Dr. Lawrence Ressler has spent nearly four decades as a social work professor and academic administrator in Christian higher education including time at Eastern Mennonite […]
Mathew Swora is Pastor at Zion Mennonite Church, Canby, Oregon.
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
These words, so pastoral and prophetic, launched the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, much to the surprise of the German Augustinian monk who penned them, Martin Luther. They constitute the first of his 95 Theses. When he nailed that document to the door of the Wittenberg, Germany, church, on October 31, 1517, Luther thought he was simply launching a local debate about the sale of indulgences. Those were basically sinning licenses or “Get out of jail free” cards for sinners in Purgatory or on the way there. To Luther, the indulgence racket was the most pressing example of corruption and exploitation in the church. His concern about this was as much pastoral as theological.
Though there was so much wrong in the church that Luther could and did criticize and castigate, it’s worth noting that the Reformation, and all the churches that followed from it, began not with accusation but invitation: an invitation, like that of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (Mark 1:15), to repentance. But it was not to repentance as a “one-and-done” personal achievement for the price of a piece of paper with the Papal seal, nor was Luther only calling leaders and authorities to account for sinful structures and the abuse of power (though there was, and he did, plenty of that). The Reformation began with a call to repentance as a lifelong orientation of willingness rather than willfulness, to borrow Gerald May’s terminology, to a humble stance before God, Creation and others, of willingness to be corrected, to learn and to grow.
Surprisingly, The 95 Theses and this call to repentance came two years before Luther’s famous breakthrough insight about the gospel, faith and God’s grace, about which he said, “I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.” But one can see in The 95 Theses the first rays of light that would dawn in Luther’s own heart and mind when Romans 1: 17 became clear to him, and he realized that, “the righteousness of God revealed” in the gospel, “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.”
From then on, repentance was not the frightening, onerous duty it had so often been for Luther, in which his penitence might provoke the wrath of God for being incomplete and imperfect (as it always is). Repentance was the doorway to grace, refreshment and renewal. As the meaning of God’s grace grew on him, Luther came to understand that even his own righteousness required ongoing repentance. All his scrupulous, fear-driven, self-motivated and self-aggrandizing piety had been a blasphemous effort to bargain with God for all that God in love gives eagerly and extravagantly, and for his own glory, rather than God’s. Luther would later often say, “The most dangerous sin of all is the presumption of righteousness.”
Later, Anabaptist reformers correctly warned that taking Luther’s words about faith, without genuine repentance and surrender to a Holy Spirit-driven transformation of life, could degenerate into mere mental assent to some doctrines. This happened, and it still happens, but it’s not anything Luther taught nor wanted, nor is it unique to state churches. Luther himself would never disassociate a living, saving Christian faith from the genuine, ongoing repentance to which the first of The 95 Theses calls us.
Anabaptist reformers like Menno Simons and Michael Sattler also had legitimate and trenchant critiques of church business as usual, including Protestant church business. They were also correct in warning Luther about trading one state church for another, which resulted in Luther and his church rejecting, persecuting and even killing Anabaptists. But the Anabaptist Reformation did not begin nor end only with critique of others either. Those leaders also testified to wrenching times of self-examination and struggle with conscience, conduct, repentance and the cost of following Jesus, until they surrendered and fell on the stone that is Christ, to accept being broken (Mt. 21:44).
Five hundred years later, we may again be on the brink of another Reformation, one which reunites some of what needed to be broken in Luther’s day. Ours is an “age of outrage,” and there is indeed much about which to be outraged. Technology and social media make analysis and critique all the more easy and less dangerous and costly for me than it was for that German Augustinian monk 500 years ago with only an inkwell, a quill and some sheets of paper.
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