Eventually, recognizing in indulgences a potentially immense source of revenue, later popes began offering them for money more often than for good deeds, and needing to continue to expand the market to keep the revenues flowing, they started allowing the faithful to buy indulgences for their dead relatives already in purgatory.
Johann Tetzel’s indulgence campaign that prompted Luther’s protest in 1517, though, was an extraordinary illustration of the corruption that came from mixing such absolute spiritual power with the wide-reaching worldly power of the late medieval church.
Albrecht needed it in order to repay the Fugger banking family for the immense debts he had contracted from them in order to buy from the Pope the most powerful church office in Germany at the age of 23.
Since the most enthusiastic buyers of indulgences were the uneducated and gullible poor, Tetzel’s indulgence campaign constituted an extraordinary redistribution of wealth upward from the poorest to the richest in Christendom.
The earlier distinction between guilt and punishment had been thoroughly blurred so that indulgences had in the minds of the public, encouraged by salesmen like Tetzel, become a substitute for true repentance, purchasing freedom from guilt as well as punishment.
This point is key to grasp, given how readily Luther’s gospel of salvation by faith alone is often distorted.As he walked briskly from the monastery where he lived in Wittenberg, all the way down College Street, it took him only about ten minutes to get to the Castle Church.He carried a hammer and a copy of the Ninety-five Theses that he wanted to propose as the basis for a public debate.On the other hand, it is easy to downplay too much the significance of the .Luther was not, after all, just a random and inconsequential monk, as the Pope and his advisors were to try and dismiss him; he was at this time one of the highest-ranking leaders of the Augustinian Order in Germany and an increasingly renowned professor at one of its leading universities.Such exploitation of the poor infuriated Luther, and in thesis 45, he decries those who, instead of helping the needy, as Christ commanded for the truly penitent, spent all their spare money on indulgences.More fundamentally, though, Luther worried that indulgences were a form of cheap grace, a way for people to purchase false security for their souls without truly facing the depth of their sin and repenting from the heart.Luther’s concern with the late medieval church was less that it had made salvation too hard (by endless works rather than simple faith) and more that it had made salvation too easy (by thoughtless outward works or transactions rather than heartfelt repentance, being crucified with Christ).The real gospel of Christ, charged Luther, was both much more serious, more frightening, and more liberating than the spiritual economy the popes had created to fill their own coffers. Bradford Littlejohn is the President of the Davenant Institute and teaches philosophy at Moody Bible Institute.So who were these indulgence preachers and why was Luther so upset about them?The answer sheds light both on the astonishing depth of the corruption in the late medieval church and on the often misunderstood heart of Luther’s protest against it.