Continuing Reformation: A Fresh Look at Repentance

January 9, 2018 by Joe Small


By Joe Small

The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation has come and gone. Well, not really. The 500th anniversary of the genesis of the Reformation has come and gone. What followed was Zurich in 1523, Geneva in 1536, England in the 1540s, Scotland in 1560 … and numerous other reform movements in succeeding centuries. Yet Protestant reform of the church did begin with Martin Luther and his famous “95 theses.”

Famous, but little known.

Luther’s “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” begins with the stark assertion, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance and forgiveness are not constituted by momentary good deeds, such as supporting the church through the purchase of indulgences. Repentance and forgiveness flow from a life shaped by turning again and again to live God’s new Way in the world.

Contemporary Christians, including Catholic Christians, are certain that repentance and forgiveness are not for sale, but less certain what to make of Luther’s third thesis: “Yet it [‘repent’] does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.” A contemporary appropriation of Luther’s 95 theses means rejection of current church practices of effortless repentance and easy forgiveness.

Luther protested “cheap grace.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer was certain that the problem of cheap grace did not go away in the 16th century. “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church,” he wrote [Luther’s thesis 1]. “Our struggle today is for costly grace” [Luther’s thesis 3]. Is the weekly reading of a corporate prayer of confession quickly followed by an assurance of pardon sufficient to shape “the entire life of believers as one of repentance”? Does such “inner repentance” produce “outward manifestations”?

The Reformed motto, “the church reformed, always to be reformed in accord with the Word of God” commits the contemporary church to ask of itself whether we provide cheap grace, “cut-rate forgiveness.” Jesus said “Repent” [Mt. 4:17]. He also gave indications of what repentance was. Matthew follows Jesus’ call for repentance with the Sermon on the Mount – clear indication of the life of repentance that produces an outwardly different way of life.

Reformation Resources Available
Want to continue your own study and teaching of the Reformation? The Presbyterian Foundation offers videos and printable resources inspired by the recent 500-year anniversary with looks at the Reformation then and now. These resources are available free-of-charge for use in your own ministry.