There was a day in Wittenberg, Germany, not unlike this one—500 years ago to the day—when an Augustinian monk, who also doubled as a Biblical Studies professor at the University of Wittenberg, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. This was not an uncommon act. Far from common was Luther’s result.
Many historians have noted that, during this time, nailing something to a door was essentially like pinning a flyer to the community announcement board. What the thirty-three-year-old professor was declaring was that he had ninety-five arguments that he wanted to debate. Imagine if some random professor from Greensboro, NC did something similar today. The effect would be minimal.
The 95 theses were some of Martin Luther’s arguments against the corruption of the Roman Catholic church and the papacy (i.e. the office of pope). They were sparked specifically by the selling of indulgences and generally about the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching that the pope, in his official office, was infallible and that priests could forgive sins. Yet, what would give these theses effect was not that they were believed as true by the common people—and they would be, eventually—but that the Germans were in a position that they wanted to believe that they were true. Why? Because of the nature of the indulgences.
A Little Background
At this time across the Anglo-Saxon world, religion was life. There also was only one established church, the Roman Catholic church. Everyone was a Catholic or a heretic. Those who had come before Luther, like John Wycliffe (d. 1384) and Jan Hus (d. 1415), who wanted to reform the Catholic church through scripture, were declared enemies of the Church. While their ideas still created an undercurrent of reformation spirit, most were too scared to attempt a large-scale reformation. But, the Catholic church was its own worst enemy.
Places like Wittenberg, Germany were poor backwater towns, and the priests that were sent to work in the parishes in these towns reflected the care the Church had for them. Often these priests were corrupt, lazy, absent, etc. The people were desperate to be shepherded well, and the Church was not listening to them. It seemed that the Church cared more about the parishes in Rome (or with money) than in folk towns. Add on top of that the matter of indulgences and you have a situation ripe for reformation.
What’s the Big Deal about Indulgences?
An indulgence was a slip of paper that declared a remission of sins backed by the authoritative decree of the Pope. These were sold to raise money for the Church in Rome, and during the time of the 95 Theses, the money went to the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Often these indulgences could be purchased on behalf of the dead, cutting down or completely freeing them from their sentence in purgatory (a concept developed by the Roman Catholic church that was later done away with by the Reformers who discovered that scripture does not speak of purgatory). A convincing salesman, like Luther’s thorn in the side Johann Tetzel, could make them sound better than they were. Tetzel is attributed by Luther to have used the proverb in his sales pitch, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/The soul from purgatory springs!”
It should not surprise us that, in such a religious culture, even the poor were purchasing these indulgences and their money being used to benefit Rome. So, Rome was not sending them priests that cared for them, and yet, they were taking their money under the false pitch that their money could pay for the forgiveness of sins.
When the Germans got ahold of Luther’s 95 theses, they were ready to publish and distribute them widely. By all measure, Luther should have been burned at the stake for this heresy against the Church (he almost was, several times, and lived with the thought of that possibility his whole life), but God had different plans. God used these theses and the unrest of the Germans to bring freedom and truth to his true Church, away from the distortion that it had become in the hands of corrupt men.
Today, there are many Protestant denominations. This means, in a sense, they are a part of the reformation’s “protest” of the Catholic church’s theological errors and seeking to reform them by scripture. This helped the Five Solas come to prominence. If the Protestant Reformation was a worker’s strike, the Five Solas would be what was written on their picket signs.
The Five Solas
- Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
The Catholic church held to the authority of scripture, but they also added the authority of tradition in the form of councils and papal decrees. Luther’s 95 theses ultimately led to the conclusion that the Pope and the church could err and, therefore, are subject to reform on the basis of scripture, which could not. Luther said: “Natural reason produces error and heresy; faith teaches and maintains the truth; for it clings to the Scriptures, which do not deceive or lie.” And the apostle Paul said, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16). This Sola is the mindset behind the Reformation.
- Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
The Catholic church held that we are saved by God’s grace and our merits and the saints’ merits. The Reformation responded in accord with Paul: “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
- Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
The Catholic Church held that we are justified (made right before God) based on our faith and the works that come from that faith. Both are needed for justification. But the scriptures clearly teach that: “The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ . . .” (Rom. 3:22). This is the heart of the Reformation.
- Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
The Catholic Church held that we are saved by the merits of Christ and the saints, and that we come to God through Christ, the saints, and Mary. But the scripture is again clear and was clear to the reformers: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) and “For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
- Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone be Glory)
The Catholic Church held that the glory for one’s salvation could be contributed to multiple persons (Christ, Mary, the saints, and even the sinner). Yet, the Reformers said, in line with scripture, that salvation is to God’s glory alone. “In him we have also received an inheritance, because we were predestined according to the plan of the one who works out everything in agreement with the purpose of his will, so that we who had already put our hope in Christ might bring praise to his glory” (Eph. 1:11-12). 
We Can Celebrate!
Mercy Hill, it should be clear that we align with the principles of the reformers like Martin Luther. God worked through this bold, but perhaps ordinary, professor/monk to bring the gospel back to his Church. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone to the glory of God alone. Amen!
-Alex Nolette (Community Groups/Equip Coordinator)
Martin Luther Biographies:
Luther: Man between God and the Devil by Heiko A. Oberman – This is the modern biography that’s recommended by a lot of Luther scholars.
Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World by Eric Metaxas – Metaxas is an engaging writer, so if you’re looking for not only information on Luther, but a good read, you should check out this recently released biography.
Books on the Five Solas:
HarperCollins has just published a set of books each on a particular Sola. If you are an eBook reader, today is the day, because they are on sale for $4.99/each. These books are by highly respected authors and scholars and have been gaining rave reviews. I’ve heard Grace Alone, Faith Alone, and God’s Word Alone are the highlights of the series.
Grace Alone by Carl R. Trueman – You should be able to find a link for the rest of the series at the Amazon link.
 Or did he? (see https://thefederalist.com/2017/10/30/luther-didnt-actually-nail-95-theses-curious-reformation-day-facts/.) Apparently the only primary source evidence historians have of this story shows that he only mailed these theses out to two people on October 31, 1517. However, Reformation historian and theologian, Alister E. McGrath says in his Reformation Thought that Martin Luther’s close colleague and friend, Philipp Melanchthon, later “reported that these 95 theses were also ‘posted’ (that is, nailed for public display) on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.”
 Quoted in Millard J. Erickson’s Christian Theology
 I got most of this information from https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/qna/fivesolas.html.