Repentance and Faith: Luther’s Attack on Indulgences

Posted: July 27, 2012 in Martin Luther
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            Luther is perhaps best known for his Ninety-Five Theses, which was a document pointedly opposing the indulgence system in place within the Church.  For Luther, salvation was not something that could be attained by our merits or anything in which we might boast.  Rather, salvation was through faith alone.  Thus, indulgences were a clear violation of the Scriptural vision of justification and salvation.  However, to better understand the tension, we must first understand the purpose of the indulgences and how they evolved up into Luther’s day.  From this brief outline, we will be able to better comprehend Luther’s comprehension of God’s work within the human life.

            A basic definition and function of an indulgence is in order.  G. R. Evans defines an indulgence thus:

An indulgence was the remission by the Church of the temporal penalty of forgiven sin (the punishment imposed by a priest, not the eternal consequences).  So, it was a ‘letting off’ of the acts which would otherwise have had to be done in penance.  The idea was that God recognized the Church’s ‘sentences’ on penitents, because he had given the Church authority to impose them.  This was based on Jesus’ grant of the power to bind and loose in heaven and on earth, which came to be known as ‘the power of the key’ – that is, the power to use, or refuse to use, the ‘keys’ to let someone into heaven…In the course of the Middle Ages, it occurred to the Church’s authorities that they could charge money for indulgences, and the system became corrupted.[1]

This formulation highlights the very juridical social context of the Medieval period.  Every sin must find some kind of tangible restitution.  As such, “punishment” was a necessary remedy to make right what had been made wrong through the sinful act.

Initially, the idea of an indulgence was not altogether theologically problematic.  If sin required some type of restitution, then that reparation must “cost” something.  King David said something similar in buying the threshing floor for a sacrifice; he would not make a sacrifice that did not cost him something.  Indulgences were an extension of such thinking.  Penalties tend to make the most difference in a person’s life when the remuneration for that penalty involves more than just saying words or thinking sorrowful thoughts.  Rather, penitence must engage the whole person.

“When in the eleventh century the doctrine of indulgences first begins to appear in a formal way, it rests on these elements: absolution of sin and commutation of punishment, intercession of the Church and substitution of good works.”[2]  In other words, the indulgences did not get one into heaven, only God could do that.  Rather, the “treasury” of good works from Christ and the saints could be substituted for the good works that were required for penance.  If a person seeking indulgences was not deemed to be absolved of sin, then they were not allowed to acquire an indulgence.  Thus, initially the Church did not use them as a salvation Ponzi scheme.  Of course, that is not to say that this does not still contain theological problems that should be challenged (i.e., Purgatory).

Although the idea of indulgences were initially a way to communicate that salvation is communal and that we are all in this journey of faith together, the faulty theology still provided a foothold for abuses.  The selling of indulgences soon became a very profitable means to raise funds for the Church.  Biel and others even began preaching that indulgences were effaceable for the dead.  There was even a poetic jingle that became an almost liturgical mantra undergirding this poor theology of indulgences: “As soon as the coin in the coin box rings, another soul from purgatory springs!”[3]  Salvation had been rendered a bartering system, a commodity to ensure salvation for one’s self and one’s relatives.  God could be controlled by the size of one’s purse.  Reliance on God could easily take a back seat to ensuring one’s own salvation by one’s own means.

Luther gets at the heart of the problem in selling indulgences for monetary gain.  Not only does selling indulgences relegate salvation to the few that can afford it, but it also calls into question the authority and goodwill of the pope.  Luther writes:

’Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?  The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.’[4]

Indeed, if the pope is truly able to “empty purgatory” then wouldn’t the situation demand it?  If people are waiting and cannot currently enter heave and yet the pope holds the “keys”, then should he not desire for those in Purgatory to enter into God’s presence?  Luther is entirely right.  Monetary gain seems a very trivial pursuit in comparison to the lives of the saints that are still in limbo.

Of course, this was not the only issue that Luther posed against the selling of indulgences.  He also thought that indulgences besmirched the Gospel and robbed it of its call and power.  “The traffic in indulgences was in fact for Luther, like the speculative theology of the Scholastics, a blow to the theology of the cross, an emptying of the meaning of the cross, the presumptuous human attempt to find God independently of the cross and suffering.”[5]  This is adequately demonstrated in the scene of the Gospels where Jesus shows the disciples his wounds from the crucifixion and tells them, “As the Father has sent me so I am sending you.”  In other words, Christ calls us into a cruciform life of suffering, even as he has suffered.  Indulgences seem only as a way to avoid suffering and “picking up our cross and following him.”

