The Ninety-Five Theses were written by Martin Luther in 1517 and are widely regarded as the initial catalyst for the Protestant Reformation.
The Ninety-Five Theses protest against clerical abuses, especially nepotism, simony, usury, pluralism, and the sale of indulgences.
It is believed that, according to university custom, on October 31, 1517, Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.
In those days it was common for scholars to announce a debate by posting a list of Quaestiones Disputatae (disputed questions) on the door of the main church in town. People would gather to hear their scholars debate. It is likely that Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses for this purpose.
The full text of the Ninety-Five Theses follow, along with our own comments:
DISPUTATION ON THE POWER AND EFFICACY OF INDULGENCES
COMMONLY KNOWN AS THE 95 THESES
BY DR. MARTIN LUTHER
Out of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it, the following heads will be the subject of a public discussion at Wittenberg under the presidency of the reverend father, Martin Luther, Augustinian, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and duly appointed Lecturer on these subjects in that place. He requests that whoever cannot be present personally to debate the matter orally will do so in absence in writing.
Out of love and concern for the truth. Martin Luther is concerned with truth. Truth needed to shine forth to everybody. It had long been obscured by Catholic clerics.
THESIS 1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
THESIS 2. The word cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, i.e. confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
cannot be … the sacrament of penance. Centuries of tradition had eroded sacramental confession to a powerless ritual. It was commonly done by rote. People often confessed the same sins over and over. Clerics were bored with it, and they merely consulted manuals that told them what penance to assign.
THESIS 3. Yet its meaning is not restricted to repentance in one’s heart; for such repentance is null unless it produces outward signs in various mortifications of the flesh.
produces outward signs. It is one thing to feel sorry for your sins. It is another thing altogether to change your life accordingly. The weakness in sacramental confession is that it requires sorrow, but does not require people to change their lives.
THESIS 4. As long as hatred of self abides (i.e. true inward repentance) the penalty of sin abides, viz., until we enter the kingdom of heaven.
THESIS 5. The pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties beyond those imposed either at his own discretion or by canon law.
The pope. Here we get to the crux of the matter. For centuries, the Catholic church had popes who were corrupt.
THESIS 6. The pope himself cannot remit guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God; or, at most, he can remit it in cases reserved to his discretion. Except for these cases, the guilt remains untouched.
himself cannot remit guilt. Many people have the mistaken notion that a cleric forgives sin.
declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God. The truth is that only God can forgive sin.
THESIS 7. God never remits guilt to anyone without, at the same time, making him humbly submissive to the priest, His representative.
THESIS 8. The penitential canons apply only to men who are still alive, and, according to the canons themselves, none applies to the dead.
THESIS 9. Accordingly, the Holy Spirit, acting in the person of the pope, manifests grace to us, by the fact that the papal regulations always cease to apply at death, or in any hard case.
THESIS 10. It is a wrongful act, due to ignorance, when priests retain the canonical penalties on the dead in purgatory.
THESIS 11. When canonical penalties were changed and made to apply to purgatory, surely it would seem that tares were sown while the bishops were asleep.
tares were sown. That is, “weeds” were sown.
the bishops were asleep. The job of a shepherd is to feed and protect the people under your authority. They are called to vigilance. But many of the bishops were like corrupt politicians and thought only of themselves.
THESIS 12. In former days, the canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution was pronounced; and were intended to be tests of true contrition.
THESIS 13. Death puts an end to all the claims of the Church; even the dying are already dead to the canon laws, and are no longer bound by them.
THESIS 14. Defective piety or love in a dying person is necessarily accompanied by great fear, which is greatest where the piety or love is least.
THESIS 15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, whatever else might be said, to constitute the pain of purgatory, since it approaches very closely to the horror of despair.
THESIS 16. There seems to be the same difference between hell, purgatory, and heaven as between despair, uncertainty, and assurance.
the same difference. This is an interesting comparison. Charting it out, it looks like this:
THESIS 17. Of a truth, the pains of souls in purgatory ought to be abated, and charity ought to be proportionately increased.
THESIS 18. Moreover, it does not seem proved, on any grounds of reason or Scripture, that these souls are outside the state of merit, or unable to grow in grace.
on any grounds of reason or Scripture. Those are two great ways to consider an idea:
- Is it Scriptural?
