Were Martin Luther's 95 Theses's True to Scripture, or Heretical?
Updated: Jan 31
An oft repeated tale by the likes of pro-Reformed Calvinists is that the Reformers rescued or revived the true gospel out of Roman Catholicism. This fable is coupled with Luthers nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Germany, as the beginnings of the true Christian movement. But is it actually true? Those who obtain their history mainly from sanitized and hagiographical Protestant sources often have a very inaccurate view of history.
Are Luther’s 95 Theses a representation of orthodox Biblical theology? Contrary to widespread public opinion, Luther’s 95 Theses have nothing to do with justification by faith alone—which is actually not supported, but rejected, in them. Nor do they utter a word of protest against the Catholic Mass, the sacramental system, Mary worship, the Pope, or numerous other Roman Catholic heresies, since Luther continued to embraced many of these heresies after his Roman departure. They certainly say nothing against baptismal regeneration, a damnable heresy that Luther also clave to his entire life.
They do not even condemn the practice of paying money to get Papal pardons — on the contrary, they anathematize those who deny Papal indulgences. They also support the existence of Purgatory. The idea that Luther had been born again, and consequently condemned Roman Catholicism in the 95 Theses, is pure myth. It’s a dangerous fable that has done untold damage to the lives of many people. Yet it’s the backbone of the so called Protestant Reformation.
The only thing condemned by the 95 Theses is the abuse of indulgences—and even here, Luther put his Theses on the door of the Roman Catholic “church” in Latin, so that the common people could not understand what he wrote. He only intended to debate in Latin certain abuses of indulgences with other faithful servants of Rome. Indeed, many of Luther’s theses would be heartily endorsed by the Catholic counter-reformation. Consider a sample of his Theses below, with some comments.
Under no. 3, “Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.” Luther affirms that without Catholic mortifications of the body there is no repentance.
Under no. 7, “God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.” “Vicar”? How Protestant is this? It’s apostasy.
Under no. 17, “With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.” So, according to the 95 Theses, Purgatory exists, and souls there increase in love over time. It’s apostasy.
Under no. 18, “It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.” In Purgatory, souls are earning merit before God so that they can get into heaven.
Under no. 25, “The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.”The Pope has various powers over people in Purgatory.
Under no. 29, “Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.” Various Catholic legends apparently have some authority in teaching us about who wants to get out of Purgatory and who does not.
Under no. 30, “No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.” Nobody can be certain of his own salvation.
Under no. 56, “The “treasures of the Church,” out of which the pope grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.” Apparently the treasures through which the Pope grants indulgences should be better known.
Under no. 58, “Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man.” Both the merit of Jesus Christ and of dead Catholic “saints” are a means through which saving grace is received. According to Luther, salvation is by sanctification, rather than through justification by faith alone.
Under no. 69, “Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.” Bishops and curates are to have all reverence for pardons given by the Pope to people, and admit those who are carrying them to the territory of their bishoprics in the Catholic State-Church.
Under no. 71, “He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!” If you deny the ability of the Pope to grant indulgences, you will be eternally damned in hell.
Under no. 73, “The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.” The Pope should thunder against those who deny, by any means, that one can purchase with money remission of various penalties.
Under no. 91, “If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist.” Indulgences should be preached in accordance with the mind of the Pope—then all would be well.
Under no. 94, “Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;” True believers do not go to hell or purgatory. And what “penalties”?
Under no. 95, “And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.” Christians should be diligent to do good works and follow Christ in order to be saved, since by such means they enter into heaven, rather than by having assurance of salvation through peace with God received in conversion, for assurance of salvation is bad.
Are Luther's 95 Theses really true to Scripture or heretical? I think that question is answered succinctly above, by Luther's own writing. This allegedly started the Reformation and of whom MarArthur says was “one shining light in the history of the Christian church … Now Martin Luther, coming out of Roman Catholicism, fought more than anyone for the truth that man is saved by faith and not by works.” I think its plain to see MacArthur is dishonest, and we could also say willfully so, since he knows what the Theses do say.
“And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.” (2 Cor 11:14-15).