Leo X

Righteousness By Faith

There was, at the time of Luther’s visit to Rome, a stairway of marble that was said to have been the stairs which Christ climbed to Pilate’s judgment hall. These stairs were said to have been miraculously transported to Rome by angels. Everyone who climbed them on his knees, it was said, merited an indulgence of fifteen years for each ascent. While climbing the stairs, Luther was startled by a sudden voice which seemed to sound in his ears as thunder saying, “The just shall live by faith.” Luther started to his feet in amazement. In this one truth, which burned itself indelibly into his mind, lay folded the whole Reformation.

Though Luther’s stay in Rome was no more than two weeks, during this short period of time, he learned lessons that remained with him throughout the rest of his life. No more did he have anything to do with relics. He had found that which had a far greater efficacy than all of the treasures of which Rome could boast.

A few months after his return, Luther received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from the University of Wittemberg. On that occasion, Luther took an oath upon the Bible to defend the faith contained in the Holy Scriptures. From there he turned to the Bible as his lifework.

Truly, “we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth.” 2 Corinthians 13:8. “The Roman Church had made merchandise of the grace of God. The tables of the money-changers (Matthew 21:12) were set up beside her altars, and the air resounded with the shouts of buyers and sellers. Under the plea of raising funds for the erection of St. Peter’s Church at Rome, indulgences for sin were publicly offered for sale by the authority of the pope. By the price of crime, a temple was to be built up for God’s worship—the cornerstone laid with the wages of iniquity! But the very means adopted for Rome’s aggrandizement provoked the deadliest blow to her power and greatness. It was this that aroused the most determined and successful of the enemies of popery, and led to the battle which shook the papal throne and jostled the triple crown upon the pontiff’s head.” The Great Controversy, 127.

The license to sell indulgences in the various countries was sold to the highest bidder, with the pope to be paid in advance. The indulgences in Germany were farmed out to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Madeburg. The Archbishop was in Germany what Leo X was in Rome. In looking for a man to transverse the country extolling and actually selling the indulgences, he found in Tetzel a man who in every way suited his purpose. Tetzel, the son of a goldsmith of Leipzig, had been convicted of a base crime at Innsbruck and had been condemned to be placed in a sack and drowned; but powerful intercession being made for him, he received a reprieve and lived to help, unconsciously, in the overthrow of the system that he espoused.

When Tetzel entered a city, he made his way directly to the cathedral. A cross was set up in front of the altar and a strong, iron box was placed beside it. Tetzel, mounting the pulpit, would expound on the incomparable merit of his wares. Never before had the gates of Paradise opened so wide. “‘Indulgences,’ he said, ‘are the most precious and most noble of God’s gifts. . . . Come, and I will give you letters all properly sealed, by which even the sins you intend to commit may be pardoned. I would not change my privileges for those of St. Peter in heaven, for I have saved more souls by my indulgences than the apostle did by his sermons. . . . But more than this . . . indulgences avail not only for the living, but for the dead. Priest, noble, merchant, wife, youth, maiden, do you not hear your parents and your other friends who are dead, and who cry from the bottom of the abyss: “We are suffering horrible torments! A trifling alms would deliver us; you can give it and you will not.”?

‘At the very instant,’ continues Tetzel, ‘that the money rattles at the bottom of the chest, the soul escapes from purgatory, and flies liberated to heaven. Now you can ransom so many souls, stiff-necked and thoughtless man; with twelve groats you can deliver your father from purgatory, and you are ungrateful enough not to save him! I shall be satisfied in the Day of Judgment; but you—you will be punished so much the more severely for having neglected so great salvation. I declare to you, though you have a single coat, you ought to strip it off and sell it, in order to obtain this grace. . . . The Lord our God no longer reigns; He has resigned all power to the pope.’ ” Wylie, History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 57.

Indulgences Become License

The matter of indulgences quickly became the focal point of discussion from the palace to the university and even in the market place. That a little money could atone for the guilt and efface the stain of the most enormous crimes was a blow at the very foundation of the moral fabric of the nation. The more sensible portion of the population were shocked, and those who had some small knowledge of the Word of God viewed the matter in an even worse light. “The papal key, instead of unlocking the fountains of grace and holiness, had opened the floodgates of impiety and vice; and men trembled at the deluge of licentiousness which seemed ready to rush in and overflow the land.” Ibid., 258.

As the gold began to pour into Rome, Leo’s joy knew no bounds. “He had not, like the Emperor Charles, a ‘Mexico’ beyond the Atlantic; but he had a ‘Mexico’ in the credulity of Christendom, and he saw neither limit nor end of the wealth it might yield him. Never again would he have cause to bewail an empty treasury. Men would never cease to sin; and o long as they continued to sin, they would need pardon; and where could they go for pardon if not to the Church—in other words, to himself? He only, of all men on the earth, held the key. He might say with an ancient monarch, ‘Mine hand hath found as a nest the riches of the nations; and as one gathereth eggs, so have I gathered all the earth.’ Thus Leo went from day to day, building St. Peter’s, but pulling down the papacy.” Ibid.

Luther, who acted as confessor as well as preacher, as he sat one day in the confessional, was approached by some citizens of Wittemberg who confessed having committed various heinous sins. Luther told them that they must abandon their evil course; otherwise he could not absolve them. To his surprise, they replied that they had no thought of changing, in as much as these sins were already pardoned. They then pulled out their indulgence papers obtained from Tetzel. Luther could only tell them that the papers were worthless and that they must repent and be forgiven of God or they would perish everlastingly.

The poor, deluded people, quite unhappy at losing both their money and, at the same time, their hope of heaven, quickly found Tetzel and informed him that a monk in Wittemberg was warning the people against his indulgences. Tetzel was enraged. Kindling a fire in the marketplace of Juterbock, he indicated what would be done to anyone who should presume to obstruct his noble work, declaring that the pope had given him authority to commit all such heretics to the flames.

Luther was unmoved by Tetzel’s angry words. He had no thought but that the pope, if not ignorant of the sale of indulgences, was at least unaware of the frightful excesses that attended their sale; and he became even more strenuous in his condemnation of them.

Tetzel continued his sale of indulgences, and Luther felt constrained to take even more decisive measures. Elector Frederick had recently completed a church-castle in Wittemberg. He had spared neither money nor labor in gathering relics in their settings of gold and precious stones. These were put on public display and shown to the people on the festival of All Saints. On the eve of the festival, October 31, Luther, who had given no hint to anyone of what he proposed to do, joined the crowd that was approaching the church. Pressing his way to the front, he quickly nailed to the door a paper on which he had put forth ninety-five theses, or propositions, against the doctrine of indulgences. The sound of his hammer drew a crowd, and they quickly began to read. These points, Luther announced, he would defend at the university the next day against all who might choose to dispute them.

Luther 95 thesis

In this paper, Luther struck at more than the abuses of indulgences. The theses put God’s free gift of salvation in sharp contrast with the pope’s salvation to be obtained by purchase. Though he little realized the full significance of the step that he had taken, Luther had set the stage for the Reformation. The two systems—salvation by Jesus Christ and salvation by Rome—were brought face to face.

The news traveled quickly. Erasmus, on being asked by the Elector of Saxony his opinion on the matter, replied with characteristic shrewdness, “Luther has committed two unpardonable crimes—he has attacked the pope’s tiara, and the bellies of the monks.” Ibid., 263.

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