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Indulgence Controversy

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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October 27, 2023 12:01 am

Indulgence Controversy

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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October 27, 2023 12:01 am

In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses and posted them to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. What concerns drove him to do this? Today, R.C. Sproul navigates the controversy surrounding Johann Tetzel and the selling of indulgences.

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Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul

Some enterprising students saw the theses tacked to the door, and they, without Luther's knowledge or without his permission, had the theses translated into the German language and taking advantage of the recent invention of Mr. Gutenberg.

They were able to print off multitudes of copies, literally thousands of copies, and it was said that within two weeks, the 95 theses were discovered in every village in Germany. It has been said that the sound of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the castle church door all the way back in 1517 echoed around the world as Reformation would begin to spread, and the light of the gospel would shine in the darkness once again. You're listening to the Friday edition of Renewing Your Mind. I'm your host, Nathan W. Bingham.

R.C. Sproul has been walking us in the footsteps of Martin Luther. We've seen his search for peace with God, knowing that he, an unrighteous sinner, could never stand in the presence of a holy and righteous God on his own merit.

He joined a monastery, he visited Rome, but his eyes were open to the good news of the gospel as he studied Romans, Paul's incredible letter to the church in Rome. Well, today we come to the iconic and history-shaping moment as Luther nails his 95 theses to the church door. But before we do, don't forget to request the entire series and the paperback book Luther and the Reformation with your donation of any amount at

Well, here's R.C. Sproul on Martin Luther and his 95 theses. In the year 1517, after Pope Leo X had authorized the sale of indulgences through Roman Catholic lands and had worked out an arrangement with Prince Albert of Brandenburg to be able to have exclusive rights to the proceeds from the sale of indulgences in Germany except in those areas that were prohibited by law, which areas included the area of Saxony by virtue of the authority of Frederick the Wise, the church was not allowed to dispense indulgences in that particular territory. But where the indulgences were brought into Germany, they were under the leadership of a Dominican monk by the name of Johann Tetzel. And Tetzel was known for his creative marketing skills, and the way it worked was this, that as they would go into a German town or into a German village, it was done with great pomp and pageantry where there was a solemn procession at the front of which was a cross that contained the sign of the pope.

And in addition to that, there was a papal bull that was carried in front of the procession on a gold embroidered velvet cushion. And once the procession came into the village, then people would gather around and Tetzel would give one of his famous sermons. And the basic theme of his sermons on these occasions was to was to stir the heartstrings of the peasants about the predicament that their passing relatives were experiencing in purgatory.

And he would say to them things like this, can you hear their cries? Can you hear them pleading for you this day to get these indulgences to reduce their time in purgatory? And then of course the famous jingle that Tetzel composed, which is translated from the German with the English phrase, every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs. Well, again, as I said, Tetzel was not able to cross the territorial line into Saxony, but many of the peasants from the region of Bittenberg made the short journey over into the next territory and availed themselves of this possibility of purchasing indulgences for their departed relatives. Now it was this particular action that infuriated Martin Luther as a professor of theology and Bible studies at the University of Bittenberg. And so in a state of anger, Luther wrote down in clear terse language ninety-five theses of protests against the corruption that was involved in the sale of these indulgences. He was chiefly agitated by the way in which they were communicated by Tetzel, a Dominican monk, and thought that Tetzel was going over the edge from what was actually authorized by the church in the case of the distribution of indulgences. In fact, Prince Albert had made it very clear that the value of indulgences depended upon a true spirit of contrition by those who purchased them.

But all of that was obscured in the marketing techniques of Tetzel. So initially, Luther's protest was not against Rome itself, but against this agent of the church whom Luther was convinced was misrepresenting the church. But at the same time, there were elements involved in the whole process about which Luther raised serious questions.

And so he wrote these ninety-five theses in Latin, which was the language of the scholars, not of the people. And on all Hallows' Eve Day, which would be Halloween Day, All Saints' Eve, at about noon, Luther walked all the way down the city streets of Wittenberg, accompanied by his friend, Agricola, and got to the Castle Church. And there he tacked the ninety-five theses up on the church door at Wittenberg. Now, at first blush, that seems to suggest that Luther was engaged in some kind of vandalism or disrespect for the Castle Church by nailing something on its door.

