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The Spark for the Reformation
by Johann Tetzel
Martin Luther was undoubtedly instrumental in the Protestant Reformation in 16th
century Europe. His main annoyance, the sale of Indulgences, allowed people to essentially
remove their sin for a price. This kind of corruption persisted throughout the Catholic Church
prior to the reformation. Indulgences were sold by members of the church. The Dominican friar
Johann Tetzel sold indulgences in Germany and delivered sermons promoting their effectiveness.
Tetzel begins by asserting that for each sin there must be confession and 7 years of
penitence. A semi arbitrary statement that makes the traditional removal of sin seem long and
exasperating. He then explains how you can simply purchase indulgences and be free of sin. He
uses the example of depositing money with a broker to explain how you can receive of all of
your holiness prior to death, thereby wiping away all your sin and entering heaven.
This sermon is delivered from the point of view of friar Tetzel. It is obviously biased in
favor of buying indulgences. The reason for writing the sermon is obvious; it reads like an
infomercial in it’s attempt to sell a product. The intended audience are the uneducated people and
religious people, eager to assure their place in heaven. All classes of people would likely
consider buying indulgences, the rich and powerful buying many, The selling of these
indulgences would come back to bite Tetzel if the following story is true…
According to Luther, after Tetzel had received a substantial amount
of money at Leipzig, a nobleman asked him if it were possible to
receive a letter of indulgence for a future sin. Tetzel quickly answered
in the affirmative, insisting, however, that the payment had to be made
at once. This the nobleman did, receiving thereupon letter and seal from
Tetzel. When Tetzel left Leipzig the nobleman attacked him along the
way, gave him a thorough beating, and sent him back empty-handed to
Leipzig with the comment that this was the future sin which he had in
mind. Duke George at first was quite furious about this incident, but
when he heard the whole story he let it go without punishing the
The scandalous conduct of the people selling indulgences was an immediate occasion of
the Protestant Reformation. The aggressive marketing practices of Johann Tetzel in promoting
this cause provoked Martin Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses, condemning what he saw as
the purchase and sale of salvation. In Thesis 28 Luther objected to a saying attributed to Tetzel:
"As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs". The Ninety-Five
Theses not only denounced such transactions as worldly but denied the Pope's right to grant
pardons on God's behalf in the first place: the only thing indulgences guaranteed, Luther said,
was an increase in profit and greed, because the pardon of the Church was in God's power alone.