In America today, millions of churchgoers are “Christians” for only a few hours a week. They show up on Sunday (and, if they’re super-holy, on Wednesday night). They go to small group and read their Bibles. All of that takes up a few hours of their time. In everything else they do, it can be hard to see what difference their faith makes.
Being Christians for only a few hours a week involves a deep hypocrisy. Our lives don’t match our professions of faith. We conform to this world instead of being transformed by the renewing of our minds and lives (Rom. 12:1–2).
This hypocrisy greatly strengthens our idolatry. As we conform to the structures of the world in 95 percent of our lives, we gradually set up those worldly structures as idols. And the idol we follow in practice with the 95 percent eventually displaces the God we profess in the other 5 percent. The authority and truth of the Creator is exchanged for created things that offer us fickle promises of success, comfort, and happiness.
Being Christians for only a few hours a week also involves slavery to worldly systems of injustice. Whether we’re talking about the lives of unborn children or the lives of people trapped on welfare, women exploited and enslaved for others’ pleasure or workers mistreated for others’ profit, we’re surrounded by injustices that demand a response. And what’s more, we’re implicated in this exploitation and cruelty if we’re not actively resisting it.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther faced a similar dilemma. In his world, works of religious devotion had been separated from ordinary life, like the way we put our faith front and center on Sunday but struggle to do the same on Monday. This separation led to idolatry and systems of injustice, including the selling of indulgences.
The first thing we need to repent from is our limited understanding of repentance.
Luther began his attack on the sale of indulgences in the 95 Theses by focusing on repentance:
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent!” he wanted the whole life of believers to become a life of repentance. (Thesis 1)
The solution to hypocrisy, idolatry, and injustice is repentance. And the first thing we need to repent from is our limited understanding of repentance.
Shallow repentance from sin leads to shallow solutions for sin: “You admit you’re a sinner? Excellent! What you need is religious goods and services to compensate for your spiritual deficit. Here’s our menu of options to choose from.”
Luther rejected this approach, but that doesn’t mean he denied the special importance of the church. Far from it! He insisted that the local church provides people with a message from God as well as other elements—sacraments, spiritual community—they can’t get anywhere else. We would all be lost and without hope if we didn’t have the gospel, and the local church and its pastor are specially responsible for making it available to everyone. Indeed, Lutheran theology elevates this special role of church even higher than other Protestants do, and that goes back to Luther himself.
What Luther objected to was not upholding the importance of the church, but neglecting the importance of everything else—the 95 percent of lifemost people experience in the world rather than in the church. The indulgence system was allowing people to use their 5 percent church activities as a substitute for following God in the other 95 percent of their lives.
Using the church’s religious goods and services as a substitute for real repentance is exactly the problem that lies behind Luther’s second thesis:
This word [“repent”] cannot mean the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction administered by clergy [pastors and church officials]. (Thesis 2)
Notice the word “satisfaction.” A lot hangs on that word.
We all want satisfaction. The question is what are we seeking satisfaction for?
Shallow repentance asks: What will satisfy my soul?
Real repentance recognizes that this isn’t the question that matters most. Real repentance asks: What will satisfy God’s justice against my sin? God is displeased with our detestable wickedness and determined to punish it, and he is absolutely right to do so. We won’t find rest for our souls until we find out what puts God’s wrath to rest.
Only God himself can provide the atoning sacrifice that satisfies his justice on our behalf. God became a man, lived a perfect life to satisfy the demands of God’s law, and took all the guilt and punishment of our sin on himself to satisfy the justice of God’s wrath. Then he rose again to vindicate God, pour out his Spirit on the church, and begin reclaiming the world for God.
If only God can do that, then obviously the church can’t do it. “Satisfaction” is not “administered by the clergy,” as the indulgence preachers with their made-up theology led people to believe. Religious goods and services can’t satisfy God’s justice.
And if they can’t satisfy God’s justice, they can’t satisfy our souls.
The job of the church isn’t to provide religious goods and services. It is first and foremost to help people understand what they really need, which is Jesus. In other words, the church’s job is precisely to help people stop trying to use religious goods and services to compensate for their spiritual deficits.
The job of the church is not to provide religious goods and services.
It is Jesus—in his perfect life, death on the cross, and emergence from the tomb—who satisfies God’s justice against our sin. It’s all done by Jesus, in Jesus, through Jesus. We can’t earn it and we don’t receive it by any works of our own; we can only turn away from sin and trust Jesus, and receive it from him as a gift.
But here we face a perilous temptation. There’s an even worse, even shallower kind of spiritual complacency waiting for us at this point. Luther addresses it in his third thesis:
Inward repentance is not enough, for such repentance is empty unless it produces outward signs—dying to the flesh in many ways. (Thesis 3)
It’s not enough to give up trusting in religious goods and services if you replace them with nothing—with an “empty” repentance that doesn’t change our lives.
Could you change a diaper as a disciple of Jesus?
A few years after the 95 Theses, Luther gave a sermon on marriage in which he described how the world looks down on a man who does “women’s work.” But Luther argued that a Christian husband is serving Jesus Christ when he works in the home, because all his work—all his life—is service to Christ. He said all the angels and saints in heaven sing to the glory and praise of God when they see a man changing a diaper! (Don’t worry, ladies, women can also change diapers for God’s glory, so you don’t have to miss out.)
Luther wasn’t the first to see this calling to serve God in all of life, which theologians call the doctrine of vocation. And those who came after him have contributed significantly to our understanding of it. But Luther was one of the most important champions of this doctrine in history. You can see the seeds of his later views on this right from the beginning of the 95 Theses, with his insistence that repentance from sin is a full-time way of life and that religious works can’t substitute for it.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Greg Forster’s new eBook, The Church on Notice: Overcoming Our Complacency, Consumerism, Idolatry and Injustice with Luther’s 95 Theses. The book will be released on October 31, the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses.