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The Ninety-five Theses

1517. The generally accepted view that this episode marks the first public declaration of Reformation principles requires some modification. On 31 October (or 1 November) 1517, Martin Luther, angered at deceptions practiced on the common people by Tetzel's* sale of indulgences* at Jüterborg and Zerbst near Wittenberg, and agitated by the spiritual crisis through which he was then passing, nailed Ninety- Five Theses upon Indulgences to the door of the castle church, as a preliminary to a disputation which was never in fact held. The theses, which are heavily theological though shot through with outbursts of outrage and anguish, are really quite conservative in character. Justification by faith is not mentioned therein, nor were they intended to force a breach with the papacy, but merely to direct the pope's attention to a particular scandal in the confident expectation that it would be suppressed.

Briefly, the theses affirm that penance implies repentance, not priestly confession; mortification of the flesh is a useless exercise unless accompanied by inward repentance; the merits of Christ alone avail for the forgiveness of sins, penances and works prescribed by the Church having validity only insofar as they proclaim and confirm this divine pardon; the real “treasure of the Church” is the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Though Luther would thus have strengthened the authority of the church by placing it upon a proper basis, the papal authorities were in no mood to distinguish attacks on ecclesiastical abuses from attacks on the church itself, and Luther's action led directly to the Curia's proceeding against him on the grounds of suspected heresy in June 1518.