As I have been doing some research this week for my sermon on October 30th or Reformation Sunday, I was struck by the first three theses of the famous 95 Theses* Martin Luther nearly 500 years ago (Oct 31, 1517) nailed to the doors of Wittenberg Chapel. Here they are:
- When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
- This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
- Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.
What a beautiful little summary of repentance! For starters, Luther says repentance is a life-time action; it is a way of life rather than a momentary event. If you want to know what the Christian life should look like, it is not necessarily an ever growing theological library, nor is it greater social engagement, it is seeing our sins and turning to Jesus constantly. Second, Luther dislodges repentance from the formalized structure of his time. I think what Luther is getting at here is that repentance is between us and God, it is not a thing we do so we can check a box. It is a matter of the heart. Finally, Luther describes how repentance is not repentance without outward action, crucifying the flesh, learning to hate our sin and trusting in Christ more AND striving for a renewed following after Christ. Contrary to many caricatures of Luther, he believed that true faith is never alone, that good works always accompanied true faith (and even those are a gift!) since it is the Holy Spirit who is bearing fruit in our lives.
*In case you are not very familiar, here is a very brief description of the 95 Theses’ origin:
The 95 Theses were 95 propositions or areas the Professor Martin Luther wanted to debate. When any doctor of theology wanted a public discussion, he would post his thesis or theses to the doors of the chapel (kind of like a seminary blog post today that invites responders to write in). What Luther did wasn’t absolutely out of the question for his day in a college town (plenty of professors had nailed things to the doors of Wittenberg Chapel). What was surprising was the content of some of his theses went after the sale of indulgences (little slips of paper the church was selling that granted forgiveness for a particular sin, even a future one). Luther created a debate in the larger culture outside academia about the abuses of the church and a desire to return to something that more resembled true biblical faith. And that is where the Reformation caught fire.