The Lutheran Difference: Indulge Me for a Moment

Last week, we talked about how Martin Luther had his “light bulb moment,” so to speak, when he was able to rediscover the Gospel. But that just begs a question: how did this translate into a moment and movement that created shockwaves through so much of the world?

Well, it all centered on a practice prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church at the time, something called the selling of indulgences. But to explain why Luther took such great exception to it, we have to explain how indulgences were supposed to work, what they were used for, and what led up to this being the spark.

To really understand indulgences, we have to review what Roman Catholics taught about how people were saved:

RCC Teaching 4

A person is born on the road to hell, but through baptism, that person is moved to the road that leads to heaven. It’s then up to them to do enough good works to move up that road. If they die without doing enough good, they get sent to purgatory where they have to make up the difference. When that’s done, they’re allowed to go to heaven. Again, this might gloss over some of the subtleties of the situation, but this is my understanding of how it all worked.

So that’s how it worked for the rank-and-file, normal Roman Catholic. But were there ever any exceptions? Was it possible for someone to actually do enough good in their lives to make it to heaven? And building on that, what would happen if someone not only did enough good to get into heaven, they did more good than they actually needed? What would happen to the excess good works that individual generated?

Those may seem like loopy hypothetical questions, but they really weren’t. At the time, the Roman Catholic Church not only taught that that very scenario was possible but that it had indeed happened on more than one occasion. Jesus, Mary, and all the saints had lived good enough lives that they had made it into heaven on their own and had good works to spare. But rather than let those good works go to waste, God simply gathered them up and put them into a heavenly vault, and He then gave access to this vault to the pope (and please don’t think there’s a literal vault somewhere. You won’t find this in Vatican City).

So what did the pope do with all of this extra good works? Why, he would occasionally withdraw some good works from the bank and sell them to the faithful.

That’s what an indulgence was: it was a piece of paper that essentially transferred some of those good works to the person who held it. And you were even allowed to buy indulgences for other people. So if dear old dad died, you could buy him an indulgence and shorten his time in purgatory by a few hundred or thousand years, depending on how much coin you’re willing to part with.

Gee, I can’t imagine why Martin Luther would object to this at all…

But he had a prime opportunity to, because the pope, Leo X, was a man on a mission: he wanted to leave Rome more beautiful than he found it. And he had a very specific project in mind: the Church of St. Peter. To create this awesome place of worship, though, he would need a lot of money. And thankfully, there were people who were more than willing to give him the funds he needed due to a practice known as simony, where people would pay money to be granted church office.

Specifically, there was an individual named Albert. Albert was an ambitious individual in that he wanted to be a bishop three times over. Even more specifically, Albert and his brother, Joachim, wanted Albert to be bishop of Halberstadt, archbishop of Magdeburg, and the archbishop of Mainz. Now technically, Albert holding these three offices broke two different rules. For one thing, Albert was too young to be even a bishop since he was only 23 at the time. And second, holding three bishoprics at the same time was also against church law. But Joachim really wanted Albert to have those offices, especially being archbishop of Mainz, since that would make him an elector in the Holy Roman Empire (more on why that’s important next week). Normally, Pope Leo would have to turn Albert down, but for the right contribution, he could be convinced to bend the rules for Albert.

And Joachim and Albert were willing to make that contribution, to the tune of millions of dollars in today’s money. This was funds that would go directly into building St. Peter’s Church, so Leo agreed. Only Albert and Joachim had one other problem: neither had that kind of money just sitting around. They had to take out a massive loan to actually get the money to Leo. But the pope was of a mind to help Albert out. He announced a special indulgence that could be sold in Germany, and Leo and Albert would split the proceeds 50/50.

So the indulgence sellers were released into German territory, and one of them was extremely notorious, a man named Tetzel. From what I understand Tetzel was quite the showman, turning the selling of indulgences into almost a theatrical production interlaced with preaching. Quite frankly, from what I’ve read, if Tetzel were alive today, he’d most likely be a televangelist.

Now technically, Tetzel and his ilk were forbidden from entering Saxony, where Luther worked at the University of Wittenberg. But that didn’t stop Saxons from crossing the border and buying indulgences anyway. When Luther discovered that his parishioners were purchasing indulgences, he was greatly disturbed. God gave the forgiveness of sins freely, which meant that you couldn’t sell it. Martin knew he had to do something about this.

95-Theses-672x372But Luther was, first and foremost, a scholar, so he did what a scholar would do: he decided he would challenge his colleagues to a debate. He would argue that indulgences didn’t work, and he would take on all comers who wanted to argue that they did. In preparation for this debate, Luther wrote down a list of 95 reasons (or “theses”) that indulgences didn’t work. Then, on October 31, 1517, Luther took this list to the Castle Church in Wittenberg and nailed them to the front door.

This was not done out of defiance, nor was meant to be a symbolic gesture. The church door was where you posted public announcements. Lost your cat? Throwing a kegger? Challenging the scholars to defend a possibly heretical practice in the church? All those notices went the same place.

It’s hard to say for certain if Luther was intending for this to cause a ruckus. Part of me really thinks that he wasn’t trying to stir up trouble. He just wanted to talk about what he saw as a problem and hopefully would start people on the road to fixing it.

But that’s not what he got. Luther’s challenge to debate would wind up sending shockwaves throughout European Christendom that are still reverberating today. Next week, we’ll see how those ripples got started.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share this little gem I found on YouTube close to ten years ago:

Author @JohnWOtte examines what Martin Luther's 95 Theses were about and what prompted him to write them. Click To Tweet


  1. I need to catch up on this series, especially the historical parts. I think it’s good to know the origins of a denomination or group you seem to agree with the most. This seems interesting, and I love to learn history and background about Christian Faith. Thanks Mr. John! Hope all is well with you at your new home. I’m now formatting a paperback version of my book for release, so keep me in prayer…later! Tonja Klein – TK ^___^

  2. the mind reels!!!!! #jawdropping #whatweretheythinking?!?!?!?!?!

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