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Submitted by Rev Hector Morrison

In Lecture 3 (view here), Trueman explores the changes that took place in Luther’s thinking as he preached his way through the book of Romans in the years 1515-16; and then focuses on the Indulgences Controversy that provided the spark that lit the fuse that led to the Reformation.

Luther’s Biography (Continued)

In the first part of this lecture Trueman continues to explore the changes that took place in Luther’s thinking as he preached his way through the book of Romans in the years 1515-16, in particular with regard to his question ‘Where can I find a gracious God?’ which we might translate as: ‘How can I get into a state of grace?’

Luther’s medieval masters had taught him that: ‘if he did what was ‘in him’, the Lord would not deny him grace’ which Trueman paraphrases thus: ‘if you do your best God will not deny you the first infusion of grace which will then allow you to do works that truly merit God’s grace.’ However, the problem for Luther was how could he ever be sure that he had ‘done his best’? That ‘becomes a wheel that breaks him.’

But, as he made his way through Romans, his views on sin (and baptism) changed significantly, and as Trueman notes ‘the model you use when thinking about sin will shape how you think about the Christian life.’

Luther recognised that the language Paul typically uses about sin is the language of death – to be a sinner is to be dead. Death is a status not a condition. This will have a twofold impact on Luther’s understanding of salvation: (i) Justification too will become a status not a process; and (ii) the idea of doing your best, what is ‘in you’, has to be radically revised. If you’re dead, what can a dead man do? The dead need resurrecting and resurrection must come from the outside – which is key to understanding Luther’s later thinking. Life must come from outside. Baptism is something that is done to you. The Lord’s Supper is something that is given to you. The Word preached comes from outside us to bring us to life. This was a very important breakthrough for Luther. It causes him to transform his understanding of what is ‘doing our best’.

There emerges what scholars have called Luther’s ‘theology of humility.’ What’s the condition one has to meet in order for God to be gracious to you? Paradoxically, one has to despair that one can do anything in order for God to do something for you. ‘Doing what is in you’ becomes realising that there’s nothing you can do.

‘Is this justification by faith?’ Trueman asks. ‘No’. But it’s half-way there because ‘humility ultimately morphs into faith for Luther.’ What is faith ultimately? – a despairing of oneself and a trusting only in God. Luther is moving this way in 1515/16.

The Broader European Context

In the remainder of the lecture, Trueman focuses on the Indulgences Controversy that provided the spark that lit the fuse that led to the Reformation.

As background to this, we need to be aware of a couple of papal ‘bulls’ or edicts. Firstly, Unigenitus/ ‘Only Begotten’ promulgated in 1343 by Pope Clement VI in which Clement established the Treasury of Merits. The theory behind this was that certain individuals not only did enough works in their own life to merit their own salvation … they also produced a surplus which was held by the church in a kind of ‘cosmic bank account’, the Treasury of Merits. Secondly, there was the bull, Salvator Noster/ Our Saviour, promulgated in 1476 by Pope Sixtus IV which links the Treasury of Merits to Purgatory, a concept which emerged in the early church as a place where (to put it crudely) ‘people go in order to be cleaned up before going to heaven.’ This bull allows for the transference of merits from the Treasury to the account of souls in purgatory. This provides the constitutional basis for Indulgences.


An Indulgence was a certificate that gave either the bearer of the certificate or a chosen loved one a certain period off purgatory ostensibly for a cash transaction.

Remember that, at beginning of 16th century, the papacy is in a lot of financial difficulty, having exhausted its finances with wars and with building the Vatican, so Indulgences provide one income stream.

Albrecht of Mainz wants a bishopric though he already has two and Church law forbids one having more than two unless you buy a special licence from the Pope. The Pope needs money so he sells Albrecht a licence for a third bishopric. Albrecht needs to pay the Pope back so the Pope now allows Albrecht to raise an indulgence on his territory which will generate money.

Tetzel, a Dominican is charged with selling the indulgence and makes his way up through the German-speaking lands (the Holy Roman Empire). He, however, is denied permission by Prince Frederick the Wise to enter electoral Saxony where Luther was based in Wittenberg. But we know that from Easter of 1517 Wittenbergers were going across the river to the neighbouring parishes of Zerbst and Juteborg to buy indulgences, and we know from his sermons that Luther is already critiquing indulgences. However, at this stage, he’s not necessarily saying that indulgences are wrong. His disputation, the 95 Theses, is an attempt to get a debate going on what indulgences mean. The nailing of it in public was a ‘conventional way of advertising a debate.’

One of Tetzel’s jingles used when selling the indulgences was: ‘Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs’. This clashes with Luther’s theology of humility because it does away with repentance. According to the first of the 95 Theses (‘When our Lord said ‘Repent’ he meant that the whole of life was to be one of repentance’) repentance was to be an ongoing thing, a continual turning of the mind away from sin. What the indulgences do is to take away the need for repentance. Grace is cheapened, which, for Luther, is pastorally devastating. He thinks Tetzel is tricking people into thinking that they or their loved ones are OK when they are not.

So, on October 31, 1517, Luther nails to the castle door his 95 Theses against Indulgences. Though he had said more radical things, theologically, the previous month, this act became Luther’s ‘most explosive moment.’

There is no evidence that Luther believes in justification by faith at this point or that justification by grace through faith motivates the protest of 1517. ‘Luther is a medieval Catholic at this point, working within the bounds of the legitimate orthodoxy of his day.’

‘Protestantism will grow in reaction to the resistance of the Catholic Church. The Church exacerbates the situation by demanding to make an example of Luther.’