In the third volume of Christianity and Western Thought (2009), Alan Padgett and Steve Wilkens review the chief philosophical trends of the twentieth century. In their examination of the theology of Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich and his concept of being v. non-being, the authors insist, “This ultimate concern is the object of theology because whatever concerns us in an ultimate way becomes our god – a point that goes all the way back to Luther.” (179) 500 years after the 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, scholars of various disciplines can still make out Luther’s theological silhouette. The timeless truths contained in his writing are packaged for educated and lay readers alike, and the Theses prove no different.
For anyone willing to read Luther’s Theses, a number of surprises jump from its pages. Surprisingly, Luther had not yet divorced himself from the doctrine of purgatory or papal authority or even the practice of indulgences for that matter. However, despite the obvious hiccups in his embryonic theology, Luther’s pastoral heart remains unwavering. For this reason, the 95 Theses are a great window into Luther’s crucicentric theology as well as his apologetics. The Gospel is central to the 95 Theses, and for this reason they remain of great profit to Christians today.
The very first thesis reveals Luther’s real evangelistic concern for the people: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.’” The system of indulgences peddled by the Catholic Church misled its members by conveying a lie about the sinful human heart. Contrary to the message of men like Johann Tetzel, sinners could not simply pay for the salvation of others nor their own. Money could not generate the repentance necessary to humble oneself before the Lord; only the power of the Spirit could. The power of the Gospel. According to Luther’s 62nd Thesis, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” This is what lay at the heart of the theses. While Luther did not object to the buying of indulgences per se, his understanding of grace demanded repentance and faith on the part of the believer…not cash. Luther’s 65th Thesis states, “Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth.”
Luther’s Gospel wasn’t centered on indulgences; instead it was logocentric. This is why Luther also posits in Thesis #54: “Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences to the Word.” From the Word of God came the promises of God, the object of our faith. Therefore a “truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.” (#36) Within the 95 Theses are the beginnings of his doctrine of justification by faith.
Likewise, the cross of Christ is the primary object of the 95 Theses. Luther spends considerable time pointing his readers away from the intrinsic value of the indulgences themselves and toward the infinite value of the “most holy gospel.” For example, in the 79th Thesis, Luther clarifies, “To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers, is equal in worth to the cross of Christ, is blasphemy.” Next to the “piety of the cross,” the graces afforded by indulgences are “the most insignificant.” (#68) The Gospel-centered Theses are as much a treasure to the contemporary Christian as they were to the average 16th century German of Luther’s day. May they continue to instruct the modern church concerning the true nature of repentance and faith, and most importantly the object of our faith: the “most holy gospel.”