They are probably the most famous doors in church history; they might even be the most famous doors in history. They are the doors of the Schlosskirche, the Castle Church, in Wittenberg, Germany. The doors that exist now are not the original wooden doors to which Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses. Those doors are long since gone, having burned in 1760; they have been replaced by bronze doors. The bronze doors are very heavy; they weigh about a ton. Inscribed on the doors are the Ninety-Five Theses in Latin.
When he posted the theses, Luther was very troubled by what was happening in his church. He was troubled by the practice of indulgence peddling and by other practices in the church. In the preface to the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther wrote, “Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg over the oversight of the reverend father Martin Luther, master of arts and of sacred theology and lecturer on these subjects at Wittenberg. Wherefore, he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us may do so by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, amen.” And then he went on to present the Ninety-Five Theses.
In the theses, Luther was calling for a debate. In his role as a priest, he saw himself as having an intense obligation concerning the eternal souls of those under his care. And as a theologian, he also had an obligation to the church to see that it maintained the truth and maintained orthodox teaching. As Luther studied the Bible and compared it to what he was seeing in the church, he saw that they were not compatible, that there was a wide gulf between them. So, he called for a debate. We can see in the first two theses what Luther was up to. In the first thesis, he wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Now, it’s fascinating that Luther would say that. In 1516, Desiderius Erasmus published his critical Greek New Testament with the Greek text on one side and the Latin text on the other side. A copy made its way to Wittenberg, and Luther read it. He poured himself into this Greek text, and he realized early on that the Latin text mistranslated Christ’s first sermon, in which He says, “Repent.” The Latin has poenitentiam agite, which translates to “Do penance.” Luther knew enough Greek to know that’s not a good translation. In fact, he goes on to tell us in thesis 2, “The word ‘repentance’ cannot be understood to mean the sacrament of penance or the act of confession and satisfaction administered by the priests.”
So, the stage is set. On one hand, we have the biblical teaching, and on the other hand, we have the teaching of the church. As Luther rolled through the Ninety-Five Theses, he continued to challenge the church. He was after the truth, so he walked from the Black Cloister, the Augustinian monastery to the Castle Church and nailed his Ninety-Five Theses. Luther was calling his church for debate, and we can thank God that he did.