Faithful and Reforming

Repentance is easier — and harder — than you think

Martin Luther spent his career as a teacher of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg. However, when he assumed that role upon the completion of his doctor’s degree in 1512, he did not give up his priestly and pastoral duties. He continued to preach frequently, and, most importantly for the topic of this article, continued to hear the confessions of the men and women of his town parish. It was his experiences in this latter role that led him to prepare and post the “Ninety-Five Theses” on October 31, 1517, the day that has come to signal the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation.

The traditional understanding of these theses as the dawn of the Reformation is somewhat misleading, for the theses themselves were neither a manifesto against the established Roman church nor a call to begin anything like a new church. Rather, the theses were a pastor-professor’s carefully crafted call to an academic debate (e.g., they were written in Latin) about a subject with very practical consequences for his parishioners: How were fallen people to deal with their sin — its presence in their lives, the guilt it causes, and the consequences to which it leads?

David A. Lumpp

David A. Lumpp

The Roman church of Luther’s era dealt with those issues through its sacrament of penance, which entailed sorrow over one’s sin (or “contrition”), oral “confession” of the sin(s), remission of one’s eternal punishment, and then a prescribed act of “satisfaction” to deal with the remaining temporal consequences of the sin, which could be addressed either in this life or in purgatory (hence the expression “do penance”). This was further complicated at the time by the presence of “indulgences,” which pertained to the “satisfaction” part of penance and amounted to a financial substitution for a performance penalty.

Indulge or repent?

What Martin Luther had come to learn in the confessional was that pious people were burdened by sin and guilt, but they were finding false consolation in the purchase of these “indulgences.” The traditional Roman sacrament of penance no longer squared with what Luther had learned in his study and teaching of the Bible, and this was especially true of the way it was being practiced in the months leading up to October 31, 1517. Hence, the Ninety-Five Theses are an indication of the problems Luther was experiencing in his pastoral work as well as the beginnings of a fresh and radically new approach to the Christian life.

First, Luther chose the word “repent” to describe what really ought to be going on here. The act of penance risked focusing more on human works than on God’s once-and-for-all work in Jesus Christ. This is Luther’s key point: Repentance is not about any human activity (not even one’s sorrow or confession, much less one’s act of “satisfaction”). In this sense, it is easier than all of that. One does not have to perform or purchase one’s way into God’s favor. Luther wrote: “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters” (Theses 36 and 37). In short, focus on the Word of God. Focus on God’s promise of full and free forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

Second, even if one does not need to earn or buy God’s grace, Luther recognized that this approach to the Christian life (i.e., “perform these works of merit” or “procure this indulgence”) was entirely inadequate, especially when one put his or her confidence in the works or the indulgences. Luther’s study of the Scriptures taught him that the Christian life was much harder than Rome’s sacrament of penance could lead one to assure. Indeed, he began the Ninety-Five Theses with this bracing observation: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said `Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Thesis 1, emphasis added). He applied this to the immediate issue at hand a bit later: “Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them” (Thesis 49).

Yet if one does not have to follow 16th-century Rome’s prescription for dealing with sin, and if that or any other works-oriented approach is inadequate anyway, what is one to do? Martin Luther would spend the rest of his career as a reformer fleshing out — and confessing — his answer to that question. It would go something like this: “For the sake of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Rely on this unconditional promise. Work now for others not because you are compelled to, but because you are freed and empowered to. In short, trust Jesus Christ and what he has done.”

While not all of this answer is present in so many words in the Ninety-Five Theses, what one does find there is an indispensable early expression of the theology of grace and of the cross that made it possible. Luther intimated as much in Thesis 62, which provides a fitting summary of the entire document: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

David A. Lumpp is professor of theology at Concordia University, St. Paul. He is a member of Jehovah Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Saint Paul. (Mark Granquist, associate professor of church history at Luther Seminary, is project editor of “Faithful and Reforming.”)