August 2017

August 2017

Luther the Pastor:

Starting the Reformation

It was chiefly as a Doctor of Sacred Scripture that Martin Luther led the Protestant Reformation. He believed himself to have received a call from God, ratified through the authorities at the University of Wittenberg, to be a “teacher of the Church.” Universities in those days were ecclesiastical institutions, and a call to teach at a university meant the conferral of a general teaching authority.

Furthermore, as mentioned last month, Luther taught at a university that had embraced a new way of learning, which emphasized original languages and primary texts. Luther worked and taught within a generation that for the first time had access to the full riches of Holy Scripture.

Nevertheless, it was not as a university professor, but as a parish pastor that Luther was driven to perform the first public act of the Reformation. As a part of his experience at the Augustinian monastery, Luther was ordained to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. As a priest it was his responsibility to say mass (i.e., preside over Holy Communion) and to preach. Part of administering the Lord’s Supper was hearing the confessions of those who wished to commune at the next mass. Father Luther would meet privately with those who came to confess their sins, and when they demonstrated the sincerity of their repentance and their desire to turn away from sin, he absolved them, as Lutheran pastors still do today.

But in 1517, something new was happening. Instead of coming to Father Luther and confessing their sins, some of the parishioners presented a certificate for which they had paid a pretty penny in the neighboring town. The certificate entitled the bearer to one absolution by a priest of his choice, with no need for repentance, as well as one further absolution upon his deathbed, also without the requirement of repentance. If one could only pay enough money, one could be forgiven all sins, skip all time in purgatory, and go straight to heaven—all without even having the slightest sensation of guilt for the sins one had committed!

These certificates, of course, were called indulgences, and they got Father Luther riled up. He refused the honor them, and he set about composing ninety-five statements that amounted to one long protest of the sale of indulgences. We call these the Ninety-Five Theses, and they were intended to be debated among Luther’s colleagues in a formal disputation. It is true that the Theses were academic in nature, and it is true that they were intended for the learned throughout Europe, not the parishioners under Luther’s care. But what motivated Luther to compose and defend them was his pastoral concern for the souls whom Christ had entrusted to him.

Luther’s chief fear was that by putting their trust in indulgences, and by being led away from repentance as a real turning away from sin and a heartfelt trust in the forgiveness won by the death of Jesus, his parishioners faced the threat of eternal damnation. He could not sit idly by and watch that happen in his own parish and throughout Christendom, so he set about the work of calling the whole Church to return to the pure teachings of Christ and the Apostles.

We have learned why Luther composed the Ninety-Five Theses. Next month we will learn why he chose October 31, 1517, to post them publicly on the door of the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg.


Pastor Neuendorf