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The document itself, however, is an unlikely candidate for the role of revolutionary text or Protestant manifesto: composed chiefly for an academic disputation on a practice now long-forgotten and scarce understood, the theses are a bit bewildering to the modern reader looking for familiar Reformation slogans.Indeed, neither of Luther’s two great principles—justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture alone—are to be found in these pages, even though the former had already begun to influence Luther’s thinking and underlies several of his concerns in the are fairly conservative, and Luther hardly expected them to unleash a full-scale reconception of Christian theology and division of the church.
Eventually, recognizing in indulgences a potentially immense source of revenue, later popes began offering them for money more often than for good deeds, and needing to continue to expand the market to keep the revenues flowing, they started allowing the faithful to buy indulgences for their dead relatives already in purgatory.
Johann Tetzel’s indulgence campaign that prompted Luther’s protest in 1517, though, was an extraordinary illustration of the corruption that came from mixing such absolute spiritual power with the wide-reaching worldly power of the late medieval church.
So who were these indulgence preachers and why was Luther so upset about them?
The answer sheds light both on the astonishing depth of the corruption in the late medieval church and on the often misunderstood heart of Luther’s protest against it.
Such exploitation of the poor infuriated Luther, and in thesis 45, he decries those who, instead of helping the needy, as Christ commanded for the truly penitent, spent all their spare money on indulgences.
More fundamentally, though, Luther worried that indulgences were a form of cheap grace, a way for people to purchase false security for their souls without truly facing the depth of their sin and repenting from the heart.
As he walked briskly from the monastery where he lived in Wittenberg, all the way down College Street, it took him only about ten minutes to get to the Castle Church.
He carried a hammer and a copy of the Ninety-five Theses that he wanted to propose as the basis for a public debate.
Some of this punishment could be handled by taking penitential actions prescribed by the priest, but much of it would remain to be exacted after death.
Accordingly, the medieval church came to increasingly teach the doctrine of purgatory, a place where the faithful must undergo a term (perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years) of purifying torment before they could enter heaven. By doing certain holy acts, like participating in or helping pay for a Crusade, Christians could receive an “indulgence” from the Pope, shortening their time in purgatory or perhaps even skipping it altogether.