75th Anniversary of the SMALCALD ARTICLES “…The Word of God shall establish articles of faith and no one else,
not even an angel.” (Luther, SA, Part II, Art. II)
“Now He commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). If justification by grace alone is “the first and chief article” of faith [as Luther asserts in Part II, Art. I], then the teaching of repentance is of utmost importance, for that is the way sinners are prepared to receive God’s justification for themselves.If the teaching on repentance is corrupted, justification and salvation are lost.
What error does Luther address in this Article?
To the casual observer, it may seem as though the only difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church in regard to repentance is that the Catholic Church requires its members to confess to the priest while Lutherans are taught that they can confess directly to God.
When we look below the surface, however, we come to realize that the basic meaning of repentance is entirely different between Catholicism and Reformation Lutheranism. From Scripture we learn that true repentance is being thoroughly convicted of sin by the law and then confessing those sins with confidence in God’s grace which forgives sins for Jesus’ sake.
The Roman Catholic Church, however, has turned repentance into a work by which sinners can merit God’s grace and forgiveness; therefore, in effect, leaving no place for Christ or faith.
How is this done?
Luther pointed out how Roman Catholicism erroneously divided repentance into three parts.
Contrition: Contrition became superficial because, even if a person was not sorry for his sins, if he could at least say that he wanted to be sorry, that could be counted as contrition.
Confession: Everyone was required to enumerate all his sins, which is impossible since we do not even know all our sins, much less remember them all. Yet if a person did not confess a sin, it could not be forgiven.
Satisfaction: Rather than being directed to Christ for comfort and forgiveness, a person was directed to his own works.
Luther writes, “He was told that the more completely he confessed, the more he was ashamed, and the more he abased himself before the priest, the sooner and the better he would make satisfaction for his sins, for such humiliation would surely earn grace before God.”
Then to make satisfaction for his sins, the penitent was directed again to his own works—for example to his saying five “Our Fathers,” or fasting for a day, and so on. Whatever penance was still lacking could be made up in purgatory.
What effect does this teaching have on the believer?
Such a teaching drove people to one of two extremes.
On the one hand, a person was driven to utter despair, anguish, and misery, for he could never know if he had done enough. Was he sorry enough? Had he done enough penance? Had he remembered to confess all his sins? That was the dreadful torture that Luther himself had experienced (see his testimony to that in TLH hymn #387:3).
Yet for all a person’s penance, he never came to true repentance.
To help alleviate such poor souls, the Roman Church added an even worse mockery to the teaching of repentance by its inventing of indulgences, through which people could purchase the cancelation of further “satisfaction” through works and money. Luther writes, “In time souls got to be so cheap that they were released at six pence a head.”
On the other hand, the Roman Church’s teaching led many to a self-righteous pride and arrogance shown by the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Some did not think they were guilty of any actual sins in thought, word, or deed, and so they supposedly had no need for repentance.
In fact, some were said to be so holy and full of good works that they could sell their good works to others because they had more than they needed to gain heaven.
What holy truth does Luther set forth?
Luther shows from Scripture: first of all, that all people are sinful and corrupt and need to repent; secondly, human penance is worthless for remitting any sin or its penalty; and thirdly, all people need the remission of sins in Christ.
True repentance, the Reformer teaches, is to “acknowledge sin–that is, to acknowledge that we are all utterly lost, that from head to foot there is no good in us.”
This repentance is not partial or uncertain, for it confesses that “We are wholly and altogether sinful.” Therefore it includes all sins, even those of which a person may not be aware.
The satisfaction for our sin is not uncertain, because it consists not of the sinful works which we do but of the sufferings and blood of the innocent Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Dr. Luther is also quick to point out that it is also unscriptural and dangerous to say, “Once you have received the Spirit or the forgiveness of sin, or once they have become believers, they will persevere in faith even if they sin afterwards, and such sin will not harm them.”
The believer needs to continue in repentance, trusting in Christ for the forgiveness of sins, for we continue to sin daily and can drive the Spirit from our hearts.
How does this apply to us today?
Satan continues to attack the way of salvation from all sides. May we hold to the true faith that we are unworthy sinners through and through and confess our guilt before God, with the confidence that His Son has paid for all sin in our place and gives full and free forgiveness.
Our only comfort and confidence is found in Christ’s merit not our own. May we ever be prepared to give answer for the reason for the hope that is in us—which is Christ’s atonement alone!