Luther’s contempt for indulgences did not remain an isolated debate with the doctrine of the Church.  Instead, where the issue of indulgences challenged the theological underpinnings, other doors were opened to challenge other doctrines and practices that hinged upon the same theology.

Although initially about indulgences, the theological scope of the controversy rapidly expanded.  Luther may have been trying to defend good Catholic doctrine against the abuse of the Dominicans, but the way he went about doing this implicitly attacked much of the generally accepted theology of the Catholic Church.  Soon questions about indulgences were overshadowed by issues of free will and divine grace, and by the most basic questions of religious authority.[6]

Thus, even areas that Luther did not intend to challenge ultimately came under fire as the implications of Luther’s theology were drawn out and considered.  One such area that was drastically challenged was the contemporary theology of the Medieval Church.  However, the attack on indulgences also opened up the reformation of ecclesiology and soteriology as unmediated, save through Christ alone.  The end result was a diminishing practice of repentance and penance within the Protestant Church.

The Roman Catholic Church did not take Luther’s abuse lying down.  Prierias contended against Luther’s position by affirming the authority of the Church.  He counters:

(1) The entire church as to its essence… is the gathering of all believers in Christ for worship.  The entire church as to its power… is the Roman church, the head of all churches, and the pope.  The Roman church as to its representation… is the college of cardinals, but as to its power… the pope, in a manner different, of course, from Christ.  (2) As the entire church cannot err when it decides concerning faith or morals, so also a true council, when it does what it can to understand the truth, cannot err, at least not in the end result… and I take this to include the head [the pope].  For even a council can initially be deceived, so long as the process of searching for the truth goes on.  Yes, sometimes a council has been deceived, though it has finally recognized the truth with the help of the Holy Spirit.  Likewise also the Roman church and the pope cannot err when he hands down a decision in his capacity as pope, that is, when he makes use of his office and does what is in his power to know the truth.  (3) Whoever does not hold to the doctrine of the Roman church and to the pope as the infallible rule of faith, from which also Holy Scriptures derives its power and authority, is a heretic… Whoever says of indulgences that the Roman Church cannot do what it actually does, is a heretic.[7]

Thus, Prierias constructs a circular argument for the Roman Church’s authority and the pope’s infallibility that cannot be called into question without deeming one a heretic.  Prierias goes so far as to say that the Church is actually above the Scriptures and is the bastion of truth.

Luther responds in hostile fashion to this formulation of authority and infallibility.  He recognizes that when a tradition places itself above any correction or accountability, when it becomes monolithic, it is then demonic.  Unequivocally, Luther deems the pope to be the anti-Christ, no small accusation!

As mentioned above, as the implications of the debate concerning indulgences were considered more fully, Luther began not only to undermine the system of indulgences but also questioned the legitimacy of the papacy’s power.  This contention centered on the issue of salvation.  Salvation, Luther claimed, was not determined by the pope but by Christ alone.  The question became a matter of “how” this was accomplished.  Luther states:

’Therefore, we are justified by faith, and by faith also we receive peace, not by works, penance, or confessions.’  Contrary to the assertion that the sacraments of the new covenant guarantee grace to those who ‘place no obstacle in the way,’ Luther wrote: ‘It is not the sacrament, but faith in the sacrament that justifies.’[8]

Faith has now become the reception of salvation.  Although we could easily argue that Luther has merely traded in one form of works’ righteousness for another, he did not even comprehend “faith” as something that any person could achieve.  Rather, “faith” was a gift from God to trust in the meritorious works of Christ alone for salvation.  Luther did not envision “faith” as something that a person could achieve or muster up in order to secure salvation for themselves.  He would have understood this as a veiled works’ righteousness that did not differ from indulgences and should be done away with.

Of course, within our Protestant context today, we have in many ways created a new works’ righteousness that is based upon “faith.”  We preach that a person must “believe” in Christ and they will be saved as a result.  The result is that we depend on our own merit to “have faith” and neglect to depend on God to work out salvation in us.  We must be careful to listen to Luther at this point.  Indeed, salvation is through Christ alone.

