Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther.
on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences
by Dr. Martin Luther (1517)

Published in:
Works of Martin Luther:
Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et Al., Trans. & Eds.
(Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol.1, pp. 29-38

Reproduced with permission.

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, 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 [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.

    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.

    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

    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, almost-despair,
    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

    Therefore by “full remission of all penalties” the pope means not
    actually “of all,” but only of those imposed by himself.

    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;

    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 highsounding 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), but by way of

    27. They
    preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the
    money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].

    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.

    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

    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.

    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

    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.

    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, 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].

    Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may
    falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.

    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.

    Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to
    the needy does a better work than buying pardons;

    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. 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.

    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 families,
    and by no means to squander it on pardons.

    Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of
    free will, and not of commandment.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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, 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.

    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

    56. The
    “treasures of the Church,” 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

    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.

    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

    64. On the
    other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable,
    for it makes the last to be first.

    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.

    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

    72. But he
    who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let
    him be blessed!

    73. The
    pope justly thunders 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.

    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.

    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

    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 I. Corinthians xii.

    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 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 to-day 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 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, and bestow on
    every believer these remissions and participations?”

    89. “Since
    the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than
    money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted
    heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?”

    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!

    Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross,
    cross,” and there is no cross!

    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.

This text was converted to ASCII text for Project Wittenberg by
Allen Mulvey, and is in the public domain. You may freely distribute, copy
or print this text. Please direct any comments or suggestions to:

Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
Concordia Theological Seminary.

E-mail: smithre@mail.ctsfw.edu
Surface Mail: 6600 N. Clinton St., Ft. Wayne, IN 46825 USA
Phone: (260) 452-3149 – Fax: (260) 452-2126

Martin Luther,the