Luther Nailed It: How Repentance Keeps Re-forming Me

Girl with sad face repenting

“Be ashamed when you sin,
don’t be ashamed when you repent –
Sin is the wound, repentance is the medicine.
Sin is followed by shame;
repentance is followed by boldness
Satan has overturned this order
and given boldness to sin and shame to repentance.”

St. John Chrystostom, AD 357-407

Raise your hand if you like to apologize and say sorry. Both hands if you enjoy confessing and repenting.

Thought so. I didn’t raise my hands either. But I’m reforming. Slowly, and I mean decades slow, I’m changing. I’m starting to see repentance as refreshing and freeing (Acts 3:19) and, in Chrystostom’s words, the medicine my proud self needs.

We ought not be ashamed of our repenting. But for some reason many of us still are.

Why Don’t We All Just Repent?

I was just talking with a friend—a friend who Thursday received a(nother) apology text from me—about this very question. We agreed. So many of us are either too ashamed or too proud or too blind to repent. At least those are a big three, three I too often see in me.

No sugarcoating: Coming clean is painful to do—to confess and to repent are death to the flesh. But, oh is it refreshing to have done! I write this post to help in hope that you too will see that repentance is about the most refreshing thing a soul can ever do.

Note 4/19/21: This post is a revision of the original posted on 10/31/2017 on the 500th anniversary of the day Luther nailed his 95 Theses to that Wittenberg church door. With that stroke, he set off the Protestant Reformation and his reforms are still re-forming sinful saints like me.

Luther’s First Thesis: A Life Of Repentance

Like the other epic hero Reformers, Luther was  a flawed man. His “Jewish Problem” was wicked. This post won’t whitewash a saint and sinner named Martin Luther. In fact, it always has been flawed ones that God uses to build- and reform-his Son’s Bride. 

Whether you like him or not, there’s a lot we can all learn from Luther—starting with his concept of Christian repentance, which just so happens to be the very first of the 95 theses.

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. His 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).
 
 

Repentance is a Lifelong Process


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.

These days the issue is more the notions is that repentance is one and done. Check. It. Off. 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.

 
 

As if. Because it seems to me that that never having to confess or to repent means you’re either God-like and divine or deceived and blind.

Because, truth be told, we just 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.

In mercy, we don’t see all our sin at once. That would leave us all undone.

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 repent that times of refreshing might come from the presence of the Lord. In fact, I’ve told our sons, Repenting is a really big thing to do, because it shows Christ is at work in you.

We must live like continual confession and onion layers of repentance are A-okay.  Because God does.

Repenting is a really big thing to do,

because it shows Christ is at work in you.

Which means we forgive 70 x7 and gladly receive confessions of others, as we gladly receive God’s cleansing and forgiveness (1 John 1:9). Our lives are in continual mid-point correction. My Christian walk is like my swimming: dominant right arm always pulls my front crawl that way. My strong arm of saving face—AKA: my pride— steers me.

We must constantly reorient our strokes, our walks, our lives to align with 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.

Repentance is turning from our sin to our compassionate Savior who is Himself in us. Repenting, then, is a revelation of the mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

As C.S. Lewis so aptly 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. Now or then, we all go wrong. But we see our sin and get up and repent.  We 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.
 
 

When We Don’t See Our Sin

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.”

This is true. 

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…

Acts 3: 19