Thursday, October 27, 2005

Luther's Letter to Pope Leo X , May 30, 1518


Luther writes submissively to the Pope, in whose justice and love of truth he seems to have implicit confidence. May 30, 1518.

Martin Luther, Augustinian monk, desires everlasting salvation to the Most Holy Father, Leo X. I know, most holy father, that evil reports are being spread about me, some friends having vilified me to your Holiness, as if I were trying to belittle the power of the Keys and of the Supreme Pontiff, therefore I am being accused of being a heretic, a renegade, and a thousand other ill names are being hurled at me, enough to make my ears tingle and my eyes start in my head, but my one source of confidence is an innocent conscience. But all this is nothing new, for I am decorated with such marks of distinction in our own land, by those honourable and straightforward people who are themselves afflicted with the worst of consciences. But, most holy father, I must hasten to the point, hoping your Holiness will graciously listen to me, for I am as awkward as a child.

Some time ago the preaching of the apostolic jubilee of the Indulgences was begun, and soon made such headway that these preachers thought they could say what they wished, under the shelter of your Holiness's name, alarming the people at such malicious, heretical lies being proclaimed to the derision of the spiritual powers. And, not satisfied with pouring out their venom, they have disseminated the little book in which their malicious lies are confirmed, binding the father confessors by oath to inculcate those lies upon their people. I shall not enlarge upon the disgraceful greed, which can never be satisfied, with which every syllable of this tiny book reeks. This is true, and no one can shut his eyes to the scandal, for it is manifest in the book. And they continue to lead the people captive with their vain consolation, plucking, as the prophet Micah says, " their skin from off them, and their flesh from off" their bones," while they wallow in abundance themselves. They use your Holiness's name to allay the uproar they cause, and threaten them with fire and sword, and the ignominy of being called heretics ; nay, one can scarcely believe the wiles they use to cause confusion among the people. Complaints are universal as to the greed of the priests, while the power of the Keys and the Pope is being evil spoken of in Germany. And when I heard of such things I burned with zeal for the honour of Christ, or, if some will have it so, the young blood within me boiled ; and yet I felt it did not behove me to do anything in the matter except to draw the attention of some prelates to the abuses. Some acted upon the hint, but others derided it, and interpreted it in various ways. For the dread of your Holiness's name, and the threat of being placed under the ban, was all-powerful. At length I thought it best not to be harsh, but oppose them by throwing doubts upon their doctrines, preparatory to a disputation upon them. So I threw down the gauntlet to the learned by issuing my theses, and asking them to discuss them, either by word of mouth, or in writing, which is a well- known fact.

From this, most holy father, has such a fire been kindled, that, to judge from the hue and cry, one would think the whole world had been set ablaze. And perhaps this is because I, through your Holiness's apostolic authority, am a doctor of theology and they do not wish to admit that I am entitled, according to the usage of all universities in Christendom, openly to discuss, not only Indulgences, but many higher doctrines, such as Divine Power, Forgiveness, and Mercy. Now, what shall I do ? I cannot retract, and I see what jealousy and hatred I have roused through the explanation of my theses. Besides, I am most unwilling to leave my corner only to hear harsh judgments against myself, but also because I am a stupid dunderhead in this learned age, and too ignorant to deal with such weighty matters. For, in these golden times, when the number of the learned is daily increasing, and arts and sciences are flourishing, not to speak of the Greek and Hebrew tongues, so that even a Cicero were he now alive would creep into a corner, although he never feared light and publicity, sheer necessity alone drives me to cackle as a goose among swans. So, to reconcile my opponents if possible, and satisfy the expectations of many, I let in the light of day upon my thoughts, which you can see in my explanation of my propositions on Indulgences. I made them public that I might have the protection of your Holiness's name, and find refuge beneath the shadow of your wings. So all may see from this how I esteem the spiritual power, and honour the dignity of the Keys. For, if I were such as they say, and had not held a public discussion on the subject, which every doctor is entitled to do, then assuredly his Serene Highness Frederick, Elector of Saxony, who is an ardent lover of Christian and apostolic truth, would not have suffered such a dangerous person in his University of Wittenberg. And also, the beloved and learned doctors and magisters of our University, who cleave firmly to our religion, would certainly have expelled me from their midst. And is it not strange that my enemies not only try to convict me of sin and put me to shame, but also the Elector, and the whole University? Therefore, most holy father, I prostrate myself at your feet, placing myself and all I am and have at your disposal, to be dealt with as you see fit. My cause hangs on the will of your Holiness, by whose verdict I shall either save or lose my life. Come what may, I shall recognise the voice of your Holiness to be that of Christ, speaking through you. If I merit death, I do not refuse to die, for " the earth is the Lord's," and all that is therein, to whom be praise to all eternity ! Amen. May He preserve your Holiness to life eternal. MARTIN LUTHER [Source]

Alternate translation:

I have heard a very evil report of myself, Most blessed Father, by which I understand that certain persons have made my name loathsome to you and yours, saying that I have tried to diminish the power of the keys and the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, and therefore accusing me of being a heretic, an apostate and a traitor, besides branding me with an hundred other calumnious epithets. My ears are horrified and my eyes amazed, but my conscience, sole bulwark of confidence, remains
innocent and at peace. . . .

In these latter days a jubilee of papal indulgences began to be preached, and the preachers, thinking everything allowed them under the protection of your name, dared to teach impiety and heresy openly, to the grave scandal and mockery of ecclesiastical powers, totally disregarding the provisions of the Canon Law about the misconduct of officials. . . . They met with great success, the people were sucked dry on false pretences . . . but the oppressors lived on the fat and sweetness of the land. They avoided scandals only by the terror of your name, the threat of the stake and the brand of heresy ... if,indeed, this can be called avoiding scandals and not rather exciting schisms and revolt by crass tyranny: . . .

I privately warned some of the dignitaries of the Church. By some the admonition was well received, by others ridiculed, by others treated in various ways, for the terror of your name and the dread of censure are strong. At length, when I could do nothing else, I determined to stop their mad career if only for a moment; I resolved to call their assertions in question. So I published some propositions for debate, inviting only the more learned to discuss them with me, as ought to be plain to my opponents from the preface to my Theses. Yet this is the Same with which they seek to set the world on fire! . . .

Now what shall I do? I cannot recall my Theses and yet I see that great hatred is kindled against me by their popularity. I come unwillingly before the precarious and divided judgment of the public, I, who am untaught, stupid and destitute of learning, before an age so fertile in literary genius that it would force into a corner even Cicero, no mean follower of fame and popularity in his day.

So in order to fulfil the desire of many and appease ray opponents,I am now publishing a little treatise to explain my Theses. To protect myself, I publish it under the guardianship of your name and the shadow of your protection. . . .

And now, Most Blessed Father, I cast myself and all my possessions at your feet; raise me up or slay me, summon me hither or thither, approve me or reprove me as you please. I shall recognize your words as the words of Christ, speaking in you. If I have deserved death, I shall not refuse to die. For the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof ; blessed be he forever. Amen. May he always preserve you. Amen. [Source]

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Father Denifle and Martin Luther By FATHER THUENTE, 0. P.

Father Denifle and Martin Luther By FATHER THUENTE, 0. P.[source]

A Few weeks ago an able writer, a great missionary, a learned and saintly bishop of the East, died in our neighborhood. I mean the illustrious Bishop Stang, of Fall River, who. in the years of vigorous manhood and manifold activity, suddenly breathed his last in St. Mary's Hospital, Rochester, Minn., and passed, as we have all reasons to hope, to his eternal reward.

His last literary work was a scholarly article published in the January number of the Ecclesiastical Review, entitled "Father Denifle and His Last and Lasting Work, Luther and Lutherthum." In this article Bishop Stang expresses great admiration for Father Denifle and shows a thorough knowledge of his book. He calls Denifle "the most intrepid champion of truth in our days,'* "the peer of historians," "a man who excelled and who has never perhaps been equalled in historical inquiry and research work." Of the "last and lasting work" of this "peer of historians" he says: "It dealt scientific Protestantism a blow from which it never can fully recover." "Denifle appeared with his siege gun to batter down the walls of prejudice and ignorance raised to shelter the false prophet of modem times. The book, at its first appearance, produced incredible consternation and dismay among Protestants."

My intention is to give you an idea of the character of Martin Luther as described in this wonderful book. In order to appreciate this more fully a few words about the author and origin of this book may be useful. Father Denifle was an Austrian Dominican, a deep philosopher and a learned theologian. For twenty years he was subarchivist of the Holy See. Full thirty years he devoted to the study of the literature, documents and manuscripts of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He was a perfect master of this period of history; his studies naturally brought him to the time and works of Martin Luther. These he examined and analyzed with the experienced eye of a critic, the acumen of a philosopher, and the learning of a master of theology. In these works of Martin Luther he found the soul, the spirit, the character of Luther truly reflected as'in a mirror. This picture of Luther thus discovered he gives us in his work, explaining and proving every trait of his character with abundant reliable quotations from his works. What Denifle says, therefore, about Martin Luther is true, irrefutable and indisputable.

Seeing that the leading professors of Protestant universities, as Harnack, Kawerau, Kolde, Koehler, Seeberg, still misrepresent the life of Luther, teach his false and unfounded doctrines, and repeat his slanderous calumnies without scientific investigation, Denifle attacks and refutes them in a frank and fearless way. The book, therefore, is as theological as it is historical; it deals with the twentieth century as well as with the sixteenth century.

The first general impression we get of Martin Luther by reading Denifle's book is that during the first decade of his monastic life from 1505 to 1515, he was a good, brilliant, zealous religious.When he joined the Augustinian Order he was not an ignorant, inexperienced youth; he was twenty-two years old and was a doctor of philosophy. His intentions were unquestionably sincere and holy. Two years he remained in the novitiate to probe himself and to study the profound meaning and the sacred obligations of religious life. When the young doctor, therefore, made his profession at the age of twenty-four, we have all reasons to believe that he gave himself to God with his whole heart, of his own free will, with no other motive than to strive after perfection and work for the glory of God. We may even suppose that he excelled among his brethren in piety and learning. He was made superior, placed in authority over eleven convents, and as master of arts and theology he was sent to Wittenberg to teach at the university.

Luther lived in the midst of wickedness; his surroundings were exceedingly bad. We shall hardly find a time or place in the history of the Church when and where morals were so low as they were in Germany in the beginning of the sixteenth century. Corruption infected the home, the monastery, and even the sanctuary. Father Denifle decribes this more clearly and more frankly than any other historian.

Luther understood the sad condition of the Church, feared for it and tried to reform it. Speaking of the want of love in the heart of the men of the Church he says: "I am afraid we all shall perish." He encouraged his own to remain faithful and to resist the evil influences. Truly prudent and wise is the advice he gave to a fellow religious who was restless and had a troubled heart. "The Father of mercy and the God of consolation," he writes,"has given you, in the person of Bartholomew of Usingan, the best consolation He can give on earth. Deny yourself, then, follow his advice and keep it in your heart." On another occasion, like a good spiritual director, he recommends prayer and meditation on the bitter passion of Jesus Christ. "A young man." he writes, "who has no devotion and no fervor in the service of God, who is neglectful and cares not for God, cannot. I believe, be chaste. The most powerful weapon is prayer and the word of God. Let a man, in the hour of temptation, take his refuge to prayer, implore the grace of God, read and meditate the Holy Gospels and study in them the passion of Jesus Christ."

To strengthen his subjects against the evil influences of the bad examples that surrounded them, he writes: "I believe there has been no time in the last two centuries when it was better to be a religious than now, just because a religious is despised. If religious were filled with the love of God they would be the happiest and more blessed than the hermits of old, because they come near to the Cross and its humiliation." In the first ten years of his monastic life,therefore, Martin Luther, according to his writings, seems to have been a true religious, and we may add that while he was good he was happy.

The second picture of this religious reformer which Father Denifle draws from the books written from 1516 to 1521 indicates a great transformation, a sad change and a deep fall. His heart and mind, his life and doctrine, all had changed. Instead of a religious fighting the abusers of religion we see an ex-religious attacking Church and religion, becoming the leader and organizer of those who were a disgrace to religion.

What was the cause of this change and fall? This is the most interesting and important question. Almost all historians answer the preaching of indulgences by Father Tetzel. a Dominican friar in 1517. The indulgences, were granted by Pope Leo X to all those who complying with the ordinary conditions contributed to the building of the great basilica of St. Peter's in Rome.

Father Denifle proves clearly and conclusively from the writings of Martin Luther that this answer is false. The change of Luther began in 1515. and the cause of the change was his own heart. In the earlier and better part of his life he had told us that a man cannot be good and conquer his own passions without prayer and meditation. Now he tells us that he is kept so busy with teaching and preaching and the affairs of his convent that he cannot find time to say his Divine Office and say Mass regularly. He confesses that there is no religious discipline in his convent. A little later he tells us that he is in the castle Wartburg "sitting in idleness and
laziness and neglecting his prayers." Moreover, at that time he began to drink to excess. "Drunkenness and gluttony," according to his own words, "are the food of all bad habits."

Luther had told us that in man either the flesh or the spirit must live and conquer, and that if the heart is not fervent the flesh must burn. Martin Luther neglecting his prayers was deprived of God's graces, and being strongly tempted from within and from without began to despair of himself. Instead of looking for help to the "Father of mercy and the God of consolation," "Who," as he wrote, "never denies His grace to those who cooperate to the best of their ability," he lost himself in temporal works and cares. In his pride he relied on his own strength and failed. That led him to the false conclusion: the laws of God cannot be kept and need not be kept; Christ kept them for us: "Christ covers our sinfulness even as the hen covers her chickens. Faith in Christ alone will save us." "Our faith must be heavenly but our lives may be worldly." Remember, this is the first heresy we find in his works, and this one explains his whole future life.

