Luther on Repentance and Mark 1:14-15

Posted on October 28, 2012. Filed under: Daily Journey |

2012  Reformation Celebration Luncheon

Church, 2012.10.28 Bryan E. Walker

Mark 1:14-15 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

(Mark 1:14-15 ESV)


Introduction: On October 31, 1517, the German Augustinian Monk and Professor, Dr. Martin Luther, nailed his 95 Theses to the castle church door of Wittenberg to propose a Disputation Against Scholastic Theology. After a thorough study and teaching of Romans and Galatians over the last few years, and in light of the disgusting campaign to sell indulgences by Johann Tetzel to raise money for St. Peter’s in Rome, Luther was now deeply against the Catholic system of supererogation whereby a person could purchase an indulgence while viewing a supposed “relic” and gain some years out of purgatory for a deceased relative or themselves. 


Luther’s 95 Theses begins with these three that deal with repentance:

  1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
  2. The word cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, i.e. confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
  3. Yet its meaning is not restricted to repentance in one’s heart; for such repentance is null unless it produces outward signs in various mortifications of the flesh.

This afternoon I want to speak very briefly to this Reformational idea of Repentance by giving a bit of a background to Luther’s experience with confession and penance, explaining what the Bible says about repentance and then seek ways to apply the word to our lives. The main idea is that you and I are called to a lifestyle of repentance as we trust in the Lord for our salvation.


  1. I.                   Brief History of Luther and Repentance
    1. A.      Luther’s Attempts at Salvation as a Monk
      1. 1.      In 1505 Luther had begun studying Law but, as Dr. Estep writes, (p.114), “During the previous year Martin had faced death a number of times….Two close friends of his had died, and he had almost died when his dagger ran through its worn scabbard and severed an artery in his leg. But the occasion that triggered his final decision was the thunderstorm that overtook him on the road from Stotternheim to Erfurt. A nearby stroke of lightning sent him sprawling, and in the moment of terror he made a vow: ‘Save me, Saint Ann, and I will become a monk!’”  Bainton adds, (p.25) “His depression over the prospect of death was acute but by no means singular. The man who was later to revolt against monasticism became a monk for exactly the same reason as thousands of others, namely, in order to save his soul.”
      2. 2.      After his first year as a novitiate Luther was selected to be trained as a priest but he was overwhelmed with a sense of his unworthiness as he approached his first mass. Bainton writes, “Creatureliness and imperfection alike oppressed him. Toward God he was at once attracted and repelled. …But how could a pigmy stand before divine Majesty; how could a transgressor confront divine Holiness? Before God the high and God the holy Luther was stupefied,” (p.31).
      3. 3.      Luther practiced the ascetic life of a monk with vigor. He fasted more often than required, he slept in the cold without blankets, he stayed awake many nights in prayer vigils, always seeking that elusive peace with God. Bainton writes, (p.34), “Whatever good works a man might do to save himself, these Luther was resolved to perform…All such drastic methods gave no sense of inner tranquility. The purpose of his striving was to compensate for his sins, but he could never feel that the ledger was balanced….The trouble was that he could satisfy God at any point.”
      4. B.      Confession and Penance Also Fail
        1. 1.      After a pilgrimage to Rome Luther was assigned to Wittenberg and the new university built by the elector, Frederick the Wise. Luther’s mentor at the university would be Johann von Staupitz. It was here that Luther sought the comfort of confession and penance in a rigorous way. He often confessed daily, and for hours at a time, wearing out his confessor Staupitz. The problem was in trying to recall every single sin. It was on this point that Luther began to realize that man’s problem was not sins that could be listed but rather, sin in general. Man was a sinner in his entire being and it was impossible to remember and confess every single sin. As Luther realized that his sin was bigger than he, he confessed that he hated God!
        2. 2.      During this crisis of his soul, Staupitz set Luther on the course for a doctorate and wanted him to become the chair of Bible at the university. This drove Luther into intense Bible study and his studies in Romans and Galatians in 1515-17 brought him to trust in Christ. He grasped that the just shall live by faith. During this time Luther began preaching against the value of relics and indulgences and with the publication of his 95 Theses, his evangelical course was set, the gospel was restored and a firm line was drawn between genuine repentance and faith and works based religion of Catholicism.


