“Be a sinner and sin boldly!” Martin Luther
I’ve been accused occasionally of being light on sin, of even encouraging people to sin.
But is that actually right? Can the real Gospel sound so wrong? Doesn’t this perhaps indicate that Luther created his own counterfeit Gospel in order to excuse his own sins?
After all, the way many responsible preachers share the Gospel would never ever lead to such a questions as Luther’s statement is sure to raise. You can clearly hear people responding to Luther with absurd questions like “Should we continue sinning so that Grace may multiply?”
Surely that doesn’t reflect the Gospel Paul taught…except that s precisely the question Paul expected to provoke from his readers (Romans 6:1)
In fact, we know we are on the trail of the real Gospel when Grace is preached strongly enough to generate such questions. It is counterfeit versions of the Gospel which major less on good news and more on guilt or fear.
Still, Paul goes on to say that of course it makes no sense to sin more to receive more Grace. So, then is Luther going to far here to actually say Sin Boldly! Is he encouraging sin where Paul discourages it?
So that’s thread one. Hold on to that thread for me for a second if you would while I introduce thread two…then we’ll weave them together.
Recently I had an experience I never expected to have. I got to return to the high school from which I graduated 27 years ago and sing in a reunion choir with people I had not seen for those 27 years directed by the director who challenged and positively influenced my life all those years ago.
Dr. John Peed had lead the Farmington High School Original Scorpion Hollering Band from the mid 1970 through the early 1990’s. He had a reputation as a caring teacher, and an outstanding director garnering numerous awards for the FHS Choir.
Besides just singing under him again, I experienced two great joys at this reunion.
First I got to sing with both of my older brothers in this choir. They had both graduated before I arrived at High School so this was an almost surreal blending of two different facets of my life. It turned out to be a pleasant blend.
Second my wife and children got to come hear me sing with my original High School Barbershop Quartet. This is akin to the jock who tells the same stories of high school glory over and over to his kids, being able to actually play in the big game again while his kids watch him!
While we (the whole choir, not just the quartet) were practicing with Dr. Peed, it was somehow satisfying to see so many of the same mannerisms and hear so many of the same phrases we used to hear.
One common exhortation, which he gave us again this 27 years later, was
When you make a mistake, make it big.
It’s an interesting thing to tell a choir that wants to do everything perfectly. It’s even more interesting that we’ve never been confused by this encouragement. He clearly does not mean for us to make mistakes. We understood, because we understood the alternative. The only way to perfectly avoid mistakes is to avoid singing; but since you have to sing at least a little, a focus on not making mistakes can lead to a very timid approach to singing. At this point, even if you were able to avoid any mistakes you have lost the very essence of the music because you are singing timidly. We learned in Dr. Peed’s choir to practice for perfection, but to perform by focusing on the music and singing it with gusto. It is preferable to make a big mistake with confidence and musicality, than to sing a technically perfect set which loses the music in the process.
So that’s thread two.
Here’s where a 16th century preacher and a 21st century choir director come together for me.
Here’s a more complete version of Luther’s letter to Melanchthon:
“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.”
See it now? Luther’s point is that sometimes we are tempted to accept the Gospel only for sins we regard as manageable anyway. We believe Jesus is enough…almost. But when we do something really bad, then we suddenly question whether His grace was enough. We try to fill in on Christ’s work with penance, or sorrow, or better works.
When we do this we are really claiming our previous sins were really only fictitious sins, not really big enough or real enough to challenge anything. If you only admit to fictitious sins, you only believe in fictitious grace. Far better, says Luther to sin boldly and embrace Christ even more boldly.
If we think we can only sing the Gospel if we sing it perfectly then we may lose the music of the Gospel entirely in our zeal for perfection.
See, the irony is that Paul, Luther and, in my own much smaller scale, I have all been accused of being easy on sin, but in fact, it’s because we recognize how completely devastating and irredeemable our sin actually is apart from Christ. It’s the preacher who claims that some sins are cleansed by Christ’s blood and others are not who is making light of the first kind of sin; these are the fictitious sins of Luther’s words. I believe our lives and souls are devastated by all sin; no sin more so than any other. All bring death and only Christ can redeem and resurrect us.
It’s an easy and often repeated mistake by faithful sincere Christians of all denominations: the attempt to add anything at all, however small to Christ’s atonement.
Christ Himself revealed the falsity of our adding any righteousness of our own making when He prayed in the Garden.
As he sweat drops of blood in agony He prayed that if there was any other way to save Man, He’d vote for that, but otherwise He trusted the will of the Father.
The Father’s answer was clear. There was no other way. No other way to righteousness, to redemption, to salvation, to holiness.
So, fellow preachers, are we bold enough to preach the real good news about real sin and real Grace? Fellow children of God are we bold enough to live the real good news?
If you’re going to make a mistake, make it big! (Dr, John Peed.)
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.” (Martin Luther)