This heresy, Martin Luther expressed in his letters, his sermons, and in his unpublished commentary on the epistle of St. Paul to the Romans as early as 1515 and 1516. He expressed it, not as an opinion or in ambiguous words, but as a doctrine in a plain, unmistakable language.

This first error is fundamental: it strikes the very cornerstone of morality. It contradicts directly the teachings of Christ and the Church. Christ tells us that He is "our way and our life;" "that we must be perfect as He is perfect;" that we must learn from His "meek and humble heart;" that we must "take our cross upon ourselves and follow Him," that we need not fear. that He is with us, in us, our very life; that as the branch is united with the stem and receives life from the stem. thus we must remain in Him and receive life from Him, to purify our hearts, to strengthen them in the hour of temptation, and to fill them with virtue and the merits of good works. Martin Luther, on the contrary, preached "the law has nothing to do with the Gospel." "The practical life has nothing to do with our faith;" "that faith unites us with Christ;" "that through faith Christ covers all our sins as the hen her chickens."

To see how Martin Luther understood this almost incredible doctrine and how consistently and fearlessly he applied it to practical life, listen to what he says, in later years, when speaking about matrimony: "Of our actions you owe to God only to believe in Him and to confess Him. In all other things God makes you free and independent so that you may without any fear of conscience or even without any danger of being asked by Him,in as far as He is concerned, leave your wife. * * * In this matter you cannot sin against God but only against your neighbor." Here Martin Luther preaches doctrines that would make the Mormons blush with shame.

This was the state of the soul of Martin Luther when toward the end of the year 1517 Father Tetzel preached the indulgences. Tetzel was a good man and preached sound Catholic doctrine. Even Luther could not say one word against his character. The sermons he preached are still in existence. He did not teach that indulgences forgave sins or gave permission to sin. He explained indulgences as we find them explained in our catechisms. An intelligent man who still repeats such old calumnies about indulgences is either unpardonably ignorant or maliciously bigoted.

This preaching of Father Tetzel offended the pride of Luther. According to his doctrine it is impossible to control the passions. He certainly did not control his pride and anger. He preached not only against Tetsel and indulgences but used the occasion to explain to the world the revolutionary doctrine which had taken possession of his heart and ripened in his mind during the last two years. "His own wretched moral condition," says Bishop Stang, "was the kernel of his religious system."

Let it therefore be well understood that the preaching of indulgences was in no way the cause, but only the occasion of the change in Martin Luther. "Indeed," concludes Father Denifle, "the doctrine of indulgences in the Catholic Church was only a trifling thing in comparison with Luther's plenary unlimited indulgence not only of the temporal punishment due to sin, but of all sins already committed, or still to be committed, on the one condition to believe and have confidence in Christ."

The false doctrine "we cannot and need not observe the commandments of God." "Christ fulfilled the whole law for us," Luther got not from outward scandals or abuses, nor from misunderstanding Scriptures or the teachings of the Fathers, but in his own heart which had grown cold and consequently weak. It is true he tried to interpret some words of St. Paul in his favor, but in order to do so he had to contradict the unanimous interpretation of the Fathers of the Church.

The books written since 1521 reflect a false, unhappy, insincere, desperate character. Martin Luther practiced what he preached. He kept, or at least pretended to keep a strong faith in Christ but had no regard for virtue.

One of the first qualities of a minister of God, preacher of the Gospel, and reformer of the Church is love for truth and truthfulness, Martin Luther believed in the lawfulness of telling good strong lies; recommended such lying to others, and practised it himself. We shall mention a few of the many instances we find on almost every page of Father Denifle's book to explain and illustrate these statements.

It is well known that Luther gave a written permission to Count Philip of Hesse to marry* a second wife while his first wife was still living. It was not a case of divorce; it was a case of bigamy. The understanding was that the second marriage should be kept secret When the strange news of the second marriage began to be whispered about, the Reformer gave Philip the simple advice to tell "a good strong lie and to deny it." When Philip hesitated to tell "that good strong lie" and threatened to make known the written permission signed by Luther, he (Luther) calmly answered that he would lie himself out of it, and leave him (Philip) to bear the responsibility. When a few young men were about to receive the order of subdeaconship, which implies the vow of celibacy, Martin Luther counseled them to make a mental restriction, "We can not and shall not keep it" His greatest admirers must admit that he had no respect for truth.

To show how this preacher of the Word of Eternal Truth could tell "good strong lies" in important religious matters to deceive innocent nuns and ignorant people we shall briefly narrate two facts.

Martin Luther in his better and happier days said, "The heretics in order to shine before the world as good must represent the Church in their own false and deceitful way as bad." "The heretic takes offense at that which contradicts him: he gets provoked and fights for the spectre of his imagination, by persecuting, calumniating and injuring his opponents." In these words Martin Luther, the religious, describes and condemns Martin Luther, the heretic.

Hardly had Luther left the religious state, which he had praised and defended, not as a novice, but as a university professor, when he turned against the good religious with all the weapons at his command. The private life of the good religious condemned his private life, and the work and popularity of the religious opposed the progress of his new religion. Therefore he tried to make them either leave the monastery, or to make them hateful in the eyes of the people.

In 1518 Luther wrote "The breaking of a vow is for a religious the greatest sacrilege, because he takes away from God what he had given to God of his own free will." In 1521 that same Luther wrote what he calls his best book on religious vows to induce every religious to commit the greatest sacrilege by leaving the convent.

In this his best book Luther gives as one of his principal arguments an historical lie. He quotes St. Bernard, a patriarch of monastic life as an authority against the vows. saying that St Bernard on his deathbed repented his mistake, exclaiming, "tempus perdidiperdite vixi"—"! have lost my time— I have led a bad life." thereby denouncing at the last moment religious life and religious vows. Father Denifle's investigation shows that. St. Bernard spoke these words not on a deathbed but in the pulpit sixteen years before he died. That he made no reference whatever to religious vows. that he repented not of being a religious, but of being a poor religious. That after that sermon St. Bernard established many convents and often praised and recommended religious vows; that consequently Martin Luther shamefully abused the great authority of St. Bernard to lead the nuns to a fatal sacrilegious deed.

The second illustration of the bad faith and insincerity of Luther I wish to mention relates to the Holy Sacrament of Penance—Confession. Luther attacked confession as soon and as much as indulgences. To make the confessions of the monks both odious and ridiculous he asserts that they forgive sins not in the name of Christ, but in the name of the saints. To prove this most serious accusation he quotes a prayer the priest says after the absolution, but the true absolution formula used in his time and at all times used by him and by all priests, according to which the priest asks Jesus Christ in His infinite mercy to forgive the sinner and according to which the priest, in the Name of Jesus Christ, forgives the sins Martin Luther omits entirely.

This may suffice to show that Martin Luther practised what he preached. He asked others to tell lies and he himself gave the example. You will understand that such a Reformer has not the spirit of God; that such a work is not the work of God,—the devil is the father of lies. Count George of Saxony called Luther "the most cold-blooded liar he had ever met." Professor Harnack, the idol of Protestant Germany, admits "that there are absolute contradictions in the theology of Luther."

Still, this Martin Luther is hailed and praised even to-day as the greatest man of Germany, the fearless liberator- of the minds and hearts of the people from the bondage of the Popes, the author of intellectual and religious light and liberty. The little I have said may help to show that he freed not only the priests from their vow of celibacy, the religious from their monastic duties, the people from the laws of the Church, but that he freed himself and all from the Ten Commandments of God,—from all moral duty and responsibility. If such a man is a reformer, then Satan in paradise pretending to free Adam and Eve from the duty of obeying God was a reformer, too.

We may here refer to his vile and vulgar language. Harnack calls it unjust and barbarous. Many of his friends excuse it, saying, it was the custom of the times. Grant it. Does it not prove that Luther, instead of reforming abuses, encouraged the abuses of his time? The same may be said about his habit of drinking, which became notorious and scandalous. Touching his demoralizing doctrine on matrimony I hope to speak on another occasion.

However, you may say that a true reformation followed the work of Luther. -That is true: but Luther was the occasion and not the cause of the true reformation; he woke the sleeping faith and stirred up the cold hearts of the faithful Catholics, brought them together, united them, and they reformed the Church. Luther, and Lutheranism reformed the Church in Germany even as Combes and his allies in the French parliament are reforming the Church in France to-day. Their blasphemous speeches and sacrilegious laws bring together all the bishops, and they, led by the Holy Father and assisted by the priests and loyal laity, fight and finally must conquer. Thus it is to-day, thus it was in the days of Martin Luther.

By speaking thus about Martin Luther and his false and immoral religious principles we do not wish to imply, as Father Denifle also remarks, that the good Protestants of to-day believe them or live up to them. Consciously and still more unconsciously they have returned to the great eternal truths which God has implanted in the human heart, which truths have been explained by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and which are still being taught and expounded by His infallible Church of which the Holy Ghost is the informing Spirit.

The human heart is by its very nature Catholic. The constant and universal preaching of the Catholic Cnurch has also its silent and secret influence on the now Catholic world. May it help them to see that as Luther's life and work were insincere and his doctrine false, thus what Luther says about the teaching* of the Catholic Church is not true. Many of them, indeed, see that Luther was not truthful and saintly but do not see that the Catholic Church is holy and "the pillar of truth."

Monday, October 24, 2005


Source: Works of Martin Luther Vol. 1 (pp.75-101)


The Confitendi Ratio is the culmination of a series of tracts published by Luther after the memorable October 31st, 1517, and before his final breach with Rome. In them is dearly traceable the progress that he was making in dealing with the practical problems offered by the confessional, and which had started the mighty conflict in which he was engaged. They open to us an insight into his own conscientious efforts during the period, when, as a penitent, he; was himself endeavoring to meet every requirement which the Church imposed, in order to secure the assurance of the forgiveness of sins as well as to present the questions which as a father confessor and spiritual adviser he asked those who were under his pastoral care. First of all, we find, therefore, tables of duties and sins, reminding us of the lists of cardinal sins and cardinal virtues in which Roman Catholic books abound.

The main effort here is to promote the most searching self-examination and the most complete enumeration of the details of sins, since, from the Mediaeval standpoint, the completeness of the absolution is proportioned to the exhaustiveness of the confession. Although the first of these briefer tracts closes with its note of warning that the value of the confession is not to be estimated by the enumeration of details, but that it rests solely in the resort that is had to the grace of God and the word of His promise, the transition from the one mode of thought to the other is very apparent.

In the Kurze Unterweisung wie man beichten soll of 1519, of which this is a Latin re-elaboration, and, therefore, intended more for the educated than as a popular presentation, he has advanced so far as to warn against the attempt; to make an exhaustive enumeration of sins. He advises that the confession be made in the most general terms, covering sins both known and unknown. “If one would confess all mortal sins, it may be done in the following words: ‘Yea, my whole life, and all that I do, act, speak, and think, is such as to be deadly and condemnable.’ For if one regard himself as being without mortal sin, this is of all mortal sins the most mortal. F140 According to this maturer view, the purpose of the most searching selfexamination is to exhibit the utter impossibility of ever fathoming the depth of corruption that lies beneath the surface. The reader of the Tessaradecas will recall Luther’s statement there, that it is of God’s great mercy that man is able to see but a very small portion of the sin within him, for were, he to see it in its full extent, he would perish at the sight. The physician need not count every pustule on the body to diagnose the disease as smallpox.

A glance is enough to determine the case. The sins that are discovered are the symptoms of the one radical sin that lies beneath them all. F141 The cry is no longer “Mea pecata, mea pecata ,” as though these recognized sins were the exceptions to a life otherwise without a flaw, but rather, overwhelmed with confusion, the penitent finds in himself nothing but sin, except for what he has by God’s grace alone. Most clearly does Luther enforce this in his exposition of the Fifty-first Psalm, of 1531, a treatise we most earnestly commend to those who desire fuller information concerning Luther’s doctrine of sin, and his conception of the value of confession and absolution. He shows that it is not by committing a particular sin that we become sinners, but that the sin is committed because our nature is still sinful, and that the poisonous tree has grown from roots deeply imbedded in the soil. We are sinners not because particular acts of sin have been devised and carried to completion, but before the acts are committed we are sinners; otherwise such fruits would not have been borne. A bad tree can grow from nothing but a bad root. F142 In his Sermon on Confession and the Sacrament of 1524, he discourages habits of morbid self-introspection, and exposes the perplexities produced by the exactions of the confessional in constantly sinking the probe deeper and deeper into the heart of the already crushed and quivering penitent. He shows how one need not look far to find enough to prompt the confession of utter helplessness and the casting of self unreservedly upon God’s mercy. “Bring to the confession only those sins that occur to thee, and say:

I am so frail and fallen that I need consolation and good counsel. For the confession should be brief.... No one, therefore, should be troubled, even though he have forgotten his sins. If they be forgotten, they are none the less forgiven. For what God considers, is not how thou hast confessed, but His Word and how thou hast believed.” F143 In this is made prominent the radical difference between the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran conception of confession. In the former, it is a part of penance, the second of the three elements of “contrition,” “confession,” and “satisfaction,” an absolute condition of the forgiveness of every sin. In the Roman confessional, sins are treated atomistically. Some are forgiven, while others are still to be forgiven. Every sin stands by itself, and requires separate treatment. No unconfessed sin is forgiven. To be forgiven, a sin must be known and lamented, and confessed in all its details and circumstances to the priest, who, as a spiritual judge, proportions the amount of the satisfaction to be rendered by the penitent to the degree of guilt of the offense, as judged from the facts before him. Thus the debt has to be painfully and punctiliously worked off, sin by sin, as in the financial world a note may be extinguished by successive payments, dollar by dollar.

Everything, therefore, is made to depend upon the fullness and completeness of the confession. It becomes a work, on account of which one is forgiven. The absolution becomes simply the stamp of approval that is placed upon the confession.