If a person is not able to obtain salvation through meritorious works, then does repentance serve any purpose at all?  Is it even necessary to do any works if God is the One who works all righteousness?  Luther maintains that confession is a necessary practice among the believers, one to another.  The priesthood of believers can speak the words of Christ to those who confess their sins: “You are forgiven.  Now, go and sin no more.” This imperative to “sin no more” is not the Biel approach, where we do our very best, but rather, it is the out-flowing of God’s love that consists of proper righteousness.  Luther himself wrote,

“Nevertheless I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures of the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me.  No one knows what it can do for him except one who has struggled often and long with the devil.  Yea, the devil would have slain me long ago, if the confession had not sustained me.”[9]

The Church does hold the keys of salvation for it testifies to the Gospel, which is Christ.  However, it only holds those keys insofar as it is connected to the Head of the Body: Jesus the Christ.  John 20:22-23 reads, “And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”   In other words, the Church does not merit salvation, but it is no less a distributor of the grace which it has received.  After all, our creeds remind us that faith does not come to us unmediated but is thoroughly mediated through apostolic testimony to the Gospel.

Thus, the Church does have a role to play in salvation, although it is still Christ alone who gives salvation to those who live by faith.  As the communion sanctorum, the Body of Christ, whose Head is Christ, the Church is commissioned to forgive one another and to hold one another accountable.

The doctrine of salvation and ecclesiology are not separate in Luther’s theology.  Although it is not fully developed, especially early in Luther’s career, one, in some sense, constitutes the other.  Salvation comes by hearing God’s Word and having faith in the Gospel.  People are thus “grafted” into the Body of Christ.  They are gathered together, participating in this shared life with God and one another.  This is the power of the Gospel, which makes Christ known to us through the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel, which is Christ and the regula fidei, is the necessary means for salvation and the formation of the Body of Christ.  Luther writes, “God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”[10]  Thus, those that are members of the communio sanctorum are also those that have received the Gospel and responded in belief and faith in Christ Jesus.  And, furthermore, where the true Church is there God’s Word will be found also!

Scripture testifies to the Gospel, which is Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  That is the very foundation of the Church and, by extension, the priesthood of all believers.  Without the Gospel, the Church does not exist.  Connecting Christ as the foundation for the true Church, Luther proclaims:

Whoever seeks Christ must first find the church.  Now the church is not wood and stone but the group of people who believe in Christ.  Whoever seeks the church should join himself to them and observe what they teach, pray, and believe.  For they certainly have Christ among them.[11]

Thus, participation in the priesthood of believers entails connection with Christ and the Church, not autonomous individuality on a personal, spiritual quest.  Rather, the community of God is where the Word is found and the Word is where the community of God is found.  The true Church cannot be separated from the presence of Christ.

This distinction between salvation that comes from God through the Gospel and a cheap imitation offered by man establishes a dichotomy between the true and the false Church.  The priesthood of believers was only those that participated in the life of the true Church.  Scripture became the cornerstone upon which to judge what truly constituted the living Church.  Moreover, the validity of “tradition” and practices of that tradition (i.e., the councils, the papacy, etc.) were contingent upon their coherence with the Scriptural witness.

Repentance was a means by which the person could participate in communion with the Body.  First, repentance acknowledges that we are a part of the community of believers and that we truly do need each other.  It recognizes that salvation is not an individual quest, but the journey with the community.  Secondly, repentance was a looking into one’s self.  It is the realization and recognition of what we truly are before God: sinners incapable of saving ourselves and in need of a Savior.  Although it certainly is a “turning” in our actions, it is more a position of humility in which we throw ourselves at the mercy of God to save us.

