Sin Boldly?

Q. Can you please explain the meaning of “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly” in the letter written by Martin Luther to Philip Melanchthon?

A. I will try. This quote had often been taken out-of-context to accuse Luther of teaching antinomianism, which is definitely not true. Luther knew Rom 6:1-2 too well:

  • What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?

To understand what he meant, let us first look at the background, then the context. Luther had been excommunicated by the pope and went into hiding for his life. He wrote to his young associate Melanchthon, urging him to implement reforms in the church. Melanchthon had a milder approach and asked Luther to elaborate on the problems with Catholic practices like monasticism, celibacy, and communion before he would change them, as he was fearful that the proposed elimination or modification might lead people to sin. The paragraph from Luther’s reply read as follows:

“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 (or 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.”

Now let us unpack what Luther said. Most people, probably including Melanchthon as a “preacher of mercy”, imagine themselves to be pretty decent persons, except for small or venial sins which are excusable. They consider themselves “imaginary (or slight) sinners” committing “imaginary (or inconsequential) sins”. Luther said this thinking was wrong because in fact all people are sinners and will commit sins in this life. This extended to Melanchthon himself, as Luther bluntly pointed out in “you are quite a sinner”! So the meaning of the first part “Be a sinner and sin boldly” is “admit or own up to who you really are, a full-fledged sinner. Admit the seriousness of your sins. Do not try to hide your guilt. Be honest before God.” It does not mean “go ahead and sin boldly, without impunity or fear of consequences” as a superficial reading would seem to indicate.

The second part “but let your trust in Christ be stronger” in contrast is easy to understand. Luther was saying that even though our sins are great, our Savior “the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world” is greater. No sin can separate us from Him, who paid a huge price with an enormous sacrifice for our sins. But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Rom 5:20b). Yes, our sins are real and great, but in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us(Rom 8:37). Just keep on trusting Him and we will be fine. Luther was arguing strongly for salvation by grace through faith, not works. Hope this clarifies the common misunderstanding.

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