Friday, 17 May 2013

Martin Luther's "sin boldly" quote in context

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 fictitious31 sinners. Be a sinner and sin32 boldly,33 but believe and34 rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here [in this world]35 we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness,36 but, as Peter says,37 we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness38 dwells. It is enough that by39 the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.40 No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. Do you think that the purchase price that was paid for the redemption of our sins41 by so great a Lamb is too small? Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner.42
 
31 The translation here is based on the text offered by the manuscript copy of this letter; the printed editions have a text which can be translated as: “only fictitiously sinners.”
32 The manuscript copy of this letter has the following text: “et peccaris,” “and you will have sinned,” which makes little sense; therefore the translation is based on the text offered by the earliest printed edition.
33 Passages such as this were misunderstood and used as main arguments against Luther. Luther was interpreted as encouraging laxity and licentiousness. When the Peasants’ War broke out, this opinion was strengthened. Erasmus, for instance, constantly suspected that Luther was stimulating discontent and even rebellion with his ideas and work. For the proper understanding of this statement, see W. H. T. Dau, Luther Examined and Re-examined (St. Louis, Mo., 1917), pp. 111 ff. See also pp. 12 f.
34 The phrase “but believe and” is missing in the manuscript copy of this letter but is found in the earliest printed edition.
35 The word “here” is missing in the manuscript copy of this letter but is found in the earliest printed edition.
36 The manuscript copy of this letter offers instead animae, i.e., “of the soul”; the translation is based on the earliest printed edition.
37 II Pet. 3:13.
38 The manuscript copy offers instead anima, i.e., “soul”; the translation is based on the earliest printed edition.
39 The manuscript copy offers a text which has to be translated: “that we have come to know the riches of God’s glory”; the translation is based on the earliest printed edition.
40 John 1:29.
41 See I Cor. 6:20 and I Pet. 1:18–19. The printed editions of this letter offer a text which has to be translated: “think that the price and the redemption [paid and] completed for us by … is too small?” The translation is based on the manuscript copy of this letter.
42 So according to the manuscript copy of this letter. The printed editions offer a text which has to be translated: “for you are a mighty.…”
Martin Luther, vol. 48, Luther's Works, Vol. 48 : Letters I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works, 48:281 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1963).
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2 comments:

  1. I'm not exactly surprised that Luther was misunderstood. To be honest, I'm still not sure that I understood what he meant, and it is now 35 years since I came across the quotation. Yes - I know it is hyperbole. But it seems to me that is comes pretty close to "not expressing himself clearly."

    By curious co-incidence, these words of Luther popped into my head yesterday, in light of the vote at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to "Affirm the Church’s historic and current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality nonetheless permit those Kirk sessions who wish to depart from that doctrine and practice to do so."

    It seems to me that this says "Yes, same-sex sexual activity is sinful, but feel free to do it anyway." In other words (to use Luther's words, though meaning something rather different) sin boldly.

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  2. What Luther means by sin boldly is, I think, live in the light of Romans 5:20: "where sin increased, grace increased all the more".

    As one of my lecturers pointed out many years ago, only when you've actually understood the scandal of what Paul is saying will you ask the question Paul addresses in 6:1, "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?"

    The 'natural man' following 'natural religion' (Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Juda-ism) would never ask this question since it is obvious that sin will lead to punishment and rejection by God and that can only be addressed (according to 'natural religion') by stopping sinning and starting doing good.

    But Paul does not point us to ourselves, he points us to God's grace, which 'abounds' to sinners. Luther sees this, and says to the sinner, "Sin boldly" - stand before God, before the world and before the mirror as a sinner, because we have a Saviour.

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