The Lutheran conception is centered upon the person of the sinner, rather than on his sins. It is the person who is forgiven his sins. Where the person is forgiven but one sin, all his sins are forgiven; where the least sin is retained, all sins are retained, and none forgiven, for “there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus” ( Romans 8:1). The value of the confession lies not in the confession itself, but in that, through this confession, we turn to Christ and the word of His promise. F144 In Luther’s opinion:, there are three species of confession. F145 One to God, in one’s own heart, which is of absolute necessity, and which the true believer is always making; a second to our neighbor, when we have done him a wrong, which is also of divine command; and, a third to a “brother,” “wherein we receive from the mouth of that brother the word of consolation sent from God.” F146 This last species, the verbum solatii ex or fratris , while not commanded in Holy Scripture, is commended because of the great value which it has for those who feel the need of consolation, and the instruction for which it affords the opportunity. It is only by the individualizing of the confession that the comfort to be derived by the individualizing of the promise can he obtained. Hence, as the Augsburg Confession declares (Article XI.): “Private” [i.e., personal] “confession is retained because of the absolution.” F147 Not that, without the absolution, there is not forgiveness, but that, through it, the one absolved rejoices all the more in the possession of that which he possessed even before the absolution, and goes forth from it strengthened to meet temptation because of the new assurance that he has of God’s love. This form of confession, therefore, instead of being a condition of forgiveness, as is our inner confession to God, is a privilege of the justified man, who, before he has made such confession, has been forgiven, and whose sins that lie still concealed from his knowledge, are just as truly forgiven as those over which he grieves.

The confession, therefore, being entirely voluntary and a privilege, penitents are not to be tormented with “the ocean of distinctions” hitherto urged, such, e.g., as those between mortal and venial sins, whereof he says that “there is no doctor so learned as to draw accurately the distinction”; F148 and between the inner impulses that may arise without the least consent of the will resulting from them, and thosee to which the will, in varying measure, may actually consent. On the contrary, it is not well to look too deeply into the abyss. When Peter began to count the waves, he was lost; when he looked away from them to Jesus, he was saved. Thus, while “the good purpose” to amend the life must be insisted upon as an indispensable accompaniment of every sincere confession, tender consciences may search within for such purpose, and be distressed because they cannot find satisfactory evidence of its presence. How excellent then the advice of this experienced pastor, that those thus troubled should pray for this “purpose” which they cannot detect; for no one can actually pray for such purpose without, in the prayer, having the very object he is seeking.

So also he rules out of the sphere of the confession the violation of matters of purely ecclesiastical regulation. Nothing is to be regarded a sin except that which is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. To make that a sin which God’s law does not make sin, is only the next step to ignoring the sinfulness of that which God has forbidden; for in raising ecclesiastical regulations to the level of divine commands, we lower divine commands to the level of ecclesiastical regulations. Even Private Confession, therefore, useful as it is, when properly understood and practiced, since it rests after all upon ecclesiastical rule, is so little to be urged as a matter of necessity that Luther here defends the suggestion of Gerson, that occasionally one should go to the Lord’s Supper without having made confession, in order thereby to testify that it is in God’s mercy and His promise that we trust, rather than in the value of any particular outward observance.

The treatment of “Reserved Cases,” with which this tract ends, shows the moderation and caution with which Luther is moving, but, at the same time, how the new wine is working in the old bottles, which soon must break. The principle of “the reservation of cases” he discusses in his Address to the German Nobility. It is criticized also in Augsburg Confession, Article XXVIII, 2, 41; Apology of the Augsburg Confession, English Translation, pp. 181, 212. The Roman Catholic dogma is officially presented in the Decrees of Trent, Session XIV, Chapter 7, F150 viz., “that certain more atrocious and more heinous crimes be absolved not by all priests, but only by the highest priests.” Thus the power is centralized in the pope, and is delegated for exercise in ordinary cases to each particular parish-priest within the limits by which he is circumscribed, but no farther.

F151 The contrast is between delegated and reserved rights. The Protestant principle is that all the power of the Church is in the Word of God which it administers; that wherever all the Word is, there also is all the power of the Church; and hence that, according to divine right, all pastors have equal authority. For this reason, Luther here declares that in regard to secret sins, i.e., those known only to God and the penitent, no reservation whatever is to be admitted. But there is still a distinction which he is ready to concede.

It has to do with public offenses where scandal has been given. As “the more flagrant and more heinous crimes,” if public, have to do with a wider circle than the members of a particular parish, the separation for the offense should be as extensive as the scandal which it has created. In the Apology, Melanchthon claims that such reservation should be limited to the ecclesiastical penalties to be: inflicted, but that it had not been intended to comprise also the guilt involved; it was a reservatio poenae , but not a reservatio culpae . F152 Luther suggests the same here, but with more than usual caution.

In the same spirit as in his Treatise on Baptism, he protests against the numerous vows, the binding force of which was a constant subject of treatment in pastoral dealing with souls. The multiplication of vows had caused a depreciation of the one all-embracing vow of baptism.

Nevertheless the pope’s right to give a dispensation he regards as limited entirely to such matters as those concerning which God’s Word has given no command. With matters which concern only the relation of the individual to God, the Pope’s authority is of no avail.

Literature . —CHEMNITZ,MARTIN, Examen Concilii Tridentini, (Preuss edition), 441-456.STEITZ, G.E., Die Privatbeichte und Privatabsolution d. luth. Kirche aus d. Quellen des XVI. Jahrh., 1854. PFISTERER, G.F., Luthers Lehre yon der Beichte, 1857.KLIEFOTH, TH., Lit. Abhandlungen, 2: Die Beichte und Absolution, 1856.FISCHER, E., Zur Geschichte der evangelischen Beichte, 2 vols., 1902-1903 RIETSCHEL, G., Lehrbuch der Liturgik, vol. 2, particularly secs. 44,45, Luthers Auffassung der Beichte alld Luthers Au/fassung von der Absolution. KOESTLIN,JULIUS, Luther’s Theology (English Translation), 1: 357, 360, 400. See also Smalcald Articles, Book of Concord (English Translation), 326, 899. HENRY E. JACOBS. MOUNT AIRY, PHILADELPHIA.


FIRST IN this our age, the consciences of almost all have been led astray by human doctrines into a false trust in their own righteousness and their own works, and knowledge about faith and trust in God has almost: ceased.

Therefore, for him who is about to go to confession, it is before all things necessary that he should not place his trust in his confession — either the confession which he is about to make or the confession which he has made — but that, with complete fullness of faith, he put his trust only in the most gracious promise of God; to wit, he must be altogether certain that He, Who has promised pardon to the man who shall confess his sins, will most faithfully fulfill His promise. For we are to glory, not because we confess, but because He has promised pardon to those who do confess; that is, not because of the worthiness or sufficiency of our confession (for there is no such worthiness or sufficiency), but because of the truth and. certitude of His promise, as says Psalm 25:11: “For Thy Name’s sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity.” It does not say, “for my sake,” or “for my worthiness’ sake,” or “for my name’s sake,” but “for Thy Name’s sake.”

So it is evident that the work of confession is nothing else than an occasion by which God is called to the fulfillment of His own promise, or by which we are trained to believe that we shall without doubt obtain the promise. It is just as if we were to say: “Not unto us, O Lord, but unto Thy Name give glow, and rejoice, not because we have blessed Thee, but because Thou hast blessed us, as Thou sayest by Ezekiel.” Let this be the manner of our confession, that he who glories may glory in the Lord, and may not commend himself, but may glorify the grace of God; and it shall come to pass that “confession and majesty shall be the work of God.’ F153 <19B103> Psalm 111:3.


But God, for the glory of His grace and mercy, has promised pardon. And this call be proved from Scripture. First from Psalm 32:5, “I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” Then from 2 Samuel 12:13, from which this Psalm is taken.

David first said, “I have sinned against the Lord,” and Nathan straightway said, “The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.” Again, from Jeremiah 18:8, “If that nation turn away from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do.” Once more from 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The true definition of the righteous man is found in Proverbs 18:17, “The righteous man is his own first accuser,” F154 that is to say, he is righteous because he accuses himself. The verse goes on to say, “His neighbor (i.e., Christ) cometh and searcheth him,” that is, He seeketh him, and suffereth him not to perish; He will even find him and bring him back from the depths of hell. Hence Joshua 7:19 also calls the confessing of sin the glorifying of God, saying to Achan, “My son, give glory to God, and confess, and tell me what thou hast done.” St.

Jerome comments on this passage, “Confession of sin is praise of God.”

No wonder! For he who confesses his own sins speaks truth; but God is truth; therefore he also confesses God. Thus Manasseh, King of Judah, says in his most beautiful Prayer, F155 which is most excellently suited for one who goes to confession, “But Thou, Lord, according to Thy goodness hast promised repentance for the remission of sins, etc.” Truly, “according to Thy goodness Thou hast promised,” for our confession is nothing unless the promise of God is sure, and it is altogether of His divine goodness that He has promised remission, which could not be obtained by any righteousness, unless He had given the promise. Thus faith in that promise is the first and supreme necessity for one who is about to go to confession, lest, perchance, he may presumptuously think that by his own diligence, his own memory, his own strength, he is provoking God to forgive his sins.

Nay, rather it is God Himself Who, with ready forgiveness, will anticipate his confession, and allure and provoke him, by the goodness of His sweet promise, to accept remission and to make confession.


Before a man confesses to the priest, who is the vicar, he ought first to confess to God, Who is the Principal. But he should regard this matter seriously, since nothing escapes and nothing deceives the eye of God.

Wherefore he ought here, without pretense, to ponder his purpose to lead a better life and his hatred of sin. For there is scarcely anything which deceives more penitents than that subtle and profound dissimulation by which they oftentimes pretend, even to themselves, a violent haired of sin and a purpose to lead a better life. The unhappy outcome proves their insincerity, for after confession they quickly return to their natural bent, and, as though relieved of the great burden of confession, they live again at ease, careless and unmindful of their purpose; by which one fact they can be convicted of their sad pretending. Wherefore a man ought in this matter to be altogether frank, and to speak of himself within himself just as he feels himself moved to speak, just as he could wish to speak if there were no punishment, no God, no commandment, and just as he would speak in the ear of some familiar friend, to whom he would not be ashamed to reveal every-tiring about himself. As he could wish to speak quite freely to such a one about his faults, so let him speak to God, Who loves us far more than we love ourselves.

For if there is any one who does not find himself seriously inclined toward a good life, I know not whether it is safe for him to make confession. This I do know, that it were better for him to stay away from confession. For in this matter he need not care for the commandment of the Church, whether it excommunicate him or inflict some lesser punishment. It is better for him not to listen to the Church, than, at his own peril, to come to God with a false heart. In the latter case he sins against God, in the former case only against the Church; if, indeed, he sin at all in such a case by not listening to the Church, seeing that the Church has no right to command anything in which there is peril to the soul, and a case of this kind is always excepted from the commandments of the Church. For whatever the Church commands, she commands for God and for the soul’s salvation, presuming that a man is capable of receiving her commandment and able to fulfill it. If this presumption falls, the precept does not hold, since nothing can be decreed contrary to the commandments of God, which bind the conscience.

It is certainly to be feared that many come to confession out of fear of the commandment of the Church, who in their hearts are still pleased with their former evil life.


If, however, a man is entangled in these difficulties, fearing to stay away from confession, and yet perceiving (if the truth were told) that he lacks the disposition toward: a better life, let him lay hold of the one thing that remains,” and hear the counsel of the Prophet, “Pour out your heart: before Him”; and let him abase himself, and openly confess to God the whole evil of his heart, and pray for and desire a good purpose. Who, indeed, is so proud as to think he does not need this counsel? There is no one whose good purpose is as great as it ought to be. Let a man, therefore, fearlessly seek from God what he knows he cannot find in himself, until the thought of a better life begin seriously and truly to please him, and his own life to displease him. For the doctrines about the forming of a good purpose, which have been handed down to us and are everywhere taught, are not to be understood in the sense that a man should of himself form and work out this good purpose. Such an understanding is death and perdition; as one says, “There is death in the pot, O man of God.” And yet very many are grievously tormented by this idea, because they are taught to strive after the impossible. But in very despair, and pouring out his heart before God, a man should say, “Lord God, I have: not what I ought to have, and cannot do what I ought to do. Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt.” For thus St. Augustine prays in his Confessions. F156


But what has been said about a good purpose, I wish to have understood with caution. For a good purpose ought to be twofold. First, a purpose with regard to open, mortal sins, such as adultery, homicide, fornication, theft, robbery, usury, slander, etc. The purpose to avoid these sins belongs properly to sacramental Confession, and to confession before God it belongs at any moment after the sins have been committed; according to the word of Ecclesiasticus, “My son, hast thou sinned? Do so no more, but ask pardon for thy former sins,” and again, “Make no tarrying to turn to the Lord.” In the second place, however, as regards all the sins they call “venial” (of which more below), it is entirely vain to labor after the forming of a good purpose, because if one rightly considers himself, he will find such a purpose altogether impossible, if he wishes henceforth to live in the flesh; since (as Augustine says) this life cannot be lived without such sins as unnecessary and thoughtless laughter, language, imaginations, sights, sounds, etc. As regards such things it is uncertain whether they are sins, or temptations by which merit is increased. And yet it is marvelous how a penitent is vexed and worried in these matters by the present wordy manner of confessing. A purpose ought to be certain, and directed toward things which are certain and which can be shunned in common living, like the aforesaid open, mortal sins.


