At high noon on the last day of October, 1517, so the legend goes, Martin Luther marched up to the door of the university church at Wittenberg, Germany, and there posted 95 theses or debating propositions. By this act he announced in good medieval fashion that he was willing to defend the truth of his theses against all comers.

Luther’s theses dealt largely with indulgences. The pope had commissioned a priest, Tetzel, to sell indulgences in central Germany to raise money for the completion of St. Peter’s Cathedral at Rome. The exact meaning of these indulgences is uncertain. Ever since Tetzel’s day, historians have argued over their precise theological definition. It is quite clear, however, that many who purchased indulgences valued them as permits to sin without fear of punishment.

In any case, Luther became so incensed at their sale that he advertised his debating topics, which included not only a discussion of indulgences, but also set forth what was of far deeper significance: his basic understanding of the biblical gospel that undergirded his objections to indulgences.

According to Luther, we are saved not as a final reward for living a good life. Rather, we are saved wholly by God’s gracious work of redemption in our behalf and on the sole condition of faith, that is, personal trust in Jesus Christ as divine Lord and Savior.

Luther came to this knowledge of the gospel only after severe struggle. In his early years in the monastery he had accepted the common doctrine of his day that salvation is by the grace of God through faith plus churchly and moral good works. But his soul was in agony. “If salvation is by doing good, have I done enough? Is God satisfied? Am I safe?” Luther didn’t know. But as he studied the Bible, ...

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