Why indeed then would anyone wish to short-circuit the purgation of their wayward desires through Christ, in holy preparation for eternal life with God?
It would not mean, I venture, a booster shot for habitual anti-Catholicism, nor would it remotely endorse “cheap grace” as the remedy for ecclesiastical profiteering.
Hearing and understanding the Theses in their original sense, I propose, would entail a willingness to be shaped by the cross of Christ, as expressed in Luther’s opening statement: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt.
Luther’s analysis reduced the practice of buying and selling indulgences to virtual absurdity.
Since true penitents welcome the cross that God lays upon them as divinely given for their ongoing purification, indulgences are nothing but concessions to the nominal Christians—“sluggards,” Luther called them—who fear punishment but not sin. They are works of the religion business, not the business of the kingdom of God.
First, it reflects the truth that Luther, when he wrote the Theses, had not yet realized all the implications of his doctrine of justification by faith.
He had yet to discover how faith is certain because it moves the believer out of self-preoccupation and into trusting God and regarding the neighbor in love.The 95 Theses primarily attack the false security that is placed in one’s own pious works, including the “childish” work of buying salvation in the form of indulgences—bribes, really.The certainty of faith that can rest in God’s grace as delivered in Christ is not yet fully accented in the Theses, although in hindsight we can detect intimations of it in the thesis about the “true treasure of the church, which is the gospel of the glory and grace of God.” Most contemporary readers of the 95 Theses live in a Protestantism that, in H.For the believer, consequently, genuine and divine punishment good: the Pauline wasting away of the old outer nature like the cocoon from which the new life of the butterfly will someday emerge.Luther’s true Christian penitent, sorry for sin but not for sin’s punishment, gets to die with Christ so that out of these ruins the Holy Spirit brings newness of life by the purification of desire.There are good reasons for this discomfort, including the inequities of our systems of justice and the tyrannies of our petty moralisms.There are also bad reasons for it, including the loss of personal agency and responsibility in our culture.Luther’s Theses put the indulgence merchants on the horns of a dilemma.If the pope had the power to purchase release from divine retribution by substituting the surplus merit of the saints to satisfy the penitent’s debt to divine justice, and if divine punishment is as cruel and fearsome as the indulgence merchants claimed, surely the Holy Father would empty purgatory for free rather than for filthy lucre!Richard Niebuhr’s famous caricature, “teaches a God without wrath who brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Such readers can indeed be taken aback by the Theses’ emphasis on penalties and the cross.But for Luther, as we have heard, these pains are divinely given aids to be welcomed by the pilgrim disciples on their arduous journey of purification on the narrow way to heaven.