95 Theses; John 8:31-36
“Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said, ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”
With those words, many believe the Reformation of the 16th century began. For that is the first of the Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. These theses, far from a confessional document—as we otherwise have contained for us in the Book of Concord—were meant to be the framework of a scholarly debate intended to expose the pious fraud being sold to the ordinary Christians.
Now, it just so happened that the prince of Luther’s land and the neighboring territory forbade the sale of indulgences in their lands. Still, Luther’s parishioners would travel to where the sale was permitted, purchase an indulgence, then return to show Luther the piece of paper that proclaimed them freed from sin and no longer needing repentance. Outraged by the fact that people had paid for their forgiveness—grace that was freely theirs by right of being a son of God in Christ—Luther is said to have taken the indulgences, torn them up, and burned them, as I have heard the story.
“Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said, ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” “Christians are to be taught that the pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God,” thesis 49.
The idea of never again needing repentance, or at the very least, not needing it even for a brief moment, carries with it a loss of the fear of God. Think about it: the Law says you are a sinner, but you carry with you a piece o paper—a simple piece of paper signed by a fellow sinner—stating that you are free from the need to repent. God says you have sinned and deserve to die for it, repent! And your reply is, “Whatever! The pope has freed me from the need to repent.” God, in His righteous wrath, is justly angered by sin, yet Christians in the early 1500s laughed in His face, clutching a piece of paper for which they payed a silver coin.
How did they get there? Well, the Romish church falsely taught, and still teaches, that repentance consists of three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. The Law is proclaimed, showing a Christian his sins, for which he confesses, and then is given something to do to make satisfaction for the sins confessed (and maybe a little extra for the sins not yet remembered). Today, we are familiar with satisfaction as being the 10 Our Fathers and 10 Hail Marys that a Roman Catholic must recite after coming out of the confessional booth, though there may be other works attached to these recitations. These three parts met, the repentant is said to then have merited forgiveness. With the practice of indulgences, at the simplest, they replaced the third part of repentance, satisfaction, or even the fullness of repentance, as Rome taught it.
Given the Romish doctrine of repentance, and its accompanying doctrines, indulgences were a simple means out from under the weight of sin. To illustrate, look at the bulletin cover, on which you see a man shackled to his sins. He knows they’re there; every Christian was taught that they were a sinner. So, he makes confession of them. Now, still shackled to them, he must perform a good work to rid himself of them. He is expected to do good in order to make up for the good that he couldn’t do in the first place, to put it most simply, while still bearing the weight and consequences of not doing that first good—while still schackled to his sins. Consciences would be burdened with wonder: “Can I do the good I need to do?” “Can I do enough good?”
Along come indulgences which, for a few pennies, would ease the conscience of the burdened. Instead of earning forgiveness by way of works, one could now buy their way out from under the burden of sin and repentance, as Rome taught it.
Now, as Christians of the Reformation, we can see the error of both ways. They squarely put the responsibility of forgiveness on the shoulders of the penitent. They make forgiveness dependent on the work of man, either in doing some good in order to make satisfaction for sin, or paying off the debt of sin by giving money to Rome, which is rightly lamented by Christians of the Reformation as being error, as taught by theses 62 through 66:
- The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
- But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.
- On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
- Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches.
- The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.
However, the greater error of indulgences is the error of Rome’s doctrine of repentance—specifically that satisfaction must be made in order to merit forgiveness—which the selling of indulgences compounded.
“Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon,” theses 36 and 37.
These two theses are at the heart of the Lutheran doctrine of repentance. For we believe, teach, and confess that repentance has only two parts, the Law and the Gospel. “The Law reveals sin and drives us to cling to Christ alone. The Gospel, imparted by means of Word and Sacrament, comforts and sooths consciences.” This comfort and soothing comes in the most basic Gospel statement, God’s sweetness to our ears: “Your sins are forgiven.” There is no need for satisfaction to be made by the penitent in order to be forgiven for all sin, for it has already been made by the sacrifice of the Only-begotten Son of God on the cross. There is no need to pay with gold or silver in order to be worthy of forgiveness, for the price of your forgiveness has been paid—the holy, precious blood of Christ and His innocent suffering and death. It is done for you, it is paid for you—those little words “for you” which figure so prominently in all of Christ’s work and Lutheran teaching of God’s grace, especially as regards the Lord’s Supper, a means by which the Gospel, that comforting and soothing Word of God, is imparted to you.
