When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses, he was seeking a debate on the issue of indulgences, especially as they related to the repentance of the Christian. He emphasized this in the first thesis. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matthew 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, p. 25).
The problem is that the Roman Catholic Church had turned repentance into a work the believer had to do to merit God’s forgiveness. At least once a year, the believer had to confess all his sins to the priest. This act of confessing—aloud—all the sins that could be remembered merited forgiveness. But for the forgiveness to truly take effect, the believer also had to do certain acts of penance, or “satisfactions.” Since most people could not remember all their sins or do all the works of penance, most people had to spend time in purgatory before they could be allowed into heaven. Indulgences were a way to shorten the time in purgatory or remove the burden of some of the “satisfactions.”
Luther was rightly concerned that this was leading people to either uncertainty or complacency. On the one hand, how could they know if they had remembered all their sins? On the other hand, if they had paid for indulgences, they really didn’t need to be repentant. Why bother, if a piece of paper said they were released from purgatory?
Instead, Luther defined repentance the way the Bible does. There are two parts. The first is that we confess our sins; we acknowledge that we are guilty and deserve God’s judgment; we are sorry or contrite. The second is that we receive the forgiveness Jesus has won for us; we believe that God forgives our sins for Jesus’ sake; we are comforted (1 John 1:8,9). The Augsburg Confession summarized it this way. “Now properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror about sin, and yet at the same time to believe in the gospel and absolution that sin is forgiven and grace is obtained through Christ. Such faith, in turn, comforts the heart and puts it at peace” (The Book of Concord, p. 44).
Being truly Lutheran—and truly Christian—is to live a life of repentance; to daily confess our sins and rejoice in the forgiveness of sins; and to plead for God’s mercy, trusting that he is merciful. That’s how, in the face of our sinful nature and the devil’s attacks, we live in the confidence of God’s grace.
This is the ninth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation.
Author: Joel Otto
Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017