But might penance simply be another form of works’ righteousness?  Quite possibly, yes!  However, Luther does not want to do away with good works entirely.  He merely wants to constrain their purpose.  Paul Althaus contends:

He says that good works, the ‘works of grace,’ are necessary.  At the same time, he refuses to characterize them as necessary for salvation or for justification.  They are necessary as a witness of faith (and therewith they give glory to the heavenly Father and serve the neighbor).  They are not, however, necessary ‘for salvation.’  Such a teleological significance would set aside the ‘by grace alone’ and ‘by faith alone of justification and of salvation.  Luther thought that the expression that works or the new obedience are necessary to salvation raises thoughts about merit and guilt and that such questions are unbearable in the discussion of salvation.  The expression ‘works are necessary to salvation’ is thus equivocal and to be avoided in theology as improper… The new obedience flows from the certainty that salvation is already present and is oriented to its future revelation.[12]

As such, Luther is not opposed to “good works” that are a response to the grace that we have freely received in Christ Jesus.  Penance is an integral and good part of that response for it continuously reminds us of who we truly are (sinners) and who Christ truly is (Savior).  Penance as a means of salvation becomes no less a works’ righteousness which Luther wants to avoid at all costs.

Justification and salvation by grace through faith alone must now be discussed.  It is important that we establish Luther’s conceptualization for how Christ affects salvation for the community of faith.  If we are in no way responsible to this salvation, then how is it effective as salvation in the lives of believers?

As has been discussed, the human person cannot bring about their own salvation.  As Augustine would have affirmed, humanity is entirely sinful and the soul has become “curved in on itself.”  As such, there is no way for humanity to save itself.  Humanity is always bent toward evil and continuously wicked in its desires.

Both Luther and Augustine affirm that salvation is only possible through God alone.  Christ “pays the price” for our sins and takes our place, which is the penal-substitution atonement theory.  As we receive this gift that is through grace by faith, Christ imputes his righteousness to us.  It is literally not our own righteousness, but Christ’s righteousness that covers us.  Underneath, we remain sinners… thus the need for continued penance.

A useful image for understanding Luther’s conception of imputed righteousness is thinking of Christ’s righteousness as a cloak that we are clothed in.  Although we remain sinners, God sees us “clothed” in Christ and thus counts us innocent, justified, and saved.  The Father does not see us, but sees Christ in our stead.  Of course, theologically this creates all sorts of dilemmas.  However, Luther is simply working from the dominant atonement framework of his day.

Repentance, in response to this gracious gift, must cost one something.  However, the “cost” does not merit salvation.  Instead, Luther contends for a nuanced understanding.

‘It is dangerous to believe that we can draw on the treasures of the Church without adding anything ourselves.’  He had thus recognized the threat to true repentance as early as 1514, though good works still constituted the treasure of the Church for him at the time…  Two key sentences marked the minimal platform Luther urged the Church to accept: ‘It is a grievous error to think that one could make amends for his sins, as God forgives sins without recompense, out of unlimited grace at all times, and demands nothing in return but living a proper life from then on.[13]

As such, penance is merely reliance upon God to enable one to live “a proper life” which reflects Christ.  There is no cheap grace that does not entail some sort of sacrifice from the sinner.  But, as noted, the “good works”, which include penance, do not merit grace because one cannot “make amends for his sins.”  It is too costly for us to “pay.”  Christ alone is meritorious.  However, that does not excuse us from responding with “good works” that reflect God’s character and nature in the world in tangible ways.



Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.

Evans, G. R.. Faith in the Medieval World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Lienhard, Marc. Luther, Witness to Jesus Christ: Stages and Themes of the Reformer’s Christology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1982.

Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999.

McNally, Robert Edwin. “Ninety-five theses of Martin Luther : 1517-1967.” Theological Studies

28, no. 3 (September 1, 1967): 439-480. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials,

EBSCOhost (accessed March 26, 2012).

Oberman, Heiko Augustinus. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.

Sunshine, Glenn S.. The Reformation for Armchair Theologians. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

[1] Evans, G. R.. Faith in the Medieval World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002, 68.

[2] McNally, Robert Edwin. “Ninety-five theses of Martin Luther : 1517-1967.” Theological Studies

28, no. 3 (September 1, 1967), 442.

[3] Sunshine, Glenn S.. The Reformation for Armchair Theologians. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 26.

[4] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999, 103.

[5] Lienhard, Marc. Luther, Witness to Jesus Christ: Stages and Themes of the Reformer’s Christology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1982, 101-02.

[6] Sunshine, Glenn S.. The Reformation for Armchair Theologians. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 28-29.

[7] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999, 108.

[8] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999, 105.

[9] Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 317. n. 103

[10] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 281.

[11] Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, 287.

[12] Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, 250-51.

[13] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006, 191-92.


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