The First Point Luther Nailed And How It’s Still Reforming Me

Wise men are men, and truth is truth. -Richard Hooker

Martin Luther, like the other epic hero Reformers, was only a man and a flawed one at that.  His “Jewish Problem” was evil. This post won’t attempt to whitewash a sinful saint named Martin Luther.

But, in point of fact, it always has been flawed ones that God uses to build- and reform-his Son’s Bride. And since it was October 31, 1517- 500 years ago to the day- that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door at All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg and with that stroke, set off the Protestant Reformation and since his reforms still impact sinning saints like me, I thank God for Martin Luther today.

Like him or not, there’s a lot we can all learn from Luther. Like his concept of Christian repentance- which happens to be the very first of the 95 theses.

Luther’s First Thesis: A Life Of Repentance

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. That’s it. The first thesis.
Biblically defined repentance is changing one’s mind, so that one lives differently (see Thesis #3). It means turning from sin to Christ. Repentance is the path to forgiveness of sins and favor with God. We repent and believe and are saved (Matt. 4:17, Mark 6:12, Acts 2:38, Acts 26:20).
But repentance  doesn’t end when we receive Christ Jesus as Lord. It’s a life-long process. It’s not, as Luther wrote (Thesis #2), a sacrament of penance administered by the clergy. That’s not so much the issue today as the notion that repentance is one and done. As if real Christians, strong Christians, are the one who never have to turn from sin, who never have to repent. The ones who might say, Oh, no. I’ve never changed my stance. I’ve always lived this way.

Really?  I think. Because it seems like that means you’re either God-like and divine or deceived and blind. And I betray my own proud, sinful heart.

Because, truth be told, we don’t see all of our sin at once. Our sins are layered, like onions. We peel a layer off and- lo! and behold- there’s another. We don’t see all our sin. 

From as much as you know of your sin…

Which is why I like J.I. Packer’s definition of repentance so much. He explains,

Repentance is turning from as much as you know of your sin, to give as much as you know of yourself to as much as you know of God. 

This definition, like Luther’s first thesis, helps me see repentance as a lifelong pursuit, a way of living. Not one and done. We confess as we see more of our sin.

Because Christians are not comfortable with our sin. We regret it and don’t settle with it. We want to repent, that times of refreshing might come.

I tell our boys that repenting “is a really big thing to do. Because it means Christ is at work in you.”

We’ve got to live like continual confession is okay.  Which means we’ve got to welcome the confessions of others. And to receive God’s cleansing and forgiveness (1 John 1:9).

Because our Christian lives are continual mid-point correction, like swimming to a target on the beach when your dominant arm always pulls your front crawl that way.

We constantly reorient our strokes, our walk, our lives to align to as much as we know of our Lord.

Not a man who never goes wrong.

You might say we’re in constant reforming mode. By grace alone, through Christ alone, we’re constantly, “making good.” My Reformation Study Bible explains repentance is the ongoing turning from sin in the life of a Christian. Ordinary Christian life will include times of profound sorrow for remaining sin. So good grief, and the repentance that follows is part and parcel of ordinary Christian life.

Continually turning from our sin, to our compassionate, gracious Savior who is Himself in us. Repenting, then is a revelation of the mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Because like C.S. Lewis explained,

A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble—because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out.  (Mere Christianity 1952; Harper Collins: 2001. 62-63).

Christians stumble. We go wrong. We see our sin and get up and repent. And run on and stumble and see more of our sin and repent.
So, with Christ in us, repairing us all the time, as we see our sin, we repent. But try as we might, we’ll never see it all.

The answer we need when we don’t see it all

Don’t despair. Our Maker knows our frame.

And He knew his servant Martin Luther’s flawed frame too. He saw the sin that Luther himself couldn’t see in himself and, therefore, could not repent of and confess. But seeing Luther’s spiritual blindness, takes us straight back to one of the most precious Reformation truths.

Now I borrow from Trevin Wax to close. 

Luther’s anti-Semitism, egregious as it is, does not lead me to abandon his rediscovery of justification; it leads me to lean harder into it. Here’s the glorious truth: the reality Luther saw so clearly provides the answer to the sin he didn’t.

In other words, Luther discerned the reality of justification by faith alone better than he discerned the sinfulness in his own heart and life. And it’s that reality of justification by faith alone that levels us all and drives us to our knees–thankful for the clear example of horrendously flawed theologians articulating the only doctrine that gives hope to all of us who are horrendously flawed. It’s only in the security of being wrapped up in the righteousness of Christ that we can say, “Challenge me, Lord. Change me, Lord. Expose my wickedness.”

In the end, when death came for Luther’s mortal body, and the last of his parasitical sinfulness was destroyed, his final words contained no more vile epithets toward the Jews, but only a deathbed confession of his Jewish Messiah: “We are beggars; this is true.”

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  

Romans 5:1-2