But actually, the front door of the Castle Church served as a bulletin board for the university. And what Luther was asking for in these ninety-five theses prepared in Latin was for the faculty of the university behind closed doors to have a disputation or a discussion, a theological discussion, about the points that Luther raised in the theses. Well, a couple of things occurred that Luther did not expect. The first thing was that none of the academicians responded to the invitation.

No one showed up to discuss the ninety-five theses. But some enterprising students saw the theses tacked to the door, and they could read the Latin and saw the significance of what Luther was questioning. And they, without Luther's knowledge or without his permission, had the theses translated into the vernacular, into the German language, and taking advantage of the recent invention of Mr. Gutenberg, they were able to print off multitudes of copies, literally thousands of copies. And it was said that within two weeks, the ninety-five theses were discovered in every village in Germany. And all of a sudden, this private desire for an academic discussion with the scholars became now a public affair of the highest magnitude.

Karl Barth made the statement that what happened here was something like a blind man climbing a ladder in a church tower, and when he loses his footing, reaches out for anything he can find to help stabilize him, and his hand grasps ahold of a rope, which unbeknownst to the blind man is attached to the church bell. And in his innocence, he awakens everybody in the town, because the last thing that Luther wanted to do or expected to do was to start a protest or a reformation. He wanted to look at the theological issues inherent in the whole question of indulgences. Now, at the same time that he tacked these theses up and people began to respond to him, Luther had a high view of the church and of the papacy.

Despite the disillusion that he experienced in 1510 during his pilgrimage to Rome, he nevertheless wanted to be a dutiful son of the church. And so in the midst of all of this commotion, he wrote an exposition in much calmer language of each of the theses and sent several copies of it to Prince Albert. Well, at the same time, Tetzel sent his arguments to Prince Albert and made all kinds of complaints against Luther's interference in the collection of the revenue from indulgences. And so, Prince Albert was not mollified by Luther's gentle exposition, and he sent along copies of Luther's exposition of the theses to Rome and to the Pope in protest against Luther.

Now, part of the machinations that were going on was that there was some competition in Germany between the Dominican monastic order and the Augustinian monastic order. And Tetzel represented the Dominicans, Luther, the Augustinians, and so all of this got back to Rome, and it was fomenting more and more dissension. When the Pope looked at the theses, his initial response, according to some historians, was this, ah, this is just the work of a drunken German monk.

He'll get over it in the morning. However, Luther didn't get over it in the morning, and the issue began to mushroom as more and more people got caught up in the controversy. In 1518, Johann Tetzel wrote his own theses in response to Luther and sent these theses to Wittenberg, whereupon the students there at the university burned the theses of Johann Tetzel. So again, things were starting to heat up, and there were those who were demanding that Luther be summoned to Rome to go on trial for heresy. And the Pope himself was inclined to acquiesce to those requests and probably would have forced Luther to come to Rome for a heresy trial, except that Frederick the Wise interceded in Luther's behalf and got the Pope to relinquish the order of bringing Luther to Rome itself. And what Luther kept begging for was a theological disputation where he would be able to engage the representatives of the church in discussion and in debate over the issues raised by the 95 Theses.

Now, one of the ironies of the theses, if you ever read them, you will see that there's next to nothing in them about the doctrine of justification, which later became the firestorm of the Reformation. But the basic emphasis of the theses was about this whole indulgence matter and the doctrine of the treasury of merits upon which it was established. And Luther complained early on in the theses that the way they were being communicated by Tetzel with his jingle every time a coin in the coffer rings a soul from Purgatory Springs, he said this bypasses the sober call for true contrition and replaces contrition with attrition. And that distinction is one for us to be aware of at all times.

Attrition is repentance that is motivated out of a fear of punishment or as a ticket out of hell, whereas contrition is repentance that is motivated by a deeply felt serious sorrow and recognition for having offended God by our sins. And Luther, of course, was an expert in the experience of contrition as he had spent so much time involved in it in the monastery. And he thought that really what was happening here with the sale of indulgences hundreds of years before Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his book regarding cheap grace, Luther saw the indulgence movement as a cheapening of forgiveness and a cheapening of an understanding of the grace of God. Well, what followed in the ensuing couple of years were three very important meetings, and then the ultimate watershed meeting that took place in 1521 at the Imperial Diet of Worms. But between the posting as a theses and the Diet of Worms in 1521, there were three other significant meetings that Luther was involved in.

