Matthew 4:17 “From that time Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
If you are a Christian, you celebrated a major milestone this past week. You see, you are the offspring of a radical protest movement that began in Germany 500 years ago and has spread across the entire globe. On October 31, 1517, the “Protestant” (see the word “protest” in there?) movement began. Those who joined this protest put a lot more of their skin in the game than taking a knee while their national anthem played. Anyone confessing to belong to this protest risked death. So how did it start?
We are often given the image of a defiant monk hammering on a church door as the match that ignited what is called the Protestant Reformation. But at the time, Martin Luther was a 34-year old priest and professor of theology at Wittenberg University. His initial intent was to issue a challenge for a scholarly debate on papal indulgences. These were payments that people made to the State (Roman Catholic) Church to purchase exemptions from punishment (penance) for their sins. Posting a notice for this type of event on the doors of a church affiliated with the university was actually pretty common back then.
It was what Luther posted on the Wittenberg church doors that caused the uproar. In his own words, here’s Luther’s introduction to what has become known as the 95 Theses: “Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”
He listed 95 statements on what the gospel of Jesus Christ looked like, with direct challenges to church doctrine which perverted the gospel by claiming that purchasing indulgences is an act of repentance that leads to salvation. It is worth your time to read through them (they aren’t long). Here are a few.
Thesis #1: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Thesis #3: “Yet it (repentance) does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.” Thesis #21: “Those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.” Thesis #32: “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”
Thesis #36: “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.” Thesis #43: “Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.” Thesis #54: “Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.”
Thesis #62: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
Oh boy, Luther has done it now. He wants to redefine the church’s definition of repentance. Or maybe he just wants to return to the Bible’s definition of repentance. Let’s examine what the Bible says, since it is at the very heart of New Testament preaching. First, our verse this week is the same verse Luther stressed in his very first thesis – the life of a believer is bound up in repentance. Secondly, it’s not a work people do to try to gain God’s acceptance – it’s a work of a good and merciful God: “The goodness of God leads you to repentance.” (Romans 2:5). That was why Luther was so upset over people buying forgiveness from the church. You don’t buy forgiveness for sin: you turn to God who, in His mercy, desires to forgive you.
And third, repentance is explained in the Bible with three different words: I have 1) a change of mind where 2) I hate my sins, and 3) I determine to change. The first word “metanoeo” is my intellect: I recognize that I am personally responsible for my sin, that it offends a holy God, who is willing to forgive me if I turn to Him. The second word “metamelomai” is my emotional response of deep sorrow when I understand what my sin has done. It’s not being sorry I got caught – it’s a heartache for having offended God. That leads to the third word “epistrephomai”, which is a determination to change on the inside – a true desire to turn away from my sin and turn to Christ for His promise to forgive me. And it shows on the outside in my behavior.
Luther knew forgiveness, and salvation, couldn’t be bought. He revolutionized the world by returning the focus to the gospel of Jesus Christ, whose payment for my sin gives me access to God’s forgiveness. Today, Christians stand on the shoulders of men like Luther, many of whom died to defend this truth.
“The Evidence of Faith’s Substance”, Article #268