The couplet ascribed to Luther is one of his best known: “Love God and sin boldly.” For some, this is a call to a radical understanding of the Gospel. For others, it’s a symptom of the excessive language of grace that can lead to Antinomianism. This slogan has served as the central feature of Catholic criticism of Protestantism and of evangelical criticism of neo-Lutheranism. It’s an important quote to get right.
When Did Luther Say It?
When Luther wrote “love God and sin boldly,” it was 1521 and it had only been several months since he stood trial for his reformation. The quote occurs in a letter from Luther to Melanchthon, which Luther wrote in the Wartburg castle, hiding out to avoid execution. Obviously, he had not worked out every issue of the divide between the old faith and the Reformation. And if it was hard for Luther, it was doubly hard for his advocates back in Wittenberg without their leader.
The letter in question is actually only a fragment. There is no salutation or much context, and so it drops into a conversation midstream. Melanchthon is the formal cause of Luther’s comments, as he was agitated about the radicalized ideas of some in Wittenberg, who wanted to burn all traces of Catholicism out of the church. The majority of church activities before Luther were now being said, not only to be misguided and wrong, but sinful for all who had participated. Melanchthon was, by nature, a man of weaker constitution and this language gave him heartburn.
So Melanchthon wrote a letter, now lost, asking Luther to comment on the sinfulness of Catholic practices: things such as celibacy, fasting, communion in one kind. Melanchthon seems to wonder if these things, though misguided in Catholicism, were themselves sinful. Couldn’t these practices be done faithfully for the Gospel?
The letter fragment from Luther, then, drops right into these subjects. In other words, the subject is not fundamentally about Luther’s view of sanctification, but how the Gospel works its fingers into the traditional piety of former Catholics. Paragraph after paragraph deals with celibacy, monasticism, communion, and what Luther calls the “fictitious works” of the pope. Luther also challenges the hardliners in Wittenberg for assuming they are achieving purity. So the message is not to “sin boldly” in sanctification but to grasp the basic grammar of justification by faith: works contribute nothing to justification, so stop trying to add them.
If you wish to read the letter fragment in an English translation, you can here. I will quote only the crucial paragraph in question:
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.
A few things stand out in this paragraph. First, the slogan is placed in a wider reflection where Luther stressed to Melanchthon his sinfulness in order to grasp the cross. The statement is not: “Love God” (justification) and “sin boldly” (anti-sanctification). Rather it is the same point Luther defended at the trial at Worms: the Law shows us our inability to contribute anything to justification.
The rest of the paragraph drives to this same conclusion. Of course, the hyperbole towards the end about sin being covered in Christ “even if we were to kill or commit adultery” is arresting. But it should also be said that Melanchthon was not a murderer or an adulterer. He was an older brother, not a prodigal son. Luther’s point is that, even in the most inconceivable example of ongoing sin, Christ’s atonement covers the sinner. This is hyperbole about the old man who hangs on and still tempts us, not about how justified sinners will actually commit adultery and murder each day.
Lastly, the last line of the paragraph is a real gem, and gives us the final clue as to Luther’s pastoral concern for brother Melanchthon: you’re a sinner, man, get used to it. And the more you get used to it, the more the cross will make sense as the ground of your entire life.
So should we repeat the slogan “Love God and sin boldly”? My instincts are to be extremely cautious about this phrase, as we are not saying this in the same situation as Luther. In my experience, I have never heard this slogan where the meaning isn’t pressing folks to ignore the Christian life. (Your experience with this slogan may be different, of course.) The times I’ve heard this idiom quoted, the intention always seems to drive toward a justification-only view of salvation—no union with Christ, no Holy Spirit renewal, but rather easing us into the lukewarm water of cheap grace.
It is helpful, too, to notice that Luther never speaks in this hyperbole to layfolks in his preaching. Nothing comes close, though he is always clear to stress the inability of sinners to save themselves. When discussing the Christian life Luther never instructs someone to “sin boldly,” but instead tells them to focus on the cross and let the Spirit do the real work in us. He abhors those who think he is advocating active sin and rebukes Antinomianism. As a pastor, Luther would never tell anyone to “sin boldly.”
Now to a former Catholic, like Melanchthon, he will hammer on them to stop hanging on to the cycle of penance of his youth. Be a sinner! Own it. Understand that even those who are not struggling with serious sins are still covenant breakers in need of the cross.
So the boldness of sin is the boldness that takes us to the cross. It’s the boldness to admit were really do need Jesus.