The Elector Frederick had lately built the castle-church of Wittenberg, and had spared neither labour nor money in collecting relics to enrich and beautify it.
These relics, in their settings of gold and precious stones, the priests were accustomed to show to the people on the festival of All Saints, the 1st of November; and crowds came to Wittenberg to nourish their piety by the sight of the precious objects, and earn the indulgence offered to all who should visit the church on that day.
A complete catalogue is extant detailing every one of these relics belonging to Frederick the Wise. In accumulating so many holy relics - for he had 17,443 particles whose authenticity would have been certified by Rome at a price - he had purchased some security from the terrors of the afterlife.
His collection included a piece of Moses' burning bush, parts of the holy cradle and swaddling clothes, thirty-five fragments of the true cross, a vial of the Virgin Mary's milk and 294 portions and one whole corpse of the Holy Innocents A diligent and pious person who rendered appropriate devotion to each of these relics could have earned an indulgence against the time he might expect to spend in purgatory of 127,799 years and 116 days. (Such was the fear engendered by medieval superstition it was widely believed Frederick had done so - Dr Gillis )
The 31st October, the eve of the festival arrived. The street of Wittenberg was thronged with pilgrims. At the hour of noon, Luther, who had given no hint to any one of what he purposed, sallied forth, and joined the stream that was flowing to the castle-church, which stood close by the eastern gate. Pressing through the crowd, and drawing forth a paper, he proceeds to nail it upon the door of the church. The strokes of his hammer draw the crowd around him, and they begin eagerly to read.
What is on the paper? It contains ninety-five "Theses" or propositions on the doctrine of indulgences. The introduction read as follows.
Disputation Of Doctor Martin Luther On The Power And Efficacy Of Indulgences, October 31, 1517
Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place.
Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us may do so by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
(We select the following as comprehensive of the spirit and scope of the whole):
1 Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
2 This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.
3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.
4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
5. The Pope is unable and desires not to remit any other penalty than that which he has imposed of his own good pleasure, or conformably to the canons - that is, to the Papal ordinances.
6. The Pope cannot remit any condemnation, but can only declare and confirm the remission that God himself has given, except only in cases that belong to him. If he does otherwise, the condemnation continues the same.
8. The laws of ecclesiastical penance can be imposed only on the living, and in no wise respect the dead.
21. The commissaries of indulgences are in error, when they say that by the Papal indulgence a man is delivered from every punishment and is saved.
25. The same power that the Pope has over purgatory in the Church at large, is possessed by every bishop and every curate in his own particular diocese and parish.
32. Those who fancy themselves sure of salvation by indulgences will go to perdition along with those who teach them so.
37. Every true Christian, dead or living, is a partaker of all the blessings of Christ, or of the Church, by the gift of God, and without any letter of indulgence.
38. Yet we must not despise the Pope's distributive and pardoning power, for his pardon is a declaration of God's pardon.
49 . We should teach Christians that the Pope's indulgence is good if we put no confidence in it, but that nothing is more hurtful if it diminishes our piety.
50. We should teach Christians that if the Pope knew of the extortions of the preachers of indulgences, he would rather the Mother Church of St. Peter were burned and reduced to ashes, than see it built up with the skin, the flesh, and the bones of his flock.
51. We should teach Christians that the Pope (as it is his duty) would distribute his own money to the poor, whom the indulgence-sellers are now stripping of their last farthing, even were he compelled to sell the Mother Church of St. Peter.
52. To hope to be saved by indulgences is a lying and an empty hope, although even the commissary of indulgences - nay, further, the Pope himself - should pledge their souls to guarantee it.
53. They are the enemies of the Pope and of Jesus Christ who, by reason of the preaching of indulgences, forbid the preaching of the Word of God.
62. The true and precious treasure of the Church is the holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
76. The Papal pardons cannot remit even the least of venal sins as regards the guilt.
89. "Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?"
90. To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy.
91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist.
92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Peace, peace," and there is no peace!
93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Cross, cross," and there is no cross!
94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.
These propositions Luther undertook to defend next day in the university against all who might choose to impugn them. But no one appeared.