What Were the “95 Theses”?

The 95 Theses, also known as the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” was a list of discussion topics that Martin Luther nailed to the door of Wittenberg Castle church in 1517 to protest the sale of indulgences. His protest ignited the Protestant Reformation.

Born in 1483 to a prosperous German family, Luther first studied to be a lawyer. However, after attributing his survival after a violent thunderstorm to a miracle of God, he entered a monastery. He continued his studies and became convinced of Augustine’s assertion that salvation was only by grace, not by deeds. He became incensed at the sale of indulgences, or absolutions from sin, by the Catholic Church, and posted the 95 Theses to provoke public debate on the topic. Although the main seller of indulgences, Johann Tetzel, promised that upon purchase of the indulgences souls were instantly saved, Luther insisted that salvation was already free and it was outrageous to demand payment for it.

The 95 Theses became popular in Wittenberg and other parts of Germany, but the pope proclaimed them to be heretical. After appearing before the Diet of Worms in 1521 and refusing to recant, Luther was forced into hiding. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, ordered his writings destroyed. As the Protestant Reformation spread, Luther renounced his celibacy and married, translated the New Testament into German, and wrote many other works outlining his beliefs.