- Does it make sense?
THESIS 19. Nor does it seem proved to be always the case that they are certain and assured of salvation, even if we are very certain ourselves.
THESIS 20. Therefore the pope, in speaking of the plenary remission of all penalties, does not mean “all” in the strict sense, but only those imposed by himself.
those imposed by himself. The Catholic church announces that certain sins result in a penalty of such-and-such number of years in Purgatory. Then they announce that the penalty can be reduced if you give money to the Catholic church.
THESIS 21. Hence those who preach indulgences are in error when they say that a man is absolved and saved from every penalty by the pope’s indulgences.
THESIS 22. Indeed, he cannot remit to souls in purgatory any penalty which canon law declares should be suffered in the present life.
THESIS 23. If plenary remission could be granted to anyone at all, it would be only in the cases of the most perfect, i.e. to very few.
THESIS 24. It must therefore be the case that the major part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of relief from penalty.
THESIS 25. The same power as the pope exercises in general over purgatory is exercised in particular by every single bishop in his bishopric and priest in his parish.
THESIS 26. The pope does excellently when he grants remission to the souls in purgatory on account of intercessions made on their behalf, and not by the power of the keys (which he cannot exercise for them).
THESIS 27. There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.
the money clinks in … the chest. There was a heinous practice. The cleric announced that as soon as your money clinked into the bottom of the plate, at that very moment the soul of your loved one would be instantaneously liberated from Purgatory.
THESIS 28. It is certainly possible that when the money clinks in the bottom of the chest avarice and greed increase; but when the church offers intercession, all depends in the will of God.
THESIS 29. Who knows whether all souls in purgatory wish to be redeemed in view of what is said of St. Severinus and St. Pascal? (Note: Paschal I, pope 817-24. The legend is that he and Severinus were willing to endure the pains of purgatory for the benefit of the faithful).
THESIS 30. No one is sure of the reality of his own contrition, much less of receiving plenary forgiveness.
No one is sure of the reality of his own contrition. That is, we do not even know if our contrition is sincere.
THESIS 31. One who bona fide buys indulgence is a rare as a bona fide penitent man, i.e. very rare indeed.
THESIS 32. All those who believe themselves certain of their own salvation by means of letters of indulgence, will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
THESIS 33. We should be most carefully on our guard against those who say that the papal indulgences are an inestimable divine gift, and that a man is reconciled to God by them.
THESIS 34. For the grace conveyed by these indulgences relates simply to the penalties of the sacramental “satisfactions” decreed merely by man.
THESIS 35. It is not in accordance with Christian doctrines to preach and teach that those who buy off souls, or purchase confessional licenses, have no need to repent of their own sins.
THESIS 36. Any Christian whatsoever, who is truly repentant, enjoys plenary remission from penalty and guilt, and this is given him without letters of indulgence.
THESIS 37. Any true Christian whatsoever, living or dead, participates in all the benefits of Christ and the Church; and this participation is granted to him by God without letters of indulgence.
participates in all the benefits of Christ and the Church. The grace of our Jesus Christ is not withheld from any Christian believer.
granted to him by God without letters of indulgence. God does not need the pope’s permission in order to grant the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
THESIS 38. Yet the pope’s remission and dispensation are in no way to be despised, for, as already said, they proclaim the divine remission.
THESIS 39. It is very difficult, even for the most learned theologians, to extol to the people the great bounty contained in the indulgences, while, at the same time, praising contrition as a virtue.
THESIS 40. A truly contrite sinner seeks out, and loves to pay, the penalties of his sins; whereas the very multitude of indulgences dulls men’s consciences, and tends to make them hate the penalties.
the very multitude of indulgences. The selling of indulgences was a widespread practice, and people everywhere were duped.
THESIS 41. Papal indulgences should only be preached with caution, lest people gain a wrong understanding, and think that they are preferable to other good works: those of love.
THESIS 42. Christians should be taught that the pope does not at all intend that the purchase of indulgences should be understood as at all comparable with the works of mercy.
THESIS 43. Christians should be taught that one who gives to the poor, or lends to the needy, does a better action than if he purchases indulgences.
does a better action. It is far better to live the Christian life than to purchase indulgences.