The selling of indulgences, indeed the entire doctrine of repentance as Rome taught, is contrary to this, contrary to the Word of God, and blasphemously seeks to set up a means equal to or even better than that set up by God for the forgiveness of sins, as stated in thesis 79: “To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.”
“If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” Jesus said. It is in that Word of God where we learn of this two-parted repentance. For the Word of God plainly tells us, as Rome taught, that God is a just God, who in righteous wrath, is angered by sin, and is angry toward us on account of our sin. That Word of God plainly tells us that sin keeps us in bondage; that is to say, that by our sin, we are unable to work out way out from under it—as even Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin,” and a slave has no means to free Himself. That Word of God plainly tells us that the Son of God took on human flesh in order to take upon Himself our sin and bear for us the full wrath of God in our place, in order to free us from our sin. This is the two parts of repentance, the Law and the Gospel—the Law which says that you are a sinner in need of a savior, and the Gospel which declares to you that Jesus, the Son of God, is your Savior who has set you free from sin. “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”
Now, have things changed? Yes and no. We may count ourselves better than Rome for we have abandoned their false teaching of repentance. Still, in some ways we still cling to it. Remember thesis 1: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said, ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” Though justified by God’s grace, we still sin—we live our temporal lives simul justus et peccator, at the same time justified and sinner. God is still angered by sin, and that anger is still to be feared. Therefore, Jesus tells us, “Repent”—confess your sins in contrition, and hear again the wonderful, good news of sins forgiven for Christ’s sake.
Still, there exists, even in our numbers, those who lack a proper fear of God. While we may not have letters of pardon that by putting our trust in we lose the fear of God, we certainly have other means in which we trust and lose a proper fear of God. In fact, some of them may be papers, such as the baptismal certificate or confirmation certificate stuffed in a sock drawer. These, like indulgences, are worthless before God, not even worth the paper or stock they are printed on. They are certainly useful if no trust is put in them, useful as reminders that you have been Baptized into Christ and that you reiterated the confession of faith made at your Baptism, reminders that you have been washed clean in a most blessed flood and given faith to trust this, and that you promised to remain in that faith and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it. But to hold those up before God as licenses that free you from the life of repentance that Jesus called you to hold no water and Word before the throne of God; the ball and chain are still shackled to your ankle.
For others in our numbers, it is enough for them that they “belong” to a certain fellowship, that they are members of a Lutheran congregation. In their minds, they are a part of something that believes, teaches, and confesses rightly, whether or not they believe, teach, or confess the same, or even regularly and often participate in the believing, teaching, and confessing (read: worship). For them, that’s conscience comforting and soothing, for by believing that by being in with the right crowd, they believe that they are in with God. But to hold one’s membership in an organization up as a means of grace show a complete and utter lack of fear of God; the ball and chain are still shackled to your ankle.
These are but two crass examples showing a lack of fear of God. Rightly said, anything by which you trust in something or someone other than God and His Christ for your forgiveness, life, and salvation, demonstrates and lack of fear, love, and trust in God. These are faithless and they are sin. Indeed, they are all a trust in no one else than yourself. In fact, every sin is a demonstration of a lack of fear, love, and trust in God, as so taught by the Ten Commandments and Luther’s explanation of the same.
Therefore, we abide in God’s Word. Returning now, we hear this Word from Christ: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) Repent of your lack of trust in God and trust in yourself, and believe in the gospel which declares to you the grace of God for you. Thanks be to God that with the command to repent comes the grace and faith to do so, and with the command to believe in the gospel comes the grace and faith to trust in God and receive these words: you are forgiven for all of your sins—no letter of pardon necessary!