What it means to be truly Lutheran: Living a life of repentance

Joel D. Otto

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’ [Matt. 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.

Questions to consider:

1. Consider the account of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel chapters 11,12). What lesson does this incident teach us about the importance of being confronted by God’s law?

David was piling one sin on top of another and refusing to acknowledge that he had sinned against the Lord. When Nathan confronted him with God’s law, which led David to convict himself, David was quick to confess his sinfulness and sorrow. Nathan was quick to proclaim forgiveness, but until David was confronted by the law, he was living in impenitence. Without the law convicting us of our sinfulness, we will continue to live in impenitence and deny our need for God’s forgiveness.

2. Read Psalm 32:1-5 and Mark 2:1-12. Why is it so important to be regularly comforted by God’s gospel of forgiveness?

As David relates in Psalm 32, the burden of guilt can weigh us down. It can be easy to focus inward on what we have done wrong, the problems our sins have caused. It can lead us to wonder if God could possibly forgive those who have done the horrible things we’ve done. Likewise, when health problems or other difficulties strike, we can easily start to think that this is the punishment we’re getting for something wrong we did. I would imagine that the paralytic had a lot of time to think about such things as he lay on his mat day after day. Jesus proclaimed forgiveness to him before he healed his physical ailment. The devil would like us to look inward or focus on the circumstances of our lives and see in them just judgment for our sins. The regular comfort of God’s gospel of forgiveness is essential to assure us daily of God’s grace.

3. In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), compare the attitudes of the two men. Why is it easy to gravitate to the attitude of the Pharisee? What lesson does Jesus teach about repentance?

The Pharisee points to his accomplishments and compares himself to others. The tax collector humbly acknowledges his sinfulness and pleads for God’s mercy, trusting that God is merciful. The default attitude of our sinful nature is that of the Pharisee. I’ve done a pretty good job. At least I’m not as bad as an alcoholic or drug addict or murderer. We rationalize that God must be happy with us because we’re not as bad as other people. Jesus’ lesson about repentance is that we’re all like the tax collector. We’re all sinners in need of God’s mercy. The proper attitude of repentance confesses the need for God’s mercy and trusts that God is merciful and forgiving.

4. Read Romans 6:1-4. Describe how repentance takes us back to our baptism.

Paul begins this chapter by addressing the argument raised against salvation by grace through faith. If salvation is free, then we’re free to live how we want. We can sin as much as we want. Paul answers that objection by pointing us back to our baptism and what happened when we were baptized. We were buried with Christ and raised with him. We died to sin. But because our sinful nature doesn’t go away, we need to repent, which is really dying to sin and rising to life again. It’s a repetition of the death and resurrection we first experienced when we were baptized. That’s one reason the pastor’s announcement of forgiveness often includes the words, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It’s a way of reminding us of the connection between Baptism and our ongoing reception of God’s forgiveness through the gospel. We need that regular proclamation and reception of forgiveness because “we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment” (Luther’s Small Catechism, Fifth Petition). Luther put it well in the catechism. “Baptism means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance, and that all its evil deeds and desires be put to death. It also means that a new person should daily arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Luther’s Small Catechism, Fourth of Baptism).

Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This is the ninth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after June 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017

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