On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther is said to have posted 95 theses, or “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences,” on the door of All Saints Church. The professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg was proposing an academic debate about indulgences—the practice of doing good works or offering money in order to remove punishment for sin.
Luther was disturbed by how indulgences encouraged people to pay for forgiveness rather than repent. Instead, Luther argued (as the first thesis notes): “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when he said ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”
That is as hard to swallow today as it was then. We are not the first to notice how absent the theme of repentance is today. Karl Menninger’s 1988 bestseller Whatever Became of Sin? could have easily included a sequel, Whatever Became of Repentance?
It only seems absent, however, because today we are quick to point out the failings, the foolishness, the prejudice, and the evil of others. When a leader or a group transgresses against the reigning political orthodoxy (whatever it might be at the moment), there are angry calls to retract or repudiate what has been said, along with demands for re-education or dismissal. We take some “sins” very seriously and insist the offenders “repent.” We just don’t use those words.
To honor the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we Christians might insist anew that the whole life of the Christian is indeed about repentance. Jesus began his ministry with such a call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17), and repentance is the key note in the early church’s ...1