Updated: May 2
By Luke Lancaster
Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk who started a revolution in Europe during the 16th century. A man who saw legalism rotting out the Church he grew up with, and who was deeply troubled by it. Seeing greedy preachers like Johann Tetzel who were attempting to make a fortune by preying upon the ignorant peasants of Wittenburg infuriated him. However, it was not indulgences themselves that were evil according to Luther, but rather those who were tasked with preaching them. The Church was not "selling" indulgences, but was emphasizing the reward promised to those who did good deeds.
The peasants misunderstood indulgences, and that was deliberate on the part of the preachers. It was only through doing a little twisting of the lingo that such a practice could become very profitable for these men. The indulgence was to indicate the Lord’s mercy upon those who sincerely wanted to show their love for the Lord by being generous with their money. Such a practice sounds good, for the money would be paying for a glorious Temple to the Lord like King David did in Jerusalem. It would be paying for the rebuilding of St. Peters Basilica, with Michelangelo and Raphael creating perfection with a brush. But those indulgence preachers had a devious idea: give the impression that salvation was for the rich and wealthy.
When Martin Luther first heard of the abuses being done by the indulgence preachers, he wrote out his 95 theses. Theses #41 indicates his frustration, “Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.” The common people were thinking that to be a good Christian meant to buy an indulgence. Such an idea was totally foreign to Christianity, and Luther knew that.
Luther says in theses #50, “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” Luther was on the Pope’s side, and was against the money-craving indulgence preachers.
He exclaims in theses #91, “If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist.” The Pope had a good spirit and intention behind the indulgences, but the people sent out to proclaim that truth turned out to be rotten crooks.
Luther did disagree on some of the theology behind indulgences, such as claiming that they did not remove venial sin (theses #76). This was false, though. Indulgences actually have a strong biblical basis to them. For doing small deeds of love are rewarded by Christ (Matthew 10:42). Similarly, giving a donation to help Michelangelo and Raphael make a glorious Temple for the Lord would be rewarded by Christ. Or as the Scriptures say, “Give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you" (Luke 11:41). Being a joyful giver, unattached to serving the god of mammon, means that the Lord does not intend to punish your sins. For, “everything is clean for you.” In the 16th century, the Church was not selling indulgences. The Church was teaching the faith, "that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3).