Thesis #1: Repent
From that time on Jesus began to preach, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.Matthew 4:17
When we commemorate Reformation Day, our thoughts often 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 a couple folded sheets of paper from inside his overcoat, and then sets at once to nailing these sheets onto the church’s wooden door.
In our minds there’s of course little doubt about what was written on those sheets: These were Luther’s ninety-five theses. Church history textbooks and teachers have long paused at this moment to carefully tell it and to explain it.
Whether Luther knew the potential impact of this action – the international councils, the church divisions, the wars – is a question for debate. What’s clear is that within a few weeks of being posted, these ninety-five 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 ninety-five theses were. Now, this is a devotional column 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 (v. 12). 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 ninety-five theses were not random grievances against 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 cancelling of his punishment. Such forgiveness was gained through the purchasing of tokens of indulgence. This cancelation 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 man’s sin through God’s grace in Christ. This amazing, free gift could be received by faith alone. Luther’s scriptural 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! The church was turning grace into something that was far from free! And 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 it bred 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. Repentance 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, 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 at the heart of the Christian life. It takes humility – to recognize and to grieve for your horrible sins each new day. And it takes faith – to constantly love and embrace Christ’s amazing atoning work. In an age of excess ritual and showy religion, Martin Luther returned the basics, just as John and just as Jesus had done centuries before. Let us do the same.