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Luther's 95 Theses were a refutation of selling indulgences on the part of the Catholic Church. Did he, or others, believe that the Church was saying that:

  • The only way to be a good Christian was to purchase an indulgence
    • Were indulgences a public or private matter (I mean, did you show them off)?
  • The sale of indulgences was a benign form of alms giving
  • The sale of indulgences were a form of extortion by the Catholic Church
  • The only way to assure one of salvation was through the purchase of indulgences
  • Neglecting the purchase of indulgences assured one's soul of eternal damnation

How did Luther's viewpoint compare to that of the common man?

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Good questions, sir. –  San Jacinto Jul 17 '12 at 13:08

2 Answers 2

When the 95 Theses were first published, Luther actually supported the idea of indulgences:

#75. Let him be anathema and accursed who denies the apostolic character of the indulgences.

The problem was that

  1. They were being "sold" (you had to donate to get one, actually selling them had been excommunicable for something like 100 years at that point)
  2. They were being treated as a "get out of jail free" card (people were saying that they did not need confession because they had indulgences).
  3. He did not see why the Pope didn't simply empty purgatory.

It was not commonly taught that:

  • "Neglecting the purchase of indulgences assured one's soul of eternal damnation". Indulgences have to do with purgatory, not hell. If that is something which the Catholic Church has been accused of, then it is something which only happened recently.
  • "You were not a good person if you didn't buy." There is no real record of this position either. Indulgences had to do with forgiveness. Theoretically, a person who was good enough should not need them.

As far as showing them off, well, they were on pieces of paper, so people could. I don't really know why you'd want to though... it's a proclamation that you've sinned.

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It seems you are aware, but to be clear Luther wrote the Theses before condemning indulgences. He explains his brief lived 'temporary view' before realizing how wicked they were in the same volume I have quoted above: “I published the Theses and at the same time a German Sermon on Indulgences, shortly thereafter also the Explanations, in which, to the pope’s honor, I developed the idea that indulgences should indeed not be condemned, but that good works of love should be preferred to them. (Luther’s Works V4 P329)” ...He no longer did much for the Pope's honor as he progressed in his beliefs. –  Mike Aug 21 '12 at 11:55

I do not think Luther thought of them as being advertised as only good Christians would purchase them, or that people would show them off, definitely not thought of as a benign form of alms giving, but more along the lines of the last bullet points. The indulgences, in Luther’s mind, were simply taking advantage of people with a guilty conscience and promising salvation for cash. Instead of preaching the gospel of grace, handing over a piggy bank and for every coin dropped, more security for the soul was obtained. Basically motivated by simple devilish greed, the Church used indulgences to extort people by manipulation of their conscience through fear and guilt and then relieving the terrified conscience on a cash basis. The following quotes help us understand Luther’s view:

They sold the indulgence as the divine grace which forgives sin. Thereby Christ’s blood and death were denied and blasphemed together with the Holy Spirit and the gospel...

Through it they defrauded and fleeced the whole world out of immeasurable sums of money with shameless greed and lies...

In the indulgence they sold good works to all of Christendom and absolution, too, as something special, which, however, the gospel forever gives the whole world free of charge. Thus consciences were led astray from the gospel and from Christ to the works of men...

They praised the indulgence more highly than all works of love...

They deposited the merit of the saints, beyond what they needed for themselves, as a treasure of indulgence, as though Christ’s suffering were not sufficient for the forgiveness of all sins....

They finally exalted indulgence so high that they taught if someone had even slept with the mother of God, through indulgence it would be forgiven...

They taught that when the penny rang in the money box, the soul rose to heaven...

One need have neither contrition nor sorrow to receive the indulgence. It was enough that one now deposit the money...

St. Peter himself could not grant a greater grace than the indulgence represented...

(Luther’s Works Volume 34 P15-17)

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