Whether the hidden sins of the heart, which are known only to God and the man who commits them, belong to sacramental confession or not, is more than I can say. I should prefer to say that they do not. For the need of confessing these sins can in no way be proved, either by reason or by Scripture, and I have often suspected that it was all an invention of avaricious or curious or tyrannical prelates, who took this way of bringing the people of Christ to fear them. This is, in my opinion, laying hands on the judgment of God and is a violation of the rights of God, especially if men are forced to it. F157 Here comes in that whole sea of laws and impossible questions about “cases of sin,” F158 etc., since it is impossible for a man to know when he has in his heart committed the mortal sins of pride, lust, or envy. Nay, how can the priest know this, when he is set in judgment upon mortal sins alone? Can he know another’s heart who does not thoroughly know his own? Hence it comes that many people confess many things, not knowing whether they are sins or not; and to this they are driven ‘by that sentence of Gregory, “A good mind will confess guilt even where there is no guilt.”

They [i.e., the priests] wish that what is offered to God shall be offered to themselves — so immense is the arrogance of priests and pontiffs, and so haughty the pride of the Pharisees — and they do not see, meanwhile, that if this offering were made to man, the whole of life would be nothing else than confession, and that even this confession would have to be confessed in another confession by the man who fears guilt where there is no guilt, since even good works are not without guilt, and Job is afraid of all his works.


Let some one else than, explain this. I am content with this, that not all the sins of the heart are to be confessed. But if some are to be confessed, I say that it is only those which a man clearly knows that he has purposed in his heart against the commandments of God; F159 not, therefore, mere thoughts about a virgin or a woman, nor, on the other hand, the thoughts of a woman about a youth, nor the affections or ardor of lust, that is to say, the inclinations of the one sex toward the other, however unseemly, nor, I would add, even passions of this sort; for these thoughts are frequently passions inspired by the flesh, the world, or the devil, which the soul is compelled unwillingly to bear, sometimes for a long while, even for a whole day, or a week; as the apostle Paul confesses of his thorn in the flesh.

The consequence of all this is that a purpose to avoid these things is impossible and vain and deceitful, for the inclinations and desires of the sexes for one another do not cease so long as occasion is given them, and the devil is not quiet, and our whole nature is sin. But those who wish to be without sin and who believe that man is sound and whole, erect these crosses for us that we may not cease to confess (even to the priest) what things soever tickle us never so little. Therefore, if these hidden things of the heart ought to be confessed at all, only those things should be confessed which involve full consent to the deed; and such things happen very rarely or never to those who wish to lead pious lives, even though they are constantly harassed by desires and passions.


At this place we should also speak of that race of audacious theologians who are born to the end that the true fear of God may be extinguished in human hearts, and that they may smite the whole world with false terrors.

It might seem that Christ was speaking of them when he told of “terrors from heaven.” These are the men who have undertaken to distinguish for us between mortal and venial sin. When men have heard that a certain sin is venial, they are careless and wholly leave off fearing God, as if He counted a venial sin for naught; again, if they have heard that the consent of the heart is a mortal sin, and if they have failed to listen to the precepts of the Church, or have committed some other trifling offense, there is no place in their hearts for Christ, because of the confusion made by the roaring sea of a troubled conscience.

Against these teachers it should be known that a man ought to give up in despair the idea that he can ever confess all his mortal sins, and that the doctrine which is contained in the Decretals F160 and is current in the Church, to wit, that: every Christian should once in a year make confession of all his sins (so the words run), is either a devilish and most murderous doctrine, or else is sorely in need of a loose interpretation.

Not all sins, I say, either mortal or venial, are to be confessed, but it should be known that after a man has used all diligence in confessing, he has yet confessed only the smaller part of his sins. How do we know this? Because the Scripture, says, “Cleanse Thou me from hidden sins, O Lord.” These hidden sins God alone knows. And again it says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” Even this holy prophet confesses that his heart is unclean.

And all the holy Church prays, “Thy will be done”; and thus confesses that she does not do the will of God, and is herself a sinner.

Furthermore, we are so far from being able to know or confess all the mortal sins that even our good works are damnable and mortal, if God were to judge with strictness, and not to receive them with forgiving mercy. If, therefore, all mortal sins are to be confessed, it can be done in a brief word, by saying at once, “Behold, all that I am, my life, all that I do and say, is such that it is mortal and damnable”; according to what is written in <19E302> Psalm 143:2, “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, for in Thy sight shall no flesh living be justified”; and in the Epistle to the Romans 7:14 “But I am carnal, sold under sin; I know that in my flesh dwelleth no good thing; the evil that I would not, that I do, etc.”

But of all mortal sins, this is the most mortal, not to believe that we are hateful in the sight of God because of damnable and mortal sin. To such madness these theologians, with this rule of theirs, strive zealously and perniciously to drag the consciences of men, by teaching that venial sins are to be distinguished from mortal sins, and that according to their own fashion. For we read in Augustine, Cyprian, and other Fathers that those things which are bound and loosed are not mortal sins, but criminal offenses, i.e., those acts of which men can be accused and convicted.

Therefore, by the term “all sins” in the Decretal we should understand those things of which a man is accused, either by others or by iris own conscience. By “conscience” I mean a right conscience, not a conscience seared and deformed by human traditions, but a conscience which is expert in the commandments of God, and which knows that much more is to be left solely to the goodness of God than is to be committed to its own diligence.

But what if the devil, when a man is dying, raises the obstacle of sins which have not been confessed, as we read in many of the stories? F161 I answer, Let these sins go along with those of which it is said, “Who can understand his faults?” and with those others of which it is written, “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant.” Whatever stories have been made up contrary to these sayings, have either been invented under some devilish delusion, or are not rightly understood. It is enough that thou hast had the will to confess all things, if thou hadst known them or hadst been able. God wills that His mercy be glorified. But how? In our righteousness? Nay, in our sins and miseries. The Scriptures should be esteemed more highly than any stories.


By thus getting down to the thing itself, F162 the penitent, of whom I have so often spoken, does away entirely with that riot of distinctions; to wit, whether he has committed sin by fear humbling him to evil, or by love inflaming him to evil; what sins he has committed against the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity; what sins against the four cardinal virtues; what sins by the five senses; what of the seven mortal sins, what against the seven sacraments, what against the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, what against the eight beatitudes, what of the nine peccata aliena , what against the twelve Articles of Faith, what of the silent sins, what of the sins crying to heaven; or whether he has sinned by or against anything else. F163 That hateful and wearisome catalogue of distinctions is altogether useless, nay, it is altogether harmful. Some have added to these evils a most troublesome business of “circumstances.”

By all this they have produced two results. First, the penitent makes so much of these trifles that he is not able really to give heed to the thing of chief importance, namely, the desire for a better life. He is compelled to tax his memory with such a mass of details, and so to fill his heart with the business of rightly expressing his cares and anxieties, while seeking out forgotten sins or a way of confessing them, that he entirely loses the present pangs of conscience, and the whole profit and salutary effect of confession. When he is absolved, therefore, he rejoices not so much because he is absolved, as because he has freed himself once for all from the wretched worry of confession; for what he has been seeking has been not the absolution, but rather the end of the laborious nuisance of confessing. Thus, while we sleep secure, everything is upset again. In the second place, such penitents weary the confessor, stealing his time, and standing in the way of other penitents.

We ought, therefore, to look briefly at the Commandments of God, in which, if they are rightly understood, all sins are, without doubt, contained.

F164 And not even all of these are to be considered, but the last two Commandments are to be excluded entirely from confession. Confession should be brief, and should be a confession chiefly of those sins which cause pain at the time of confession, and, as they say, “move to confession.” For the sacrament of confession was instituted for the quieting, not for the disturbing, of the conscience.

For example, as regards the Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” let the penitent quickly say in what manner he has given place to lust, either in act or word, or by consent, just as though he were describing himself entirely, with all his limbs and senses, in that Commandment. Why, then, should he uselessly bring in the five senses, the mortal sins, and the rest of that ocean of distinctions? So in the case of the Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Let him quickly say by what kind of wrath he has sinned, whether by hatred, slander or cursing, or by the act of murder itself.

And so with the rest; as I have tried to show in my Preceptorium and my writings on the Decalogue. F165 Let it not disturb anyone that in the Decretals on Penance and in the IV.

Book of the Sentences F166 this matter is differently treated. For they all are full of human inventions; and no wonder! They have taken everything they say out of a certain apocryphal and unlearned book called De vera et falsa poenitentia , F167 which is widely circulated, and ascribed, by a lying title, to St. Augustine.


In making confession diligence should be used to distinguish with great care between sins committed against the Commandments of God and sins committed against the statutes of men. I say this because of the mad opinion, which is now prevalent, that sins which are committed against the decretals of the popes are to be noted with wondrous care, but sins committed against God, with little or none.

Let me give you some illustrations:

You will find priests and monks who are horrified, as at some prodigy, if they stammer, or repeat even a syllable in the Canon of the Mass, F168 though this may be a natural defect of the tongue, or an accident, and is not a sin. Again, there is no priest who does not confess that he was distracted, or failed to read his Preparatoria , or other old- womanish trifles of the kind. There was one who, even when he was at the altar celebrating, called a priest three times and confessed that something had happened. Indeed, I have seen these endless jests of the devil taken by many so seriously that they almost lost their minds. And yet the fact that they cherished hatred or envy in their hearts, that they had cursed before or after Mass, that they had intentionally lied or slandered, all this moved them not at all. Whence this perversity? From the “traditions of men who turn from the truth,” as the Apostle says. Because we have neglected to offer God a confession of true sins, He has given us up to our reprobate sense, so that we delude ourselves with fictitious sins and deprive ourselves of the benefit of the sacrament, F169 and the more we seem to seek it, the more this is true.

Of this stuff are those who make the neglect of the canonical hours F170 an almost irremissible sin, while they easily remit fornication, which is against the commandments of God, or the neglect of duty toward our neighbor.

These are they who so approve of that dream or story about St. Severinus F171 that they think they cannot read their Hours in advance, or afterward make them up without sin, even if they have been hindered at the proper time by the most just cause, such as ministering to the necessities of a neighbor, Which is of six hundred times more merit than their worthless and all but damnable prayers. So far do they go in their failure to observe that the commandment of God, in the service of one’s neighbor, should be preferred to the commandment of merit, in the thoughtless mumbling of the words of the Hours. To this class too belong those who think it a crime to speak or to call a boy during the Canon of the Mass even in case of the greatest necessity or danger. Finally, these men make the fasting of nature one thing, and the fasting of the Church another thing, and if one has thoughtlessly swallowed some drops of liquid, or has taken some medicine, they exclude him utterly from the sacrament, and make it a sin, even the very greatest sin. I wonder whence these men have the authority to set up such laws as these and to trouble consciences with sins of their own invention. By these illustrations other, similar cases may be judged.

Of the laity, one confesses that he has tasted sweets, another that he has listened to jests, smelled perfumes, touched things that were soft.

Let us come to greater things! The common people are persuaded that to eat butter or eggs on fast-days is heretical; so cruelly do the laws of men rave in the Church of God! And we unconcernedly profit by this superstition of the people, nay,, by thins tyranny of ours, caring nothing that the commandments of God are taken in jest, so long as men tremble and turn pale at our laws. No one calls an adulterer a heretic; fornication is a light sin; schisms and discords, inspired, preserved and increased by the authority and in the name of the Church, are merits; but to eat meat on Friday is the sum of all heresies. Thus we teach the people of Christ, and permit them to be taught!

But I am disgusted, wearied, shamed, distressed at the endless chaos of superstitions which has been inflicted upon this most salutary sacrament of confession by the ignorance of true theology, which has been its own tyrant ever since the time that men have been making its laws.


I advise, therefore, as John Gemon F172 used to advise, that a man shall now and then go to the altar or to the Sacrament “with a scruple of conscience,” that is, without confession, even if he has been immoderate in drinking, talking, or sleeping, or has done something else that is wrong, or has not prayed a single one of the Hours. Would you know why this advice is given? Listen! It is in order that a man may learn to trust more in the mercy of God than in his own confession or in his own diligence. For enough cannot be done toward shaking that accursed trust in our own works. It should be done for this reason, too, that if a man is assailed by some necessity, whether temptation or death, and those hidden sins begin to appear which he has never been able to see or to confess, then he may have, ready and prepared, a practice of trusting in the mercy which God offers to the unworthy; according to the word, “His heart is prepared to trust in the Lord.” F173 How shall a man hope, in the face of the sudden inroads of such a great mass of sins, if he has not learned in this life, while there was time, to hope in the Lord against the smallest, nay, against even an imagined sin? If you say, “What if this were despising the sacrament and tempting God?” I answer, It will not be tempting God if it is done for the glory of God; that is, if you do it, not because you despise God’s sacrament nor because you want to tempt Him (since you are ready to make the fullest confession), but only in order that you may accustom a troubled conscience to trust in God and not to tremble at the rustling of every falling leaf. Do not doubt that everything pleases God which is done to the end that you may have trust in Him, since it is all His glory that we trust with our whole heart in His mercy.

I do not wish, however, that a man should always go to the altar without confession; but I say that it should be done sometimes, and then only for the arousing of trust in God and the destroying of trust in our own act of confession. For a man will hardly go to mass without guilt, if he thinks his forgiveness sure because he has confessed, rather than because God is merciful; nay, this is altogether an impiety. The summa summarum F174 is, “Blessed are all they that put their trust in the Lord.” When you hear this word, “in the Lord,” know that he is unblessed who puts his trust in anything whatsoever that is not the Lord Himself. And such a man those “artists of confession” make; for what has the “art of confessing” done except to destroy the art and practice of confiding, until at last we have learned to confess a great deal, to confide not at all.


