Sin Boldly!

luther-statueAfter his trial at Worms in April 1521, Martin Luther went into hiding for almost a year. During that time his associates at Wittenberg began implementing practical reforms in the church there. One of Luther’s closest associates, the young Philip Melanchthon, was reluctant to proceed on some matters in case the changes led to sin. Luther wrote to him on August 1, 1521 urging decisive action:

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are in this world we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day (cited in Hendrix, Martin Luther, 121-122).

We must be careful to interpret Luther’s words correctly lest we suggest he intends us to go on sinning deliberately and flagrantly after conversion. Although it is true he is pessimistic about humanity’s ability to rise above sinful behaviours, even amongst the most devout Christians, his words to Melanchthon are about his reforming activities. If Melanchthon decided to do nothing, chances are he would sin; if he decided to act, chances are he would sin. Luther was encouraging proper action even when a perfect result could not be guaranteed.

Not only does this exhortation provide a useful principle in moral deliberation, it also reveals the depth of Luther’s trust in divine grace, his realistic rather than optimistic view of the human condition, and his understanding of Christian spirituality.

To be a Christian is to be a sinner. If we pretend we are not sinners we cannot be saved because Christ gives his grace to sinners. A Christian is someone who acknowledges their sin, owning rather than hiding or denying it. When his protector, Elector John, died in August 1532 Luther refused to deliver a eulogy: “I will not now praise the Elector for his great virtues but let him remain a sinner like the rest of us” (in Hendrix, 236).

Luther said as much to his friend Spalatin, who brooded over his sins and errors:

Now join with us prodigious and hardened sinners lest you diminish Christ for us. He is not a savior of fictitious or petty sinners but of genuine ones, not only the lowly but also the big and powerful ones; indeed he is the savior of all sinners. My Staupitz consoled me this way when I was downhearted. You can be a bogus sinner and have Christ for a fictitious savior. Instead, get used to the fact that Christ is a genuine savior and that you are a real sinner (in Hendrix, 281).

I find something realistic and comforting in Luther’s approach. He did not go out looking for opportunities to sin: he did not need to. And neither do I. But nor did he shrink away from the reality of his own brokenness, but trusted more heartily in Christ—and found him truly a saviour.

15 thoughts on “Sin Boldly!

  1. Very encouraging, Michael. I’ve never come across the term “fictitious sinner” and it is certainly not a term that I would ever apply to myself. My sins are genuine! But praise God, His forgiveness is also genuine. Hoping to catch up with you and Mon in Perth in the coming week.

  2. Hi Ian,
    Yes, looking forward to catching up tomorrow.

    I think that is what Luther had in mind: genuine acknowledgement of ourselves as sinners, and not some try-hard attempt to appear such (or actually, pretty darn spiritual!) by enumerating various minor infractions or peccadilloes.

  3. I just stumbled on this myself, I’ve read that passage a few times and the idea of being a fake-sinner never came through. That’s gonna be a useful counseling technique!

    Thanks for that

  4. If a sin is “fictitious”, it doesn’t need forgiveness because it doesn’t exist. This babble brained Lutheran nonsense is devoid of credibility and cogent thought. Luther was as clear as mud!

  5. In response to Denis: To me, Luther’s point is that sin is NOT fictitious; it is real . . . very real–undeniably real. And serious. So inalterably and radically serious, in fact, that only “radical” grace (which rings in my ear as a tautology)–” real” grace, not “fictional” grace–can obliterate sin. To preach any lesser or diluted form of grace is to preach a faulty or “fictional” form of grace, which, to me, is antithetical to the true meaning of grace and, so, is not grace at all. I take it you are not a Lutheran. Neither am I.

  6. It seems pretty clear. Jesus came to save the world filled with real sinners. There would be no need for a savior if sin was factitious. We are born to sin. Encased in this flesh, sin is not a choice but an inevitability. Hopefully, upon asking for Christ to be Savior and acknowledging who He was and what He did we develop that relationship that gives us a more “Christlike“ mind where our life decisions and actions begin to lineup more with our Savior. But we will sin nonetheless, always fall short of God’s Glory. Hence the need for a Savior. Hopefully one reaches for Christ as more than just a tool to escape hell. In loving Christ for what He did for us, we can see that love grow and “bleed” over into our thoughts and actions. I asked Christ into my life and into my heart and specifically asked Him to make me a better person. I felt the love that He had for me as He died on the cross. And in the time since I’ve asked Christ in my life He has made me a better person. I don’t make the same mistakes I made before but I still make mistakes and I still need a Savior. But my relationship through Christ has changed my relationship with the world. What I got from this article was that I can’t get bogged down and entrapped by legalism leading me to fear and inaction. I have to live every day and make decisions in each of those days. The mind of Christ directs me and sometimes has to redirect me when my mind takes over. But praise God that Jesus is there. Otherwise the way forward would be clear as mud.

  7. Seems you took his advice though when I look at your words, which tells us what is in your heart.

  8. I am a brother from China.I told people these words of Luther but they do not believe that our great Luther said them. who can tell me the convincing evidence?

  9. Hello John, thanks for visiting! The letter from Luther to Melanchthon is found in Luther’s Works Volume 48, 281-282. The letter to Spalatin is August 21, 1544 and found in the Latin edition of Luther’s Works – WABr Volume 10, 639. These references are provided by Hendrix in his text.

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