THESIS 44. Because, by works of love, love grows and a man becomes a better man; whereas, by indulgences, he does not become a better man, but only escapes certain penalties.
THESIS 45. Christians should be taught that he who sees a needy person, but passes him by although he gives money for indulgences, gains no benefit from the pope’s pardon, but only incurs the wrath of God.
THESIS 46. Christians should be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they are bound to retain what is only necessary for the upkeep of their home, and should in no way squander it on indulgences.
squander it on indulgences. To purchase an indulgence is to squander your money.
THESIS 47. Christians should be taught that they purchase indulgences voluntarily, and are not under obligation to do so.
THESIS 48. Christians should be taught that, in granting indulgences, the pope has more need, and more desire, for devout prayer on his own behalf than for ready money.
THESIS 49. Christians should be taught that the pope’s indulgences are useful only if one does not rely on them, but most harmful if one loses the fear of God through them.
THESIS 50. Christians should be taught that, if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence-preachers, he would rather the church of St. Peter were reduced to ashes than be built with the skin, flesh, and bones of the sheep.
if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence-preachers. Did the pope know what the indulgence preachers were saying?
the church of St. Peter were reduced to ashes. Would a pope really prefer the Vatical to be burned to the ground than to give up the profit from the selling of indulgences?
THESIS 51. Christians should be taught that the pope would be willing, as he ought if necessity should arise, to sell the church of St. Peter, and give, too, his own money to many of those from whom the pardon-merchants conjure money.
THESIS 52. It is vain to rely on salvation by letters of indulgence, even if the commissary, or indeed the pope himself, were to pledge his own soul for their validity.
THESIS 53. Those are enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid the word of God to be preached at all in some churches, in order that indulgences may be preached in others.
THESIS 54. The word of God suffers injury if, in the same sermon, an equal or longer time is devoted to indulgences than to that word.
THESIS 55. The pope cannot help taking the view that if indulgences (very small matters) are celebrated by one bell, one pageant, or one ceremony, the gospel (a very great matter) should be preached to the accompaniment of a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.
THESIS 56. The treasures of the church, out of which the pope dispenses indulgences, are not sufficiently spoken of or known among the people of Christ.
THESIS 57. That these treasures are not temporal are clear from the fact that many of the merchants do not grant them freely, but only collect them.
THESIS 58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the saints, because, even apart from the pope, these merits are always working grace in the inner man, and working the cross, death, and hell in the outer man.
THESIS 59. St. Laurence said that the poor were the treasures of the church, but he used the term in accordance with the custom of his own time.
the poor were the treasures of the church. This was a noble thing for Laurence to say. And for it, Emperor Valerian executed him.
THESIS 60. We do not speak rashly in saying that the treasures of the church are the keys of the church, and are bestowed by the merits of Christ.
THESIS 61. For it is clear that the power of the pope suffices, by itself, for the remission of penalties and reserved cases.
THESIS 62. The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
the Holy gospel. This is the greatest thing that we Christians have: the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ.
THESIS 63. It is right to regard this treasure as most odious, for it makes the first to be the last.
THESIS 64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is most acceptable, for it makes the last to be the first.
THESIS 65. Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets which, in former times, they used to fish for men of wealth.
men of wealth. Only those who are wealthy enough to purchase an indulgence could be saved.
THESIS 66. The treasures of the indulgences are the nets which to-day they use to fish for the wealth of men.
THESIS 67. The indulgences, which the merchants extol as the greatest of favours, are seen to be, in fact, a favourite means for money-getting.
THESIS 68. Nevertheless, they are not to be compared with the grace of God and the compassion shown in the Cross.
THESIS 69. Bishops and curates, in duty bound, must receive the commissaries of the papal indulgences with all reverence.
THESIS 70. But they are under a much greater obligation to watch closely and attend carefully lest these men preach their own fancies instead of what the pope commissioned.
THESIS 71. Let him be anathema and accursed who denies the apostolic character of the indulgences.
THESIS 72. On the other hand, let him be blessed who is on his guard against the wantonness and license of the pardon-merchant’s words.
THESIS 73. In the same way, the pope rightly excommunicates those who make any plans to the detriment of the trade in indulgences.
