The very first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses was: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance”. They begin, continue and end their life of faith here on earth with repentance. “The just shall live by faith” and repentance is the tear in the eye of faith. Luther was emphasising Christ’s own message in preaching the gospel. Part of its purpose was to call sinners to a life of repentance.
Luther’s reference to the words of Christ is interesting. It involved appealing to the original Greek as meaning repent rather than the Latin “do penance”. The Greek New Testament had been printed in 1516, the year before Luther posted the 95 theses. His explanation of the 95 theses demonstrates this.
the Greek word metanoeite itself…means ‘repent’: and could be translated more exactly by the Latin trasmentamini, which means ‘assume another mind and feeling, recover one’s senses, make transition from one state of mind to another, have a change of spirit’; so that those who hitherto have been aware of earthly matters may now know the spiritual, as the Apostle (Paul) says in Romans 12:2, ‘Be transformed by the renewal of your mind’. By this recovery of one’s senses it happens that the sinner has a change of heart and hates his sin.
Luther is pointing to the inward disposition, not merely outward actions (though he did not deny the need for these). He goes on to say in the second thesis: “This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy”. He explains his statement about an entire life of repentance in the following way:
We pray throughout our whole life and we must pray ‘forgive is our debts’ [Matthews 6:12]; therefore, we repent throughout our whole life and are displeased with ourselves, unless anyone may be so foolish as to think he must only pretend to pray for the forgiveness of debts.
David Dickson shows how Christ’s preaching in Matthew 4:17 echoes the message of John the Baptist. John was now in prison but Christ continued his message. “Christ had preached before in the time of John’s freedom, and made more disciples than he (John 3:26), but now he begins in this countryside, and shows himself more powerful than before”. He notes the following points:
- When Christ’s gospel is opposed and His servants persecuted, He can let forth his light and power so much the more, and can supply the lack of instruments. Therefore it is said: “From that time he began to preach”.
- Christ’s doctrine and the doctrine of his faithful servants is all one in substance. The sum of John Baptist’s preaching and Christ’s is all one. Both preached in substance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.
- When the gospel comes, it finds men under the tyranny of Satan. The offer to bring them into the kingdom of God implies this.
In his comments on John the Baptist’s preaching (Matthew 3:2), Dickson further draws out the message of repentance. The aim of John’s preaching was to move men to repent, because the kingdom of God’s grace offered in the gospel, was now ready to receive the penitent.
1. Repentance restores men to their right minds
The gospel finds men mad and out of their right minds in an evil way. When it is sent unto them they are men who must return to their right minds. The original meaning of the word “Repent” implies this.
2. Repentance is the aim of gospel preaching
The aim of the preaching of the gospel is to persuade men to repentance. “Repent” is John’s main purpose.
3. Repentance and the kingdom of heaven
The grace of God offered in the gospel is in effect the kingdom of heaven, for it opens the way unto it, and enters the man not only into the right, but also into the begun possession of the kingdom of heaven.
4. Repentance and God’s offer
There can be no greater allurement to move a man to change his evil way and turn to God than the offer made to the penitent. This is the offer of the kingdom of grace and glory through Christ and this is the motive which John uses: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near”.
5. Repentance is brought about by the gospel
The ability and activity of repenting are both brought about by the preaching and power of the gospel. John is sent to preach this doctrine in order to bring these about, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”.
Luther was echoing Christ’s message and rediscovering something of the fulness of the gospel and gospel living. That message continues to be necessary. We need daily, personal, sincere repentance in the spirit of the gospel. Repentance that lays hold of the mercy of God in Christ. The kingdom of heaven is mark by repentance.
It was an appropriate message to signal the start of a Reformation. Reformation is not about merely making outward changes to the way that we do things. We need heart reformation and personal reformation in our lives. Then we also need to see families, Churches and the nation reformed according to the Bible.
Reformation and repentance both involve change. Repentance is not only about sorrow for sin. It means turning from it and being transformed in our lives by the renewing of our minds. We need this constantly both as individuals and Churches.
Read Christ’s Refining Fire of Reformation and Your Spiritual Life. This shows the real nature of spiritual reformation. Outward change is not enough. There must be deep inward refining.
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