  1. II.                Repent and Believe the Gospel
    1. A.      Repentance
      1. 1.      Mark 1:14-15 is the first record of Jesus’ preaching and the emphasis is on, “Repent and believe the gospel!” What does it mean to “repent” and how does it relate to belief and the gospel?
      2. 2.      Repent- the word for repent is metanoeite, an imperative or command to think afterwards or think differently than before, to reconsider or reverse a prior decision or attitude. In the context of proclamation Jesus would be using the word in a Hebrew OT manner, likely meaning to “go back again or return to God or change your ways”. This is then a call to abandon one’s own path and completely turn around to surrender to God.
      3. 3.      Repent is both a negative and a positive- this word means so much more than merely being sorrowful for your sins, although genuine godly sorrow is part of it. As we hear the good news of God’s kingdom being at hand we will have a genuine sorrow for our sins in light of God’s majesty and holiness. The more of God’s holiness and glory we see, the more of our smallness and sinfulness we shall also see. His glorious and holy light reveals our spoiled and ruined nature, actions and deeds thus bringing about genuine sorrow. But real Spirit sent repentance does not leave us sorrowing in our sins; the Spirit given gift of repentance turns our hearts away from idolizing self and turns us to Christ in faith. Faith and repentance are inseparable; we turn from and we turn to.
      4. 4.      There is only one way to enter the kingdom of God- that is through repentance and faith. The imperative here speaks of the urgency of the hour, we must repent NOW! The kingdom of God is at hand and a choice must be made. Repentance is a command of God that is to be obeyed immediately, not postponed, because the kingdom, the rule of God, is here, now. William Lane writes, (p.66) “Either a man submits to the summons of God or he chooses this world and its riches and honor. The either/or character of this decision is of immense importance and permits of no postponement. That is what repentance is all about.”
      5. 5.      This early command to repent and believe by Jesus as recorded in Mark is somewhat illustrated in the call to the disciples in vss.17-18 as Jesus calls to Simon and Andrew to follow him “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Repentance is shown by leaving their nets and faith is shown by their following Jesus.
    2. III.             Living Out the Gospel of Repentance
      1. A.      Man-Made Efforts Are Useless
        1. 1.      The examples from Luther’s life show the futility of human efforts at salvation and how far short from genuine repentance they are. While we are told to confess our sins to one another in James 5:16 the type of confession Luther was doing was an effort at self salvation. Confession is a part of repentance in that we own up to our sinfulness to the Lord, we admit we are helpless, vile sinners who are unable to earn our salvation at all. But repentance goes beyond mere confession.
        2. 2.      Luther tried asceticism, penance, but could not save himself. Genuine repentance will include acts of obedience as we turn to Christ, acts of self-sacrifice as we no longer live for self, and acts of mercy towards others as we live out the joy of our salvation. But these acts are the fruit of genuine repentance and faith, not the cause. If we live repentantly we will die to self and live to Christ, we will consider others to be of more importance than ourselves, we will love as we have been loved. Those who have been forgiven much will also be forgiving others. Repentance is a seed that should bear fruit all our life.
        3. 3.      We begin our Christian life with repentance and faith, and we will continue to repent and trust throughout the rest of our lives. Repentance is initially a part of our conversion, a gift from the Holy Spirit who has given us a new heart and a conviction of sin as we are born again. But a Christian is not perfected immediately and therefore we will need to repent as we go for we will still sin. We run with feet of clay and do things that we know are wrong, that we don’t want to do in our new nature, but which our old nature craves. As we stumble and fall, rebel and complain, the Holy Spirit will not allow us to be content in our sins and he moves us to repent and try again. We are justified in Christ but must work towards holiness by faith til the day we die. This necessitates an ongoing repentance which keeps us humble and keeps us trusting in God’s grace alone.
        4. 4.      The Christian must walk a narrow path between a legalistic asceticism and antinomianism. We must ever be watchful for the sins that lie dormant only to pop up when we least expect them. But when we understand our calling to repent and trust, we will not fall into the slough of despair.

In conclusion: seek to know Christ deeply and He will reveal your sinfulness as you see his glory. As you experience sin use the gift of repentance to turn from that sin and cling to Christ in faith. When you are smitten with despair over your constant sin use that to see more clearly the idea that you are saved by grace and then seek to love the Lord who gives you that grace. Do not dwell morbidly on your defeats in the battle with sin, rather boldly claim the righteousness of Christ who will never leave you. We are the children of God, joint heirs with Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit; we are the repenting ones, trusting in God’s grace forever.


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One Response to “Luther on Repentance and Mark 1:14-15”

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Once I found myself striving in vain: I worked to earn a closeness with God by my actions. Yet, uncleanliness comes from the inside. It was my unrepentant heart that was the problem. Salvation taught me that I no longer had too struggle under a bondage that I would never be able to break. Thank God for his saving grace, for a repentant heart, for his wisdom and instruction. May he teach his people to know him deeply so that we may see his glory and run to him. This was an excellent post! Thank you!

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