An Introduction to the 95 Theses (Part 5)

Luther was not a man to waste ink. The 95 Theses represent a well-argued case against the abuse of indulgences, as he saw it. He is pointed in his critiques, intentional in his formulation, and passionate in his appeal. He remains this passionate and pointed to the very end of the document. Luther concludes his argument with the four most rhetorically charged theses of the whole document.

The conclusion, or peroration, of a standard debate document would have sought to summarize the debate and appeal to the reader for consideration. The tone of these final four theses, however, is dramatic. Luther uses the language of the prophet Jeremiah to speak against the indulgence preachers, saying of them:

Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! (Jer 6:14)

It’s a powerful critique of these indulgence preachers. It is a way to accuse them of offering a false sense of security, a false peace. In fact, that is one of Luther’s major concerns in these final theses. The final theses notes that life is full of trials and tribulations and that we enter heaven through these not apart from these. He says:

And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22)

If Luther is right, and indulgences don’t free people from divine penalty, but only ecclesiastical penalty, then it is truly a false peace that is proclaimed by the indulgence preacher.

It is contrary to the way we think, but Luther states that it is through difficulties and sufferings that man comes to find peace with God. His theology her is still informed by that notion of the significant role of despair in the Christian’s life. A man must come to the end of himself, he must be brought to humility of despair in order to receive grace of forgiveness. Writing to an Augustinian prior in June of 1516 Luther raised this point before he even wrote the 95 Theses; he says:

Are you ignorant, most honorable father, that God … places his peace in the midst of no peace, that is, in the midst of all trials? … Therefore, that person whom no one disturbs does not have peace – on the contrary, this is the peace of the world. Instead, that person whom everyone and everything disturbs has peace and bears all of these things with quiet joy. You are saying with Israel, “Peace, peace, and there is no peace”; instead say with Christ, “Cross, cross, and there is no cross.” For as quickly as the cross ceases to be cross so quickly you would say joyfully, “Blessed cross, among the trees there is none such [as you].” (Quoted in Wengert, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, footnote 108).

Luther’s great fear was that people would settle for a false sense of security and miss out on the real thing. The way that indulgences were being sold and preached were pointed men away from the true peace of God found in Christ. To the very end of his document his pointed in his critique and passionate in his appeal.

Luther’s final words were so rhetorically charged that scholars have noted that nearly all his opponents ignored them. They were the rantings of an emotional man unworthy of response. But Luther’s emotion corresponded to the seriousness with which he took the issue. This was not merely a matter of theological debate, an inquiry of academic minds, an issue of ecclesiastical politics. It was a matter of utmost importance, it concerned man’s state before God and the peace of God for which all men longed. Luther saw that his congregation was being sold a false peace, and in buying it were forsaking the true peace. He is rhetorically charged, even in these final four theses, because the issue at hand was a serious issue. Luther wasted no ink, he took every last opportunity to make his point and concern clear.

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