Thesis #1: Repent
Updated: Nov 7, 2019
When we commemorate Reformation Day, our thoughts turn to the familiar scene of October 31, 1517.
There comes Martin Luther, walking with determination to the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Hammer and nails in hand, he arrives at the door, takes some folded sheets of paper from inside his overcoat, and then sets at once to nailing these papers onto the church’s wooden door.
We all know what was written on those pages: these were Luther’s 95 theses. Church history textbooks and teachers have long paused at this moment, to carefully tell it and explain it. Whether Luther had any inkling about the potential impact of this action – the international councils, the church divisions, the wars – is a question for scholarly debate. What’s clear is that within weeks of being posted, these 95 theses were being translated and copied and carried to all parts of Europe, unleashing a storm of controversy wherever they were read.
We know this story well, and also its world-changing consequences. But we may be less familiar with what exactly those 95 theses were. Now, this is a meditation and not a church history review, but in looking at thesis #1, these two worthwhile purposes nicely intersect. For after a short preamble, Luther begins with this thesis (or statement):
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
With his first thesis, Luther alludes to a passage from Matthew’s Gospel, 4:17. There Jesus has just begun his ministry in Galilee, having heard that John the Baptist had been put in prison. And Jesus begins his preaching with the same message as John: Repent!
Luther had good reason to start with the command conveyed in Matthew 4:17. For, contrary to what is sometimes thought, his 95 theses were not a collection of random grievances against the ills and errors of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, with each of these connected statements, Luther focuses on one particular issue: the matter of indulgences.
An indulgence was said to be the full forgiveness of a sinner, and a canceling of his punishment. Such forgiveness was gained through the purchasing of tokens of indulgence. This cancellation of punishment could extend even beyond the grave, freeing the souls of loved ones from their suffering in purgatory.
In his own struggles over the doctrine of justification, Luther had come to emphasize the full and complete forgiveness of a sinner’s sin through God’s grace in Christ. Amazingly, this free gift could be received by faith alone. Luther’s Scripture-shaped conviction on this matter led him to question and then condemn the practice of selling indulgences. For the church was taking ownership of and then selling God’s forgiveness, turning grace into something that was far from free. All this had terrible effects on the minds and hearts of the average, sinful Christian. It bred a trust in the outward acts of religion and a false sense of eternal security.
And so Luther called the church to return to the simple, Biblical truth of what it means to be a penitent sinner. Repentance is not a prefabricated, elaborate ritual. Forgiveness is not something that can be bought at one time for all time. No, says Luther in Thesis #1, repentance is a life-long project for all believers. It must be personal, it must be sincere, and it must take place throughout our lives. And our true repentance is, by God’s grace through Christ, enough for him to forgive all our sins.
“Repent,” preached Jesus as He began his ministry, “Turn away from sin, and turn to God through me in faith!”
If you repented yesterday, you must do so again today. If you repent today, you must do so again tomorrow. “Christ willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Daily repentance is near the heart of the Christian life. It takes humility to recognize and grieve for your sins each new day. It takes faith to love and embrace Christ’s atoning work each day. In an age of excess ritual and showy religion, Martin Luther returned the basics, just as John and Jesus had done centuries before. May we do likewise.