Be a Sinner and Sin Boldly: Luther on Following Christ

In October 1517, Martin Luther began what we now recognize as the Protestant Reformation in the German city of Wittenberg. Since we’re separated from Luther by 501 years, it’s tempting to discredit the difficulties Luther encountered half a millennium ago. Make no mistake about it, however, Luther’s life was in real danger. His friends and followers were killed by the Roman Catholic powerholders of the day. The danger was so extreme that Luther’s friends even kidnapped him once in order to protect him.

Though Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, the ideas took a while to spread. But spread they did; in fact, Luther’s incendiary ideas spread like a wildfire and made him one of the first citizens to attain celebrity status. Unfortunately for Luther and his safety, the Catholic Church labeled him a heretic for his ideas, a label which would almost certainly lead to his being burned at the stake.

Once Luther’s ideas spread, he received a summons to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at the Diet of Worms. Believing he was going to explain and defend his views, an opportunity which Luther always wanted but never received, he traveled to the diet. Luther did not receive a warm welcome, and he certainly did not get a chance to defend his views; instead, once at the diet, the officials commanded Luther to recant his heretical views.

Not one known to cave under pressure, Luther refused. History records him as brazenly declaring to the emperor: “I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. God help me. Amen.”[1]

Soon thereafter, Luther left Worms on his return journey to Wittenberg, where he had been serving as a university professor of theology and as pastor of the city church. However, he didn’t make it to Wittenberg. Between Worms and Wittenberg, his local government kidnapped him under cover of darkness. They then whisked him away to the Wartburg Castle to protect him from the Catholic powerholders. They knew what happened to heretics: Heretics were routinely burned at the stake. Since Luther had snubbed his nose at both the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, he was a marked man. Consequently, they kidnapped him and hid him in the remote Wartburg castle to protect him. Few people knew where Luther was during this time and even fewer knew he was still alive.

The downside for Luther was that he could no longer serve as pastor of his church. Though he had raised up fledgling, Protestant leaders, these men had never led an actual church, especially not the first Protestant church. While Luther was away, theological errors crept into the pulpit of his beloved Wittenberg church. Indeed, the errors were so grievous at times that Luther threatened to risk his life by leaving the safety of the Wartburg castle and returning to Wittenberg to personally smite the heads of the firebrands disturbing his Wittenberg congregation!

Instead of risking life and limb by returning to Wittenberg, Luther wrote and begged for a different preacher. Luther wanted his most loyal follower and friend Melanchthon installed as the preacher. Melanchthon, a leading Greek scholar, had a much different personality than Luther. Whereas Luther would stare the emperor in the eye and tell him no, Melanchthon preferred to be much more cautious. Luther was willing to make the tough decisions even if he erred; Melanchthon preferred to avoid errors through inaction. To counter Melanchthon’s understandable reticence, Luther gave him the following advice: “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.”[2]

While we might be tempted to think that Luther is teaching antinomianism and hedonism, we would be wrong. Luther is not telling Melanchthon to indulge in revelries; instead, Luther is giving sound advice that everyone should follow when making decisions.

Luther’s advice is to rejoice boldly in Christ and to attempt to follow him even in the most difficult situation. At the same time, we must remember that we are all sinners; as a result, we will fail as we attempt to follow the Lord. No matter how noble our desires, no matter how much we love and desire God’s will, we remain imperfect. Ergo, we are doomed to fail. We will make the wrong decisions. Your pastor is going to mess up even though he’s trying. You will make mistakes as a parent. You will fail at your job. No amount of good will and honest desire for God’s glory is going to counteract your propensity to fail. However, we cannot let our shortcomings keep us from pursuing God. Instead, we should try our hardest to honor and serve Christ while trusting him to forgive and even use our errors. Mistakes will come no matter what; however, it is better to make a mistake in the service of Christ than to make a mistake by committing the sin of omission.

In context, Luther wants Melanchthon to grab the bull by its proverbial horns. He wants Melanchthon to begin boldly preaching and leading. Yes, Melanchthon will make mistakes; however, if he is pursuing Christ, then he can be confident that God will use all things for his good, even his mistakes.[3]

Luther’s advice to us is the same: Whatever you do, wherever you serve, whatever decisions you make, boldly pursue Christ. You will fail at times. But, we must make pursuing Christ our goal, come what may.

Notes & Sources

[1] Cited in Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the Whole World (New York: Viking, 2017), 216.

[2] Cited in Metaxas, 257.

[3] Metaxas, 257-58.

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