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I've heard it reported that Martin Luther told his parishioners to "sin boldly". I'm not sure if this is based in fact and his writings or something that is made up by Catholics to paint him badly.

If he did say this, what's the original source/context, and how is it explained? Is he claiming that sin has no ultimate consequences? Is he claiming that sin has no consequences whatsoever? Is he claiming that it's "ok" to sin?

Please help me to exegete Luther's statement.

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For most of a year following his trial at Worms in April 1521, Martin Luther was in seclusion. During this time his associates at Wittenberg were implementing practical changes in the church there. One of Luther's closest associates, Philip Melanchthon, was reluctant to move forward on some changes in fear that they might tend toward sin.

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).

The quote in question was in a letter of response to Melanchthon in which Luther encouraged him to decisive action. The quote is often taken out of context because Luther's pessimism regarding mankind's ability to rise above sinful behaviors is often underestimated. This pessimism, though, is what drove Luther to so elevate the grace of God extended towards us in Christ Jesus.

Luther was not encouraging Phillip to commit sin. Luther was saying, in effect, whether you act or not you are likely to commit sin so you may as well be bold in acting and bolder still in your reliance upon the grace of God.

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  • Really well said, thank you for your answer! Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 20:06
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Yes this was something Luther said in one of his letters.

Luther's Works, Volume 48 Luther, Martin; Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan; Oswald, Hilton C.; Lehmann, Helmut 1.

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 here [in this world] we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 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. 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 sins by so great a Lamb is too small? Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner. August 1, 1521

For anyone familiar with Luther’s way of thinking this is actually not a shocking statement. The paragraph explains it. First don’t imagine fictitious sins and fictitious grace! He means do not pretend sin is some small thing that any man by his works can appease the wrath of God. Luther believed we sinned every day in such a way that we deserved eternal punishment every new second. The reason is that nobody has ever loved God with their whole heart and that means everyone, every Christian deserves eternal damnation each day under the terrors of the Law. We think sin is a small matter easily covered up by our own repentance and good works. This is what Luther is here calling ‘fictitious’ sins.

We also believe in a fictitious or superficial grace. In Luther’s mind the greatest sin was adding a bit of works to grace as though grace was not all sufficient to save us from the wrath of God. With a fictitious concept of sin we can have a fictitious concept of grace and be total heretics denying the gospel at its core.

As one of hundreds of examples here is Luther explaining the cause of all heresies:

Luther's Works, Volume 52 Luther, Martin; Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan; Oswald, Hilton C.; Lehmann, Helmut 1.

Reason rages against grace and cries out against its light; reason accuses it of saying that it forbids good works. It does not want its way and manner of becoming godly to be rejected. It continues to rave that one must be godly and serve God. Thus the light of grace is made to appear foolish, indeed, to be error and heresy, which must be persecuted and banished. Behold, this is the virtue of the natural light that it does nothing else but rave against the true light and that it glories in the claim always to be godly. It forever clamors: good works, good works. However, it will not and cannot permit itself to be taught what being godly is and what good works are; rather, whatever reason believes and puts forth, that is supposed to be good and right. Behold, there you have in brief the cause and origin of all idolatry, of all heresy, of all hypocrisy, of all error; this is what all the prophets deplored and why they were killed, and against this all Scripture takes a stand. All of this comes from the stiff-necked, self-willed pride and delusion of natural reason which is puffed up because it knows that we must be godly and serve God; moreover, it does not want to listen to or tolerate any teacher. It is of the opinion that it is sufficiently informed and that it can find out on its own what it means to be godly and to serve God and how one should do it. This sort of arrogance divine truth cannot and must not suffer from reason; for it is the greatest error and is against God’s honor. In this way controversy and misery arise.

Luther had grown weary that in the face of the gospel whereby a sinner is considered perfect in God’s sight (real grace) those that demand works were never aware of how sinful they were, including the Pope and Priests and Monks, etc. Therefore he is saying sin is Sin! grace is Grace! Never mix the two making them lying mirages of our wicked imagination. So lets be bold in our sin, means we always sin so let’s not worry that we will in any way be damned for it but be bold in not allowing the Pope or any self-righteous person to try and threaten us. Let us know we have the true gospel in the face of so much opposition and even what appears so much of Christian history and even while being called heretics! Be Bold! Phillip my friend!

