle of Wittemberg. This I granted through my chancellor. Thereupon the monk went to the church, and began to write in such large characters that I could read the writing in Schweinitz. The pen which he used as so large that its end reached as far as Rome, where it pierced the ears of a lion that was crouching there, and caused the triple crown upon the head of the pope to shake. All the cardinals and princes running hastily up, tried to prevent it from falling. You and I, brother, wished also to assist, and I stretched out my arm;—but at this moment, I awoke with my arm in the air, quite amazed, and very much enraged at the monk for not managing his pen better. I recollected myself; it was only a dream.’

“’I was still half asleep, and once more closed my eyes. The dream returned; the lion, still annoyed by the pen, began to roar with all his might, so much so that the whole city of Rome and all the States of the Holy Empire ran to see what the matter was. The pope requested them to oppose this monk, and applied particularly to me, on the account of his being in my country. I again awoke, repeated the Lord’s prayer, entreated God to preserve his holiness, and once more fell asleep.

“’Then I dreamed that all the princes of the Empire, and we among them, hastened to Rome and strove, one after another, to break the pen; but the more we tried, the stiffer it became, sounding as if it had been made of iron. We at length desisted. I then asked the monk (for I was sometimes at Rome, and sometimes at Wittemberg) where he got this pen, and why it was so strong. “The pen,” replied he, “belonged to an old goose of Bohemia, a hundred years old. I got it from one of my old schoolmasters. As to its strength, it is owing to the impossibility of depriving it of its pith or marrow; and I am quite astonished at it myself.” Suddenly, I heard a loud noise—a large number of other pens had sprung out of the long pen of the monk. I awoke a third time; it was daylight.’

“Duke John: ‘Chancellor, what is your opinion? Would we had a Joseph, or a Daniel, enlightened by God!’” Wylie, History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 263-265.

The elector had scarcely finished telling his dream in the royal castle of Schweinitz the morning of October 32, 1517, when Luther, with paper in hand, arrived at the castle church to interpret its meaning.