In the matter of reserved cases, F175 many are troubled. For my own part, because I know that the laws of men ought to be subject to mercy, and be applied with mildness rather than with severity, I follow the custom and advice of those who think that in hidden sin, no case is to be reserved, and therefore all penitents are to be absolved whose sins are hidden, as are the sins of the flesh, that is to say, every form of lust, the procuring of abortion, and the like. For it should not be presumed that any pope would be willing, in matters of hidden sin, to set so many snares and dangers for men’s souls. But when a sin has been public, an open reserved case, it should be left entirely to the authorities of the Church, no matter whether they are just or unjust. In such case, however, the confessor may so moderate the power of the keys F176 as not to let the penitent depart without absolution, for those sins at least which he knows to be not reserved. Just now, to be sure, I am in doubt, and have not yet found a place for the proper discussion of it, whether any sin can be reserved, or ever is reserved, so far as the remission of guilt F177 is concerned; that the penalty can be reserved is not doubted; but of this let others judge. But even in the remission of the penalty, neither the confessor nor the penitent should be too much troubled by scruples. The penalty I have especially in mind is excommunication, or any other censure of the Church — what they call their lightnings and thunders. Since excommunication is only penalty and not guilt, and can be laid upon the innocent and allowed to remain upon the man who has returned to his senses, and, furthermore, since it is sometimes necessary to put off satisfaction, because of the length of the journey required or because of poverty; therefore the penitent who is excommunicated or under censure should be absolved from all his sins, if he seeks absolution, and be dismissed to the higher authorities to be loosed from excommunication and to make satisfaction. Thus he should be absolved in the judgment of God and of conscience from guilt and sins, and sent to the judgment of the Church to be freed from the penalty. This is what is meant when it is said that the desire to make satisfaction F178 suffices for the absolving of a sinner.


The subject of vows should also have consideration, for it is almost the greatest question involved in this whole matter, and gives rise to much more confusion than does the reservation of cases, though this, too, rules its Babylon with great tyranny. If one would wish to speak freely on this subject, “the land would not be able to bear all his words,” as the impious Amaziah says of Amos.

The first and best plan would be for the pontiffs and preachers to dissuade and deter the people from their proneness to the making of vows, to show them how the Visiting of the Holy Land, Rome, Compostella, F179 and other holy places, as well as zeal in fastings, prayers, and works chosen by themselves, are nothing when compared with the works commanded by God and the vows which we have taken in baptism. F180 These vows every one can keep in his own home by doing his duty toward his neighbors, his wife, his children, his servants, his masters, and thereby gain incomparably greater merit than he can find by fulfilling vows to do works chosen by himself and not commanded by God. The foolish opinion of the common people and the ostentation of the Bulls F181 have brought it to pass that these vows of pilgrimages, fastings, prayers, and other works of the kind far outweigh in importance the works of God’s Law, although we never have sufficient strength to do these last works. For my part, I could wish that there should not henceforth be any vows among Christian people except those which we take in baptism, and this, indeed, seems formerly to have been the case; and I would wish all to understand what is required of them, namely, that they be obedient to the commandments of God. For the vows of baptism seem to have been altogether cheapened by the too great practice, parade, dispensation, and redemption of these other vows. Let us put all our strength to the task, I say, and we shall find that we have vowed in baptism more than we are ever able to perform.

Some vows, including oaths, are made to men, others to God. Those made to men are admitted to be binding, so far and so long as he may desire, to whom the vow is made. Accordingly, it should be known that, as Gerson correctly thinks, the oaths and vows usually taken in the Universities or to worldly lords F182 ought not to be so rigorously regarded that every violation of them should be regarded as the breaking of a vow or an act of perjury. It is more just not to consider vows of this kind broken unless they are violated out of contempt and obstinate malice. It is otherwise in things that are vowed to God.

In vows made to God, I see dispensation granted by the pontiffs, but I shall never be persuaded that he is safe to whom such a dispensation is granted.

For such a vow is of divine law, and no pontiff, either mediate or supreme, has any more authority in this matter than any Christian brother, though I know that certain of the Decretals and the Glosses on the Decretals venture many statements about it which I do not believe.

This, however, I would readily believe, that a vow of chastity given before puberty, neither holds nor binds, because he who made the vow was ignorant of what he was promising, since he had not yet felt the “thorn of the flesh.” It is my pious opinion that such a vow is counted by God as foolish and void, and that the fathers of the monasteries should be forbidden by a general edict of the Church to receive a man before his twentieth, or at least his eighteenth, year, and girls before their fifteenth or sixteenth, if we are really concerned about the care of souls.

It is also a great piece of boldness, in commuting or remitting vows, to impose what they call “a better work.” In the eyes of God there is no difference in works, and He judges works not according to their number or greatness, but according to the disposition of the doer; moreover, “the Lord is the weigher of spirits,” as the Scripture says, and He often prefers the manual labor of the poor artisan to the fasting and prayer of the priest, of which we find an illustration in St. Anthony and the shoemaker of Alexandria. F183 Since these things are so, who shall be so bold and presumptuous as to commute a vow into some “better work”? But these things will have to be spoken of elsewhere, for here we have undertaken to speak of confession only as it concerns the Commandments of God, for the quieting and composing of confidences which are troubled by scruples.

I shall add but one thing;. There are many who set perilous snares for married folk, especially in case of incest; and when any one (for these things can happen, nay, alas! they do happen) has defiled the sister of his wife, or his mother-in-law, or one related to him in any degree of consanguinity, they at once deprive him of the right to pay the debt of matrimony, and nevertheless they suffer him not, nay, they forbid him, to desert his wife’s bed. What monstrous thing is this? What new remedy for sin? What sort of satisfaction for sin? Does it not show how these tyrants make laws for other men’s infirmity and indulge their own? Show me the law-giver, however penitent and chaste, who would allow such a law to be made for himself. They put dry wood on the fire and say, Do not burn; they put a man in a woman’s arms and forbid him to touch her or know her; and they do this on their own authority and without the command of God.

What madness! My advice is that the confessor beware of tyrannical decrees or laws, and confidently sentence a sinner to some other penance, or totally abstain from punishing, leaving free to him the right of matrimony which has been given him not by man, but by God. For no angel in heaven, still less any man on earth, has the power to enjoin this penance, which is the burning occasion of continual sin. Wherefore they are not to be heeded who wish such things to be done, and the penitent is to be freed from this scruple and peril.

But who may recount all the tyrannies with which the troubled consciences of penitent and confessing Christians are daily disturbed, by means of death-bringing “constitutions” and customs, administered by silly manikins, who only know how to bind and place on the shoulders of men burdens grievous and heavy to be borne, which they themselves are not willing to move with a finger? So this most salutary sacrament of penance has become nothing else than. a mere tyranny of the great, then a disease, and a means to the increase of sins. Thus in the end it signifies one thing and works another thing for miserable sinners, because priestlings, impious and unlearned in the law of the Lord, administer the Church of God, which they have filled with their laws and their dreams.

(Here follows, in the original, a paraphrase of the apocryphal Prayer of Manasseh)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Introduction & Translator's Note to the Works of Martin Luther (Philadelphia Edition)

Source: Works of Martin Luther vol. I (Philadelphia edition) pp.v-x

No historical study of current issues — in politics or social science or theology — can far proceed without bringing the student face to face with the principles asserted by the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century and its great leader, Martin Luther. He has had many critics and many champions, but neither his critics nor his champions feel that the last word concerning him has been spoken, for scarcely a year passes that does not witness the publication of a new biography.

Had Luther been nothing more than a man of his own time and his own nation the task of estimating him would long since have been completed. A few exhaustive treatises would have answered all demands. But the Catalogue of the British Museum, published in 1894, contains over two hundred folio pages, averaging about thirty-five titles to the page, of books and pamphlets written either by or about him, that have been gathered into this single collection, in a land foreign to the sphere of his labors, and this list has been greatly augmented since 1894. Above all other historical characters that have appeared since the first years of Christianity, he is a man of the present day no less than of the day in which he lived.

But Luther can be properly known and estimated only when he is allowed to speak for himself. He should be seen not through the eyes of others, but through our own. In order to judge the man we must know all fides of the man, and read the heaviest as well as the lightest of his works, the more scientific and theological as well as the more practical and popular, his informal letters as well as his formal treatises. We must take account of the time of each writing and the circumstances under which it was composed, of the adversaries against whom he was contending, and of the progress which he made in his opinions as time went on. The great fund of primary sources which the historical methods of the last generation have made available should also be laid under contribution to shed light upon his statements and his attitude toward the various questions involved in his life-struggles.

As long as a writer can be read only in the language or languages in which he wrote, this necessary closer contact with his personality can be enjoyed only by a very limited circle of advanced scholars. But many of these will be grateful for a translation into their vernacular for more rapid reading, from which they may turn to the standard text when a question of more minute criticism is at stake. Even advanced students appreciate accurately rendered and scholarly annotated translations, by which the range of the leaders of human thought, with whom it is possible for them to be occupied, may be greatly enlarged. Such series of translations as those comprised in the well-edited Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Libraries of the Fathers have served a most excellent purpose.

In the series introduced by this volume the attempt is made to render a similar service with respect to Luther. This is no ambitious project to reproduce in English all that he wrote or that fell from his lips in the lecture-room or in the pulpit. The plan has been to furnish within the Space of ten volumes a selection of such treatises as are either of most permanent value, or supply the best means for obtaining a true view of his many-sided literary activity and the sources of his abiding influence. The aim is not to popularize the writer, but to make the English, as far as possible, a faithful reproduction of the German or Latin. The work has been done by a small group of scholarly Lutheran pastors, residing near each other, and jointly preparing the copy for the printer. The first draft of each translation was thoroughly discussed and revised in a joint conference of the translators before fired approval. Representative scholars, who have given more or less special study to Luther, have been called in to prepare some of the introductions. While the part contributed by each individual is credited at the proper place, it must yet be added that my former colleague, the late Rev. Prof. Adolph Spaeth, D.D., LL.D. (died June 25, 1910), was actively engaged as the Chairman of the Committee that organized the work, determined the plan, and, with the undersigned, made the first selection of the material to be included.

The other members of the Committee are the Rev. T.E. Schmauk, D.D., LL.D., the Rev. L.D. Reed, D.D., the Rev. W.A. Lambert, J.J. Schindel, A.

Steimle, A.T.W. Steinhaeuser, and C.M. Jacobs, D.D.; upon the five last named the burden of preparing the translations and notes has rested.

Their work has been laborious and difficult. Luther’s complaints concerning the seriousness of his task in attempting to teach the patriarch Job to speak idiomatic German might doubtless have found an echo in the experience of this corps of scholars in forcing Luther into idiomatic English.. We are confident, however, that, as in Luther’s case, so also here, the general verdict of readers will be that they have been eminently successful. It should also be known that it has been purely a labor of love, performed in the midst of the exacting duties of large pastorates, and to serve the Church, to whose ministry they have consecrated their lives.

The approaching jubilee of the Reformation in 1917 will call renewed attention to the author of these treatises. These volumes have been prepared with especial reference to the discussions which, we have every reason to believe, will then occur.




THE languages from which the following translations have been made are the Latin and the German, — the Latin of the German Universities, the German of the people, and both distinctively Luther’s. In the Latin there is added to the imperfection of the form, when measured by classical standards, the difficulty of expressing in an old language the new thoughts of the Reformation. German was regarded even by Gibbon, two hundred and fifty years later, as a barbarous idiom. Luther, especially in his earlier writings, struggled to give form to a language and to express the highest thoughts in it. Where Luther thus struggled with two languages, it is evident that they have no easy task who attempt to reproduce the two in a third.

Modern Germans find it convenient to read Luther’s German in a modernized text, sometimes rather hastily and uncritically constructed, and altogether unsafe as a basis for translation. Where the Germans have had to modify, a translator meets double difficulties. It may be puzzling for him to know Luther’s exact meaning; it is even more puzzling to find the exact English equivalent.

In order to overcome these difficulties, in part at least, and present a translation both accurate and readable, the present group of translators have not simply distributed the work among themselves, but have together revised each translation as it was made. The original translator, at a meeting of the group, has submitted his work to the rest for criticism and correction, amounting at times to retranslation. No doubtful point, whether in sense or in sound, has been passed by unchallenged. Even with such care, the translation is not perfect. In places a variant reading is possible, a variant interpretation plausible. We can only claim that an honest effort has been made to be both accurate and clear, and submit the result of our labors to a fair and scholarly criticism. Critics can hardly be more severe than we have been to one another. If they find errors, it may be that we have seen them, and preferred the seeming error to the suggested correction; if not, we can accept criticism from others as gracefully as from each other.

The sources from which our translations have been made are the best texts available in each case. In general, these are found in the Weimar Edition (D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesammtausgabe. Weimar. Hermann Bohlaus Nachfolger, 1883 ff.), so far as this is completed. A more complete and fairly satisfactory edition is that known as the Erlangen Edition, in which the German and Latin works are published in separate series, 1826ff. The text of the Berlin Edition (Luthers Werke, herausgegeben von Pfarrer D. Dr.BUCHWALD, etc., Berlin, C.A.

Schwetschke und Sohn, third edition, 1905, ten volumes) is modernized, and where it has been used it has been carefully compared with the more critical texts. The two editions ofWALCH — the original, published 1740- 1753, in twenty-four volumes, at Halle, and the modern edition, known as the St. Louis, Mo., edition, 1880 ff. — are entirely German, and somewhat modernized. For our purpose they could be used only as helps in the interpretation, and not as standard texts for translation. A very convenient and satisfactory critical text of selected treatises is to be found in OTTO CLEMEN, Luthers Werke in Auswahl, Bonn, 4 vols., of which two volumes appeared in 1912.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


Source: Works of Martin Luther (Philadelphia edition) pp. 7-11

Luther's Preface to the First Part of his German Works (edition of 1539)

OF I would gladly have seen all my books forgotten and destroyed; if only for the reason that I am afraid of the example. For I see what benefit it has brought to the churches, that men have begun to collect many books and great libraries, outside and alongside of the Holy Scriptures; and have begun especially to scramble together, without any distinction, all sorts of “Fathers,” “Councils,” and “Doctors.” Not only has good time been wasted, and the study of the Scriptures neglected; but the pure understanding of the divine Word is lost, until at last the Bible has come to lie forgotten in the dust under the bench.