Secondly as our gospel is all forgiveness and all grace and deliverance from the wrath of God, apart from good works, and our evil works, even if we literally murder every day, then boldly believe in grace! Once sin, works and righteousness and grace are fully separate in our minds having no crossover, we can be bold agains those that cry ‘works, works’!

Luther would quickly admit that although works are not needed for salvation in any way, love for our neighbor does prove faith exists, so technically, he would not consider a believer capable of murdering anyone, it is just to highlight the nature of real grace that ‘whatever sin’ we can commit, while having faith, we need not worry about the wrath of God’s law but can remain bold in our faith.

It should be noted that Luther was writing to someone he knew was a good example of a Christian and did not fully qualify his statements that could easily be misunderstood if said publicly. Luther believed only by faith can a person live in a holy way and anyone who lived a life of sin (that is did not love their neighbor) did not have faith and would be damned. His whole bearing upon his understanding of the gospel was from a tortured conscience seeking refuge from the Law, and all his good works as a monk was not able to relieve him of that fear. Only faith apart from works could through the gospel.

However he did say similar things with possibly not so much context as what one would commonly expect today, but whenever he did you can still trace the context from the surrounding ideas that prevent them from being antinomianism, something a term Luther actually defined against those who took his view too far. The antinomians (agains the law) were thinking the Law no longer had a purpose in producing a terrified conscience among the unbelievers, or putting civil order upon the wicked society in which we live. Luther was accused of supporting those concepts that he certainly was not.

Here is another colorful example of a sermon he publicly gave at a funeral, it better shows how he offers bold freedom to Christians but no comfort to unbelievers:

But by all means take care not to let anybody persuade you of this on your deathbed; for then the devil is not far away; he can throw in your face a little sin which reduces all such fine virtues to nothing, so that finally you come to such a pass that you say: Devil, rage as much as you please, I do not boast of my good works and virtues before our Lord God at all, nor shall I despair on account of my sins, but I comfort myself with the fact that Jesus Christ died and rose again, as the text here says. Lo, when I believe this with my whole heart, then I have the greatest treasure, namely, the death of Christ and the power which it has wrought, and I am more concerned with that than with what I have done. Therefore, devil, begone with both my righteousness and my sin. If I have committed some sin, go eat the dung; it’s yours. I’m not worrying about it, for Jesus Christ died. St. Paul bids me comfort myself with this, that I may learn to defend myself from the devil and say: Even though I have sinned, it doesn’t matter; I will not argue with you about what evil or good I have done. There is no time to talk of that now; go away and do it some other time when I have been a bad boy, or go to the impenitent and scare them all you please. But with me, who have already been through the anguish and throes of death, you’ll find no place now. This is not the time for arguing, but for comforting myself with the words that Jesus Christ died and rose for me. Thus I am sure that God will bring me, along with other Christians, with Christ to his right hand and carry me through death and hell. Therefore, they should not be called dead people but sleeping and henceforth death should not be called death but a sleep, and such a deep sleep that one will not even dream; as without doubt our beloved lord and prince lies in a sweet sleep and has become one of the holy sleepers. And all this, not because he was a mild, merciful, kindly master, but because he confessed Christ’s death and clung to it and stuck to it. This, then, is the devil’s real strategy, as I have said, to tear us away from this comfort and meanwhile lead us into an argument about how good we are. On the other hand you have now heard that you should tell him to go to those who have such thoughts, who care nothing for Christ’s suffering and death and live their lives away in reveling and let him argue with them. But this he will not do, he’s got them already, they are already his.

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  • Thanks, +1. The OP says 'I've heard it reported Luther told his parishioners to "sin boldly"'. Seeing as these were a mixed multitude of believers and unbelievers it would be good to know if he specifically told them to "sin boldly". The unbelievers would have no clue, except a literal invite to sin.. telling a believer in a private letter is a different matter. Do you know if he was equally 'bold' with his congregations? Commented May 4 at 8:12
  • @AndrewShanks - good point. I added another colorful saying from Luther where he publicly expresses the same kind of sentiment but more clearly safeguards any misunderstanding . Luther always assumed a person without faith lived a habitually sinful life and all such people would be damned . The Law still had a important purpose for them in order that they would become terrified in their conscience. The comfort to be bold is only reserved to those who already went through that process. Only those whose consciences also witness their own works to verify that their faith is true can have it.
    – Mike
    Commented May 4 at 8:57
  • @AndrewShanks - thanks
    – Mike
    Commented May 4 at 9:35

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