Learning about repentance with Luther
Luther was a man bound up by the fear and guilt that almost inevitably accompany a religious system designed to appease God by works. As a man originally trained in law, he took the requirements of God's law and the rules of the Church very seriously. He saw the Law of Moses as a dreadful and impossible thing which the Sermon on the Mount only expanded to the deepest reaches of the soul, leaving him helpless to ever please God. In Luther's words,
"This word is too high and too hard that anyone should fulfill it. This is proved, not merely by our Lord's word, but by our own experience and feeling. Take any upright man or woman. He will get along very nicely with those who do not provoke him, but let someone proffer only the slightest irritation and he will flare up in anger,...if not against friends, then against enemies. Flesh and blood cannot rise above it."It's becoming clear to me why his commentary on Paul's Epistle to the Galatians has become one of the most treasured gems of Luther's legacy. It flowed from the heart of a man, who, not unlike the apostle Paul, understood the depths of his soul, the dark and hopeless state of sinful man, and his absolute inability to merit God's favor. As Paul was a Pharisee among Pharisees, Luther was a monk among monks. As he said,
"I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who know me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work."Luther came to understand that no one but Christ Himself could ever meet the requirements of God's law, let alone treasure up merit sufficient for the salvation for others. This led him to question the validity of the doctrine of purgatory and particularly, as we see in the 95 Theses, the system of indulgences. His questioning was problematic enough, but, as I said, Luther's theology was rapidly evolving as discoveries in Scripture led to one doctrinal adjustment after another. To quote Bainton, "Ideas were so churning within him that new butter always came out of the vat." So before his Theses had engendered a response from Rome, he'd already progressed to a new set of assertions. These turned up in his Resolutions Concerning the Ninety-Five Theses.
"Luther had made the discovery that the biblical text from the Latin Vulgate, used to support the sacrament of penance, was a mis-translation. The Latin for Matt. 4:17 read penitentium agite, 'do penance,' but from the Greek New Testament of Erasmus, Luther had learned that the original meant simply 'be penitent.' The literal sense was 'change your mind.' 'Fortified with this passage,' wrote Luther to Staupitz in the dedication of the Resolutions, 'I venture to say they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek.' This was what Luther himself called a 'glowing' discovery. In this crucial instance a sacrament of the Church did not rest on the institution of Scripture.""Glowing" indeed. This truth warms my heart with hope. My access to the favor of God is not earned by acts of penance, but comes through a change of mind - or you might say a change of heart. Repentance is a change of mind from an attitude of opposition against God to humble agreement with Him. It is deep and vital understanding that His judgments against us are righteous and true, and that only the righteousness that Christ provides is sufficient to gain favor for us in the sight of the almighty and holy God. Repentance acknowledges that "Salvation is of the Lord" and abandons self-effort.
What a blessed hope Luther returned to the world.