How Did Indulgences Inspire the Protestant Reformation?

Read the fascinating story of how the sale of indulgences sparked one of Christian history’s most significant periods.

Feb 25, 2024By Michael Stewart, Master of Divinity, BA Biblical Studies
indulgences inspire protestant reformation


Countless Protestant Christians all around the world celebrate October 31st as Reformation Day rather than Halloween. This reflects the extremely high value that is placed on the reformation in these circles — but why did it happen? Among several large issues with the Catholic Church, the sale of indulgences rose to the top as a key rationale for high-level criticism of the practices of the Catholic Church.


What Exactly Were Indulgences, Anyway?

worthless indulgences oregon
Worthless Indulgences, Source: Oregon Live


Simply put, indulgences were like certificates one could buy to reduce their punishment from God for their sins. In the medieval period, the Church began to take a new approach to forgiveness. When someone sinned, they believed that they were in debt to God and needed forgiveness. They confessed to a priest and would subsequently be assigned a task to show their remorse. However, in addition to penance, the Church began selling indulgences.


By purchasing indulgences, the Church assured through their purchase, the time one spent in purgatory would be reduced. Initially, the purchase of indulgences was meant to encourage generosity amongst congregants, but they very quickly turned into something nefarious. In fact, their ability to be directly purchased from the church was never a part of the original plan. Rather, they were meant to be awarded upon one’s completion of a charitable act.


Theological Justification for Indulgences

pope clement vi indulgences
Clement VI, by Mario Giovanetti, 14th Century, Source: MSH Lyon St-Etienne


The Bull Unigenitus of Clement VI, issued in 1343, is documented as the first official justification of indulgences. The belief at the time leading up to it was that Christ’s atoning sacrifice covered more than God required and that the excess of Christ’s sacrifice was stored in heaven. They, then, believed that this excess could be disbursed based on merit, like a moral deposit and withdrawal system.

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The Pope was responsible for keeping this treasury, with the ability to access it and award credit on one’s behalf. This idea went on to become a central justification for the sacrament of penance and indulgences in the Catholic church. The penance Catholics would pay priests to absolve their sins would usually be costly, and once the penance was performed, priests would distribute absolution. This “cost” was typically time or effort, but was also easily equated to a monetary cost, meaning that the Catholic church could charge for indulgences as a part of somebody’s sacrament of penance.


In their eyes, the financial cost would discourage people from further sin. However, over time, monetary purchases of indulgence became the sole method of penance. These purchases became viewed as the penitential act itself, for which one would receive penance and absolution. In essence, the sacrament of penance dissolved into solely purchasing indulgences, thus eliminating any elements of real repentance, as people knew they could do whatever they pleased and just pay to receive a pardon from the Catholic Church.


devil distributing indulgences
Satan distributing indulgences, from the Jensky Kodex, 1490-1510, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Another doctrine central to the Catholic faith is the apostolic succession, which can be seen clearly here as a contributing factor to the sale of indulgences and, subsequently, the Protestant Reformation. The Popes are entrusted with authority equal to the Apostles, including the authority to pardon punishment for sin through indulgences. This meant that, through the passing on of Peter’s authority, the Popes were able to lessen sentences in purgatory upon the condition of confession and repentance. This repentance became verified by nothing more than a payment and a piece of paper.


The Significant Resistance to Indulgences

luther 95 theses
Luther’s 95 Theses, by Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Many people took great issue with the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church. Chief among them was Martin Luther. His disdain specifically against indulgences is best illustrated in his Ninety-Five Theses. Read what he had to say, translated into English: “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.” This excerpt of the Ninety-Five Theses directly refers to German friar Johann Tetzel’s famous quote, “The moment the penny in the coffer rings, your mother’s soul from Purgatory springs.” 


Tetzel was commissioned by the Catholic church to sell indulgences in Germany to raise funds and traveled around preaching the benefits of indulgences using these slogans. Luther was deeply troubled by the sale of indulgences due to their unbiblical nature and their manipulative power over the people. Tetzel responded to Luther’s criticisms by attacking him publicly and calling him a heretic. Luther, in turn, wrote a number of tracts in which he fiercely attacked Tetzel and his practices, accusing him of promoting false and harmful teachings.


One such publication was the Ninety-Five Theses. Also known as the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, these propositions were famously nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. This moment is often referred to as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.


