October 31, 2017
“The Life of Repentance”
From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17
Five hundred years ago today Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. His theses addressed the selling of indulgences. An indulgence was a piece of paper that guaranteed you or your loved one release from penalties of sins. You could buy an indulgence for someone who was captive in Purgatory, suffering for his sins, and it would set him free from that suffering. The pope at Rome had sent to Germany a preacher by the name of Johann Tetzel to sell indulgences to raise money to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Tetzel was a good salesman. He travelled around Germany telling the people of how terribly their loved ones were suffering in Purgatory and then selling them indulgences that would set their loved ones free.
This made Luther angry. You can’t buy and sell forgiveness of sins. The Roman Catholic Church tied the selling of indulgences to their sacrament of penance. As Luther attacked the sale of indulgences, he found himself attacking the Roman teaching on penance. They taught that repentance was doing penance. Penance was doing what the church told you to do to make up for your sins. The Latin Bible they used translated “repent” as “do penance.” Luther knew the biblical languages. He knew that the Greek word for repent in the Bible does not mean to do penance. Repentance was not a matter of doing something the church told you to do or paying something the church told you to pay. It was a matter of believing. The word “repent” means to change your mind. When Jesus tells us to repent, he isn’t telling us what to do. He is telling us what to believe.
You can go to church and do what the church tells you to do. Luther did. It might do you some good. If the church teaches sound morality and you take the teaching to heart you will live a better life than if you live only to please your own desires and urges. Anyone who knows the Ten Commandments and tries to obey them will be better off for his efforts than someone who chooses to live for himself while ignoring his duty to God and his neighbor. The Reformation was not about rejecting the church or the church’s authority to teach God’s law.
But it was about putting the church in her place. Christ is the church’s head. This means that she must submit to him. What Jesus says about repentance is what the church must teach. That repentance has to do with a change is obvious. Everybody agrees. But what kind of a change is repentance?
Some teach that repentance is a change in behavior. “I used to get drunk and now I stay sober. I used to run around with women or men (as the case may be), but now I’m faithful to my spouse. I used to do be an insufferable sinner, and now I’m an insufferable saint!”
But this is a distortion of repentance. Repentance does have to do with our behavior, but the changed behavior doesn’t necessarily mean a changed heart. Years ago, I knew a man who was a recovering alcoholic who had gone through the steps and had been sober for many years. He was an officer in the church. His life was marked by good deeds that the world could see and praise. But when you talked to him about Jesus, about the blood he shed for him, about how Jesus suffered for his sins on Calvary, and about how God freely forgives undeserving sinners for Christ’s sake, he couldn’t relate to it. In fact, it annoyed him. He didn’t like talk about Christ’s suffering and death. He rather liked to talk about his own good deeds and how grateful he was to God for keeping him sober all those years. He had never repented. He had switched gods, from worshipping the bottle to worshipping staying dry, but his heart was as hardened in sin as it had ever been.
Jesus calls us to repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven isn’t a future kingdom featuring Jesus visibly ruling this world from the city of Jerusalem where nations will literally beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Jesus preached that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. It arrived with the arrival of Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is here on earth. It is where Jesus is. The kingdom of heaven is Christ’s reign in the hearts of his Christians. Repentance is how we become citizens in this kingdom.
Every other kingdom relies on the law. Christ’s kingdom relies on the gospel. Every other kingdom establishes its authority by force. It uses police, jails, armies, and weapons to fight against evil powers. Christ establishes his kingdom, not by laying down the law, not by force, not by using policemen and soldiers, courts and prisons. Christ’s kingdom is Christ ruling over us by his grace. This reign in our hearts begins with repentance.
Repentance has two sides to it: contrition and faith. Contrition is sorrow for having sinned against God. It is hatred of our sin. Luther tried his best to do what God told him to do in the Ten Commandments. He tried his best to do what Jesus told him to do in his Sermon on the Mount. He tried the best he could to obey all of the rules the church set down for him to obey. But despite all of his efforts, Christ had not gained his heart. Luther did not learn to hate his sin as much as he learned to hate God.
It was as Luther was doing his very best to make Jesus his Lord and Savior and failing in his efforts, he was learning by his failure to hate God. Luther did not know the gospel. The gospel is the good news that tells sinners that their sins are forgiven, fully and freely, on account of Christ’s suffering and death. Luther didn’t know the gospel. He knew only the law. He was taught that the gospel is another law. Moses had his law and Jesus has his law. Jesus was to Luther just a new and improved Moses. Luther saw everything the Bible taught as law. The gospel was hidden from his sight.
That’s why he couldn’t repent. He could agree with the law that condemned him. He knew that from the law came knowledge of his sin. But in agreeing with God’s law and confessing his sins, he didn’t do so as a child confessing to his loving Father. He did so as a slave suffering under the lash of the whip. He was sorry for his sins – in a sense. But his sorrow was mostly sorrow over his own miserable condition. He felt sorry for himself because he knew he was going to hell. He did not feel sorry for having offended God.
It was not until God, through the gospel, led Luther to faith that his repentance was genuine. We cannot repent until we hear the gospel and believe it. Repentance isn’t just contrition. It isn’t just sorrow over sins. Repentance is faith. It is trust in the forgiveness of sins that God gives us for Christ’s sake. In fact, until you believe the gospel, it is likely that your sorrow over your sins is more sorrow over your predicament than it is sorrow over having offended God. It is when God persuades us that his grace is greater than our sin; that Christ’s suffering takes our sin away; that the death we feel in our bodies is destroyed by Christ’s resurrection and that we will rise in glory on the last day and inherit eternal life – then it is that repentance has taken place.
The first of Luther’s 95 theses is the most important. The entire life of the Christian is to be one of repentance. It’s not like you repent once and get it over with and are then perfected in holiness, never to sin again. We confess in the Catechism that “We daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment.” It is precisely because we sin every day that our lives must be lives of repentance. Every day we return to our baptism and are washed clean of all our sins. Every day we begin to live a brand new life, covered by the righteousness of Jesus. We close the day confessing our sins, confident that God forgives us for Jesus’ sake. We begin the day asking God to keep us from sin.
God can’t be bribed with money. God doesn’t sell forgiveness. He buys it and gives it away. You can’t get forgiveness by working for it. Jesus has done all the work. No church, no pope, no minister, nobody can take away the penalty you must pay for your sins. Only Jesus can take away that penalty. And he did. He did by bearing it in his own body.
Luther had no intention of starting a Reformation of the church. He just wanted to have a public debate about a practice that was clearly corrupt and wrong. The debate resulted in Luther’s excommunication from the Roman Church and in the establishment of the Lutheran Church. As Lutherans, we do not follow Luther. But we stand with him. We confess the same faith he confessed. And we thank God today, on the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, that God has preserved for us in its purity his holy word that leads us to repent and ushers us into the kingdom of heaven. We thank God for faithful confessors like Martin Luther. We pray that God will enable us to confess today even as he confessed five centuries ago. The gospel that reckons us to be righteous for the sake of Christ’s holy obedience and suffering for us is the most precious possession we have. It is the power of God to give us lives of repentance. These are lives worth living.
Rolf D. Preus