Although it is both useful and necessary that the writings of some of the Fathers and the decrees of some of the Councils should be preserved as witnesses and records, nevertheless, I think, est modus in rebus , and it is no pity that the books of many of the Fathers and Councils have, by God’s grace, been lost. If they had alt remained, one could scarce go in or out for books, and we should still have nothing better than we find in the Holy Scriptures.

Then, too, it was our intention and our hope, when we began to put the Bible into German, that there would be less writing, and more studying and reading of the Scriptures. For all other writings should point to the Scriptures, as John pointed to Christ, when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” In this way every one may drink for himself from the fresh spring, as all the Fathers have had to do when they wished to produce anything worth while. Neither Fathers nor Councils nor we ourselves will do so well, even when our very best is done, as the Holy Scriptures have done; that is to say, we shall never do so well as God Himself. Even though for our salvation we need to have the Holy Spirit and faith and divine language and divine works, nevertheless we must let the Prophets and Apostles sit at the desk, while we sit at their feet and listen to what they say. It is not for us to say what they must hear.

Since, however, I cannot prevent it, and, without my wish, they are now bent on collecting and printing my books — small honor to me — I shall have to let them put their energy and labor on the venture. I comfort myself with the thought that my books will yet lie forgotten in the dust, especially when, by God’s grace, I have written something good. Non ero melior patribus meis . The other kind will be more likely to endure. For when the Bible can be left lying under the bench, and when it is true of the Fathers and Councils that the better they were, the more completely they have been forgotten; there is good hope that, when the curiosity of this age has been satisfied, my books too will not long remain; the more so, since it has begun to rain and snow books and “Doctors,” of which many are already forgotten and gone to dust, so that one no longer remembers even their names. They themselves had hoped, to be sure, that they would always be in the market, and play schoolmaster to the churches.

Well, then, let it go, in God’s Name. I only ask in all kindness that the man who wishes at this time to have my books will by no means let them be a hindrance to his own study of the Scriptures, but read them as I read the orders and the ordures of the pope and the books of the sophists. I look now and then to see what they have done, or learn from them the history and thought of their time, but I do not study them, or feel myself bound to conform to them. I do not treat the Fathers and the Councils very differently. In this I follow the example of St. Augustine, who is one of the first, and almost the only one of them to subject himself to the Holy Scriptures alone, uninfluenced by the books of all the Fathers and the Saints. This brought him into a hard fray with St. Jerome, who cast up to him the writings of his predecessors; but he did not care for that. If this example of St. Augustine had been followed, the pope would not have become Antichrist, the countless vermin, the swarming, parasitic mass of books would not have come into the Church, and the Bible would have kept its place in the pulpit.


EDITION OF ABOVE all things I beseech the Christian reader and beg him for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, to read my earliest books very circumspectly and with much pity, knowing that before now I too was a monk, and one of the right frantic and raving papists. When I took up this matter against Indulgences, I was so full and drunken, yea, so besotted in papal doctrine that, out of my great zeal, I would have been ready to do murder — at least, I would have been glad to see and help that murder should be done all who would not be obedient and subject to the pope, even to his smallest word.

Such a Saul was I at that time; and I meant it right earnestly; and there are still many such today. In a word, I was not such a frozen and ice-cold champion of the papacy as Eck and others of his kind have been and still are. They defend the Roman See more for the sake of the shameful belly, which is their god, than because they are really attached to its cause.

Indeed I am wholly of the opinion that like latter-day Epicureans, they only laugh at the pope. But I verily espoused this cause in deepest earnest and in all fidelity; the more so because I shrank from the Last Day with great anxiety and fear and terror, and yet from the depths of my heart desired to be saved.

Therefore, Christian reader, thou wilt find in my earliest books and writings how many points of faith I then, with all humility, yielded and conceded to the pope, which since then I have held and condemned for the most horrible blasphemy and abomination, and which I would have to be so held and so condemned forever. Amen.

Thou wilt therefore ascribe this my error, or as my opponents venomously call it, this inconsistency of mine, to the time, and to my ignorance and inexperience. At the beginning I was quite alone and without any helpers, and moreover, to tell the truth, unskilled in all these things, and far too unlearned to discuss such high and weighty matters. For it was without any intention, purpose, or will of mine that I fell, quite unexpectedly, into this wrangling and contention. This I take God, the Searcher of hearts, to witness.

I tell these things to the end that, if thou shalt read my books, thou mayest know and remember that I am one of those who, as St. Augustine says of himself, have grown by writing and by teaching others, and not one of those who, starting with nothing, have in a trice become the most exalted and most learned doctors. We find, alas! many of these self-grown doctors; who in truth are nothing, do nothing and accomplish nothing, are moreover untried and inexperienced, and yet, after a single look at the Scriptures, think themselves able wholly to exhaust its spirit.

Farewell, dear reader, in the Lord. Pray that the Word may be further spread abroad, and may be strong against the miserable devil. For he is mighty and wicked, and just now is raving everywhere and raging cruelly, like one who well knows and feels that his time is short, and that the kingdom of his Vicar, the Antichrist in Rome, is sore beset. But may the God of all grace and mercy strengthen and complete in us the work He has begun, to His honor and to the comfort, of His little flock. Amen.

Friday, October 21, 2005



Source: Works of Martin Luther Vol. 1 pp.15-48

“A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” F11 is the full title of the document commonly called “The Ninety-five Theses.” The form of the document was determined by the academic practice of the Middle Ages. In all the Mediaeval University the “disputation” was a well established institution. It was a debate, conducted according to accepted rules, on any subject which the chief disputant might elect, and no student’s education was thought to be complete until he had shown his ability to defend himself in discussions of this kind. It was customary to set forth the subject which was to be discussed, in a series of “theses,” which were statements of opinion tentatively advanced as the basis of argument.

The author, or some other person whom he might designate, announced himself ready to defend these statements against all comers, and invited all who might wish to debate with him to a part in the discussion. Such an academic document, one out of many hundreds, exhaling the atmosphere of the Mediaeval University, is the Disputation, which by its historical importance has earned the name “The 95 Theses.”

The Theses were published on the Eve of All Saints (October 31), 1517.

They were not intended for any other public than that of the University, F12 and Luther did not even have them printed at first, though, copies were forwarded to the Archbishop of Mainz, and to Luther’s own diocesan, the Bishop of Brandenburg. The manner of their publication too was academic.

They were simply posted on the door of the Church of All Saints-called the “Castle-church,” to distinguish it from its neighbor, the. “Town-church” — not because more people would see them there than elsewhere, but because that church-door was the customary place for posting such announcements, the predecessor of the “black-board” in the modern German University. It was not night, but mid-day F13 when the Theses were nailed up, and the Eve of All Saints was chosen, not that the crowds who would frequent the next day’s festival might read them, for they were written in Latin, but because it was the customary day for the posting of theses. Moreover, the Feast of All Saints was the time when the precious relics, which earned the man who “adored” them, long years of indulgence, F14 were exhibited to worshipers, and the approach of this high feast-day put the thought of indulgences uppermost in the minds of everybody in Wittenberg, including the author of the Theses. But neither the Theses nor the results which followed them could be confined to Wittenberg. Contrary to Luther’s expectation and to his great surprise, they circulated all through Germany with a rapidity that was startling. Within two months, before the end of 1517, three editions of the Latin text had been printed, one at Wittenberg, one at Nurnberg, and one as far away as Basel, and copies of the Theses had been sent to Rome.

Numerous editions, both Latin and German, quickly followed. Luther’s cotemporaries saw in the publicatiola of the Theses “the beginning of the Reformation,” F17 and the judgment of modern times has confirmed their verdict, but the Protestant of today, and especially the Protestant layman, is almost certain to be surprised, possibly deeply disappointed, at their contents. They are not “a trumpet-blast of reform;” that title must be reserved for the great works of 1520. F18 The word “faith,” destined to become the watchword of the Reformation, does not once occur in them; the validity of the Sacrament of Penance is not disputed; the right of the pope to forgive sins, especially in “reserved cases,” is not denied; even the virtue of indulgences is admitted, within limits, and the question at issue is simply “What is that virtue?”

To read the Theses, therefore, with a fair degree of comprehension we must know something of the time that produced them, and we must bear two facts continually in mind. We must remember that at this time Luther was a devoted son of the Church and servant of the pope, perhaps not quite the “right frantic and raving papist” F19 he afterwards called himself, but as yet entirely without suspicion of the extent to which he had inwardly diverged from the teaching of Roman theology. We must also remember that the Theses were no attempt at a searching examination of the whole structure and content of Roman teaching, but were directed against what Luther conceived to be merely abuses which had sprung up around a single group of doctrines centering in the Sacrament of Penance. He sincerely thought that the teaching of the Theses was in full agreement with the best traditions of the Church, F20 and his surprise that they should have caused so much excitement is undoubtedly genuine and not feigned. He shows himself both hurt and astonished that he should be assailed as a heretic and schismatic, and “called by six hundred other names of ignominy.” F21 On the other hand, we are compelled to admit that from the outset Luther’s opponents had grasped far more completely than he himself the true significance of his “purely academic protest.” 2. Penance and indulgence . — The purpose of the disputation which Luther proposed to hold was to clear up the subject of the virtue of “indulgences,” and the indulgences were the most striking and characteristic feature of the religious life of the Church in the last three Centuries of the Middle Ages. F22 We meet them everywhere — indulgences for the adoration of relics, indulgences for worship at certain shrines, indulgences for pilgrimages here or there, indulgences for contributions to this or that special object of charity. Luther roundly charges the indulgence-vendors with teaching the people that the indulgences are a means to the remission of sins. What are these indulgences?

Their history is connected, on the one hand, with the history of the Sacrament of Penance, on the other with the history of the development of papal power. The Sacrament of Penance developed out of the administration of Church discipline. In the earliest days of the Church, the Christian who fell into sin was punished by exclusion from the communion of the Church. This excommunication was not, however, permanent, and the manner could be restored to the privileges of Church-fellowship after he had confessed his sin, professed penitence, and performed certain penitential acts, chief among which were alms-giving, fasting and prayer, and, somewhat later, pilgrimage. These acts of penitence came to have the name of “satisfactions,” and were a condition precedent to the reception of absolution. They varied in duration and severity, according to the enormity Of the offense, and for the guidance of those who administered the discipline of the Church, sets of rules were formulated by which the “satisfactions, or “penances” were imposed. These codes are the “Penitential Canons.” F23 The first step in the development of the indulgence may be found in the practice which gradually arose, of remitting some: part of the enjoined “penances” on consideration of the performance of certain acts which could be regarded as meritorious.

The indulgences received a new form, however, and became a part of the regular Church admonition, when the popes discovered the possibilities which lay in: this institution for the advancement of their own power and the furtherance of their own interests. This discovery seems to date from the time of the Crusades. The crusading-indulgences, granted at first only to those who actually went to the Holy War, subsequently to those also who contributed to the expense of the expedition, were virtually the acceptance of this work as a substitute for any penance which the Church might otherwise require. As zeal for the, Crusades began to wane, the indulgences were used more and more freely to stimulate lagging interest; their number was greatly increased, and those who purchased the indulgences with money far outnumbered those who actually took the Cross. Failing in their purpose as an incentive to enlistment in the crusading armies, they showed their value as a source of income, and from the begginning of the 14 th Century the sale of indulgences became a regular business.

About the same time a new kind of indulgence arose to take the place of the now somewhat antiquated crusading-indulgence. This was the Jubileeindulgence, and had its origin in the Jubilee of 1300. By the Bull Antiquorum Habet Fide, Boniface VIII. granted to all who would visit the shrines of the Apostles in Rome during the year 1300 and during each succeeding centennial year, a plenary indulgence. F24 Little by little it became the custom to increase the number of these Jubilee-indulgences Once in a hundred years was not often enough for Christians to have a chance for plenary forgiveness, and at last, unwilling to deprive of the privileges of the Jubilee those who were kept away from Rome, the popes came to grant the same plenary indulgence to all who would make certain, contributions to the papal treasury. F25 Meanwhile the Sacrament of Penance had become an integral part of the Roman sacramental system, and had replaced the earlier penitential discipline as the means by which the Church granted, Christians forgiveness for sins committed after baptism. The scholastic theologians, had busied themselves with the theory of this Sacrament. They distinguished between its “material,” its “form” and its “effect.” The “form” of the Sacrament was the absolution; its “effect,” the forgiveness of sins; its “material,” three acts of the penitent: “confession,” “contrition,” and “satisfaction.” “Confession” must be by word of mouth, and must include all the sins which the sinner could remember to have committed; “contrition” must; be sincere sorrow of the heart, and must include the purpose henceforth to avoid sin; “satisfaction” must be made by works prescribed by the priest who heard confession. In the administration of the Sacrament, however, the absolution preceded “satisfaction” instead of following it, as it had done in the discipline of the early Church. F26 To justify this apparent inconsistency, the Doctors further distinguished between the “guilt” and the “penalty” of sin.

F27 Sins were classified as “mortal” and “venial.” F28 Mortal sins for which the offender had not received absolution were punished eternally, while venial sins were those which merited only some, smaller penalty; but when a mortal sin was confessed and absolution granted, the guilt of the sin was done away, and with it the eternal penalty. And yet the absolution did not open the gate of heaven, though it closed the door of hell; the eternal penalty was not to be exacted, but there was a temporal penalty to be paid.

The “satisfaction” was the temporal penalty, and of satisfaction was in arrears at death, the arrearage must be paid in purgatory, a place of punishment for mortal sins confessed and repented, but “unsatisfied,” and for venial sins, which were not serious enough to bring eternal condemnation. The penalties of purgatory were “temporal,” viz., they stopped somewhere this side of eternity, and their duration could be measured in days and years, though the number of the years might mount high into the thousands and of thousands.

