Today marks the event, 604 years ago, which sparked the Reformation. On 15th March, 1517, Pope Leo X issued a special “Indulgence”. An Indulgence was a certificate, signed by the Pope or a Bishop, which offered forgiveness of sins or reduced time in Purgatory in exchange for the payment of money to the church. Indulgences were a common means of the church raising money during the Middle Ages, and most people did not question them. For a coin or two, a person could purchase a certificate which promised to reduce their dead relative’s time in the fires of Purgatory by a specified time – for example, a month – or reduce their own time there when they died.
Pope Leo’s Indulgence, on March 15, however, raised this bizarre practice to a whole new level. In order to raise funds for the construction of the Basilica in Rome, Leo promised that for the price of a coin or two, the person who was named in the Indulgence, living or dead, would have all their sins instantly remitted and would be transported directly to Heaven. A priest named Johann Tetzel was Leo’s main salesman, travelling throughout Christendom with the catch-cry, “When a coin in the coffers rings, a soul from purgatory springs”.
This latest indulgence came to the attention of a Catholic priest and lecturer in theology, named Martin Luther. Luther had already been concerned about the selling of indulgences, as well as other corrupt practices such as charging money for people to visit the bones of dead saints in order to pray to that saint and receive a blessing from him (or her). Leo’s indulgence was the last straw for Luther. He wrote a long list of his concerns about the unbiblical practices of the Catholic Church, denouncing the sale of indulgences, calling out the avarice and corruption that was rife in the church and questioning the Pope’s ability to forgive sins. He posted these objections, the ’95 Theses’, on the chapel door in Wittenberg, on 31st October, and sent a copy to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg.
Luther’s document was soon reprinted and mass produced by his supporters, using the newly invented printing press, and his ideas lit a spark that started a wildfire of debate that swept around Germany, Europe and, eventually, the whole world. The result was the Reformation, which eventually birthed the Protestant movement – so named because of their ‘protest’ against what they considered to be the unbiblical and corrupt teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.
The rest, as they say, is history.
And the seeds were sown on this day, 604 years ago.
(A more detailed exposition of these events and the ongoing development of the Protestant movement can be found in my book, “Rethinking The Gospel”).
Kevin Simington (B.Th. Dip. Min.) is a theologian, apologist and social commentator. He is the author of 12 books, and his latest, “7 Reasons to Believe”, is now available. Connect with Kevin on Facebook or his website, SmartFaith.net.