Repentance from First to Last

from Jan 23, 2009 Category: Articles

On October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the academy bulletin board (which happened to be the church door in those days). Essentially, the theses rebuked church leaders for abusing indulgences. Indulgences, he argued, cannot forgive sins. Rather, they are in danger of bringing a false peace to the sinner’s conscience — a place reserved only for God’s once-for-all justification of His children.

Can anyone recall the first thesis, the one upon which all the others follow? True, it is not as bold as, for example, thesis 86, which chides the wealthy pope for not funding the building of Saint Peter’s Basilica with his own money. But on second glance, Luther’s first thesis is far more substantial than the eighty-sixth. It reads as follows: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Do sincerely repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”

This has less to do with that revivalistic moment of conversion so popular in American culture, and more to do with the perpetual call not to harden our hearts and neglect so great a salvation. Luther’s first thesis brings us directly to Tabletalk‘s Scripture texts for both Friday and Monday (Heb. 4:6-8). In the middle of his discussion about the promise of rest, the author of Hebrews quotes the words of David from Psalm 95: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (vv. 7-8). The covenant promise of rest still stands, but “today” we must respond.

This principle is not new in the new covenant; it can be observed throughout redemptive history. The patriarchs heard it loudly when circumcision was instituted (Gen. 17:9-14); the wandering generation heard it at the foot of Mount Sinai (Deut. 10:16); amid the Conquest, the Israelites heard it (Josh. 22:4-6); during the rise and fall of the Israeli kingdom, its prophets repeatedly declared it (Isa. 30:15; Jer. 5:3; Ezek. 18:30; Hos. 6:1; Joel 1:13); the apostle Paul described it (Gal. 2:20); and last, but not least, Jesus commanded it (Luke 9:23).

What this gives us today is a connection with those believers who have gone before us. For example, circumcision — just like baptism — was never intended to be merely an external act. Since the fall, God has called all people to turn to Him perpetually so that the promise of rest will not be missed. A one-time “sinner’s prayer” is nothing if not followed by an entire life of repentance, which comes from God from first to last (Rom. 2:4).

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This originally appeared in Tabletalk 28.3 (March 2004): 25