Sin Boldly (Did Luther Really Mean It The Way We Use It Today?)

by jpserrano on November 16, 2011 · 12 comments

At PLTS, a popular phrase quoted is two words from Martin Luther.  Students will triumphantly announce something like, “Well, Luther tells us to SIN BOLDLY.”

It seems it is more often than not used as an excuse to allow sins (not Sin) to continue in the life of the believer.  It has become a license to allow breaking the commandments–behaviors that transgress the way God would have us live as members of the Kingdom of God here and now.

It also appears that the whole sentence where those two words came from has been lost.  The phrase is taken out of context, much like the verse from the Bible I see in a lot of church kitchens “Eat, drink, and be merry . . . (for tomorrow we die.”). I think most may not even realize where it comes from.

Here is Luther’s full letter to Melanchthon, with the oft-used quote in it’s original context:

“If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.”

So then, this whole letter is doing several things.  First, it is an indictment of who we are.  Luther is clearly saying to Melanchthon that we (people) are sinners and because of our fallenness, we will continue to sin until the second coming.  I believe that Luther is using a hyperbole here in order for us to understand exactly who we are.  Our sins are real; they are not unimportant nor minimal…they do matter. Luther is trying to tell those people who think they are pretty good, except for those little sins here or there, that they are in fact really big sinners and should see themselves as big sinners.  Hence why he says, “be a sinner.”  What I hear in this is an admonition for me to own the state I am in now and a recognition that I am not a saint on my own.  Nowhere in here do I hear Luther giving permission to sin–which is the way I hear the quote often used.

Secondly, we need to own our sin and understand it to be real, in order for grace to be real.  If we have fake sin, then we don’t need grace.  If our sin, however, is real, then we in fact need a grace that is real.  What I hear in this is more about God’s grace to forgive and continually seek me out rather than doing whatever I want (or as it is more popularly summarized: SINNING BOLDLY!)

Lastly, what is missed in not quoting the whole phrase Luther uses is the admonition to let our trust in Christ be stronger than the sins we commit.  Luther is telling Melanchthon (and us) that our trust in Christ is of first importance.  It is to be stronger than our sin, and it is to cause us to rejoice in victory.  This is important because I often I hear a defeatism in Lutheranism that keeps continually reminding people that we are sinners (which we are), but doesn’t in the same breath remind us that we are in fact freed from sin in Christ whom overcame.

So what we can get with the Sin Boldly mentality is a ho-hum approach that mimics the affect of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, (read in an Eeyore voice) “We all sin. Nothin’ we can do about it. Might as well not even try.”  But, we should take instead for the affect of Paul who said both, “I do not understand what I do for I do not do what I want to do but what I hate to do…it is not I that lives, but the sin that lives in me” (Rom 7:15-17) and ” I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).  We as Lutherans concentrate on Romans and not Galatians.  This is unhealthy, unscriptural, and unhelpful in living the Good News in the world.

So then, as Lutherans, let us only quote the whole phrase now and use it in context to show that we are dependent on Christ.  Let us never use it again to try to prove that sinning is acceptable and endorsed by God.  The reason God forgives our sins is because we did something wrong.  If there was no wrong-doing, then no forgiveness is needed.  Sin Boldly is in fact not a freedom to flagrantly sin, but to wholly depend on Christ when we do sin.

-jpserrano

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeremiah Holst November 18, 2011 at 3:19 am

Hey Jeremy, definitely agree with your notion that Luther meant this statement to be an exclamation of who we are (sinners) rather than an excuse to do whatever we want. My favorite quotation of his on the topic: “When the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

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jpserrano November 18, 2011 at 3:29 am

Jeremiah that is a great statement by Luther.

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Kathy Strader August 2, 2014 at 2:31 am

A friend posted the “sin boldly” quote on Facebook. Being of the Southern Baptist persuasion, I had no idea what Martin Luther was saying. Quick Google search and here I am. Thank you for helping me understand.

Acknowledging our sinful nature is so critical to living the abundant life, don’t you think? It seems that only when I came to a full understanding of how I had fallen short of the glory of God was I able to appreciate the gift of salvation and look forward to eternal life.

My struggle with sin is not over but knowing and accepting that I continue to fight my flesh makes me seek God even more. Love the blog. Thanks!

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jpserrano August 5, 2014 at 11:06 am

Kathy thank you for your kind words. I agree that it is critical to acknowledge our sinful nature. It is the first steps to understanding why we need a Savior. I’m glad my post was helpful.

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Andy March 13, 2015 at 2:31 pm

I am not afraid to own up to the fact that I am a sinner; it is obvious. Perhaps I do not count every sin I do, but I have lied, stolen, coveted, and treated people with injustice. Often, I can feel the sinful nature within me, as a invisible force. I am aware of my shortcomings and, in some way, I suppose this is a good thing. What does sinning bravely mean to me? Well, if I am a sinner for life, the best I wonder I can do is live my life with is to be connected with love as much as possible. I guess this isn’t a perfect ‘tweet’, but I do believe that I am being true to myself.

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Timothy Meyer October 28, 2016 at 7:03 am

Have you dug deeply into the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518? It might provide some insight into Luther’s understanding of the tension inherent in simul sanctus et peccator. Gerhard Forde’s “On Being a Theologian of the Cross” is helpful, and posits the need to hold both Romans and Galatians together, but perhaps in our conscious understanding of what’s going on, to live this side of eternity in to the Romans passage as you note we as Lutherians tend to do.

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Thomas Palmieri November 25, 2016 at 5:28 pm

You are being too easy on Martin Luther. While there is an element of calling us to be mindful of our sinful natures in his statement concerning sinning boldly, there is much that is morally and Scripturally egregious in that passage. He says that we must continue to sin as long as we are in the flesh, but that we can always trust in God’s grace if we have faith. Such a sentiment is born of moral laxness, and is a temptation to unbelief, which imperils our salvation. Christ taught us to pray that the kingdom on earth should be as it is in heaven, and that we should strive to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (that we should be the sons of God in act, and not by mere profession). St. Paul decries anyone who thinks that it is possible to return to our sins after having believed in Jesus Christ, and to think that they will not have earned for themselves the wrath of God. The remedy for sin is confession of sin, repentance, and continuous observance of the commandment of love (love of God and neighbor), strengthened through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and succoring of the afflicted. Faith without works is dead, and does not justify. Faith without love is nothing. Luther had a vicious tongue, and even excused lying in a good cause. He was a moral midget in comparison with a true saint like Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Could anyone ever imagine Mother Teresa uttering such an impure thought as “sin boldly, but believe more boldly”? Only a worldly minded person could utter such an ungodly epithet, even by way of illustration. Did Christ or any of the holy apostles ever teach that we must sin as long as we are in the flesh? God forbid. From that incipient error the whole of Luther’s theology of salvation proceeds, which excuses all manner of ungodliness (he believed that the beatitudes did not apply to the dealings of kings and princes, for example). By our fruits we are known. We should not so lightly excuse Martin Luther for putting God’s justice to the test.

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ctaya December 5, 2016 at 2:04 am

In that case, the more you sin, the stronger is your belief.
Salvation comes only from faith, not by good deeds.
A true believer in this concept would sin deeply and continuously to show that he really believes in this without any doubt.
If he does good deems and gets salvation, he will not be sure whether this salvation comes from his good deems or faith.
Paradox.

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Ben Eicher September 12, 2017 at 4:32 pm

Where is recognition of Romans 6:1 — “Shall we persist in sin that grace may abound? Of course not!”

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