by Rev. Donavon Riley
After Heidelberg, and the explosion it caused amongst his listeners, Luther moved to tie his teaching to the daily life of Christians. Eck’s response to the 95 Theses, and other papal critics who pushed back against what Luther had said at Heidelberg, motivated the monk to translate his theology into language the common man could appreciate. And so, in May 1518, Luther published “Resolutions Concerning The 95 Theses.”
Luther began by addressing how the papal teaching regarding confession had no basis in Scripture. God demanded a change of heart and mind, not outward works. “Doing what was in one” had nothing to do with salvation. And buying an indulgence accomplished nothing for a Christian, because repentance and penance were two different things altogether.
Martin attacked the papal teaching about confession, penance, and outward works, but his most pointed criticism was focused on absolution. He wrote, “Christ did not intend [by the power of the keys] to put the salvation of people into the hands or at the discretion of an individual.” Everything depends, Luther asserted, on “believing only in the truth of Christ’s promise.”
This meant that for a Christian that indulgences were unnecessary. However, Luther also knew, as one Luther historian wrote, “that he was including [within his critique of indulgences] pilgrimages, special masses for the dead, shrines, religious images, relics, special spiritual exercises, and much of what was central to the practice of medieval religion.”
Luther also made sure to lay out for his readers that the Roman Church didn’t possess a treasury of merits that were available to Christians for the right price. Christians couldn’t buy their way into heaven. Only Jesus Christ and his bloody suffering and death received in faith by a Christian granted him access to the kingdom of heaven. And this was offered freely to all people apart from works, merits, or a special indulgence from the Pope.
At Heidelberg one listener said to Luther, “If the peasants heard you say that [even good deeds can be sins], they would stone you.” However, in the ‘Resolutions’ Luther went further than he had at Heidelberg on this topic. “The Church needs a Reformation,” he wrote, “but it is not the affair of one man, namely the pope, or of many men, namely the cardinals, both of which have been demonstrated by the most recent council. On the contrary, it is the business of the entire Christian world, yes, the business of God alone.”
Luther signed off by dedicating the Resolutions to Pope Leo X. The monk stated simply that if anything he’d written could be disproven by the clear words of Scripture he would recant. Martin concluded by writing, “I put myself at the feet of Your Holiness with everything that I am and have. I will regard your voice as the voice of Christ, who speaks through you.”
Next time we will examine the response of Luther’s colleagues and critics to the publication of his Resolutions and other works.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.