THESIS 74. It is much more in keeping with his views to excommunicate those who use the pretext of indulgences to plot anything to the detriment of holy love and truth.
THESIS 75. It is foolish to think that papal indulgences have so much power that they can absolve a man even if he has done the impossible and violated the mother of God.
THESIS 76. We assert the contrary, and say that the pope’s pardons are not able to remove the least venial of sins as far as their guilt is concerned.
are not able to remove the least. God is the one who forgives of sins.
THESIS 77. When it is said that not even St. Peter, if he were now pope, could grant a greater grace, it is blasphemy against St. Peter and the pope.
THESIS 78. We assert the contrary, and say that he, and any pope whatever, possesses greater graces, viz., the gospel, spiritual powers, gifts of healing, etc., as is declared in I Corinthians 12:28.
I Corinthians 12:28. God has set some in the assembly: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracle workers, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, and various kinds of languages.
THESIS 79. It is blasphemy to say that the insignia of the cross with the papal arms are of equal value to the cross on which Christ died.
equal value to the cross. How could people imagine such a thing?
THESIS 80. The bishops, curates, and theologians, who permit assertions of that kind to be made to the people without let or hindrance, will have to answer for it.
THESIS 81. This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult for learned men to guard the respect due to the pope against false accusations, or at least from the keen criticisms of the laity.
THESIS 82. They ask, e.g.: Why does not the pope liberate everyone from purgatory for the sake of love (a most holy thing) and because of the supreme necessity of their souls? This would be morally the best of all reasons. Meanwhile he redeems innumerable souls for money, a most perishable thing, with which to build St. Peter’s church, a very minor purpose.
for the sake of love. Love would motivate the pope to liberate people from Purgatory without them needing to PAY FOR IT.
he redeems innumerable souls for money. Instead, the pope only liberated people from Purgatory if they would PAY FOR IT.
THESIS 83. Again: Why should funeral and anniversary masses for the dead continue to be said? And why does not the pope repay, or permit to be repaid, the benefactions instituted for these purposes, since it is wrong to pray for those souls who are now redeemed?
THESIS 84. Again: Surely this is a new sort of compassion, on the part of God and the pope, when an impious man, an enemy of God, is allowed to pay money to redeem a devout soul, a friend of God; while yet that devout and beloved soul is not allowed to be redeemed without payment, for love’s sake, and just because of its need of redemption.
THESIS 85. Again: Why are the penitential canon laws, which in fact, if not in practice, have long been obsolete and dead in themselves,—why are they, to-day, still used in imposing fines in money, through the granting of indulgences, as if all the penitential canons were fully operative?
THESIS 86. Again: since the pope’s income to-day is larger than that of the wealthiest of wealthy men, why does he not build this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of indigent believers?
the pope’s income … is larger than that of the wealthiest. The pope misused the millions of Catholics around the world as his own income stream.
THESIS 87. Again: What does the pope remit or dispense to people who, by their perfect repentance, have a right to plenary remission or dispensation?
THESIS 88. Again: Surely a greater good could be done to the church if the pope were to bestow these remissions and dispensations, not once, as now, but a hundred times a day, for the benefit of any believer whatever.
THESIS 89. What the pope seeks by indulgences is not money, but rather the salvation of souls; why then does he suspend the letters and indulgences formerly conceded, and still as efficacious as ever?
THESIS 90. These questions are serious matters of conscience to the laity. To suppress them by force alone, and not to refute them by giving reasons, is to expose the church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christian people unhappy.
THESIS 91. If therefore, indulgences were preached in accordance with the spirit and mind of the pope, all these difficulties would be easily overcome, and indeed, cease to exist.
THESIS 92. Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where in there is no peace.
THESIS 93. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross.
THESIS 94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.
be zealous to follow Christ. This is the goal for any Christian: to wholeheartedly follow Jesus Christ.
THESIS 95. And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.
This text of “The 95 Theses by Dr. Martin Luther” courtesy of Senn High School. There are no stated copyright restrictions and the translation is assumed to be in the Public Domain.
Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations on this page are from the World English Bible and the World Messianic Edition. These translations have no copyright restrictions. They are in the Public Domain.