The Ninety-Five Theses were primarily concerned with the practice of selling indulgences by the Catholic Church. Luther believed that faith alone could save, and argued that this practice was contrary to the teachings of the Bible and that salvation could not be purchased with money or any other earthly thing. He also expressed his belief that only faith in God’s grace, and not good works or any other action, could lead to salvation.


martin luther burning papal bull
Luther burns the Papal bull in the square of Wittenberg year 1520, by Karl Asplin, late 18th-early19th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses spread quite quickly throughout Germany and beyond, sparking a widespread discourse concerning the authority of the Catholic church to govern various interpretations of the Scriptures. Much of this happened thanks to the newly invented printing press, allowing his writings to spread further and more rapidly, as the previous time that it took to handwrite duplicate copies was significant.


Luther’s work and ministry also called into question numerous other practices of the Catholic church, but the most notorious of these is his work against the practice of selling indulgences. Luther’s ideas deeply resonated with many people who were unhappy with the corruption and excesses of the Catholic Church, and his calls for reform eventually led to a great split within the Church, with several branches forming outside of the Catholic church that were more committed to the Biblical fidelity than tradition.


A Battle for the Ages

luther diet of worms indulgences
Luther at the Diet of Worms, by Anton von Werner, 1877, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Having built up quite a head of steam by this point, something had to give. With indulgences serving as the proverbial battering ram to break down the door of the Catholic Church, Luther and his followers pressed on with their protestation. The year after he posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, Luther was mandated to appear before Cardinal Cajetan. Cajetan was a representative of the current pope at the time, Pope Leo X. They discussed Luther’s objections, but no resolution was found at the time. Two years later, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull titled, Exsurge Domine. In it, Leo staunchly condemned Luther’s doctrine.


In response to this, Luther publicly burned a copy of the papal bull among other similar books. He then wrote three more important works. One of these was To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, in which he continues to criticize indulgences. Naturally, the Catholic Church could not allow this. Though he was functionally excommunicated already, it was made formal by the papal bull Decet Romanum Pontificem, published in 1521. He then appeared in front of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and several other members of royalty. He refused to take back his words against the Catholic Church. He was famously quoted as saying, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”


charles v seated
A seated Charles V, by Lambert Sustris, 1548, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Luther’s following continued to grow. The terms “Protestant” and “Lutheran” begin to gain traction. The sustained and vehement opposition to the Catholic Church’s policy on indulgences prompted the Church to reevaluate. The Council of Trent convened to address the issue of indulgences, among many other issues within the Church at the time. This ultimately led to the Church officially recanting its stance on indulgences, deciding that they should no longer be sold or abused, though they maintained their position that they were valid and still could be utilized within the church. This change has often been referred to as part of the Counter-Reformation.


The Long-Lasting Impact of Indulgences and the Reformation

catholic lutheran dialogue
Formal Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue Proceeds, by CNS photo/Vatican Media, 2021, Source:


Regardless of where one lands on the theological spectrum, so much universal good came from the Protestant Reformation and the following Counter-Reformation. The Catholic Church has benefitted from the increased dogmatism taken to justify its own practices and safeguard against abuses of power. The sale of indulgences was never the intention of the Church, but it crept in where exact beliefs and boundaries were unclear. Likewise, the Protestant Reformation started new branches of Christianity responsible for some of history’s most influential Christian thinkers and leaders.


Additionally, the increased accessibility of the Holy Bible to all people is largely due to the events of the Reformation. For all Christians to now be able to access the Scriptures on their own and come to their own conclusions is a significant improvement on the prior state of affairs. The globalization of Christianity has also been greatly advanced by the developments of the Reformation. Also, the nature of Luther’s disposition during the Reformation almost certainly accelerated the timeline on which the Scriptures became accessible.


On an even broader scale, the advancements made in religious liberty and critical thought cannot go without mention. Our present state of discourse is a far cry from the monolithic reality that was once characteristic of life in the Middle Ages. The entire sphere of Western thought has been set on an entirely different trajectory as a result of the events surrounding the Protestant Reformation.

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By Michael StewartMaster of Divinity, BA Biblical StudiesMichael is a Christian minister and non-profit leader. He loves to teach about the Bible and its implications for everyday life. He is about to complete his BA in Biblical Studies and his Master of Divinity degrees from Midwestern Seminary. When he’s not working or studying, Michael enjoys making connections in his community, watching movies, and creating digital art.