“Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father Martin Lutther [sic], Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place. He requests that those who cannot be present to debate orally with us will do so by letter.” Martin Luther, Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, in Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 25 [Hereafter LW 31:25].
When Dr. Luther wrote this preface, he expressed the desire to elucidate the truth concerning this topic. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther addressed a letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and sent a copy of the Ninety-Five Theses with it. In that letter he described to the archbishop the fallacious understanding of repentance expressed by lay Christians based upon indulgence preaching. [LW 48: 45-49]
Most likely, on that same day, Luther posted a proposal to debate ninety-five theses on the power of indulgences on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. While nailing the text of the proposed theses actually had very little significance, Luther’s letter to the archbishop and subsequent publication of the Ninety-Five Theses initiated a theological and social debate beyond what Dr. Luther could have imagined. However, his ‘love and zeal’ guided his study of theological truth. The first two theses demonstrated where his zeal had led already:
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy. [LW 31:25]
These statements represented not only a criticism of the abuse of indulgences, but a theological refutation of the late medieval penitential system. Despite the importance of the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses, Dr. Luther’s theological insights did not begin with it or end with it. By October 1517 Dr. Luther had rejected late medieval scholastic theology and formulated the basic ideas of his theology of justification. (Lectures on Romans, Against Scholastic Theology)
The publication of the Ninety-Five Theses compelled Luther to deal with the ramifications of his emerging theology of justification by faith alone. Therefore, I urge you not to let the 500th anniversary of the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses be the end of our commemoration but rather the beginning of a rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification. Out of zeal and love for truth let us continue to read, study, mark, and inwardly digest God’s Word of Law and Gospel in the coming years.