The Catholic Church had long granted indulgences to remit temporal punishment (penance) for sins already forgiven. Indulgences weren't originally for sale, but by the time of Luther the selling of indulgences had been going on for centuries in support of papal projects including war. It was only a matter of time before indulgences were sold since select donations to the church had for some time been counted as penance. Indulgences were granted in exchange for contributions toward the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome under Pope Leo X.
The sale of indulgences did not immediately come to where Luther lived. Frederick III of Saxony, founder of Wittenberg University, would not allow the sale of indulgences in his realm. His extensive collection of relics at the Castle Church could be viewed for money, with the promise of years suspended from time in purgatory. Access to indulgences promising the same benefit might have competed with the veneration of these relics.
The sale of Indulgences did, however, make its way into the German lands. Albert, Archbishop of Mainz, allowed John Tetzel, a Dominican priest, to sell them in Albert’s territory for a cut of the proceeds. Albert needed the money, having gone into debt to purchase his high church rank.
While the sale of indulgences weren’t allowed in Wittenberg, some of Luther’s parishioners traveled to purchase them. Upon returning they rejected the need for repentance insisting that their sins had been forgiven because they purchased certificates of indulgence. Overzealous salesman had granted this new function to indulgences, whereas the original purpose was to suspend penance for sins already forgiven. Salesmen also claimed that one could spring a loved one from purgatory by purchasing an indulgence.
Luther was alarmed that people thought forgiveness of sins could be secured by a financial transaction. He argued that salvation was the free gift of God which would be a cornerstone of Luther’s teaching for the rest of his life.
Luther’s objections to the sale of indulgences were prompted by at least two recent experiences: (1) Luther’s trip to Rome on which he found himself appalled by the opulence of the clergy and (2) his study of the Book of Romans for teaching courses at the University of Wittenberg—the collected notes of which make up his famous Commentary on Romans.
Luther rightly saw indulgences as a big money grab by the church. The false security of indulgences conveyed the impression that repentance was unnecessary. Any charges that Luther was antinomian should be dropped in light of his 95 Theses where he argued that indulgences could too easily substitute for good works. He wrote that the buying of pardons is not preferable to “good works of love.” But if repentance and self-denial are no longer necessary, then why not pass by on the other side from a man in need since one is secure through the purchase of an indulgence?
Indulgences would lead to false discipleship. Contrition, benevolence, and care for one’s family could be replaced with the purchase of pardon from the pope.
Note: This post was updated and edited on May 10.