This month we celebrate the Festival of the Reformation. Almost everyone associates this day with Martin Luther’s action of posting the Ninety-five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Many people probably know that Luther’s actions were related to subject of indulgences that were being sold in the Church.
However, what is less well known is the central issue that ran through all of this. That issue was penance. In the medieval Church “penance” (paenitentia) meant both to be penitent (to have the attitude of repentance) and also to do penance. In the practice that developed in the medieval Church, it is the latter that received strong emphasis.
The development of penance was a long and complicated process. It involved serious sin that was confessed in an open and public way as an individual entered into a class of penitents who were set apart during Lent, and also other sins that were confessed in private. Although the confession in private with penance assigned by a priest became the most common form, the public version continued to exist in many areas up to the fifteenth century.
Two themes are striking about the material from the early medieval period, and though expressed in slightly different ways they never disappeared from the medieval Church’s practice of penance. The first is the notion that it is hard to get God to forgive. It is as if the sinner needs others to convince God to forgive the individual. The priest or monk interceded for the sinner asking God to forgive. Mary and the saints were asked to intercede for the same purpose.
The second theme is the idea that a sinner must do something in order make satisfaction and remove the sin before God. The focus of medieval penance was fasting (though it also involved other actions such as giving alms to the poor, going on a pilgrimage to a holy site and speaking psalms). Long periods of fasting were required in penance that could last years. This action “made satisfaction” to God. As the seventh century A.D. Penitential of Cummean stated:
What is it then to make satisfaction for a fault unless when you receive the sinner to penance, and by warning, exhortation, teaching, lead him to penance, correct him of his error, amend him of his faults, and make him such that God is rendered favorable to him after conversion, you are said to make satisfaction for his fault? When, therefore, you are such a priest, and such is your teaching and your word there is given to you a part of those whom you correct, that their merit may be your reward and their salvation your glory.In Luther’s day this requirement of doing something took the form of having to make a complete confession of every sin while also being contrite in the proper way. The priest’s absolution forgave the guilt of sin that damned, but not the “penalty” that required expiation. Acts of penance were required to remove this penalty. Those who had not sufficiently dealt with the penalty of their sin would go to purgatory at death in order to be purified in what was normally described as an experience that involved fire. The indulgences that Luther addressed in the Ninety-five Theses were a means by which one could pay off time in purgatory for oneself or for loved ones who had already died.
By his own admission, Luther didn’t have everything figured out in October 1517. But he knew that something was very wrong. As he studied the Scriptures the Gospel came clear and Luther realized that both of the themes mentioned above are false. Central for Luther in this recognition was the word, “promise.” St. Paul wrote in Romans:
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all. (Romans 4:13-16 ESV)Luther saw that inherent in the idea of “promise” is the fact that God wants to forgive. After all, that is why God the Father sent his Son into the world in the incarnation in the first place! Christians do not have to try and convince God to be gracious and merciful to them. God is already gracious and merciful. He wants to forgive and gave his Son on the cross as the sacrifice for sin to make this possible.
Luther also discovered that because salvation is based on God’s promise in Christ, there is nothing we can do for forgiveness – there is nothing to earn. St. Paul also wrote in Romans chapter four:
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:1-8 ESV)Instead, forgiveness and salvation is a completely unmerited gift of God. It is received by God’s grace, on account of Christ, through faith. This biblical and Reformation truth continues to be our treasure today.