Repent! -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

As I post this Sightings article from the venerable Lutheran historian and writer Martin Marty, I will acknowledge that I received it on Monday (it's date of posting) and that it pointed forward to yesterday, which was both Halloween and the 500th anniversary of the posting of the famed 95 Theses, which are commemorated as the spark that led to the Protestant Reformation. Marty has chosen to highlight the first of these theses, the one that called for repentance, and invited us to consider repentance, that is a change of heart. As we enter the sixth century of the Protestant movement, how might we repent so as to have a change of heart?  Take a read, offer your thoughts, on this the day we honor "All Saints."

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By MARTIN E. MARTY   October 30, 2017
Joseph Fiennes in Luther (RS Entertainment, 2003)
Last Monday the Sightings editor republished a “classic” column from a previous century, specifically from 1999. What was I doing that kept me from writing and presenting a fresh item? One answer could be: I was sinning, so I would have something that would occasion repenting, since repentance is my scheduled topic for this season in which my tribe commemorates the Lutheran, etc., Reformation after 500 years. The most discussed subject of the observance is the “Ninety-Five Theses” document by Martin Luther, the friar whose posting of them on October 31, 1517, is usually seen as the moment of the Reformation’s beginning. But a short weekly column does not allow for discussion of ninety-five theses, so I concentrated on one, the first. In it, writes Luther, the call of Jesus to “Repent” was intended to mean that “the entire life of believers [is] to be one of repentance.”

Tomorrow, while the “pagan” world celebrates Hallowe’en—the annual event which Luther intended to use to draw crowd attention to repentance—the “believers” will be looking forward to “All Hallows.” I decided to make repentance and the first thesis my theme out of a desire to be relevant. But that is difficult, since “repenting” usually connotes dreary, drab, down elements of the inner life of individuals and communities. What rescued me and helped me rethink repentance was the treatment of the subject in the writings of philosopher Max Scheler, on whom the late Pope Saint John Paul II wrote his doctoral thesis, and whom we have “sighted” previously here in Sightings. Scheler taught us four helpful “Alases” for use in approaching repentance. As follows:

“Alas! What evil things did my ancestors do?” That’s a fashionable question to ask in order to get off one’s own hook. We can’t change the past, but we can beat up on anyone and everyone in the past, in which case we will always come off looking better than they do. Second, “Alas, what did I do?”—as, for instance, when I sinned by not producing a column last week. Such, however, still is not repenting. The third comes closer: “Alas, what kind of person was I that I could do that?” Ow! But to repent, which in Scheler’s rendering means to experience a “change of heart,” is not to deal with the irretrievable past. Now, instead, we are to ask: “Alas, what kind of person am I that I can do such bad things?”

Reformation season is a time for much accusing of ancestors, from Columbus to Thomas Jefferson, now remembered as slavers, or, to be relevant, Luther, for his call for violence against rebelling peasants or his utterly, utterly repugnant anti-Judaic latter-day outlook and writings. We historians study such features of the lives of ancestors, to learn and gain the resolve to promote a “change of heart.” Speaking about close-to-home life, I observe and applaud and encourage the massive resolve and actions of the scores upon scores of Lutheran church bodies which now, and in the future, will have no more to do with violence against suffering and rebellious classes, or against Jews, etc., but promise to invent, promote, and live by actions which demonstrate the effects of this change of heart.

As we listen in on current campus incidents or vehement and lethal inter-group denunciations of “the other,” and those who have gone before us or who have different experiences than ours, we ask, in the spirit of M. Luther and M. Scheler, “Alas, what kind of person am I that I can do such bad things?”—and, as answers come, we as individuals and in community can seek both a “change of heart” and a “change of action.” So, then, tomorrow, happy Reformation Day!


- Luther, Martin. “The 95 Theses.” Accessed October 29, 2017.

- Marty, Martin E. “What’s Ressentiment Got to Do with It.” Sightings. February 6, 2017.

- Spader, Peter H. “A Change of Heart: Scheler’s Ordo Amoris, Repentance and Rebirth, Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Fall 1986): 188-196; quoted in Martin E. Marty, October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World (Paraclete Press, 2016): 9-11.
Author, Martin E. Marty (PhD’56), is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco (AB'07, MDiv'10), a doctoral candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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