“From that time on Jesus began to preach: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” Matthew 4:17
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent’, He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance”. With these words, Martin Luther began his 95 Theses, the list of 95 points for debate which he nailed to the church door at the Castle of Wittenberg in October 1517. Luther himself tells us that his action was borne out of “love for the truth and a desire to elucidate it”. His desire was to enter into debate with the church of his day, a debate which Luther, a loyal servant of the church, hoped would lead to a reformation of belief and practice bringing the church into line with the teaching of Scripture. Sadly, the church responded with stubborn hostility and the rest, as they say, is history – not the reformation of the Church of Rome, but the birth of Protestantism, a new alignment centred on the authority of Scripture, rather than the authority of human tradition, reason or experience. Needless to say, the new movement was accused of departing from the orthodox religion, but in reality, its goal was to return to Biblical orthodoxy as expressed in the plain teaching of Scripture.
This emphasis on ‘return’ explains why Luther began his 95 Theses with a statement about repentance as a way of life. To repent in Biblical terms is to turn away from what is wrong and to turn back to what is right, first in one’s thinking and then, as a result of this change of mind, in one’s daily life. And as Luther saw clearly, and as the Bible itself affirms, this change in mind and life was not a simple once-off thing, but a daily process. It was to this life of repentance that Jesus called people during His earthly ministry, and it is to this life of repentance that He continues to call people today.
As we think about this subject of repentance more carefully, there are a number of things that we need to note. First, repentance is not the same thing as remorse. Remorse is in the main an emotional response of guilt or shame or regret borne out of the consequences of one’s actions. It may be linked to a recognition that a particular action was in fact wrong, but this is not necessarily the case. Remorse is thus almost always a subjective experience. As anyone who has faced addiction knows, it is all too easy to feel remorse but not in fact to change. Repentance on the other hand, though motivated by a recognition that one has acted in a way that is wrong and though often accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame, goes far beyond mere feelings. Repentance involves change, change shaped by an objective standard from which one has departed, change not only in thinking but also in behaviour.
Second, given the reference to an objective standard, we need to note that in Biblical terms, repentance involves turning away from the authority of self, and submission to the authority of God, as it is expressed in the Bible. What the Protestant Reformers recognized and what the Bible itself teaches is that as valid as our tradition, or experience or rational reflection may be, the final authority in all matters of faith and practice had to lie with the Bible as understood in its plain historical and grammatical sense. This view was of course based upon the Bible’s self-identification as the Word of God. For repentance to go beyond what was simply cultural or arbitrary it required a standard of truth to stand in judgement over our thoughts and actions, and for Protestant Christians that standard was and is the Bible.
Third, and this was a key point in Luther’s thinking and a turning point in his understanding of the Christian Faith, repentance of necessity needs to be accompanied by a belief in the grace of God and in the reality of forgiveness. Biblical repentance begins with turning back to God and since God is personal and relational, holy and gracious, true repentance on the part of people calls forth a response of grace and forgiveness on God’s part. It was for this reason that Jesus preached not just repentance but the importance of faith, faith not in our repentance but faith in Jesus who died and rose again so that all who turn to Him may be forgiven and reconciled to God. But as Luther also understood from the Bible, such a willingness to turn to God in repentance and faith was not natural to any person and would only come about by the grace of God turning our hearts back to Himself. Luther’s own experience of God’s grace in his life, lead him to a recognition that a restored relationship with God, while involving our repentance was based on the teaching of Scripture alone and in the end, by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and to the glory of God.
Written by Mervyn Eloff. Original article can be found here.