The first took place in 1518 in April at Heidelberg, Germany. The occasion there was a dispute over philosophy and theology between the Augustinians and the Dominicans having to do with the theology and philosophies of the Middle Ages, most specifically having to do with the classic debate, for those of you who are aware of it, between nominalism and realism. And so the purpose of the debate or the discussion in Heidelberg was not to discuss the theses or justification or anything such as that. But Luther was asked to go to represent the Augustinian faculty from Wittenberg with the scholars that were meeting there at the university at the university in Heidelberg. A couple of things came to pass in that in Luther's discussion defending the Augustinian professors from Wittenberg, he set forth some of the most important concepts of his own theology that was developing even at this early time, where he made a distinction between what is called the Theologia Crucis and the Theologia Gloria, that is a theology of the cross or a theology of glory.

He felt that the church had gotten caught up with their own self-exaltation and their triumphant spirit whereby the church was claiming all of these marvelous gifts that they were bestowing on the populace. Luther said, no, the gospel is a theology of the cross, and only when we come to grips with the cross will we understand what Christianity is all about. Well, in that particular meeting, Luther was exceedingly winsome and brilliant in his presentation, and he basically stole the show for those who were gathered in attendance, were amazed that Luther is a human at his manner of dealing with controversial issues, contrary to the normal image we have of Luther as being somewhat bombastic and harsh. Let me just read you a citation from one of the Dominican monks who was present at that Heidelberg meeting, and this is found in the Reformation historian Gordon Rupp's little book, Luther's Progress to the Diet of Worms. Listen to this testimony of one of the Dominican monks who was there who had lunch with Luther and with his comrade Staupitz from Bittenberg, and he spoke about those who were in opposition to Luther, and he wrote these words, their wiles were not able to move him an inch. His sweetness in answering is remarkable. His patience, speaking of Luther, in listening is incomparable.

In his explanations, you would recognize the acumen of Paul, not Scotus. His answers, so brief, so wise, and drawn from the Scriptures, easily made all of his hearers his admirers. Now, I find that as an interesting observation of Luther's demeanor there at Heidelberg, but what interests me more than the observation about Luther is the man from whose pen these words came. These words were written by a young Dominican scholar whose name was Martin Beutzer. Beutzer later on would have a tremendous influence over another young Roman Catholic priest who, after Beutzer came out of the Roman Catholic church and joined Luther and the Reformation, he had a significant influence on this other young Swiss priest whose name was John Calvin.

So, it's amazing to see how these connections took place there at this particular time in history. Well, after the incident at Heidelberg, the next month Johann Tetzel received his doctor's degree and was riding high, not realizing that within 12 months he would be disgraced for his activity in the indulgence controversy and within that same period would meet his own death. Well, Luther continued to hear from the authorities in Rome and again asked that he would have the opportunity for public debate with representatives of Rome to try to come to an agreement and an understanding of the issues that were in view. And also, in large part through the intercession of Frederick, Elector of Saxony, two more disputations authorized by the Roman church were scheduled to take place, one in Augsburg, the second one in Leipzig. And in these meetings, Luther was engaged in debate with on the first meeting the leading Roman Catholic theologian of the 16th century, Cardinal Cajetan, and then the second disputation with the leading Roman Catholic theologian of Germany, Johann Eck. But we'll look at these disputations and how they brought us closer to the climactic watershed of the Reformation that took place in 1521 at the Diet of Worms. Just as the Lord used the Roman roads to spread the New Testament Gospels and letters far and wide, he used the Gutenberg press to spread Reformation in the 16th century. It's incredible to see how the Lord even today is using technology to build his church.

That was R.C. Sproul from his series, Luther and the Reformation. And thanks for being with us for this Friday edition of Renewing Your Mind. Until midnight tonight, you can request the complete series, along with Dr. Sproul's book, Luther and the Reformation, for your donation of any amount at This week's offer ends today, so respond by midnight so we can give you access to this Reformation-themed resource package. If you know anything about the life of Martin Luther, you probably know about, as you heard today, his nailing of the 95 Theses. But perhaps you also remember his bold stand when he declared, here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Monday R.C. Sproul will explain this watershed moment of the Reformation here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-10-27 03:40:42 / 2023-10-27 03:48:16 / 8

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