Repentance: “The Entire Life of the Believer”

By Dan Clendenin

Just a few weeks from now, on October 31, 2017, the town of Wittenberg in Germany will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church, thus kick-starting the Protestant Reformation. The town, which has a population of 50,000, is expecting 400,000 tourists.

Beginning next week, Journey with Jesus will feature consecutive guest essays on the Reformation from five different perspectives — Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox. So, stay tuned.

I recently read the new book by Martin Marty called October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World. How was it, he asks, that a young monk, at a new university, in an obscure little town, touched such a nerve as to convulse all of Europe and, eventually, the whole world?

It’s right there in Luther’s Thesis #1, says Marty: “When our Lord and master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended the entire life of believers to be repentance.”

In the gospel of Mark, the first words spoken by Jesus call us to repentance. This was the “focal point” of all Ninety-Five Theses, says Marty, even an “obsession” with Luther — “the biblical claim that one is ‘made right with God’ not through any human effort — the code word then and now was and is ‘through good works’ — but entirely by divine grace ‘through faith.’”

Luther’s idea, writes Marty, touched “the human heart at its deepest font.”

“Repent and live!” begs Ezekiel in the reading for this week (18:32). In a culture that has forgotten how to blush, and that counsels us to “never apologize and never explain,” his words sound archaic and dour.

But for those of us who want to live Christianly, repentance is central to life rather than peripheral. It’s essential rather than optional. And contrary to modern misconceptions, when done well, repentance is entirely life-giving rather than death-dealing. Repentance is a movement toward wholeness rather than a descent into self-hatred.

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Martin Luther.

Repentance best takes place in a church community, but it’s ultimately a personal act rather than an ecclesiastical ritual. Luther insisted on this point as he tried to recover the explosive power of the gospel that he believed had been encrusted with 1500 years of arbitrary church authority and tendentious traditions.

Luther was attacking the medieval sacramental system of “penance,” and especially the buying and selling of indulgences, a sort of bribe paid to the church which purported to reduce one’s penalty for sin.

Appealing to the original Greek New Testament, Luther insisted that Jesus did not prescribe a complicated ritual that required the believer to confess to a priest, purchase an indulgence, or repeat so many Hail Marys, as suggested by Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible in the fifth century that held sway in the Western church for a full 1,000 years (poenitentiam agite, “do penance”).

Rather, in a way unmediated by rules, regulations, and formulas, we simply and radically “repent” before God himself (Greek, metanoia).

In this sense, repentance can be quite simple, as observed by the Syrian abbot John Climacus (c. 525–605) in his The Ladder of Divine Ascent: “Let your prayer be very simple. For the tax collector and the prodigal son just one word was enough to reconcile them to God.”

A single word might do, but genuine repentance is also a life-long style of life, which is to say that it’s also a complex process that acknowledges the ambiguity of our fallen human condition. Since we will never know perfection this side of heaven, there will never be a time when we don’t need repentance as our friend.

After we had been married a number of years, my wife and I decided to re-take some diagnostic tests that we had taken in pre-marital counseling. I wanted to see if and how we had changed. The answer, at least according to the tests: not much.

When I asked my psychologist friend about my meager “progress” and prospects for genuine change, based upon his years of clinical experience, he only shrugged, “well, for most people change is complex, slow and incremental.” With Luther, then, we can say that repentance requires our entire life, throughout our life.

In the gospel this week, Jesus offended his listeners when he observed that decidedly immoral people like prostitutes and tax-collectors understood repentance better than religiously righteous people. The religiously righteous wrongly believe that they are better than they really are; they imagine that they don’t need to repent. Moral outcasts have no such illusions, nor the need to hew to social conventions that protect us; they know how bad off they are.

I learned this lesson the hard way when a therapist once informed me that my test scores indicated that I scored way high on the built-in “fudge factor” that smokes out answer patterns that are too good to be true. “No,” said the therapist, “you are not as good as your answers insinuate, nor will this test let you fake it. In fact, your fudge factor is way beyond the standard deviation.”

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Luther’s theses are engraved into the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.

Jesus further observed that children are also often better at admitting their faults and failures than adults. My wife had a second-grader who once drew a picture of a fierce rhinoceros with a disturbing and unvarnished admission as a caption: “I’m as angry as a rhino!”

In her book Amazing Grace; A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes about a little boy who wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” In the poem the boy explodes about how he hated it when his father yelled at him. In anger he threw his sister down the stairs, wrecked his room, then destroyed an entire town. His poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’”

Commenting on the boy’s poem, Norris writes, “‘My messy house’ says it all; with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in a fourth century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell.”

For further reflection:

* Psalm 25 for this week: “Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord… For the sake of your name, O Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great.”

* A favorite prayer from Arsenios (5th century): “My God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good before Thee, but grant me, in Thy compassion, the power to make a start.”

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