The sixteenth century was a monumental period in the history of the Christian church. It was not without its faults, nor without its failures. But Christians in those days were bursting with the power and the energy of this great discovery—that the burden of their sins had been taken by Jesus Christ and they, at last, could be set free.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, now in his mid-thirties, made his way to the Castle Church in Wittenberg and posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the church door. Originally intended as propositions for public debate, the theses were written in Latin—the language of the scholar, not of the street. Luther could have had no idea that they would echo around Europe and become the catalyst for a spiritual revolution.
Many of those who saw the papers on the Castle Church door—which seems to have served as a public notice board—would not have been able to read Latin. But soon the theses were translated into German and thereafter spread throughout Europe like wildfire—indeed, like an “act of God.”
What were the Ninety-Five Theses? They were statements aimed directly at specific corruptions in the church of Luther’s day, many of them related to issues of pardon, purgatory, and the power of the pope. The first of them was particularly startling:
By saying “Repent,” our Lord and Master Jesus Christ willed that the whole of the life of believers should be repentance. (Dominus et magister noster Iesus Christus dicendo “Poenitentiam agite etc.” omnem vitam fidelium poenitentiam esse voluit.)
Luther had grasped that the Vulgate translation of “Repent” (poenitentiam agite) was open to the misinterpretation “Do penitence (or penance).” And he had also grasped a principle that John Calvin would later expound with great clarity: penitence or repentance is not the action of a moment; it is the turning around of a life—the rejection of sin effected by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. It cannot therefore be a single act completed in a moment; it is a style of life that lasts until glory.