It was at this point that the practice of indulgences, united with the theory of the Sacrament of Penance. The indulgences had to do with the “satisfaction.” F29 They might be “partial,” remitting only a portion of the penalties, measured by days or years of purgatory; or they might be “plenary,” remitting all penalties due in this world or the next. In theory, however, no indulgence could remit the guilt or the eternal penalty of sin, F30 and the purchaser of an indulgence was not onty expected to confess and be absolved, but he was also supposed to be corde contritus , i.e., “truly penitent.” F31 A rigid insistence on the fulfillment of these conditions would have greatly restricted the value of the indulgences as a means of gain, for the right to hear confession and grant absolution belonged to the parish-priests. Consequently, it became the custom to endow the indulgence-venders with extraordinary powers. They were given the authority to hear confession and grant absolution wherever they might be, and to absolve even from the sins which were normally “reserved” for the absolution of the higher Church authorities.

The demand for contrition was somewhat more difficult to meet. But here too there was a way out. Complete contrition included love to God as its motive, and the truly contrite man was not always easy to find; but some of the scholastic Doctors had discovered a substitute for contrition in what they called “attrition,” viz., incomplete contrition, which might have fear for a motive, and which the Sacrament of Penance could transform into contrition. When, therefore, a man was afraid of hell or of purgatory, he could make his confession to the indulgence-seller or his agent, receive from him the absolution which gave his imperfect repentance the value of true contrition, released him from the guilt of sin, and changed its eternal penalty to a temporal penalty; then he could purchase the plenary indulgence, which remitted the temporal penalty, and so in one transaction, in which all the demands of the Church were formally met, he could become sure of heaven. Thus the indulgence robbed the Sacrament of Penance of its ethical content.

Furthermore, indulgences were made available for souls already in purgatory. This kind of indulgence seems to have been granted for the first time in 1476. It had long been held that the prayers of the living availed to shorten the pains of the departed, and the institution of masses for the dead was of long standing; but it was not without some difficulty that the Popes succeeded in establishing their claim to power over purgatory. Their power over the souls of the living was not disputed. The “Power of the Keys” had been given to Peter and transmitted to his successors; the “Treasury of the Church,” F32 i.e., the merits of Christ and of the Saints, was believed to be at their disposal, and it was this treasury which they employed in the granting of indulgences F33 but it seemed reasonable to suppose that their jurisdiction ended with death. Accordingly, Pope Sextus IV, in 1477, declared that the power of the Pope over purgatory, while genuine, was exercised only permodum suffragii , “by way of intercession.” F34 The distinction was thought dogmatically important, but to the layman, who looked more to results than to methods, the difference between intercession and jurisdiction was trifling. To him the important thing was that the Pope, whether by jurisdiction or intercession, was able to release the soul of a departed Christian from the penalties of purgatory. It is needless to say that these indulgences for the dead were eagerly purchased.

In filial love and natural affection the indulgence-vender had powerful allies. 3. The Indulgence of 1515. — The XCV Theses were called forth by the preaching of the “Jubilee Indulgence” F35 of 1510, which was not placed on sale in central Germany until 1515. The financial needs of the papacy were never greater than in the last years of the XV. and the first years of the XVI. Century, and they were further increased by the resolve of Julius II. to erect a new church of St. Peter, which should surpass in magnificence all the churches of the world. The indulgence of 1510 was an extraordinary financial measure, the proceeds of which were to pay for the erection of the new Basilica, but when Julius died in 1513, the church was not completed, and the money had not been raised. The double task was bequeathed to his successor, Leo X. On the 31st of March, 1515, Leo proclaimed a plenary indulgence for the Archbishoprics of Magdeburg and Mainz, and appointed Albrecht, of Brandenburg, who was the incumbent of both sees and of the bishopric of Halberstadt as well, Commissioner for the sale of this indulgence. By a secret agreement, of which Luther was, of course, entirely ignorant, one-half of the proceeds was to be paid to the Fuggers of Augsburg on account of moneys advanced to the Archbishop for the payment of the fees to Rome, and of the sums demanded in consideration of a dispensation allowing him to occupy three sees at the same time; the other half of the proceeds was to go to the papal treasury to be applied to the building of the new church. The period during which the indulgence was to be on sale was eight years.

The actual work of organizing the “indulgence-campaign” was put into the hands of John Tetzel, whose large experience in the selling of indulgences fitted him excellently for the post of Sub-commissioner. The indulgencesellers acted under the commission of the Archbishop and the directions of Tetzel, who took personal charge of the enterprise. The preachers went from city to city, and during the time that they were preaching the indulgence in any given place, all other preaching was required to cease. F36 They held out the usual inducements to prospective buyers. The plenary nature of the indulgence was made especially prominent, and the people were eloquently exhorted that the purchase of indulgence-letters was better than all good works, that they were an insurance against the pains of hell and of putptory, that they availed for all satish tions, even in the case of the most heinous sins that could be conceived, F37 “Confessional letters” F38 were one of the forms of ‘this indulgence. They gave their possessor permission to choose his own confessor, and entitled him to plenary remission once in his life, to absolution from sins normally reserved, etc.

The indulgences for ‘the dead were zealously proclaimed, and the duty of purchasing for departed souls released from the pains of purgatory was most urgently enjoined. So great was the power of the indulgence to alleviate the pains of purgatory, that the souls of the departed were said to pass into heaven the instant that the coins of the indulgence-buyer jingled in the money-box. F39 4. Luther’s Protest . — The Theses were Luther’s protest against the manner in which this indulgence was preached, and against the false conception of the efficacy of indulgences which the people obtained from such preaching. They were not his first protest, however. In a sermon, preached July 27th, 1516, F40 he had issued a warning against the false idea that a man who had bought an indulgence was sure of salvation, and had declared the assertion that souls could be bought out of purgatory to be “a piece of temerity.” His warnings were repeated in other sermons, preached October 31st, 1516, and February 14th, 1517. F41 The burden of these warnings is always the same: the indulgences lead men astray; they incite to fear of God’s penalties and not to fear of sin; they encourage false hopes of salvation, sad make light of the true condition of forgivencss, viz., sincere and genuine repentance.

These warnings are repeated in the Theses. The preaching of indulgences has concealed the true nature of repentance; the first thing to consider is what our Lord and Master Jesus Christ means,” when He says, “Repent.”

F42 Without denying the pope’s right to the power of the keys, Luther wishes to come into the clear about the extent of the pope’s jurisdiction, which does not reach as far as purgatory. He believes that the pope has the right to remit “penalties,” but these penalties are of the same sort as those which were imposed in the early Church as a condition precedent to the absolution; they are ecclesiastical penalties merely, and do not extend beyond the grave; the true penalty of sin is hatred of self, which continues until entrance into the kingdom of heaven. F43 The Theses are formulated with continual reference to the statements of the indulgence-preachers, and of the Instruction to the Commissaries issued under the name of the Archbishop of Mainz. F44 For this reason there is little logical sequence in the arrangement of the Theses, and none of the attempts to discover a plan or scheme underlying them has been successful.

F45 In a general way it may be said that for the positive views of Luther on the subjects discussed, Theses 30-37 and 42-52 are the most vital, while Theses 92-95 are sufficient evidence of the motive which led Luther to make his protest. 5. Conclusion. — The editors of this Translation present herewith a new translation of the Theses, together with three letters, which will help the reader to understand the mind of Luther at the time of their composition and his motive in preparing them. The first of these letters is that which was sent, with a copy of the Theses, to Albrecht of Mainz. The second and third are addressed respectively to Staupitz and Leo X., and were written to accompany the “Resolutions,” F46 an exhaustive explanation and defense of the Theses, published in 1515, after the controversy had become bitter. 6. Literature . — (a) Sources. The source material for the history of indulgences is naturally widely scattered. The most convenient collection is found in KOEHLER, Dokumente zum Ablassstreit, Tubingen, 1900. For the indulgences against which Luther protested, see, beside the Editions of Luther’s Works,KAPP, Schauplatz des Tetzelischen Ablass-Krams, Leipzig, 1720; Sammlung einiger zum pabstlichen Ablass gehorigen Schriften,Leipzig, 1721; Kleine Nachlese zur Erlauterung der Reformationsgeschichte, Leipzig, 1730 and 1733; alsoLOESCHER, Vollstindige Reformationsacta,I, Leipzig, 1720. (b) Secondary Works. Beside the general works in Church History and History of Doctrine, see the Lives of Luther, in German especially those of Kostlin-Kawerau, Kolde, Berger and Hausrath; in English those of Beard, Jacobs, Lindsay, Smith and McGiffert; alsoBOEHMER, Luther im Lichte der neueren Forschung, 2d ed., Leipzig, 1910.

On the indulgences in their relation to the Sacrament of Penance, H.C. LEA, History of Confession and Indulgence, especially Vol. III, Philadelphia, 1896;BREIGER, Das Wesendes Ablasses am Ausgang des Mittelalters, Leipzig, 1897, and Article Indulgenzen in PRE.s IX, pp. 76 ff. (Eng. inSCHAFF-HERZOG V., pp. 485-88);GOTTLOB, Kreuzablass und Almosenablass, Stuttgart, 1906 (especially valuable for the origin of indulgences).

On the indulgences and the XCV Theses,KOESTLIN, Luther’s Theologie, Leipzig, 1883 (Eng. Trans. byHAY, The Theology of Luther, Philadelphia, 1897);BRATKE, Luther’s XCV Thesen und ihre dogmengeschichtlichen Vorausset-zungen, Gottingen, 1884;DIECKHOFF, Der Ablassstreit dogmengeschichtlich dargestellt, Gotha, 1886;LINDSAY, History of the Reformation, I, New York, 1906;TSCHACKERT, Entstehung der lutherischen und reformierten Kirchenlehre, Gottingen, 1910.

On the financial aspects of the indulgence-traffic,SCHULTE, Die Fugger in Rom, 2 vols., Leipzig, 1904.





TO the Most Reverend Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Lord, Albrecht of Magdeburg and Mainz, Archbishop and Primate of the Church, Margrave of Brandenburg, etc., his own lord and pastor in Christ, worthy of reverence and fear, and most gracious JESUS F47 The grace of God be with you in all its fullness and power! Spare me, Most Reverend Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, that I, the dregs of humanity, have so much boldness that I have dared to think of a letter to the height of your Sublimity. The Lord Jesus is my witness that, conscious of my smallness and baseness, I have long deferred what I am now shameless enough to do moved thereto most of all by the duty of fidelity which I acknowledge that I owe to your most Reverend Fatherhood in Christ. Meanwhile, therefore, may your Highness deign to cast an eye upon one speck of dust, and for the sake of your pontifical clemency to heed my prayer.

Papal indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s are circulating under your most distinguished name, and as regards them, I do not bring accusation against the outcries of the preachers, which I have not heard, so much as I grieve over the wholly false impressions which the people have conceived front them; to wit, — the unhappy souls believe that if they have purchased letters of indulgence they are sure of their salvation; F48 again, that so soon as they cast their contributions into the money-box, souls fly out of purgatory; F49 furthermore, that these graces [i.e., the graces conferred in the indulgences] are so great that there is no sin too great to be absolved, even, as they say — though the thing is impossible—if one had violated the Mother of God; F50 again, that a man is free, through these indulgences, from all penalty and guilt. F51 O God, most good! Thus souls committed to your care, good Father, are taught to their death, and the strict account, which you must render for all such, grows and increases. For this reason I have no longer been able to keep quiet about this matter, for it is by no gift of a bishop that man becomes sure of salvation, since he gains this certainty not even by the “inpoured grace” F52 of God, but the Apostle bids us always “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling,” and Peter says, “the righteous scarcely shall be saved.” Finally, so narrow is the way that leads to life, that the Lord, through the prophets Amos and Zechariah, calls those who shall be saved “brands plucked from the burning,” and everywhere declares the difficulty of salvation.

Why, then, do the preachers of pardons, by these false fables and promises, make the people careless and fearless? Whereas indulgences confer on us no good gift, either for salvation or for sanctity, but only take away the external penalty, which it was formerly the custom to impose according to the canons. F53 Finally, works of piety and love are infinitely better than indulgences, F54 and yet these are not preached with such ceremony or such zeal; nay, for the sake of preaching the indulgences they are kept quiet, though it is the first and the sole duty of all bishops that the people should learn the Gospel and the love of Christ, for Christ never taught that indulgences should be preached. How great then is the horror, how great the peril of a bishop, if he permits the Gospel to be kept quiet, and nothing but the noise of indulgences to be spread among his people! F55 Will not Christ say to them, “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel?” F56 In addition to this, Most Reverend Father in the Lord, it is said in the Instruction to the Commissaries which is issued under your name, Most Reverend Father (doubtless without your knowledge and consent), that one of the chief graces of indulgence is that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to God, and all the penalties of purgatory are destroyed. F57 Again, it is said that contrition is not necessary in those who purchase souls [out of purgatory] or buy confessionalia . F58 But what can I do, good Primate and Most Illustrious Prince, except pray your Most Reverend Fatherhood by the Lord Jesus Christ that you would deign to look [on this matter] with the eye of fatherly care, and do away entirely with that treatise F59 and impose upon the preachers of pardons another form of preaching; lest, perchance, one may some time arise, who will publish writings in which he will confute both them and that treatise, to the shame of your Most Illustrious Sublimity. I shrink very much from thinking that this will be done, and yet I fear that it will come to pass, unless there is some speedy remedy.

These faithful offices of my insignificance I beg that your Most Illustrious Grace may deign to accept in the spirit of a Prince and a Bishop, i.e., with the greatest clemency, as I offer them out of a faithful heart, altogether devoted to you, Most Reverend Father, since I too am a part of your flock.

May the Lord Jesus have your Most Reverend Fatherhood eternally in His keeping. Amen.

From Wittenberg on the Vigil of All Saints, MDXVII.

If it please the Most Reverend Father he may see these my Disputations, and learn how doubtful a thing is the opinion of indulgences which those men spread as though it were most certain.

To the Most Reverend Father, BROTHER MARTIN LUTHER.



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 our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. 1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite , F61 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 F62 [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 does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons. F63 6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven. 7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest. 8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying. 9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because; in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.

F64 10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory. 11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept. 12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition. 13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them. 14. The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear. 15. This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair. 16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almostdespair, and the assurance of safety. 17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase. 18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love. 19. Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it. 20. Therefore by “full remission of all penalties” the pope means not actually “of all,” but only of those imposed by himself. 21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved; 22. Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life. 23. If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest. 24. It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty. 25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish. 26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), F65 but by way of intercession. 27. They preach man F66 who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory]. F67 28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone. 29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal. F68 30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission. 31. Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare. 32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon. F69 33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him; 34. For these “graces of pardon” concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man. F70 35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia . F71 36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon. 37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon. 38. Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way, to be despised, for they are, as I have said, F72 the declaration of divine remission. 39. It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition. 40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them]. 41. Apostolic F73 pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love. 42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy. 43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons; 44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty. 45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God. 46. Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own fancies, and by no means to squander it on pardons. 47. Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment. 48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting pardons, needs, and therefore desires, their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring. 49. Christians are to be taught that the pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God. F74 50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep. 51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold. 52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, F75 nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it. 53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others. 54. Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word. F76 55. It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies. 56. The “treasures of the Church, F77 out of which the pope grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ. 57. That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them. 58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man. 59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church’s poor, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time. 60. Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church, given by Christ’s merit, are that treasure. 61. For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient. 62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God. 63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last. 64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first. 65. Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches. 66. The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men. 67. The indulgences which the preachers cry as the “greatest graces” are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain. 68. Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross. 69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence. 70. But still more are they bound to strain all their eyes and attend with all their ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of the commission of the pope. 71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed! 72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed! 73. The pope justly thunders F78 against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons. 74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth. 75. To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God — this is madness. F79 76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned. F80 77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope. 78. We say, on the contrary, that even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater graces at his disposal; to wit, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in 1 Corinthians 12. 79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy. 80. The bishops, curates and theologians who allow such talk to be spread among the people, will have an account to render. 81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity. 82. To wit: — “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.” 83. Again: — “Why are mortuary and anniversary masses for the dead continued, and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?” 84. Again: — “What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul’s own need, free it for pure love’s sake?” 85. Again: — “Why are the penitential canons, F81 long since in actual fact and through disuse abrogated and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in force?” 86. Again: — “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?” 87. Again: — “What is it that the pope remits, and what participation F82 does he grant to those who, by perfect contrition, have a right to full remission and participation?” 88. Again: — “What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, F83 and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?” 89. “Since the pope, by iris pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?” F84 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.


To his Reverend and Dear Father JOHN STAUPITZ, Professor of Sacred Theology, Vicar of the Augustinian Order, Brother Martin Luther, his pupil, sendeth greeting.

I remember, dear Father, that once, among those pleasant and wholesome talks of thine, with which the Lord Jesus ofttimes gives me wondrous consolation, the word poenitentia F86 was mentioned, We were moved with pity for many consciences, and for those tormentors who teach, with rules innumerable and unbearable, what they call a modus confitendi . F87 Then we heard thee say as with a voice from heaven, that there is no true penitence which does not begin with love of righteousness and of God, and that this love, which others think to be the end and the completion of penitence, is rather its beginning.

This word of thine stuck in me like a sharp arrow of the mighty, and from that time forth I began to compare it with the texts of Scripture which teach penitence. Lo, there began a joyous game! The words frollicked with me everywhere! They laughed and gamboled around this saying. Before that there was scarcely a word in all the Scriptures more bitter to me than “penitence,” though I was busy making pretences to God and trying to produce a forced, feigned love; but now there is no word which has for me a sweeter or more pleasing sound than “penitence.” For God’s commands are sweet, when we find that they are to be read not in books alone, but: in the wounds of our sweet Savior.

After this it came about that, by the grace of the learned men who dutifully teach us Greek and Hebrew, I learned that this word is in Greek metanoia and is derived from meta and noun, i.e., post and mentem , F88 so that poenitentia or metanoia is a “coming to one’s senses,” and is a knowledge of one’s own evil, gained after punishment has been accepted and error acknowledged; and this cannot possibly happen without a change in our heart and our love. All this answers so aptly to the theology of Paul, that nothing, at least in my judgment, can so aptly illustrate St. Paul.

Then I went on and saw that metanoia can be derived, though not without violence, not only from post and mentem , but also from trans and mentem , F89 so that metanoia signifies a changing F90 of the mind and heart, because it seemed to indicate not only a change of the heart, but also a manner of changing it, i.e., the grace of God. For that “passing over of the mind, F91 which is true repentance, is of very frequent mention in the Scriptures.

Christ has displayed the true significance of that old word “Passover”; and long before the Passover, Abraham was a type of it, when he was called a “pilgrim,” i.e., a “Hebrew,” F92 that is to say, one, who “passed over” into Mesopotamia, as the Doctor of Bourgos F93 learnedly explains. With this accords, too, the title of the Psalm in which Jeduthun, i.e., “the pilgrim,” F94 is introduced as the singer.

Depending on these things, I ventured to think those men false teachers who ascribed so much to works of penitence that they left us scarcely anything of penitence itself except trivial satisfactions F95 and laborious confession, because, forsooth, they had derived their idea from the Latin words poenitentiam agere , F96 which indicate an action, rather than a change of heart, and are in no way an equivalent for the Greek metanoia .

While this thought was boiling in my mind, suddenly new trumpets of indulgences and bugles of remissions began to peal and to bray all about us; but they were not intended to arouse us to keen eagerness for battle. In a word, the doctrine of true penitence was passed by, and they presumed to praise not even that poorest part of penitence which is called “satisfaction,” F97 but the remission of that poorest part of penitence; and they praised it so highly that such praise was never heard before. Then, too, they taught impious and false and heretical doctrines with such authority (I wished to say “with such assurance”) that he who even muttered anything to the contrary under his breath, would straightway be consigned to the flames as a heretic, and condemned to eternal malediction.

Unable to meet their rage half-way, I determined to enter a modest dissent, and to call their teaching into question, relying on the opinion of all the doctors and of the whole Church, that to render satisfaction is better than to secure the remission of satisfaction, i.e., to buy indulgences. Nor is there anybody who ever taught otherwise. Therefore, I published my Disputation; F98 in other words, I brought upon my head all the curses, high, middle and low, which these lovers of money (I should say “of souls”) are able to send or to have sent upon me. For these most courteous men, armed, as they are, with very dense acumen, since they cannot deny what I have said, now pretend that in my Disputation I have spoken against the power of the Supreme Pontiff. F99 That is the reason, Reverend Father, why I now regretfully come out in public. For I have ever been a lover of my corner, and prefer to look upon the beauteous passing show of the great minds of our age, rather than to be looked upon and laughed at. But I see that the bean must appear among the cabbages, F100 and the black must be put with the white, for the sake of seemliness and loveliness.

I ask, therefore, that thou wilt take this foolish work of mine and forward it, if possible, to the most Excellent Pontiff, Leo X, where it may plead my cause against the designs of those who hate me. Not that I wish thee to share my danger! Nay, I wish this to be done at my peril only. Christ will see whether what I have said is His or my own; and without His permission there is not a word in the Supreme Pontiff’s tongue, nor is the heart of the king in his own hand. He is the Judge whose verdict I await from the Roman See.

As for those threatening friends of mine, I have no answer for them but that word of Reuchlin’s — “He who is poor fears nothing; he has nothing to lose.” Fortune I neither have nor desire; if I have had reputation and honor, he who destroys them is always at work; there remains only one poor body, weak and wearied with constant hardships, and if by force or wile they do away with that (as a service to God), they will but make me poorer by perhaps an hour or two of life. Enough for me is the most sweet Sayior and Redeemer, my Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom I shall always sing my song; if any one is unwilling to sing with me, what is that to me? Let him howl, if he likes, by himself.

The Lord Jesus keep thee eternally, my gracious Father! Wittenberg, Day of the Holy Trinity, MDXVIII.


To the Most Blessed Father, LEO X.

Martin Luther, Augustinian Friar, wisheth everlasting welfare.

I have heard evil reports about myself, most blessed Father, by which I know that certain friends have put my name in very bad odor with you and yours, saying that I have attempted to belittle the power of the keys and of the Supreme Pontiff. Therefore I am accused of heresy, apostasy, and perfidy, and am called by six hundred other names of ignominy. My ears shudder and my eyes are astounded. But the one thing in which I put my confidence remains unshaken — my clear and quiet conscience. Moreover, what I hear is nothing new. With such like decorations I have been adorned in my own country by those same honorable and truthful men, i.e., by the men whose own conscience convicts them of wrongdoing, and who are trying to put their own monstrous doings off on me, and to glorify their own shame by bringing shame to me. But you will deign, blessed Father, to hear the true case from me, though I am but an uncouth child.

It is not long ago that the preaching of the Jubilee indulgences F101 was begun in our country, and matters went so far that the preachers of indulgences, thinking that the protection of your name made anything permissible, ventured openly to teach the most impious and heretical doctrines, which threatened to make the power of the Church a scandal and a laughing-stock, as if the decretals De abusionibus quaestorum F102 did not apply to them.

Not content with spreading this poison of theirs by word of mouth, they published tracts and scattered them among the people. In these books — to say nothing of the insatiable and unheard of avarice of which almost every letter in them vilely smells — they laid clown those same impious and heretical doctrines, and laid them down in such wise that confessors were bound by their oath to be faithful and insistent in urging them upon the people. I speak the truth, and none of them can hide himself from the heat thereof. The tracts are extant and they cannot disown them. These teachings were so successfully carried on, and the people, with their false hopes, were sucked so dry that, as the Prophet says, “they plucked their flesh from off their bones”; but they themselves meanwhile were fed most pleasantly on the fat of the land.

There was just one means which they used to quiet opposition, to wit, the protection of your name, the threat of burning at the stake, and the disgrace of the name “heretic.” It is incredible how ready they are to threaten, even, at times, when they perceive that it is only their own mere silly opinions which are contradicted. As though this were to quiet opposition, and not rather to arouse schisms and seditions by sheer tyranny!

None the less, however, stories about the avarice of the priests were bruited in the taverns, and evil was spoken of the power of the keys and of the Supreme Pontiff, and as evidence of this, I could cite the common talk of this whole land. I truly confess that I was on fire with zeal for Christ, as I thought, or with the heat of youth, if you prefer to have it so; and yet I saw that it was not in place for me to make any decrees or to do anything in these matters. Therefore I privately admonished some of the prelates of the Church. By some of them I was kindly received, to others I seemed ridiculous, to still others something worse; for the terror of your name and the threat of Church censures prevailed. At last, since I could do nothing else, it seemed good that I should offer at least, a gentle resistance to them, i.e., question and discuss their teachings. Therefore I published a set of theses, inviting only the more learned to dispute with me if they wished; as should be evident, even to my adversaries, from the Preface to the Disputation. F103 Lo, this is the fire with which they complain that all the world is now ablaze! Perhaps it is because they are indignant that I, who by your own apostolic authority am a Master of Theology, have the right to conduct public disputations, according to the custom of all the Universities and of the whole Church, not only about indulgences, but also about God’s power and remission and mercy, which are incomparably greater subjects. I am not much moved, however, by the fact that they envy me the privilege granted me by the power of your Holiness, since I am unwillingly compelled to yield to them in things of far greater moment, viz., when they mix the dreams of Aristotle with theological matters, and conduct nonsensical disputations about the majesty of God, beyond and against the privilege granted them.

It is a miracle to me by what fate it has come about that this single Disputation of mine should, more than any other, of mine or of any of the teachers, have gone out into very nearly the whole land. It was made public at our University and for our University only, and it was made public in such wise that I cannot believe it has become known to all men. For it is a set of theses, not doctrines or dogmas, and they are put, according to custom, in an obscure and enigmatic way. Otherwise, if I had been able to foresee what was coming, I should have taken care, for my part, that they would be easier to understand.

Now what shall I do? I cannot recant them; and yet I see that marvelous enmity is inflamed against me because of their dissemination. It is unwillingly that I incur the public and perilous and various judgment of men, especially since I am unlearned, dull of brain, empty of scholarship; and that too in this brilliant age of ours, which by its achievements in letters and learning can force even Cicero into the corner, though he was no base follower of the public light. But necessity compels me to be the goose that squawks among the swans.

And so, to soften my enemies and to fulfill the desires of many, I herewith send forth these trilling explanations of my Disputation; I send them forth in order, too, that I may be more safe under the defense of your name and the shadow of your protection. In them all may see, who will, how purely and simply I have sought after and cherished the power of the Church and reverence for the keys; and, at the same time, how unjustly and falsely my adversaries have befouled me with so many names. For if I had been such a one as they wish to make me out, and if I had not, on the contrary, done everything correctly, according to my academic privilege, the Most Illustrious Prince Frederick, Duke of Saxony, Imperial Elector, etc., would never have tolerated such a pest in his University, for he most dearly loves the Catholic and Apostolic truth, nor could I have been tolerated by the keen and learned men of our University. But what has been done, I do because those most courteous men do not fear openly to involve both the Prince and the University in the same disgrace with myself. F104 Wherefore, most blessed Father, I cast myself at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I have and all that I am. Quicken, kill, call, recall, approve, reprove, as you will. In your voice I shall recognize the voice of Christ directing you and speaking in you. If I have deserved death, I shall not refuse to die. For the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. He is blessed forever. Amen.

May He have you too forever in His keeping. Amen. ANNO MDXVIII.